What is Art? - Laurel Gasque
in Dictionary of Mission Theology, IVP - Leicester, UK, 2007
by Laurel Gasque
Although the term ‘art’ can have broad coverage to include music and literature, its usage here will refer principally to the visual arts, but not exclusively. Scripture affirms the making of art, even as it prohibits the making of images for use in pagan worship or idolatry (Exodus 20:4ff). Any good gift of God (intellect, wealth, sexuality, art) may become idolatrous; but all of God’s good gifts, including art, can and should be sanctified and used in his service.
Scripture states that the Spirit of God filled Bezalel with intelligence, knowledge and skill to make artistic designs in metals, stone and wood for the Tabernacle. He also had a colleague, Oholiab, suggesting that collaboration in artistic endeavours is good (in distinct contrast to modern notions of the artist as a lonely, tormented, misunderstood, impractical, and perhaps somewhat insane genius). Furthermore, their work was centered in community, and they had many gifted volunteers who worked with them in their task. (Exodus 31:1-11; 35:30-36:7). With this background, we find that Jewish art has a tradition from the conquest of Canaan to contemporary art at odds with popular perception of Jewish iconoclasm.
Christian art varies extremely in function, style, content, and quality and may or may not be made by professing Christians, but it exhibits explicitly or tacitly a Christian perspective. The term 'Christian art' is not a useless or indefensible label as some have argued, but descriptive of its content (mainly biblical) and in many instances its intent; and it is important to maintain this terminology in order to converse broadly across academic disciplines.
Christian art pre-dates the Peace of the Church (AD 313) and the Athanasian witness to the NT canon (AD 367) and has continued to the present. In parts of Africa (Egypt, Ethiopia) and Asia (Armenia) there is a venerable tradition of Christian art and there are signs of its burgeoning in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa as well as being renewed in the western world today.
Christianity has always amazingly united with its locale and spoken its vernacular. This has had implications for its art. There has not been one normative style as with Islam. Early Christian artists gradually transformed both the style and themes of the Greco-Roman art they received so that between the third and sixth centuries the entire pantheon of gods and mythological heroes of the ancient world was replaced by the central image of Jesus Christ and the saints that lasted in the West until relatively recently and still is not completely extinct. The implications for Christian mission of this powerful example of the proclamation of the Gospel and radical transformation of culture by visual means have as yet been barely reflected on.
Monasticism, mission and art have often partnered. The Rule of St. Benedict (c. 540) evidences the contribution that artists/artisans made and urges them to humility rather than conceit because of their skills. St. Francis has been called the Father of Italian art. In 1493 Franciscans built the first church in the Americas in Haiti. Dominicans did not lag behind, producing such renowned artists as Fra Angelico (c.1400-55) and Fra Bartolommeo (c.1472-1517), who became a monk through the influence of the fiery reformer, Savonarola (1452-98).
The missionary spirit of the Franciscans laid a foundation for the Jesuits. Art for the latter became an intentional evangelistic strategy as they fanned out to Asia, Africa and South America with trunks filled with objets d'art that already had absorbed numerous European visual vernaculars to use to impart their message. They were also willing to make significant artistic accommodations in order to communicate contextually in vastly different cultures, arguably creating the first truly global visual currency for cultural exchange. The visualizing techniques of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (c.1523) had profound influence on artists such as P. P. Rubens (1577-1640) and Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and in the general shaping Baroque art and architecture in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
For the Orthodox, icons, formed with animal, vegetal and mineral matter taken from the world of God’s creation, proclaimed in color the same Gospel in a universal language of art and beauty that which was spoken and written. Alaskan Orthodoxy has been particularly adept in expressing Aleutian indigenousness in its icons.
Protestant missions by and large have been word-centered, with music being the art form of choice. There have been, however, adventurous exceptions. For example, in 1883, the Church Missionary Society built a church in Peshawar in the Punjab, All Saints Memorial Church, described for its constituency as 'a remarkable building in a Saracenic style, designed to adapt a Christian place of worship to Oriental ideas.' Increasingly Protestants have been more open to the use of art in worship and outreach. The Protestant church in Bali is a notable example of the contextualization of faith and worship by means not only of indigenous art and architecture, but also music and dance.
If theology can inform art, art forms can radically direct theological understanding and missional engagement. The Gwandara-wará (Hausa for “a people who prefer to dance”) of Nigeria for centuries resisted both Muslim and Christian conversion, finding repugnant the legalistic strictures they perceived in both religions because they preferred to dance! They relented, however, about 30 years ago to embrace Christianity when African missionaries of the Evangelical Missionary Society (an agency of the Evangelical Church of West Africa) decided to dance the Gospel to them. Through rhythm and movement, applying the art language of the heart of these people, they further instructed them in some detail regarding doctrine, especially creation and redemption.
Missiological thinking and research regarding the artistic expression of Christianity as it is spread around the world is still in its infancy. Pioneers of this work for the nonwestern world are: Cardinal Celso Costantini (1876-1958), Arno Lehmann (1901-1984), John Francis Butler (1927-1998) and Andrew F. Walls (1928-) The whole range of international Christian art, East and West, North and South is in need of a taxonomy in order to distinguish without separating its multiple functions (liturgical, ecclesiastical, missional, professional and personal) with an understanding of its historical development and contemporary application. Art as an important document for the study of the history of mission as well as doctrine is still largely underdeveloped.
The issues and implications of art for mission are manifold. The question of when a work of art is religiously syncretistic or simply contextualizing the faith remains to be explored. The idea that art is a luxury that we can well live without is refuted by the enormous amount of art made in WW II concentration camps and by the poorest peoples of the world as well as by the irresistible need of believers of all kinds in all parts of the world to create art. These instances demonstrate art to be a necessity for our humanity and an expression that human beings are made in the image of God, who is Creator and Ultimate Artist. Associations of Christian artists transcending denominations are growing around globe, also suggesting that the communal spirit of Bezelal and Oholiab is still alive.
There is rich evidence from Scripture (e.g., Paul in Athens [Acts 17:16-34]) and the practice of the church that art aids in propagating the faith by appealing to imagination as well as cognition, thus enabling a community of faith not only to communicate in a culturally relevant way, but also indwell salvation history. Jacques Maritain called art, 'the John the Baptist of the heart, preparing its affections for Christ.' Art is perhaps God’s greatest gift to mortals to convey implicitly, multivalently, and powerfully across diverse cultures and circumstances (rather than merely explicitly and as a consequence reductively) his truth, love and grace.
Bailey, Gauvin Alexander. 1999. Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542-1773. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Butler, John F. 1979. Christianity in Asia and America After A.D. 1500. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Costantini, Celso. 1940. L’arte christiana nelle missioni. Roma: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana; 1949. French trans. : L’art chrétien dans les missions. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer.
Gasque, Laurel. 2000. “The Christian Stake in the Arts: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture,” Evangelical Review of Theology 24/3, 257-277.
Gasque, Laurel. “Voices of the New Heartland: Christian Art in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” Radix 23/2 (Spring 1995), 8-11, 26-28
Lehmann, Arno. 1969. Christian Art in Africa and Asia. St Louis, Mo: Concordia Publishing.
Mathews, Thomas F. 1993. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Oleksa, Michael. 1992. Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Walls, Andrew F. 1996. “The Western Discovery of Non-Western Christian Art,”
The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 173-86.
Published in Dictionary of Mission Theology. IVP - Leicester, UK, 2007