Art Needs No Justification. Chapter Four. Hans Rookmaaker

Chapter Four

Despite the disastrous consequences of art becoming Art in the eighteenth century, there is still some truth in the idea that art has a place of its own. We cannot justify art, saying that it fulfills this or that function though this has been tried in many ways. Even if art sometimes fulfills one function or another, that cannot be its deepest meaning. When times change and old functions become obsolete, we put art works in the museum; they have lost their function but they are still works of art and, as such, meaningful.

The Intrinsic Value of Art
Consider a tree for a moment. A tree has many functions: it has beauty; it can cast a shadow; in its branches the birds can build their nests; it produces oxygen; when it is dead it can be used as wood, and much more. Yet the meaning of the tree, its existence and reality as a creature, is not in these functions nor even in the sum total of these functions, but exactly in its being a creature, owing its existence to the great God Almighty who is the Creator. The tree has its own meaning given by God. It is no less a tree when some of its functions for one reason or another are not realized. Rather, being meaningful, it has many functions.
The same is true of human beings. We are meaningful for who we are, not for what we have. Our meaning is not in the possessions we have nor in our qualities or talents. Preachers with a talent for speaking do not lose their humanity nor their meaning in the sight of God and their fellow humans if they fall ill and cannot speak. The meaning is in what one is, not what one has.
The same is true of art. God gave humanity the skill to make things beautiful, to make music, to write poems, to make sculpture, to decorate things. The artistic possibilities are there to be actualized, realized by us, and to be given a concrete form. God gave this to humankind and its meaning is exactly in its givenness. It is given by God, has to be done through God, that is, through the talents he gives, in obedience to him and in love for him and others. In this way it is offered back to him.
If in this way art has its own meaning as God’s creation, it does not need justification. Its justification is its being a God-given possibility. Nevertheless it can fulfill many functions. This is a proof of the richness and unity of God’s creation. It can be used to communicate, to stand for high values, to decorate our environment or just to be a thing of beauty. It can be used in the church. We make a fine baptismal font; we use good silverware for our communion service and so on. But its use is much wider than that. Its uses are manifold. Yet, all these possibilities together do not “justify” art. Art has its own meaning. A work of art can stand in the art gallery and be cherished for its own sake. We listen to a piece of music simply to enjoy it, a kind of enjoyment that is not merely hedonistic; it surpasses that even if in some cases it can give great pleasure. But it has the possibility of a great number of functions that result from art being tied to reality with a thousand ties. It is exactly this last element that has been underrated by those people who spoke of high Art as autonomous, for its own sake. As art does not need justification, nobody has to be excused for making art.
Artists do not need justification, just as butchers, gardeners, taxi drivers, police officers or nurses do not need to justify with clever arguments why they are doing their work. The meaning of their work and life is certainly not in getting an opportunity to preach or to witness.
Plumbers who give great evangelistic talks but let the water leak are not doing their job. They are bad plumbers. It becomes clear that they do not love their neighbor. The meaning of the job is in the love for God and neighbor. Each person should pray in his or her own way, “Hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come,” and then work toward that in his or her specific job. If we speak about playing a role or fulfilling a function, we minimize and in a way destroy our understanding of what God calls us to do. There is more to it. It is the same for artists. They need no justification. Of course they need justification in the theological sense of the term. Artists are sinful human beings in need of justification through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Yet Christians work as new creations in the sense of Romans 6. Their art work is as much a part of their Christian being as all the other human activities we mentioned, just as much as that of the preacher or evangelist.
If we see a good work of art it is not out of place to pray, “Thank you, Lord.” It is a gift from God. Maybe we are thanking God because he answered the prayer of the artist who asked God’s help and guidance. And certainly there would be no good art if Christ had not come to lift the curse from this world and save it from becoming hell itself. Art itself is a potential given by God. We human beings only discover this and use it in a better or poorer way. This truth also makes it impossible to make a kind of religion out of art as is often the case with modern art. God certainly does not want us to turn art into a god, making beauty our highest aim. Aestheticism means giving art a place it does not deserve, which can be very destructive.
At the same time art can have a place in religious worship. Indeed, the making of idols is forbidden; but just as we take good care in preparing a gift for somebody we love or think highly of (the love we have is shown, expressed, in the choice as well as in the packaging), we do our best to make our songs as good as we can, make our buildings as beautiful as we can. Beauty can be very simple. Taste cannot be bought with money, though money is sometimes rightfully spent on it.

