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Is Art a Commodity or a Relationship?

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

The first and most basic word to understand together is, of course, "ART". The English word comes from Greek and Latin words meaning "arm, skill, tool, to fit or join". I would like to limit the meaning to "DELIBERATE HUMAN ACTION". Some people think this definition is too large, but consider what it leaves out: accident or chance is eliminated by the word "deliberate", all the creative activity of God in nature is left out by the word "human", and invisible thoughts, ideas and pure imagination is left out by the word "action". Art must be speaking, writing, singing, playing, painting, moving - something manifesting choice and commitment. Moving on this basis to the word "music", we would say that music is "sound organised by human beings."

"ENTERTAINMENT" is an important word relating to art. The English word comes from the Latin words "Inter-tenere" meaning to hold between. In that sense, we should avoid being entertained by art and rather seek to be stimulated, challenged, confronted, questioned, informed, etc. Our relationship to art should be active, responsible and interactive. The German word for entertainment, Unterhaltung, meaning "that which holds under", is even stronger.

We need to make two confessions about our relationship to art: 1) I often dislike what is good. 2) I often like what is bad. My personal taste is not a good measure of what is good and bad. We need to humble ourselves somewhat before objective, independent aesthetic criteria.

Exodus 31:1-3 is an encouraging and challenging passage. In it we read that Bazalel was filled with the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, and was given spiritual gifts - skill, ability and knowledge. We know that the Holy Spirit gives the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, miraculous powers, prophecy, etc., but we often don't realise that skill, ability and knowledge come from the Holy Spirit as well. These things don't come from the devil, although they can be misused and twisted by him, as can the other gifts. We should rejoice in these gifts, which we all have in some measure, and take responsibility for their exercise. As God is creative and we are made in His Image, so we have a biblical mandate for creativity.

Christian parents often ask me: "What kind of films should I let my children watch?" "What kind of music should I let my children listen to?" These questions are asked in love and concern for the edification and protection of the children. But, they are built on a disturbing underlying assumption: that art is a commodity which we consume. They are questions of diet: “Which films, paintings, or music should I consume because they will be nourishing to me, and which should I avoid?” Andy Warhol could see that the American people wanted art to be a product, so he painted a Campbell's Tomato Soup Can. It was a great insult to the American people, but they loved it. If art is only products to be produced and consumed, then we can be self-centered and protective in our approach to it. But art is really expressions in various languages of observations, questions, complaints, admiration, challenges and encouragements made by human beings as part of a great conversation with the cosmos, or god and other people. If human expression is only products to be consumed, then we should never have a conversation with an alcoholic, a drug addict, a homosexual or a prostitute, because their conversation will probably not be edifying. But Jesus spent much of his time with these sorts of people because he knew who they really were - fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

The Bible records what Jesus taught us - that we must become like little children in order to get into the kingdom of heaven, in order to belong with God. Some Christians think that having faith like a little child means not asking questions. But whoever saw a little child who did not ask questions? It is their profession. Children have the courage to ask deep, disturbing, even outrageous questions because they have faith in their parents, in God and in the world around them to supply reasonable and useful answers. Our experience of betrayal, dishonesty, and unreliability in a fallen world make us afraid to ask questions. Jesus came to heal that fear so that we can be like little children again.

Little children test their subjective concept of the world against the objective reality around them. For example, a child might crawl under a low table and decide to stand up. When he crashes his head against the table, he tries again, harder. Then he begins to cry in frustration and anger that his concept cannot be realised in objective reality. He must either submit to the form of the table and the world, or he will crack open his head and die. We all are in such a position morally in relation to God's reality. We are allowed to discover the limits, but if we do not respect them we will die. We can be thankful and rejoice in the fact that our God supplies us a stable and faithful basis against which to test ourselves and with Whom to have an eternal, meaningful, life-giving relationship.

Creativity must not be our God. Non-Christians finally have no reason or purpose to be creative as Christians do. The non-Christian creativity is from a kind of frantic energy in their search for meaning and purpose. The Christian should be more creative because we have a God and personal Saviour to thank, to glorify and to obey. Non-Christian creativity produces many interesting, stimulating and pleasing things, because the creativity in itself is right, not wrong. It is looking to creativity for a source of meaning and purpose and identity coming from the humans themselves that is wrong. It is also the non-creativity of the Christians which is wrong and disobedient. When we do not obey God in being creative it is basically because we don't have faith in Him to sustain us in the process and struggle.

Imagine you who are Christians would go out into the city and ask any 10 people this question: "If you would become a Christian today, do you think your life would become larger, fuller, richer, more involved with the people and circumstances around you? Or do you think your life would be smaller, narrower, more withdrawn, less involved with the people around you?" What do you think their answer would be? Jesus said he came to give us abundant life, not a tidy life. We are to be the salt of the earth, not of heaven. We are to be the light of the world, not of the sky. We are not supposed to gather together to shine on each other, but go out into the world to shine in the darkness and flavour and preserve the rotting culture around us. Most people think the Christian life is a smaller life. Where did they get that idea? Why did we teach it to them?

Ellis H. Potter BASEL 1995

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