Art Needs No Justification. Chapter Three. Hans Rookmaaker

Chapter Three

The artist cannot wait, in fact nobody can, till the world is renewed, the crisis solved, and new cultural principles worked out. We have to participate in the life of our times. In fact the artist might even stand in the most difficult place, as the spirit of anti-Christianity, of dehumanization, of despair is strongest in the avant-garde tradition of the arts. But maybe there is still something left of the strong old traditions that can be used as a starting point. But it must be given a new foundation, so that it can be a living reality, not just a tradition.

The Role of Artists in Reformation

Artists are in a crucial place. They have to take part in a movement that has no organization, that has no name, the movement that I call reformation, the return to the Lord to seek the Truth, the Way and the Life that is in Christ Jesus. Artists must be part of it. The arts are in principle very concerned to protest against technocracy and look for alternatives. Artists are the ones to create the poems, the songs, the images, the metaphors, the forms that can both express what has been gained in insight, wisdom and direction, and pass them on to others in a positive and incisive way.

Often the question has been posed whether there is a place for art in the Christian framework. Do we need art? And the answer is, it depends on what you are talking about. If one means whether a certain percentage of the art produced for the museum should be by Christians, then certainly one can say that it has a place as it makes the presence of Christians felt; but primarily we are looking for artists who are working within society and in that way are taking their share in making life livable, rich in a spiritual sense, deep and exciting.

This is not something light or easy. One has to make sacrifices, do things that others think irrelevant. Economically it probably means being in a weak or vulnerable position. Artists cannot fully accomplish their task alone. A common sense art theory, a guideline for artists that is not a legalistic set of rules is very much needed. But as there is little help coming from the leaders of the church, the Christian intellectuals, every artist as it were has to work it out alone. So if we want to give artists a share in the totality of the Christian life (weeping, praying, thinking, working), if we understand that without artists and their work a reformation is not only unlikely but unfeasible, then we have to think about these responsibilities. It will mean that we have to think through our
Christian position and what Christianity means on all levels of human life.

Such a reformation is not only a church reformation. The totality of our being is at stake. It certainly must take in evangelism or church work. But to preach the gospel and to say that in Christ there is life without being able to show something of the reality of that life is to speak in a vacuum. It soon begins to sound false. The difference must be visible, in all fields. As C. S. Lewis says so beautifully, we have enough little Christian tracts and books, but if we look for the reChristianization of Europe or the United States, it will not come if people cannot look for a good book in a certain field that comes out of the Christian camp. The world did not become atheist because they preached so hard, but because they worked so hard. In many fields they have led the way. They have set the tone. Art certainly has a great influence on people. Just think of the role of rock music in the sixties. If there were creative, exciting and good Christian music around, if there were visual art that was truly different, not strange but good, if… then Christianity would have more to say. It would have more to say to the world outside the West, the Third World.

Often we are satisfied too soon, too easily. We pick up what the world does, change some obvious things, and then we think we have arrived. Our paintings are sometimes the same as “theirs,” maybe just a little bit less shocking or radical. But to be a Christian is not to be conservative or less exciting. Obviously artists cannot do it alone. They need the writers of those books, the thinkers who think new thoughts, the politicians who offer other solutions, and also the preachers and pastors to help us to see the way and walk in it.

Only in such a community can we move on. But if others fail or are weak for whatever reason, we must just go ahead and show what can be done. Maybe what you artists do is also weak and feeble. But let us not wait. Maybe the reformation we look for will never come if we do not weep, pray, think and work.

But I think all this is obvious. Artists need no justification. God called them, gave them talents. We cannot go on without them. So let’s help themin prayer, in encouragement, not just with words but also in deeds according to what we can give. Indeed, what we cannot afford to be without needs no justification.

Evangelistic Art?

All too often people say to artists, “To be an artist is fine if your art can be used for evangelism.” And art has often become a tool for evangelism. But let’s be precise. As such there is nothing against this. But we must be aware that art cannot be used to show the validity of Christianity; it should rather be the reverse. Christianity is true; things and actions and human endeavor only get their meaning from their relationship to God; if Christ came to make us human, the humanity and the reality of art find their foundation in him. So art should not be used to preach even if it can help. Yet there is another way that art can be or is meaningful.

To fit into the patterns of evangelism, artists have often compromised, and so prostituted their art. But Handel with his Messiah, Bach with his St. Matthew’s Passion, Rembrandt with his Denial of St. Peter, and the architects of those Cistercian churches were not evangelizing nor making tools for evangelism; they worked to the glory of God. They did not compromise their art. They were not devising tools for religious propaganda or holy advertisement. Precisely because of that their works were deep and important. They were not the means to an end, the winning of souls, but they were meaningful and an end in themselves. They were to God’s glory.

Art has too often become insincere and second-rate in its very effort to speak to all people and to communicate a message that art was not meant to communicate. In short, art has its own validity and meaning, certainly in the Christian framework. I want to say more about that later.

The Christian’s art must be Christian in a deep sense, showing the fruits of the Spirit in a positive mentality and with excitement for the greatness of the life we were given. That does not mean the subjects have to be “Christian” in a narrow way. The Brandenburg Concertos by Bach are no less Christian than his Passion, nor Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride than his biblical subjects. Indeed, to ask the artist to be an evangelist points to a total misunderstanding of the meaning of art, and, for that matter, of other human activities.