Art and Reality
Communication and form are the two facets, the two qualities of art. The communication is always through the form, and the form always communicates values and meanings. It can depict reality outside of ourselves, as understood and seen by ourselves. That reality can be the things we can see as well as the things we experience – realities like love, faith, care, righteousness and their negative, evil counterparts. Reality is outside us, again as a potential to be discovered and to be realized. For example: America existed before any European visited it. Yet in a way it wasn’t there for the people in the European world. It had to be discovered, and when that took place, its possibilities had to be realized, opened up, made available. If we now look at that same America, after so many centuries, we see what has been made of it. The Western world has been opened up with bridges, roads, cities and parks. Its potential to bear fruits and to be a livable place has been realized. But much has also been destroyed. So we see that there are many wounds in the reality of that land and its inhabitants, human and animal and botanical. So the America that is here now is a realized reality, showing what people have made out of it. The quality of that is what counts.
So reality is not simply (objectively) there. Reality is potentiality. The reality that we know is always a realized reality. We discovered it, named it, made it accessible. So we can make the statement that we always see what we know, or understand, of the world outside. This is reality: the potential world outside as far as we know it, in the way we know it. The interesting thing is that the painter paints what he sees, but as he sees what he knows, we can also say that he paints what he knows. In the painting, in his visual communication, we can see what the artist, as a member of the human race, standing at a certain point of its history, knew and understood of reality. But our vision of reality is not just knowledge, in the sense of knowing what is there, but creation, in the sense that we want to realize our vision in the same reality. The quality of that vision counts. It may be building up and opening up, positive, beautiful, good; or it may be negative, destructive, ugly, poor. Usually it is a mixture of these two extremes.
Reality is the present; it also encompasses the past. It is the things seen and the things not seen which are nevertheless very real like love, hate, justice, beauty, goodness and evil. So painters will always paint what they think is relevant, important for them or for us. If they paint the past, they will do so because they judge that past to be meaningful for us now. And in doing so they will show their understanding of it. If an artist depicts the Christmas story, he does so not only because it happened so many years ago, but because he understands it still to be of great value and importance to us. And he will show what his understanding of it is. Therefore, when we see the many cheap and sentimental Christmas cards, we really have to question what they stand for. Should that be the understanding of that story now? Isn’t that too cheap, unworthy of the reality of the Son of God coming into this world? Is that the quality of our Christianity? If it is, and I think it is, it raises many questions!
Art is not neutral. We can and ought to judge its content, its meaning, the quality of understanding of reality that is embodied in it.
Undoubtedly, there is also a second approach to quality, the way the work is done, the kind of colors used, the beauty of the lines, in short the artistic quality. Theoretically these two ways of judging art can be separated, but in actuality they usually fall together, because we only know the vision and understanding through the embodiment in the composition and artistic realization of the work of art. As art is tied to reality in this way, there is a place to speak about truth in art. Does it do justice to what it represents? Does it do this in a positive way? Does it show the depth and complexity of what it is talking about? Art may be simple; it must be clear; but it should never be silly or shallow.

Art and Society
Art has a complex place in society. It creates the significant images by which those things that are important and common in a society are expressed. By the artistic image the essence of a society is made common property and reality. It gives these things a form in more than an intellectual way so they can be taken emotionally, in a very full sense. Emotional does not mean anti-intellectual. Rather it is more than intellectual. We think about flags, landscapes, portraits, the songs sung about the land we love and so much more.
It is strange, but through art things are brought closer to us. In a way we begin to see things because the artist has made them visible for us. Seeing, as I understand it here, is closely tied with understanding, with grasping the meaning of things, with building up an emotional relationship. So in people’s houses it is very common to see not pictures of things far away but, quite to the contrary, very near. In a Swiss chalet one sees pictures of chalets and mountains, maybe the mountain that can be seen through the window. In Canada I saw in somebody’s house a painting of a waterfall twenty miles away. In a riding school you see pictures of horses, in a Dutch farm, of the cows. A lover of cars will have pictures of automobiles. Indeed, in this way these things gain in reality. Just as things to a certain extent do not exist if they are given no name, are not verbally formulated, so things that are never depicted remain dim and vague since we have not learned to see them.
