By Alison Schroeder
“Someone has defined a work of art as a ‘thing beautifully done.’ I like it better if we cut away the adverb and preserve the word ‘done,’ and let it stand alone in its fullest meaning. Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done.” -- Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands.
You have probably never donned a beret. You wear colors other than black. You don’t chain smoke (certainly, you’d never set foot in a brothel), and rarely do you pick up a brush or clay, fabric or pen. It has been years since you set foot on a stage, pored over guitar tabs or blank sheets of composition paper, or sat face to face with a new document screen and a flashing cursor on your laptop.
Well, maybe you do do some of those things sometimes. But you’re not an artist. It is not your job, or your calling, to focus exclusively on making beautiful, profound, meaningful works. You have a real job. You might imagine what it would be like to have the kind of life’s work you could really pour your heart and soul into, but you shake off those dreamy notions, pour yourself another cup of coffee (how many will it take today?), put your key in the ignition, and drive yourself to the workplace and the people and the daily tasks that give you, in return, a paycheck. It’s hard, it takes a lot out of you, and it’s satisfying enough. Better to count your blessings than yearn for greener pastures.
Yet maybe, once you get home, you unwind (or wind yourself up) by scanning Pinterest. You look for a striking image, a good idea, something beautiful, to add to your growing list of projects--those frivolous little hobbies “on the side.” Then comes that inevitable string of doubt: “Will I ever get around to really doing these things? Even if I do, odds are 50/50 that I’ll have spent all that time and maddening effort piecing together a piece of junk. After all, those pictures all lie; those people are illusionists, professional liars--who am I? Why am I even bothering to think about all this? I have a job--a vocation! Where’s the corkscrew?”
Want to know a secret? You are an artist. You don’t have to make objets d’art to be an artist: the word “art” used to simply mean “work.” Art is work. Yes, art nowadays implies fine art (painting, poetry, prose, theatre, music, etc.), which we don’t all work toward, but we all do strive to do beautiful, meaningful work every day. Everything that you strive to do well, with care and intent (with heart, mind, and will in coordination), and to do in an orderly fashion, is art. The genuine beauty of a vocation lived out with care and concern for the neighbor should never be forgotten (although this beauty is hard for darkened eyes to perceive). Beauty is, at core, merely an expression of order. And order, especially the order we observe in nature, is itself an expression of natural law; so beauty and order characterize (at least a part of) the natural world and are regarded as tangible manifestations of divine attributes (natural revelation of God). Our shared craving for beauty, for meaning, is an essential expression of what it is to be human: to have been created man.
Why We Crave Beauty
Humanity’s natural love of beauty reveals certain significant truths about the world and human nature. First of all, it must be understood that beauty is basically a manifestation of order: of “things in right relation” to each other. In classical aesthetic theory, ideas about beauty are described in terms of ratios: an orderly, pleasant organization of parts in terms of the whole (for example, proportion, harmony, and “unity with variety” are all recognized as important aspects of beauty). Not only is this beauty objectively identifiable and widely agreed upon, but it is also subjectively pleasing (for example, fashion models and many celebrities are popularly regarded as “beautiful” people by the majority of those who see them).
The most appealing aspect of beauty, then, in my opinion, is its restorative effect: beauty can suddenly replace confusion with meaning. For example, instead of random, chaotic bits of data in conflict with one another, a scientific theory brings together these bits of data in a unified collection of parts: a cohesive, elegant whole. This is why beauty is understood as an inherently valuable factor in the determination of a valid theory in the field of physics. Indeed, all of our scientific theories seek to unify seemingly random (and perhaps conflicting) bits of data we’ve collected about the world, just as cosmetic products help us synthesize and unify the very parts and ratios of our own faces.
In that beautiful restoration of parts to the whole, of order and meaning in place of confusion and chaos, we see two crucial elements of the meaning and purpose of the art that we try to create:
- First, on a personal level, to put forth a beautiful, unified expression of goodness in a single human work. As a result of the fall into sin, we humans have a very basic sense that we are not what we used to be, nor what, perhaps, we could be. The appearance of order in the world convicts us and reveals to us the disordered, sinful nature of our very hearts and lives. The presence of order in nature shows us there is a law (although not who put that law there), and that we are transgressors, right down to our very nature and existence. Art is an attempt to restore some of that missing personal righteousness: by creating a work of beauty, the artist hopes to somehow associate herself with the beauty, the perfection, she knows she is lacking.
- Second, in the same action, the artist desires to reconcile herself with humanity (man to man) in providing an opportunity for a shared human experience. (In putting forth a work others can read and interpret and enjoy, the artist hopes she will have established a link between herself and the viewer: it’s a reflection of the basic human acknowledgment of the divisive effect of sin on humanity as a whole, and the hopeful desire to achieve right relationships with each other, man to man).
Art shows us that, as humans, we perceive we are missing something vital. We lack personal righteousness (perfection and a right relationship with God). This lack of personal righteousness has a good deal to do with our inability to have and to maintain right relationships with one another. Art cannot itself correct these problems; it, however, does perform a highly valuable service in directing our attention to them. The resolution to those problems is only found in God’s salvific work on our behalf: in the cross of Christ.
A Portrait of the Artist
Many of us create only the art of daily life. However, some of us do create (or aspire to create) “fine art.” For those of us with such aspirations, it is helpful to further examine the role of artist. Is there an artistic temperament? Is art a matter of talent or hard work, a mix of both, or something else?
In ancient times, artistic ability was thought of in terms of inspiration from the muses, or possession by a genius (a spirit who only occasionally inhabited the artist’s body), and then, later, genius took on the connotation with which we’re more familiar: as a special inborn disposition which only a few of us have by nature. Psychology continues to debate whether things like artistic aptitude are a matter of nature (talent) or nurture (work). In our contemporary American climate, it seems that the popular thinking is that talent isn’t nearly as determinative as hard work. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: here in America, we make our dreams happen by sheer grit and determination--we’re a land brimming with self-made success stories.
Instead of thinking of artists as either especially talented people or especially hard workers, I find it most helpful (and most honest) to think of artists as gifted in their work. Both the talent and the ability to work must be received as the gifts that they are. Time, opportunity, soundness of mind, sensitivity, depth of thought and feeling, capable hands, courage--these are gifts of God, and without his giving, we’d be entirely without. He sends rain on the just and the unjust. In Him we live and move and have our being. We confess this with Luther in the first article of the creed:
“I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. [...] He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. [...] All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”
Artists (like those in any other profession) do what they do because God has first (and continually) gifted them with the ability. There is never grounds for boasting in oneself (nor in temperament, talent, skill, productivity, portfolio, repertoire, curriculum vitae). As it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” It is in this that we find hope and comfort when we struggle to create, when we doubt that our hands are able to create beauty with any worthwhile meaning. The world is dark, but our hope is in God the Father, the Giver of every good and perfect gift, and in Christ our Redeemer, our Advocate, and our Righteousness.
This article is Part I of a multi-part series relating to the intersection of Art and a Lutheran worldview. Read Part II next Tuesday.
Alison Schroeder is a married mother of three. A daughter and sister of artists, herself an artist (though she's loath to admit it), she blogs at Alison's Open Sketchbook.
Title Image: "The Boulder" by C.C. Curran, c1905