Why Protestants Don’t Make Good Art

I posted this short piece on my old blog in 2016 and think I made some good points, so I’m reproducing it here.

A friend recently posted on Facebook that, in his experience, Evangelical Christians aren’t making good art. We tend to discuss art a lot, but in general, we don’t encourage the kind of atmosphere that great art thrives in. I don’t have an explanation for this, but here are three guesses as to why this trend is so persistent.

Walking on Water - Azurite by Makoto Fujimura

First of all, when art is encouraged in Christian communities, it’s often encouraged in the service of a larger goal, usually one with a theological argument behind it. Christian artists love to explain what they’re doing. The meaning of the art is displayed on its surface. “That’s Noah, and this rock over here represents sin being swallowed up by the waters of baptism.” Most of the time, this comes from a genuine love for the truths being communicated. But a certain level of ambiguity is often what makes art great, because what the art is saying can’t quite be put into words. Protestant Evangelical Christians don’t really like ambiguity. We usually want art to have one straightforward meaning, and frankly, most great art doesn’t.

That brings us to the second point. Art requires an element of uncertainty in the artist. David Bentley Hart mentions that beauty seems to give reconciliation to things that cannot be reconciled. It’s almost as if beauty operates on a different timeline from ours. In order for the artist to let beauty do that work, the artist must admit that things are not reconciled. Ecclesiastes says that God put eternity in the hearts of men. The Evangelical Protestant wants that eternity to be filled up with the truth of the Gospel. (Whether or not this is historically true, it’s how many present-day Christians operate.) Again, this may be done with utmost sincerity, but it smothers the artistic pursuit. Beauty wants those unanswered questions.

Lastly, as the poet Scott Cairns says, artists tend to fall in love with the stuff of making. Those who paint canvases dream of paint. The poet pushes words around in her head all day. The serious photographer or cinematographer is always paying attention to the way light bounces off of things. At one level, the artist must be willing to lay aside what he knows in his mind to be true in order to pay attention to what the stuff tells him to do. In the contemporary evangelical church, the stuff of the world is typically regarded with suspicion. (This seems to be changing, based on my own experience, and praise the Lord for that.) Trying to create art with that kind of attitude is sort of like, say, making bricks without straw. Unless Christians are willing to fall in love with the world, they can kiss their artistic aspirations goodbye.

(I’d encourage you to read this post at CiRCE about why modern people can’t write and this post at First Things, which kicked off this whole discussion in the first place.)

That painting is Walking on Water – Azurite, by the Christian abstract artist Makoto Fujimura.

To the Dung Heap with a Man’s Ideas

I do not think Shakespeare wrote a single line to express “his” ideas. What some call his philosophy, he would have called common knowledge.

~ CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama

A Man is Skeptical of the Innovation Gospel

Peter Thiel on startup culture:

There’s a pessimistic read on the startup culture where you could say that people, it’s not really a typical thing to start something new. That, the large institutions should have far more resources, longer time horizons and so you only need to start something new when none of the existing institutions work. Maybe the fact there’s so much stress on starting new things is the positive tip of the iceberg but the much larger, negative part of the iceberg is that the large, existing institutions are incredibly broken.

To me, this attitude (which Thiel doesn’t necessarily hold) speaks of the belief that tomorrow will be better, must be better. (I wrote about this a few months ago.) Part of what’s going on in this kind of thinking is a denial of history. You have to contort yourself into some really wild intellectual knots to believe that the past was just a bulldozer of scientific, social, and political progress. Rather than face facts, people invent new things.

Josh Gibbs says something similar in his book How to be Unlucky:

The modern man wants every ancient proverb qualified with words like “usually,” “typically,” “generally,” “often,” and “sometimes.” He does not believe there is a way things are. He does not even believe there is a way things tend to be. Rather, he views the world as a series of accidents and arbitrary events. Every thing and every person in the world is atomized, isolated in its being, sequestered off from the habits of existence. Reality has no contours; being has no grooves. The modern man does not believe women are a certain way. He does not believe men are a certain way. He does believe children or kings, farmers or prostitutes are a certain way. He believes that every human being alive is at war with the past, at war with tradition, and thus the modern man believes every farmer is reinventing farming, every kind reinventing dominion, every woman reinventing femininity. Because every farmer is reinventing farming and every woman is reinventing femininity, the terms “woman” and “farmer” are empty. We should not expect the zeitgeist to be content until every weighty word in the dictionary has been gutted. (p. 91)

A Man Goes Where Creative Work is Happening

On David K’s recommendation, I’m reading Jeff Goins’ book Real Artists Don’t Starve. Goins is attacking some common myths that hang around artistic types, like the idea that making money means you sold out, or the notion that success is all a matter of blind luck. Believe it or not, you can work things to your advantage in your pursuit of art. Goins distills his advice into a dozen principles, which he doesn’t call The Twelve Rules of Goins, but I’m going to.

Behold, the Twelve Rules of Goins.

1. The Starving Artist believes you must be born an artist. The Thriving Artist knows you must become one.
2. The Starving Artist strives to be original. The Thriving Artist steals from his influences.
3. The Starving Artist believes he has enough talent. The Thriving Artist apprentices under a master.
4. The Starving Artist is stubborn about everything. The Thriving Artist is stubborn about the right things.
5. The Starving Artist waits to be noticed. The Thriving Artist cultivates patrons.
6. The Starving Artist believes he can be creative anywhere. The Thriving Artist goes where creative work is already happening.
7. The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.
8. The Starving Artist does his work in private. The Thriving Artist practices in public.
9. The Starving Artist works for free. The Thriving Artist always works for something.
10. The Starving Artist sells out too soon. The Thriving Artist owns his work.
11. The Starving Artist masters one craft. The Thriving Artist masters many.
12. The Starving Artist despises the need for money. The Thriving Artist makes money to make art.

Some solid advice there. Take a closer look at #6: The Thriving Artist goes where creative work is already happening. In that chapter, Goins quotes a little detail from Patti Smith on why so many creative types moved to New York in the 1970s: “It was cheap to live here, really cheap.” Obviously NYC is the furthest thing from cheap nowadays. But the art scene of the 1970s is a big reason why the city still holds a flavor that so many hip youngsters find irresistible. Apparently the cycle goes something like this: a bunch of creative people move to a cheap town, meet each other, do their creative thing, and attract lots of other people who want to live in a happenin’ place.

That right there is seventy percent of the reason T and I moved to Birmingham. It’s cheap to live here, really cheap. When don’t have to worry so much about stacking the wampum, you have the luxury to spend your time on other, more creative pursuits. And when those creative pursuits do start to turn a profit, the profit doesn’t have to be enormous for you to make ends meet.

One final thought: my friend Daniel pointed out that there’s this assumption underneath these twelve principles that Thriving Artists are the real artists, whereas Starving Artists are poseurs. Goins makes that assumption explicit in the title of the book: real artists don’t starve. The implication is that, if you aren’t making money on your art, you’re not a real artist. When you get right down to it, is that any more helpful that the reverse? There’s nothing wrong with an electrician who writes music in his spare time and never makes a nickel from it.


A Man Keeps These in Mind When Using the Internet

Errol Morris’s 8 principles of photography:

  1. All photographs are posed.
  2. The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)
  3. Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)
  4. False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.
  5. There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)
  6. Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.
  7. Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they beleive about a photograph.
  8. The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.

via Austin Kleon, whose blog is mucho worthwhile