The world is opened up for us and is given form. We know things in the way the artists have formulated them for us. Sometimes even our lifestyle is formed or at least influenced by artists. Everybody knows how movies have gone deeply into the ways people live and think, their heroes, their views of the world, their dreams and so forth. Films have often played a role in the formation of a new fashion, and fashion is certainly more than just the choice of colors or the length of a skirt; it means the way we move, even feel. If we think about the new society dance that was introduced by Irene and Vernon Castle in the years between 1910 and 1920 in New York, with the early jazz music of Jim Europe, we see how that influenced a whole new way of life, a way of moving, of clothing. It meant the end of formality and the beginning of informal, easygoing behavior.
Art can also give form to our discontent, to our uneasiness with certain phenomena. It can give form to protest. If done in the right way, it should not be destructive or break down what is not right. In the words of our day, you could translate the biblical injunction of “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” as “protest in love.” Films, songs, paintings, cartoons, slogans may be the tools to do this. Certainly literature and poetry play their part.
Art plays a large role in the liturgy of life. I chose this term in analogy to liturgy as we have it in church, the set forms in which we have molded our services. The liturgy of life is the way we do things. Art creates the surroundings, designs the clothes, designs the cup given to the winner or the sculpture that is the token of praise1 as with the Oscar. In many ways the arts help. The organization of a solemn meeting, such as the inauguration of a president, is in itself a work of art. It counts in how a restaurant is designed, the art of interior design, so that even our eating is influenced.

Norms for Art
The great norm in all this is love of God and our neighbor. In the Middle Ages people spoke of the manifold meaning of a text or a work of art. Its meaning was not only literal (that which was told or depicted) but also allegorical (that which was referred to through the images or figures in the story), moral (the implications of the norms accepted) and anagogical (the impact that the work was making, how it was leading our thoughts and emotions toward and away from God and the life within his covenant). The key question is this: Does art do the truth (see Jn. 3:20-21)? If we love our neighbors, we certainly should not look down on them. Any snobbishness or elite attitude is out of place.
A beautiful example is Isaac Watts, the well-known writer of hymns or metrical psalms in the early eighteenth century. He deliberately made his songs plain, abstaining from the intricate and flowery language often used by poets who were usually writing for a restricted and learned audience with all kinds of references to myth, stories and literary figures the less educated could hardly understand. There is a place for that kind of poetry, but not if one is making church songs, hymns. Watts said he wanted the more simple church member to be able to understand them. Yet, and that is the beauty of it, he made his poetry such that it was very fine and could stand the test. In fact it has stood the test of centuries, and many of the hymns he wrote are still sung today. Many people know his work without even knowing the writer or realizing that it was deliberately composed to be cherished by common people.
If we say that love is, as in all other things, the supreme norm for art, it certainly affects the subjects we choose, the way we treat them, the forms we give them, the materials we handle, the techniques we employ. In Philippians 4:8 Paul formulated this for all of life as well as for art. In the last chapter of my book on modern art I tried to work this out at more length. This norm is certainly not above or beyond art. It is in the very strokes we put on paper, the beat of the drum, the way we attack a note on the trumpet, the kind of paint we use. Is art doing the truth? Art shows our mentality, the way we look at things, how we approach life and reality. If we are among artists, there may be a discussion about the details, about the techniques, about the pros and cons of this or that kind of dealing with an artistic problem. I will leave that undiscussed. I only want to point out that none of these things is neutral.
Certainly this applies to the way we deal with a subject. In the past this was called decorum. You had to choose the forms, types and expressions in regard to the subject and the situation. If you see a play by Shakespeare you know after three minutes whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. Just as when you search for some music on the radio a few notes are enough to know what kind of music you are hearing.
In our times the feeling for decorum is often lost. A good example I think is Godspell. Here we see boundaries neglected, a mistake against the norm of decorum. To treat such a high theme as the Passion as if it were a musical, a light and entertaining genre by definition, is wrong on all sides. The form does not do justice to the subject, and the subject is dealt with in an irreverent way. It is a painful experience to sit through it. It is comparable to the above example of the average Christmas card. No wonder that Christianity loses its force. Are not these examples proof of how much Christianity has lost already? But many more examples could be found. Just go to the modern art museum and see how trite things are treated sometimes as if they were important and great, an exaltation of the too commonplace. Of course it can be done tongue-in-cheek. But it does show the relativism of our age in which anything goes.
I have noticed many young artists by-passing considerations of appropriateness and decorum. I saw a painting that depicted the column of fire at Mount Sinai. It was in the form and on the level of a poster. I saw a young artist painting ecce homo, Christ with a crown of thorns among his enemies, but it was badly done and therefore below the line. If you cannot paint a good head, how can you tackle a subject that many artists in the past avoided because it was so hard to do convincingly? We must know our limits and choose our genre as well as our subject since the genre itself is part of the com munication.