We are Christians whether we sleep, eat or work hard; whatever we do, we do it as God’s children. Our Christianity is not only for the pious moments, our religious acts. Nor is the aim of life evangelism; it is seeking the Kingdom of God. To put it into a metaphor, art should not be compared with preaching. The best
work of art would still be bad preaching. It may be compared with teaching, but the
teacher often has to speak of mathematics, geography, history, botany and sometimes, even if rarely, about religion. But the best comparison is maybe with the plumbing.

While we find it to be totally indispensable in our homes, yet we are rarely aware of it. Likewise art fulfills an important function in our lives, in creating the atmosphere in which we live, in giving us the words to speak, in offering us the framework in which we can see and grasp things, say a landscape, even without our noticing it. Art is rarely propaganda, but it has been very influential in shaping the thought-forms of our times, the values people cherish. So the mentality that speaks out in art is important. Its greatest influence is perhaps where it is most like plumbing, where we are not aware of it.

We should not say that there is something behind our actions. The deep strivings, the love and the hate, the wisdom and the foolishness, the knowledge and the insight as well as the shortsightedness and false idealism, are not behind the action but in it.

Therefore, to work as a Christian is not doing the thing plus something added, the Christian element. A Christian painting, if we use that term with any intrinsic, serious meaning, should not be just a painting plus an added something. Nor should it be holy in a special sense. Art has its own justification.

Human Art

Because a painting is a human creation and as such is the realization of human imagination, it is spiritual; that is, it shows what it means to be human. These things are communicated, for art is also communication. Everything human attests to the human. The human is never something neutral, a void. The painting is loaded with meaning. The better it is the more this will be true. When we understand anything of art, we know that techniques, materials, size, all these technical elements, are chosen to be a suitable tool for expressing what one wants. So the spiritual and the material are necessarily closely interconnected. And therefore the saying that after all a painting is just a painting will not do. This is often said to stress the fact that our particular spirituality has nothing to do with it, which implies that one has nothing to say and that there is no humanity expressed, living itself out in the work.

So we are struggling to express clearly what the Christian element in the work of a Christian is, what the Bible calls “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). What has to be stressed is that it ought to be human, real. The Christian element never comes as an extra. In discussions I am often asked what one has to do if one wants to work as a Christian. I have the feeling that often these questions are within a legalistic framework, as if the Christian element consisted of following some rules, usually of a negative kind. May I do this? Can that be done? But in that way we understand our own spirituality too mechanically. We are not human plus an extra called our Christianity. No, our humanity reacts to the world outside and the Word of God in a way that is specific to our particular personality.

To be a Christian artist means that one’s particular calling is to use one’s talents to the glory of God, as an act of love toward God and as a loving service to our fellows. It means to be on the way, preparing ourselves as well as we can, learning the trade techniques and principles, learning from the work of others and from their mistakes, finding our direction, experimenting, achieving what we set out to do or failing. To work in such a way, with all our heart and mind and spirit, with all our potential talents, in openness and freedom, praying for wisdom and guidance, thinking before we work, is to accept our responsibility.

Self-criticism is needed, of course, but to be a Christian artist does not mean to be perfect, nor to make things without faults. We Christians are sometimes foolish, and we make mistakes, perhaps out of our sinfulness or because the task was too difficult or because we got wrong advice, certainly because we are human, living in a broken world under the curse. To be a Christian does not mean that one is a genius.

Art with a Difference

If you are a Christian, don’t be ashamed of it. Work out of the fullness of your being and give the best you have. You can never be better than you are. Be ashamed to be less, but you fall into pride and foolishness if you want to be more. This means do not be afraid. Live out your freedom. Do not let this be spoiled by your sinfulness. Sin takes freedom away. Walk in his way, yes, but this must be done out of your own convictions, out of your own understanding, in love and freedom. It is never just the application of some rules, some do’s and some don’ts. It is more real, more honest. It should be a commitment.

So we must work in the best way we can. If we do so we are already changing things. To be a Christian is to be different – not totally; nobody can be totally different. If we were, we would be total strangers, speaking a foreign tongue, and we could not communicate anymore.

It is also impossible to think through everything; consequently we will be children of our age in many ways. Unavoidably we will have much in common with all our contemporaries. We eat the same food, use the same clothes, go to the same stores, speak the same language, read the same papers, have had the same schooling, have gone through the same experiences of droughts, inflation, ups and downs, war and peace. Yet, we are different. There are things we hate and they love, even though they know these things lead to death, as Paul says at the end of Romans 1. There are also things we do, love, look for, work for, because we find them to be part of going “on the way,” hungering and thirsting for righteousness, looking for that which is positive.

Christians are different; they partake of the framework of their time and add to it. Maybe their total framework is larger and richer because of this. We trust it will be. And let us realize that the differences count. To do what is not obvious, or to do something nobody else does, that counts. And we never do that alone. We learn from our friends, and we teach them things too. We work together. And our group, our fellow travelers on the way, his way, are again part of a larger group, and that finally is part of the totality of his people, God’s holy church in the wide sense, the communion of saints.

By criticizing or protesting, and by showing the better way, we can influence people. It may be the beginning of something God may use in a reformation; but that is his part. Our responsibility is to be good servants and to do what our hands are given to do. We should not lose hope as long as we do our share. Later, perhaps only after the last day, we shall see that it did make a difference. “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another; the LORD heeded and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and thought on his name. ¢â‚¬ËœThey shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act…. Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him’ “ (Mal. 3:16-~8).

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