I often describe myself as a Christian artist; a self-identification that invites both assumptions about the kind of art that I make and inevitably the question of what it is that makes art Christian. Art historians occasionally use the term “Christian art” to describe imagery that serves an ecclesial function in church worship, which is a rather restrictive and unhelpful way of describing the kind of art that I make. Rather than trying to qualify Christian art by broadening or complicating the definition, I offer a rather blunt dismissal of the term Christian art altogether. Christian is a noun and not an adjective. There is no such thing as Christian art anymore than there is Christian medicine or Christian carpentry. But there are Christian carpenters and Christian doctors, and I would hope that if such professionals allow their faith to inform their endeavours, there will be an attitude to work that permeates their craft. A good carpenter or doctor should strive towards the respective inherent excellences of their field, regardless of their faith. The distinctiveness of their Christian approach lies in something less tangible: a perception of something that lies beneath the surface rooted a larger story. The Christian doctor will perceive the patient not simply as a complex carbon-based machine, but as a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully created. Or the carpenter may consider the ways in which his or her work contributes to God’s desire for domestic order by constructing for stability over efficiency – following the lead of a saviour who built ploughs, according to Justin Martyr, that were still operational 120 years after his death. It is the same with Christian artists. Christian artists work with the tools of their trade to transform their media into something that betrays an attitude, or as Calvin Seerveld would put it, a ”slant,” to their perception of the world. Faith, if it is authentic and integral to the life of the Christian artist, will permeate the surface of their work in unexpected ways. Sometimes faith will manifest itself overtly in the content of the work itself, but it can often bubble beneath the surface in small and imperceptible ways through the attitude the artist takes to the media itself: a soft hallelujah that God placed pigment in the fabric of the creation so that we might someday might mine it out, mix it with binder and explore its potential on canvas.
Allow me to explain. As a person of faith, I find one source of inspiration in scripture. I have freedom, but not the obligation, as an artist to imaginatively respond the insights, symbols and narrative of the biblical story. When I do this, I am nudging the theological content of my work to the surface and inviting a dialogue with the viewer that includes theological questions. Theology, despite the bad press this word occasional receives, is nothing more or less than thoughts about God and his relationship to creation. Theology is often expressed by words, hence the logos of theology, but the arts are also a way we can practice theology. When I choose to bring the theological content of my work forward, I am under no constraint to produce “Christian art” that has a message, I am simply responding to one source of inspiration. Occasionally such work is created to function ecclesiastically with a church setting, but most of the time I am inviting theology into the art gallery.
But as an artist many things inspire me. There are times and seasons when the theological content of my work gently recedes into the background. This past autumn, I went through a period when all I wanted to paint was trees. Trees are important biblical symbols that bookend the big biblical story from Eden to New Jerusalem, but these were not the trees I was painting: I was painting the elms and maples of the Red Hill Valley in my hometown of Hamilton. It is possible that someone may see and buy one of my tree paintings with no recognition that I am a Christian, but this does not mean that my faith did not inform my perception of the trees I was painting. When I carried my palette into the valley I was aware that creation is a purposeful reflection of God’s inventive character, and when I painted en plein air, away from the noise pollution of the busy city, I heard his voice more clearly.
My theology for artistic activity recognizes God’s good creation as a starting point for my perception of trees, but I also recognize that this is Hamilton and not Eden. In the Red Hill Valley I can smell smoke from the steel factories and see the smog from the expressway that cuts through the landscape. Even those lovely trees bear the scars of our shared broken condition. It is a condition that I feel in my bones as I squat in front of my canvas and as I squint to see colours through aging eyes. There is a sense that urgency pushes me outside to paint, knowing that my remaining autumns are limited by my mortality. Christian artists should not have a pollyannaish mandate to redress the balance of our world’s brokenness, but they do have a reason to not accept its inevitability.
Like the autumn leaves that burn most beautifully before they fall, death is at the centre of the Christian story. It is a death that offers hope to not only artists counting their autumns, but to the creation itself. The trees of the Red Hill Valley are on their tiptoes, lifting their branches in eager anticipation of what redemption promises, not only to some future eschaton, but to the present. It is this hope that invites the artist of faith to avoid a sentimental vision of what once was and embrace an imaginative subversion of what could be. As I paint my trees I am not interested in reproducing what I see, or even creating something as abstract and intangible as beauty; I am trying to create a space for a playful engagement of a broken but redeemed creation. In that space I have the freedom, like the Holy Spirit who guides me, to improvise with line and colour – to create something that makes me, and perhaps God, smile. Sometimes my art allows me to envision a different state of affairs; sometimes I see the potential in a grove of maples struggling for air in a dirty steel town.
My point is this: both my theologically resonant images and my simple watercolour paintings of trees are extensions of the faith story that informs my view of the world. If there is such a thing as Christian art, it can never be identified through something as easily distinguishable as a style or subject matter. Faith will percolate to the surface through a spectrum of artistic choices, and as much as our culture loves branding, obedience to our craft and the voice of the Spirit will produce unpredictable results that resist the brand of “Christian art”. The Christian story is a story that invites its participants to participate and faithfully improvise, and this free play of diversity in unity is what allows an artist to echo the depth and range of God’s multifarious creativity. Artists who identify with the central tenets of the Christian faith should not feel compelled towards bland homogeneity, explicit exhortations or an identifiable style. We are free to offer our personal and peculiar perceptions of our broken and beautiful world, in whatever season of our life we are at, obedient to God and our craft.
Dr. Christopher M. Cuthill