Norm and Taste
“There is no discussion about taste,” is an old saying. I do not deny that. One person prefers landscapes, another portraits, one likes choral music, another orchestral, and another again chamber music. There is no discussion whether opera is better than symphonies or blues than jazz. But even if our preferences cannot be discussed, our choices can since quality and content are not just a matter of taste but a matter of norms. If we talk about portraits, some are more, some are less beautiful, others of a higher or a lower artistic quality. But our standard is not only defined by artistic quality; on the contrary, the higher the quality, the more important it is to discuss the content, the meaning, the anagogical direction. Likewise a book by a great and intelligent writer on theology is not acceptable just because it is well written or deeply thought out. Even if it is so “good,” it must be assessed with care and maybe refuted as heretical, antibiblical or ill-directed.
There is nothing wrong even if it shows some narrow-mindedness when somebody says, “I like symphonic music, and dislike rock.” That is a question of taste. And within these boundaries one may prefer Haydn to Mozart, Brahms to Schubert. But not every symphony is good because it is a symphony. There is always the question of content and meaning; what does it stand for anagogically? The question of decorum can also be relevant.
As an example, Mozart composed several pieces of music for the Mass. The music is beautiful and could be apt if we were listening to an opera. But I do not think that kind of music, its tone and expression, is fit for a Mass. Now these examples are about old music. Whatever we think, it does not change history, even if we may argue about the influence of the content of that music on us today. It is never neutral. But if we talk about contemporary things, our assessment becomes more important.
If a record is at the top of the charts (I refer to rock and pop), it means that many people listen to it. Then it becomes imperative to discuss the meaning, content and the influence it has on people -though not in the direct sense of one word or one line nor only the words. The music in its total impact in the melody, the rhythm, the harmony, is expressive of a mentality, a way of life, a way of thinking and feeling, an approach to reality. This is important to discuss, as this music helps to form the lifestyles of those who cherish it.
And how do we react to it? Our opinions are not irrelevant. In our reaction we create ripples which influence our time. The better the record, artistically speaking, the more important this discussion will be. And if we understand that the music we are thinking about is an expression of a mentality, there are two more remarks to be made. If that music’s energy is worldly, antinomian (lawless), expressing uncertainty and even despair, then what are we to do with it? Music we have around us forms part of our environment and our lifestyle, that is, ourselves.
The Lord said that not what goes into us makes us unclean, but what comes out of us (Mt. 15:11). The environment that we create is something that goes out of us. But for that same reason we should not conclude that we can never listen to that music. It would mean that we were cutting ourselves off from our own times. That is impoverishing and would also mean that we would not understand our contemporaries, those we want to communicate with about our Lord, about the Word he has given us and about the obedience to his Word that he asks from human beings.
Another question is whether we can adapt that which is created by the world (that is, by people that do not know or love the Lord) and use it ourselves. There is no easy answer since the norm is that music or art in general should be good on the two levels we explained, the level of quality and the level of mentality expressed. Sometimes Christians make bad music because they have no talents, because they do not try hard enough or because they show their sinful nature. Sometimes the world produces good music, like the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. If it is good it can be followed; if not we had better leave it alone.
Finally we ask on which level, in which situation such music can be appropriate. The marches of Sousa are very fine but totally inadequate for use in the church service. And is the rock music of today adaptable to Christian expression? Is it enough just to add other words? Music is never just words. Its expression is total, even more in the melody, rhythm and harmony than in the words. This does not mean, of course, that anything goes in the texts. Not only ought there to be a unity between words and music (the music has to carry the text, underline it as it were), but the expression found in the music has to be in line with the text. However, the text itself certainly has to stand up. I have heard so- called Christian rock in which the words were quite heretical and unbiblical. In all this, questions of decorum, lifestyle, understanding, emotion and taste come in. Taste is the sense of a fine feeling for the right note, the right rhythm, the right form at the right time, together with the choice of the right word; in short, it is the feeling for what can and what cannot be done at a certain place and time. Also, one considers the impact it makes on others, where it leads them, how they will understand it. Communication is complex and on many levels.
