What is Art?
By MARIANNE WOOD
Recently I had the privilege of meeting some fellow writers for the first time. In my impromptu remarks at our small gathering, I mangled a concept from the English crime writer and poet Dorothy Sayers. I want to set that straight (assuming you are reading) because the impact of her idea carries tremendous value for artists of all persuasions. Dorothy Sayers suggests that the trinity has an application for creative people. It also helps us answer the age-old question, “What is art?” I will get to the fuller explanation.
But first, a bit more about Dorothy Sayers, 1893-1957. In addition to her crime writing and poetry, she found time to write plays and essays, study classical and modern languages, and translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Perhaps she is best known to Americans as the author of the Lord Peter Whimsy stories, but it is her Christian work, The Mind of the Maker, that delights and encourages me.
Dorothy Sayers’s model for the “cycle of creativity” takes into consideration the fact that we are made in God’s image. I find it instructive on multiple levels. Diagrammed as she presents it: God/Idea, Son/Expression, Spirit/Recognition we see the trinity with creative activity reflected. If a person expresses an idea in visual, musical, dance, or theatrical form and is received and recognized as Art, it must be Art. Yes? Or no? I believe the answer is “yes.”
Here is my illustration of her concept. Whether you are a Christian triune-God-believing person or not, I think you will find it helpful in understanding how God, creators, and viewers/readers interact.
Russian writer and possibly Christian Leo Tolstoy answers this question in his aptly named What is Art?, written in 1897. From what I gather, he believes it is a shared experience that promotes unity. I’ve yet to make it through the short book, for him, a volume that runs just over two hundred pages. But in searching, I found this helpful with my thesis.
Every work of art caused the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.
Aha. Two great minds, Sayers and Tolstoy, agree. When writers, painters, dancers, and others pass along a “state of mind…to others,” we make a connection. And wow, do we know about the loss of connection this past year! We treasure connections of all kinds now.
Many years ago, my daughter and sister and I visited a popular Houston exhibition. We knew from fliers and posts that we should expect a fantastic experience. When our trio emerged from the venue, we could not contain our wry smiles. Okay, giggles. I captured theirs with my camera and later created a collage of the photo with wonky, ransom note style lettering asking our question of the moment. I use this artwork in teaching my students that they possess the right to decide against the dictates of a glossy poster or fevered pitches from friends. You even get to determine if this essay is Art with a capital A. If you receive nothing from it, it’s not Art to you, but maybe to someone else.
In conversation with some of my creative buddies, I learned that they agree with a corollary principle: that all art that Christians produce is Christian Art.
These friends and I enjoy marvelous talks about our creative lives. We’ve read many of the same books, such as Francis Schaeffer’s Art & the Bible and H.R. Rookmaaker’s Art Needs No Justification. I’ll bet they also have The Christian, The Arts, and Truth, too, a book by Frank Gaebelein–all great reads for Christians in the arts. In Gaebelein’s chapter “The Bible and the Christian Writer,” he encourages us not to forget “the scriptural principle of hard work resulting in the achievement of excellence to the glory of God.” Rookmaker reminds creative people that our work is “to add to the world God gave us to develop, to beautify…(to add to) the lives of many, loving our neighbors. We repeat that promise each time we take communion for it is the parallel statement to “do this in remembrance of me.” See Luke 22:19. As a reflection of that command, a recognition, if you will, we are to love one another. I created a triptych that expresses this for Holy Week a while back.
Schaeffer helped my friends and me understand that our “world view usually does show through.” So whenever we make art, talk about art, or show others how to create art, we act as Christian artists. Creative work extends from the life within us. His life.
In my thirties, while studying Exodus, I began to drink in the story of two creative people discussed in the 31st chapter. Their unusual names and the place of honor given them for their contributions to the world helped drive the permission I still cherish for spending time on artistic expressions.
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.6 Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also, I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: (NIV)
I especially like the phrases “I have chosen,” “I have filled,” and “I have given.” This desire to take an idea, express it, and share it with our neighbors who will hopefully recognize and respond to it comes from God!
From the online dictionary, art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Notice the word “appreciate.” That, too, matches the “recognition” corner of the picture Sayers provided.
Last night my husband, Larry, and I visited The Grace Museum taking advantage of their late hours of operation on Thursdays. We’d just come from a relative’s bedside at the hospital. A miracle had occurred in her body, bringing her back from a long week of intensive care. God used gifted doctors, nurses, and aides to assist her recovery, so we were already on another emotional plane when we entered the first-floor gallery. We were hungry for food, but as Larry noted, we needed a different kind of nourishment first. And we found it in the beautiful expressions of Sherry Owens’ “Promise Me the Earth.” Granted, I’ve always loved art made with recycled elements, but her repurposed crepe myrtle scraps displayed before our eyes after a harsh winter that killed most of our rugged, beautiful flowering trees impressed me a lot. The exhibition whispered a lovely “Amen” after the hard week we’d endured. Sherry, we recognized and received your message!
So I invite you to visit the new exhibitions at The Grace Museum, The Center for Contemporary Arts, and the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. The curators, receptionists, educators, and administrators have missed you greatly. So have the staff of movie theaters, music halls, and booksellers and sharers. Make time and effort to attend and support the arts and drink in your part of the creative experience by recognizing, receiving, and responding to the stimuli that others have labored to share. Besides, you get to decide: Is it Art?
Marianne Wood works as an editorial assistant and researcher for Bill Wright