What is the point of Christian arts?
The week of 23 August, the Guardian website ran a series of responses to the question: ‘What is the point of Christian arts?’. The editor of the series starts by considering the distinction made between artists who are Christians and Christian artists, noting that the distinction seems to be ‘between inspiration and purpose’. As artists, inspiration comes from within the worldview one holds. However, a purpose of proclaiming truth through one’s work is a different matter. And it seems that contemporary Christian art that focuses on the latter lacks in inspiration.
Three writers respond to the question posed: Harriet Baber, Roz Kaveney, and Maggi Dawn. Baber writes of her journey that led her to becoming a part of the church, a journey that was mediated by Church music. For her, engaging with Christian arts is given a deeper dimension because of her involvement with the Christian faith. She writes: ‘The aesthetic character of a work of art goes deeper than the aesthetic surface because what we want in art, like what we want in most departments of life, goes beyond the sensuous surface.’ For Baber, ‘Christian art is an end in itself.’
Kaveney offers a different perspective. For her, the Christian upbringing she had but now does not adhere to provides a ground of understanding and thus deeper meaning to the Christian art she experiences. What moves her is ‘the aspiration of human beings to feel in touch with something greater than themselves,’ something she experiences as much in nature as in great art. For Kaveney, ‘Art is first and foremost about itself, not about instruction or the fine points of theology.’
Rather than offering a personal anecdote, Dawn considers how we come to determine that which is ‘religious’ in art. Is it the devotion of the artist? Is it how the viewer interprets it? Despite the ambiguity in the distinction, what is necessary for understanding ‘religious’ art is a knowledge of Christianity. Because ‘religious’ writers, artists, and musicians were creating from within that understanding, the modern-day viewer would miss out on a significant part of what the work signifies. Dawn suggests that if we give in to the ‘cultural cringe’ towards modern-day Christianity and abandon our cultural association with it, then we end up losing ‘understanding of our cultural heritage’.
What do you think about these three responses? How would you answer the question posed? What strikes me about the responses is the role given to Christian faith and belief, primarily providing a framework for understanding when approaching works of art. Baber comes closest to explicitly mentioning that being a Christian makes a difference. Are we as a society in danger of losing our capacity to truly understand the works of art we see? Does a head knowledge of Christianity actually solve that problem?