Life and art are too complex to lay down legalistic rules. But that does not mean that there are no norms. Although one cannot define the wrong kind of seductiveness or the right kind of prettiness and attractiveness of a woman by the length of her skirt or the depth of the decollete’, nevertheless women know the exact boundaries, especially the seductive kind of women as they just play over the borderlines. So in music and in art in general good artists know what ought to be done at a certain place and time, what is appropriate. It is a matter of good taste.
I will add one more point. If we talk about Christian music, we do not necessarily mean music with words that give a direct biblical message or express the experience of the life of faith and obedience in the pious sense. Obedience itself is not confined to matters of faith and ethics only. The totality of life comes in. It is the mentality, the lifestyle, that is given artistic form and expression. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion is Christian, but so are his Brandenburg Concertos. Not only the words of the cantatas are Christian, but also the instrumental parts of them. Otherwise we make Christianity narrow and leave a great part of our life that ought to show the fruit of the Spirit outside the commitment to God, our Lord and Savior. On the other hand, I know paintings that iconographically represent a Christian theme, but their content and impact are negative, blasphemous-in short, a lie. But then another work of the same artist may express a quite unchristian mentality.

Problems of Art and Style
Because of the two-centuries-old way of thinking about art as something high, autonomous and almost religious, there is a tendency today to narrow art to “great art,” the painting in the museum, the classical music of the great romantic composers, great literature. There is no denying that it is art nor that it is important. But it often means that the crafts or that folk music of one kind or another is not considered worthy of our attention.
One day I met a girl who told me that she had always dreamed of becoming an artist. She asked my advice. Now her drawings were not so good that I felt I could encourage her. But I knew that she was very good at designing clothes, at making fabrics. So my advice was not to go to the painting department of some art school. It would mean plodding on for many years; at the end she might receive a little pat on the back, but she would likely have a whole pile of unsold paintings in the attic. I told her to search for a good art school in the area of the crafts, textiles or fashion. She did, and when I met her later she was happy. She even felt that she was at a more challenging place, learning more, than at the “higher” art school where people were discussing all day and doing very little, learning very little – like little geniuses without a goal.
Focusing on visual art, knowing that comparable distinctions could be made in other fields, one can look for two different qualities. First is the amount of naturalness, of depicting force, of representational quality. Here one can range from zero, the totally nonfigurative, the pure form, to extreme naturalism. At the one end is the curve, the circle or the square, the pure color or the simple pattern. At the other is the precise rendering of visual impressions, as in a still life by Harnett or in the precision of Jan van Eyck, rendering things in full detail.
The second concerns the load of meaning that the work carries. At the lowest level (low not meaning “less”) one finds ornaments, beautifying forms, colors – all valuable in themselves. Certainly this often has great significance. At the highest is the icon, the work that encompasses so much meaning as it carries so many values and stands for such great realities. The idol is a specific and in a deep sense sinful example of an icon. It is the god. But we think also of Michelangelo’s David, as if it were the personification of all that the Renaissance of Florence stands for; the greatness of mankind. Or think of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride that stands not just for Rembrandt or seventeenth-century Holland but also for the greatness of human married love. Of course one can also think of the Byzantine icons. Between these two extremes all works of art have a place, sometimes more loaded, sometimes less.
Every work of art is characterized by these two elements. It can be decorative, low in iconic meaning, even if it shows precisely painted flowers as with nineteenth- century wallpaper. It can be iconically important even if its representational value is low as with Paul Klee or abstract expressionistic work.
The point now is that all these different kinds of art, with or without high icon value, with or without precise representational quality, are valid. It depends on the function it has to fulfill. Again, decorum is the norm. If a decorative work is well done, it may have less icon value but not necessarily less artistic value or less significance. It certainly does not mean that the person who made it is a lesser artist.
Really great art often works on several levels at the same time. Consider a baroque church in southern Germany. Ottobeuren is a fine example. Here the arts work decoratively. They adorn the church. But if you look more closely, you see figures and fine floral ornamentation. When you take more time, you see the stories and, beginning to understand these, you see their meaning in relation to the totality of the church and its function. Finally you can grasp the overall plan. Here all levels of iconicity and of representational value are present. It is decorative and at the same time loaded with meaning, working as color scheme and ornamental finery and with representational precision.
If we understand these things, we can also grasp that the debate between figurative and nonfigurative in the visual arts is of no great importance. I avoid the term abstract on purpose. There has always been nonfigurative art, mainly in ornaments and such. And great paintings have always worked on that level apart from the figuration they give and the meaningful story depicted. And figurativeness does not always mean great depth and loaded meaning. The question is not whether nonfigurative art is right or not. Rather two other questions need to be taken into account.
