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Why the Arts? 1. The Gift of Imagination

Just the mention in some Christian circles of Modern (capital M) Art (capital A) will guarantee glazed eyes, knowing smirks, and a handful on the edge ready to pounce.

Someone may well mention the infamous “pile of bricks” bought for a fortune by London’s Tate Modern and they’ll pour scorn with words like “even my five-year-old could do that.” It won’t cut much ice to argue that their five-year-old could not have done that (as Susie Hodge has argued in her intriguing if a little uneven book from 2012, Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That.) Neither will it help much to mention that the Tate Modern was the UK’s second most popular attraction in 2017, and that is despite being a decommissioned 1940s Power Station and containing only artworks made since 1900. Something about that place must be connecting with people! But let’s leave that to one side for now.

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of nonsense out there. And there’s a lot of bad art. Incidentally, by art and artists I mean not just the visual arts but all creativity: musical, literary, theatrical, cinematic, architectural. But just as you shouldn’t dismiss the whole idea of cricket after watching bad players or reject the idea of preaching after listening to bad preachers, so I’m sure we can agree that we should never reject any art form on account of its worst manifestations. We should take the best seriously. And by best, I don’t mean high art as opposed to low or pop art. In many ways, I reject the distinction. I’m quite prepared to recognize the multi-textured scenery of a computer game or the delectability of a hit single.

The problem is that many Christian creative people receive little support from their churches and pastors, if not actual incomprehension and outright hostility. There are many reasons for this, beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps there is a modernist or evangelical suspicion about the non-verbal, as if words were the only ‘certain’ means by which to communicate. Perhaps there is a fear of the supposedly iconoclastic, bohemian, or subversive tendencies of creative people. Perhaps it is simply because people are nonplussed by an alien subculture that they find hard to understand.

Whatever the reason, this situation is tragic. Reducing creative people’s church contributions to a trendy event flyer, or church website, or sermon illustration, is both a terrible waste and an insult to the Creator of human creativity. It treats the arts as mere tools, essentially reducing their function to propaganda.

A while back, I was speaking to a tiny fellowship of Christians studying at one of London’s art colleges to encourage them. If you think being a creative person in church puts you in a minority, then just try being a Christian at the aggressively secular University of the Arts London! I wanted to give them something to aspire to, give them hope in their creative work. But this was not driven by a desire to fuel ambitions or motivate for success. It was out of a genuine belief that creative people have a God-given role, a mandate to serve the wider community through, not despite, their creativity.

But this is not just for those involved at the creative cutting edge. It ought to bring a universally beneficial byproduct. By considering what art could and perhaps should be, we can then better discern what is good art, even in places where we least expect it.

To be creative is to fill space with something new. At a certain point in time, a created object does not exist, but at another it does exist. All because an individual or group worked to bring it into existence. Even in the smallest of ways, it has thereby changed the world. And all who engage with that new object are somehow changed or affected.

Artists help us to see what we didn't see, perhaps because we didn't notice or perhaps because we didn't want to notice. Great art demands deeper and more intentional looking, listening, and feeling. Mark Meynell

To fill that space is first to imagine it filled. It may not be that its creator has fully conceived of it; it may end up as a very different thing from what was first imagined. But imagination is fundamental and God-given, for good or ill. All Christians are (whether we like it or not) theologians who seek to understand and live in God’s world in acknowledgment and dependence on God; perhaps, then, we should see Christian creativity as a theology of the imagination.

That brings with it two significant roles, I think.

(i) Theological Visionaries

There is a UK chain of opticians called Specsavers that has produced a string of amusing advertisements in recent years. Each one shows the predicaments people get themselves into because they never got their eyes tested. One has a pair of senior citizens calmly sitting on a nice park bench to eat their sandwiches only to discover that they accidentally sat in the front carriage of a roller-coaster; or there are the space shuttle pilots who accidentally land at Luton airport outside London. Each advertisement ends with the tagline “should have gone to Specsavers.” It’s all quite fun and just a little bit silly.

Artists are life’s equivalent of Specsavers. Artists help us to see what we didn’t see, perhaps because we didn’t notice or perhaps because we didn’t want to notice. Great art demands deeper and more intentional looking, listening, and feeling. After all, why privilege the eye above our other senses? They are all creation gifts.

David Hockney is a painter who has spent a lot of time looking and helping us to look, and he appreciates others who have done the same for him. In a fascinating series of conversations with the English art critic Martin Gayford, he tells a lovely story from a few years back.

There was a fantastic Monet exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995. They got a million people to see it. There are forty-six Monets in the Art Institute’s collection, which they lend to other exhibitions, so a lot of museums owed them a favour. As a result, for this exhibition they had got together about a hundred and fifty of his paintings. I went to see it one Sunday morning. It was fabulous. When I came out, I started looking at the bushes on Michigan Avenue with a little more care, because Monet had looked at his surroundings with such attention. He made you see more. Van Gogh does that for you too. He makes you see the world around just a little more intensely. And you enjoy seeing it like that, or I do.

All good art does that in some way. A poem articulates a previously undefinable moment; a song expresses the contradictions of emotional reality; a novel helps us empathize with an enemy or alien; a painting helps us to see that a lawn may actually contain all kinds of reds and pinks rather than the uniform greens we always assumed it had. Because the artist has seen, we can see.

But that is only half of it. Great artists do not just sense better than most of us; they can then do something about it. They can communicate it better than most. That is what gives them authority.

(ii) Creative Prophets

Those involved in the arts and media have taken on the role of prophet for our generation. It is no longer the philosophers, the statesmen or the preachers. These days, the prophetic is far more likely to be encountered in the Tate Modern or Hollywood than it is in a cathedral or Capitol building. Which grants those who are creative an influence that most of us lack, whether they like it or not. That is not a little intimidating. In fact, I hope it is intimidating. Because this is nothing to be blasé or whimsical about. As Peter Parker was famously told before becoming Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” That is a weight to bear.

Here is Hockney again, later in his conversation with Martin Gayford. Now they’ve gone on to discussing Picasso. After all, any discussion of art in the 20th Century has to! Gayford begins with an anecdote he’d heard about from Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson.

Lucien Clergue, the photographer, knew Picasso incredibly well. The other day he said to me, ‘You know, Picasso saved my life.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yes it was after a bullfight in Arles.’ Lucien said he had been feeling fine, had lost a bit of weight but wasn’t worried. Out of the blue Picasso said to him, ‘You must go instantly to a hospital.’ Lucien asked ‘why?’ Picasso said, ‘You’ve got something seriously wrong with you.’ Lucien was damned if he was going to do it, but Jacqueline [Picasso’s wife] added, ‘When Pablo says that, for God’s sake go.’ So he went, and the doctors had him taken straight into the operating theatre. They said he had an extremely rare type of peritonitis, which is lethal. The bad thing about it is that it doesn’t manifest itself in pain, it just kills you. Picasso used to say quite often, ‘I’m a prophet’.

After Gayford finished telling this story, Hockney was in total agreement:

Picasso was a prophet. He must have seen something, most likely in Clergue’s face. Picasso must have looked at more faces than almost anybody, and he didn’t look at them like a photographer. He would have been thinking how would you draw it? Most people don’t look at a face too long; they tend to look away. But you do if you are painting a portrait. Rembrandt put more in the face than anyone before or since, because he saw more. That was the eye—and the heart.

It is not enough to see something (in this case, something dangerous). It is necessary to communicate it.

On another occasion, Picasso’s seeing would result in his overwhelmingly damning masterpiece, Guernica (1937), a seeing that brought tremendous responsibility.


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