It was wonderful to get your email. Of course, I remember you, but it must be two years since I saw you last! From the sound of things, a good deal has unfolded since then. So good to be in touch—thanks for reaching out. Yes, we’re all well thanks.
I’m stoked to hear that you’re making art. Having seen something of your teen years, I think I suspected that this would be part of your journey, so I’m not surprised (I’m also delighted). I’m also not surprised that you have questions. My life as an artist (a bit like you with your painting, I began writing poetry in my late teens) has been marked by an ongoing conversation with myself and others about art: what it is, what I think I’m doing, and what we should be aiming for (authenticity? the recognition of others? social transformation? just making something beautiful?). In short, I get it! I also understand your frustration at the conversation with your pastor—in fact, I found myself getting a bit indignant reading that bit. So let me encourage you: as a Christian, you have inherited a most incredible, culturally and historically expansive tradition of art practice and theory. There’s so much more to this than ensuring that your painting has a “Christian message.” So much more! I suggest you make a pot of tea because I’m going to try to share some of that “more” here.
Right at the outset, let me say: no, I don’t find it weird that you think about painting all the time, or that you’re in love with light and shadow, or that you have started carrying a sketchbook with you (all through my 20s, I got around with a 3B1 notebook in my back pocket to capture lines of poetry as they slipped by). As long as there have been human beings, we have made art: we have held up a mirror to the world in compelling, memorable, and life-giving ways. It’s not just a nice thing we do on the side after sorting the economic or political realities—human beings make art in lean times as well as rich (and the art is possibly better for it). And when we make useful things, we often make them beautiful as well. In short, art-making is a pretty basic human urge, and you’re not weird for doing it.
I also want to affirm a bunch of other things you’ve raised. Yes, art has to do with beauty, not just with getting a message across. This is worth pondering, and not just because of your experience at church; my hunch is that “beauty” probably won’t get much airtime in your first year at art school. Likewise, the question of art as self-expression—yes, you’re totally right, it is not straightforward, and yes, there’s a good wrestle here. But it’s a question that needs a much bigger frame, so let me give that a go in this email, and you can perhaps come back to me with further questions? Hmm … what else? Oh, yes—art and prayer, that’s totally a conversation we can have; I’d like to suggest Scripture also needs to be in the mix. To these questions, I hope you won’t mind if I add a few more? Like, how is the artist responsible, and to whom? How important is it to develop skill and craft or is it enough to express myself freely? Do I aim for originality or lean into tradition? What is success? And how can I justify making art when people are suffering here in Aotearoa and overseas/when we are facing a climate crisis/when people have not heard of Jesus and God’s gift of forgiveness? Oh, and then there’s always, what does God think about my art-making? Phew, I’m not trying to overwhelm you here! But when we understand the arts within the large and profound setting of God’s purposes, then much of what I’ve just named becomes a good deal clearer. And it’s a really beautiful, really compelling picture. One last comment before I try to paint some of this picture: there’s much I’ve yet to learn, both in my own poetry and in my understanding about the arts, so sift and test what I’m saying here and then let’s keep the conversation going!
I think the first thing we’ve got to talk about is delight because delight is basic to the urge to make art, to make a beautiful meaning. This has its roots in a particular kind of pleasure in the world—not a pleasure that wants to eat up everything it sees, tastes, or touches but a pleasure that settles down, full to the brim with beholding the good world. To delight in something, let’s say, is to repose in an aching satisfaction, to be arrested by beauty. We’re caught off guard by the compelling irresolution of a suspended chord; we keep thinking about that shade of teal (or was it blue?); we notice the way the light falls across the resting hand of the man across the bus aisle; we have a sudden urge to touch the rough-cast sides of that hand-thrown pot; stopping before the grace-filled posture of that mature pine, we adjust our shoulders to stand ever so slightly more upright. Despite everything, the world is excessively beautiful, drawing delight out of us like nectar from a flower. And very often, our response is to join in—to sing, to make, to touch, to dance, to pun, to rhyme, to music, and paint and draw and arrange and curate and enact. “I just have to make something,” says the artist upon waking. That urge is not merely personal, it’s a big fat “Yes!” to the beauty of the world. We’re delighted, and so we join in.
Seems to me so much art is serious about the wrong thing: it takes itself far too seriously (often because the artist, being ambitious or pretentious, takes him– or herself too seriously) and so it becomes somehow self-absorbed, losing the playfulness that gave rise to it. Or, convinced that the world is a lost cause, it becomes cynical, an exercise in stripping back a veneer of beauty to reveal the stark meaninglessness of things. Yet, despite what some artists believe about their work or the world, the basic motive of delight persists. And here is the key thing—delight is joyfully serious about the world. It is a kind of agreement that there’s something here to celebrate, something real we can join in on (have you seen my essay on celebration? I’ll send you a copy). The delight in art-making is a way of agreeing with the delightful world. In short, the delight in making is an important clue.
As you know, I love words. Clue, or clew, originally meant a ball of thread, such as you might use to escape a labyrinth. As a clue, delight is worth following up on. We regularly intuit that the world is stuffed with meaning. “There is more to life,” we say in the dark of the maze. Sometimes, despite ourselves, we overflow with this moreness; when things go well, many people are thankful—they want to say “Thank you!” In the same way, our delight in the world can awaken in us a desire to speak that delight out, to address its source in gratitude and awe. “Where did all this beauty come from?”, we wonder. And as this clew of delight unravels through the labyrinth of contemporary cynicism, we find it can lead us out into the wide open space of praise, which is the delight of the world, addressed to its maker.
More and more, when I have a question about what’s really real, I turn to Scripture. Science can describe the parts, function, and relation of things—what things are made of—but good scientific method refrains from presuming to give an account of what something is. By is, I mean not just physically, but morally and spiritually—that is, in relation to God. For that, we have to lean not on our own understanding but the gift of Holy Scripture. I know, I know—heaps more questions here … but, for now, work with me. When it comes to the delight of the world, we need the words of Psalm 19—it’s like being called out of the maze into light:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Listen, says the Psalm, hear the enduring song of the cosmos. It spans the reaches of all time and space, an ineluctable (look it up) upwelling of revelatory understanding, of articulate meaningfulness beyond words. And what does the cosmos “say”? Whom does it address? Well, not itself! This delight-full world is not a gift from itself to itself. The cosmos speaks of the glory—the searing radiance—of the One “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:15–16). The world, in other words, is a creation, a creation that, despite the travail of sin and evil, is radiant with delight. Creation says, “God, you are! Praise you!”
OK. Let me settle down and try to explain more clearly the connection I’m making between delight, praise, and art (as well as some connections I’m not making). First, the delight we experience in the world and in our art-making points to the larger reality of creation’s praise and our part in it. It is a profound orientation: we don’t stand above creation or apart from it; actually, we’re the part that is made—with our lives and our culture and our making and our words and our work—to voice creation’s praise in a free response of love. This is a profound reorientation for art too. Notice: Psalm 19 is itself art—a poem. Here, art not only represents creation’s wordless praise, but it also joins in. Now, I know: all this talk of praise can sound like a recipe for bad art. But hear how expansive this call to “praise” is. Scripture tells us that even as it praises God, creation also voices its pain at the effects of sin and evil (see Romans 8). The Bible’s many songs of lament show we’re to lift all of creation to God—our lives, the lives of our communities, the life of the world, the travail of the nonhuman world. So, the call to give voice to creation’s song does not mean sanitised or sentimental art. The art of Scripture itself suggests exactly the opposite—we’re to lift up all of it to God. You can forget “art for art’s sake”—this is a far more challenging, far more noble, far more interesting task!