The first is the question of decorum, the function of the work of art in its own setting. So an ornament or the pattern of a fabric can be nonfigurative. But so can a large sculpture if it stands in a place where it is appropriate. In a way, the Eiffel Tower was such a nonfigurative sculpture, the landmark of an exhibition in 1889. Second is the question of meaning in relation to function. Consider the shape of our watches or cars. We usually call that industrial design. Even here a car-form can stand for luxury, for speed or for efficiency. To decorate the hall of a hotel, one can choose some figurative, decorative panel, but also it may be appropriate to choose some pattern with large colored areas. Taste is here a guiding principle, a feeling for what is appropriate. To me what is never good is the abstract, the denial or the dismissal of reality, the negative attitude to reality. By negative I do not mean showing the wrong as wrong, bringing into art a sense of the curse, of sin, of the unacceptable as such. I am not asking for only sweet idealistic pictures. They can be lies just the same, bypassing the realities of life, as some Christmas pictures do. By a negative attitude I mean that reality as such is considered negative.
So what is to be taken into account is the place, the decorum, and the inherent meaning of the work of art in relation to that role. Again, art is never neutral. The totality of our humanness is always involved if we want to discuss it adequately.
Now some words about style. Often I have been asked by a young artist which style to choose. To me this is an embarrassing question. One cannot choose a style at random. Style is part of the content as the expression of the artwork is in the artistic form itself. In a way, an artist does not have a style that can be changed for another. He is a style. In the style he shows who he is. This does not mean that within the larger framework of a style there will not be differences of style in relation to the function and place of the specific worklight at a wedding party, deep and solemn at a social occasion of great weight, tragic and dirgelike at a funeral. But style cannot be chosen at random. Certainly we should not choose a style just because we want to be with it or to make our work more salable or popular. We should have the courage to be ourselves, to be honest. This to me is the minimum requirement for any work of art. We should never compromise our principles or deep aims. Also, we should not just follow trends and fashions as they come and go. That could be, in a bad sense, worldly and show that we have not much to offer of our own. It can easily be understood that young artists are seeking for style, that they are experimenting with the possibilities of expression. But once a style is found, it expresses who they are. Of course that does not mean that it is unchangeable. It will grow with each artist in depth and width. In one word, it will become more mature. Usually that also means greater simplicity and directness because the complexities are mastered and much is brought into a few images. This is the master’s work.
Both elements can be seen in the history of art. In the work of one artist one sees a development, a process of maturation, of gradual changes as life goes on. Sometimes one sees rather sudden changes in style, in the forms of expression. That always means that a drastic change in the direction of the artist’s life has taken place, either a conversion to another spiritual principle, or the influence and impact of a person or a movement.

Fame and Anonymity
Some artists have become famous. Some of their names are known to everybody. It does not necessarily mean that their works are really known to everybody. But there are thousands and thousands of artists who are not known. If we look into the large artist- biographical lexicons we see many names. They are at least known to the specialist. But apart from these, there are many whom nobody has ever heard of. Yet there was someone who made that particular statue that is the delight of everybody who travels to a certain place with an open eye. Maybe it is well cherished by the local people. When these people say they love their town, that particular statue is part of the image of the place, and it certainly would mean that if it were lost many people would miss it. His statue is famous, but who knows him? Ask people who made the statue that is the landmark of Copenhagen, or who made the monument in Trafalgar Square and the lions that everybody has seen there.
Much of an artist’s work is anonymous. In that sense he or she shares the fate of the many who work for the public benefit. Who made the train you ride in? Who is the clever person who made the television schedules? Who designed that handy thing you use every day?
Maybe the anonymity is not fate or tragedy but quite normal. The praise for that monument, that handy thing, is the highest reward one can get. A good poster-who knows who made it? Who cares? Maybe the creator’s colleagues know him or her. The specialists will know. But in due time the person is forgotten. Who knows who made this or that beautiful statue in Babylon, in Egypt, in Greece or Rome? Who made the famous Marcus Aurelius statue on Capitol Hill in Rome? Or who erected the obelisk in Washington, D.C.?
All this I feel to be right. The fame goes with the work if it is done well. Panofsky, in his book on Suger, speaks about this in a very wise way. He compares Suger with Michelangelo. Do you know who Suger was? Suger was a great bishop in France in the twelfth century. In many ways he was responsible for the Gothic style. He was the builder of St. Denis, the person who chose and guided the artists. He was a very important man in his time though only specialists have heard of him. Yet everybody who admires the Gothic style is praising Suger’s vision and great abilities.
