The Liberation of Art

I have been reviewing and summarizing the book The Gift of Art by Gene Edward Veith, Jr (1983). This week we will turn our attention to the last chapter entitled “Mere Art.”

After demonstrating in Chapter 6 that the Bronze Serpent of Numbers 21 was the Bible’s best example of art used evangelistically in that it conveyed both the judgment and the salvation of God, Veith narrates the eventual deterioration of the Bronze Serpent into idolatry (p 107). In 2 Kings 18:1-4, we discover that King Hezekiah, in an effort to stimulate revival, broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made because the people had begun to burn incense to it. That which had started out as a glorious symbol of God’s transforming power had become another idol. How tragic!

“Art is sanctioned by God; it can even communicate in a powerful way God’s law and his gospel,” but we must never allow it to be turned into an object of worship (p. 109). Originally, God had used the image to motivate the people, but later generations offered their prayers and incense to the image in an effort to motivate God or perhaps even began to ascribe power to the image itself as Veith further discusses. “There is another sense in which we can ‘burn incense’ to a work of art: we can overmystify it, ascribing to it supernatural or religious functions (p 110).” Correcting that error often involves a process of “demystifying” the art object. According to Veith the scripture is making an effort to demystify art objects when the prophets Isaiah (Is 44:9-17) and Jeremiah (Jer 10:3-5, 9-11) describe how the craftsman cuts down a tree and uses some of the wood to warm himself and cook his food while carving another part into an idol which must be nailed down to keep from falling over.

”The Bible does not permit us to take art (too) seriously; it liberates art to be itself (p 115).” By accepting art as ‘mere art,’ the artist is also liberated. “Styles, forms and movements are not sacred; therefore they can be used or changed at will. The gospel always brings liberty. The Christian artist is liberated from the exhausting role of the ‘doomed genius,’ from the pressures of Bohemianism and egotistic introspection. If art is not religion then the artist can go elsewhere and find real religion, faith that can give genuine content and direction to his or her work (p. 116).”

This attitude about art will allow us as Christian artists to maintain right priorities. “Art is not only less important than God, it is less important than people. To use artistic taste as a means of snubbing other people, being elitist and condescending, to use art as a means of exploiting or debauching other people is a common perversion that a Christian must be alert to. A more modest art will be open to human beings; instead of lording it over them, the best art will serve them (p 118).”

Veith goes on to discuss ‘beauty’ and concludes by saying “the experience of beauty, in all its complex forms, is always good and even exalting . . . because it is a quality of the Godhead. Moveover, he expressed this quality in his creation. Human beings can both perceive and create beauty because they are made in the image of God (p121).”

Veith concludes his book with these final thoughts, “The Christian artist must realize that a biblical view of the arts is profoundly liberating. Because art is not sacred, it can be changed. Because of the Second Commandment, it can be nonrepresentational, fictional, and creative. Because the aesthetic is valuable in itself, as a God-ordained realm of experience, the Christian artist need not always be expressing explicitly religious messages. The artist is freed to pursue aesthetic excellence. Any type of art, from architecture to electronic music, from crafts such as needlework to the most ethereal art of the museums, can be pleasing to God and a legitimate use of his gifts (p. 125).”

Being the recipients of gifts from God; however, subjects us to the responsibilities of stewardship. “If the perception and creation of beauty, the power of the imagination, the capacity for empathy, are all gifts of God, it follows that the proper use of the arts is a matter of stewardship. Any of God’s gifts can be used or abused. They can be made to multiply or they can be buried in the ground (p. 124).”

“God will hold us to account for how we have used his gifts (p. 124).”

May you draw ever closer to your Creator as you delight in exploring His gifts to you.

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