Archive for June 26th, 2007

Ars Gratia Artis

June 26, 2007


This is for my daughter – who is a young artist and in the Governor’s School for the Arts this summer. I say this is for her – though I’m not sure she reads the blog everyday – and, of course, I’m letting the rest of you thousand or two people read it, too, so I guess this is for all of us.

The question: what is art?

I watched a wonderful video that my daughter produced on the subject. Now I have to add my two cents, which are mostly a critique of Enlightenment and modern thought on the subject of art, and a suggestion of art’s true home.

Human beings have always done activities that today we describe as art. But generally, those activities in most cultures throughout most of time were done for religious purposes. Artistic work was a work of devotion, or a work of magic (in some religious settings). In various civilizations art would spring out into different directions – though its roots were still in temple and altar.

In Christianity, of course (and my daughter knows this, I know), we produced icons as devotional items. An icon makes present that which it represents. When we gather in worship, surrounded by icons, we are surrounded by the saints. Traditionally icons were and are painted anonymously (though I can think of numerous exceptions to this) – precisely because the icon is about the saint, or Christ, or the Theotokos, and not about the painter.

During the Renaissance (when greater learning about the “arts” was brought to Western Europe by exiled Byzantines) we begin to see a new movement, “art for art’s sake.” Indeed, it was almost the birth of “art” as “art” (art no longer serving a religious purpose exclusively). Today, art has frequently become almost exclusively about the artist – representing thoughts or feelings. Artists become heroes or at least culture “icons” (ironically).

But there is a root of art that remains and will never fade away. It is the use of art as a means of knowing God, of understanding our relationship with Him. The Seventh Council taught, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This is a deeply profound theological statement, revealing much about the meaning of icons and their very nature.

I strongly suspect that even in modern “art for art’s sake” there is a religious root – maybe not recognized – certainly not properly tutored or directed – but we were created for God and our “instinct” for God, if I can use such a phrase, has never truly disappeared. And though our hunger for God is frequently deeply hidden in the work and the art we make, nevertheless it remains.

I would even say the same, despite its many abuses, about music. God Himself sings (Zeph. 3:17), the Scriptures tell us, and thus, I believe, we sing as well. We just do not always know the right song or Whom to sing it to.

The greatest and deepest joys that we know as human beings, is when we know how to sing, and to Whom to sing. When we know how to paint, and Whom to paint. Our singing and our painting, of course, are not confined to that alone, but they never become what they could be until they find the place from where they come.

I would say the same is true of the written word. And so we write, we sing, we paint, we dance, we do all of these wonderfully human and marvelous activities – but they all have at their root the Song of Heaven, the Hymn of God, the Dance of the Angels, the Word of God, the very Face of God in Christ reflecting to us our own true selves, created in His image. May we all, artists of Creation, serve as artists of the Creator, to Whom be praise.