Suger, says Panofsky, did search for fame, but it was centrifugal. The fame was in the things he did. That of Michelangelo was centripetal. That means it always ends in Michelangelo himself. You go and look at the Pieta’. What do you search for? A beautiful Madonna? A dead body of Christ that stirs you? Or do you see Michelangelo? The same is true of his other works. In a way we forget the thing we are looking at, and we leave the monument not saying, “How terrible and yet how joyful is The Last Judgment!” but, “Michelangelo did it. How great he was!”
Which of these two do you look for? We may criticize Suger for some of his ideals. If we say that the Roman Catholic churches are overadorned, that the art is too much, some of that means criticizing Suger’s vision. Yet I think his ideal of fame is more Christian than Michelangelo’s or, if not Michelangelo’s, than the people who gave him this praise.
We should not look for fame. It may be kindling the sin of pride. It may mean we lose our humility. And God may miss the praise he is owed. This, I think, is the lesson we learn too in Ecclesiastes. All things are vanity, and even the highest praise is evaporated in the air after a year, a century or maybe hundreds of years. Yet the meaning of work done well is in the joy of being able to have made something that was of some use to somebody. In that way you add positively to the flow of history in the direction of the Kingdom of God.
Maybe young people dream of becoming famous. But it can be dangerous, leading to compromises, to dishonesty even, just to achieve easy fame. It is better to dream of developing your talents, to achieve the best you can. Let others decide and judge and give praise. Do not let that fool you. In the end you have to stand before the supreme judge, the great Lord Almighty. Probably you will say then, “Lord, I have only been an unworthy servant of yours, but I have tried to use my talents. It was not perfect, but you gave me so much that I have to thank you for whatever the world says I did.”
In the last resort art is anonymous. Who knows the names of the great sculptors of the Gothic cathedrals? Who knows the names of the architects of even the building that has been made quite recently? Everybody knows that a good performance is never the work of one person alone but that he or she needed the help of many others. The one person was in a way the brand name, the trademark. The paintings, the songs, the good designs of cars and other industrial products are anonymous. It is good that way. We have only added to the world God gave us to develop, to beautify. We have added to the lives of many, loving our neighbors. That should be the greatest achievement.

The Qualities of the Artist
Four qualities determine the scope and depth and importance of the artist, any artist. They are talent, intelligence, character and application. The term talent is taken from the Bible, the story that Jesus told of the talents. Indeed, a talent is given. It is a potential which one has to use with responsibility. Our Lord has the right to ask and certainly will ask what we did with it. Something to give thanks for? Certainly. Without this no artist can be of any importance. Yet it is nothing exclusive to the artist. Other people have talents. Everybody has been given qualities, positive ones to use and to develop and negative ones to fight.
By intelligence we mean the quality to analyze a situation, to find the right form, to give the right solution, to master the complexities of the art, to express clearly what one wants to achieve. In a way this is also a given quality. Some people may describe it as a talent. Again there is the necessity to develop this.
Character is also a very important quality of artists. It often determines their greatness and importance. Many artists have failed here. Some, early in life, have success with some work and then go on doing that same thing. What was a creative act, the development of a new principle, becomes in this way a trick, an easy achievement. They dry up and become quite second-rate. There have been great artists who have ended this way. Another temptation for artists is to use their talent below their level to make money, to be popular and acceptable.
Compare Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Jazz had become a great influence on popular American music. The temptation to become commercial and to go pop was very great. Louis Armstrong fell for this. Somewhere around 1930 his work became easy and popular and full of tricks and effects. At times he tried again to do something good and creative, but he almost always failed. He even ended sometimes on the level of a clown, singing lullabies for children on TV, in bad taste. Yet he was a great musician, a great trumpeter. But to hear it, one has to listen to his work with the Hot Five or Hot Seven in the years 1926-27, or to his early work with the great King Oliver Creole Jazz Band of around 1922-23. Happily we still have the recordings.
We can understand it though. The years after the crisis of 1929 made it very hard for a musician to make a living. Good quality music was not appreciated enough by the public who preferred it sentimental and light. The temptation was great to cater to these bad tastes. As always, apart from personal weakness and sin, there is also the communal guilt, the situation our society, our environment, puts us in.
Jelly Roll Morton, the great jazz pianist, however, refused to sell out his art to cheapness. He fought on for quality and the principles he stood for. As a result he is still a great artist who has a chapter in any worthwhile history of jazz. But his name is forgotten by the public for whom he refused to play the clown or the caterer of sounds. And he suffered many years of poverty and neglect just as so many other great jazz-men who suffered and some of whom died in the thirties.
In the lines above one should not read that entertainment as such is wrong. In a way all art is entertainment, the God-given opportunity to relax with good music, with good art, with a fine book. And there is nothing wrong with a ballad, with dance music (Mozart made quite a bit of it) or with making cartoons, posters, illustrations. But whatever one does, it has to have quality.
Remember what we said before of Isaac Watts. He wrote popular songs on the highest level. Or think of Toulouse Lautrec whose posters are still hanging on people’s walls even if the performances he was advertising took place long ago. Most people even do not know the kind of songs they sing. If the work is done well, it survives the occasion, like the Mozart music we still listen to. We still play Bob Dylan even if the period of protest in which his music played such an important role has gone by. One can still look with pleasure at the good entertainment film of years gone by even if the style is dated.
Of course it is dated. Whatever we do, we can never escape being of our time. We live in the now, inevitably. But a thing of beauty survives if its qualities are not ephemeral.
The last quality of every good artist is application. The old saying is that any good work of art is ninety-five per cent perspiration, and five per cent inspiration. Some people may want to place hard work under the heading of character. Anyhow, no great work of art comes by itself as a product of chance. There is no instant art. Apart from coffee nothing is instant in this world! I remember the words of a great pianist: “If I do not do my exercises one day, I will hear it the next day. If I do not do them for two days, my wife hears it. If not for three days, my best friends will notice. After four days, the public will notice.”
Then there is that charming story of Hokusai, the great Japanese painter and maker of woodcuts around 1800. Once somebody asked him for a painting of a rooster. He said, “All right, come back in a week.” When the man came, Hokusai asked for postponement: two weeks more. Then again, two months; then half a year. After three years the man was so angry that he refused to wait any longer. Then Hokusai said that he would have it there and then. He took his brush and his paper and drew a beautiful rooster in a short time. The man was furious. “Why do you keep me waiting for years if you can do it in such a short time?” “You don’t understand,” said Hokusai. “Come with me.” And he took the man to his studio and showed him the walls that were covered with drawings of roosters he had been doing over the last three years. Out of that came the mastery.
This story of course does not mean that we can keep people waiting and that we should not fulfill our promises. The lesson is that even improvisation and socalled spontaneous achievements can only be the result of hard work. No artist can ever reach the top if he does not start his day with rehearsing, a painter drawing for a few hours, a musician practicing, anybody studying. Genius is not enough.

On the Way
Of course we pray and ask for God’s help. Of course the Holy Spirit is behind us. But God, in his great mercy and wisdom, takes us seriously as his creatures, even in his own image. We never become passive instruments of God’s Spirit. He gave us a personality, gave us freedom and responsibility, so we can never say that our work is directly inspired and therefore his. It would be blasphemous to say that our work is God’s work. But we may praise him for the life-renewing force he gave us in Christ and for his help if we achieve something that is full of love, life, beauty, righteousness, peace and joy which perhaps came after long searches and studies.
It comes down to this: Christian artists are artists who work, think and act as artists, using their talents and possibilities. But they work with another mentality and with another priority in life. This mentality implies that we work in freedom. We do not need to prove ourselves since the search for fame and our pride do not need to hinder us and since we do not need to make our own eternity.
Maybe the best way to express this is to say that we are on the way. The Bible often uses this metaphor. The Scripture is a lamp for our feet on the path that we follow through this dark world. Go on the narrow path. It may be difficult. It asks for an effort. But going on the wide road of sin, letting yourself go, doing whatever you want, leads to the destruction of yourself, already in the here and now. “Follow me!” Those are Christ’s words. Know where you are going. Christ even applies this way of speaking to himself when he says that he is the Way. To live is to go on a way with him – a way of life in a deep sense, a way of truth as he is the Truth. We ought to do the truth which is to love God and love our neighbors. The way is a way of freedom, love and humility, but it is God’s way of holiness where he helps and leads. The way is sometimes hard to follow and sometimes asks for sacrifices, in extreme cases even for our mortal bodies in martyrdom. But it is also an exciting road full of new vistas, a walk in the direction of the Promised Land. Even now we experience much of what is waiting for us to come.

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