I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always appreciated good art. The lowest grade I ever received in school was in art. I’m not very creative nor adept in the world of art. Art also wasn’t taught in a way to make me really appreciate the beauty of the world and how it manifests itself in the creativity of the artist. I’ve been growing and expanding in appreciating art that is a reflection of the reality of the world and gives expression to the longings of our hearts. My former college philosophy professor posted “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)” by Vincent van Gogh (1890) on his Facebook today. The painting, shows the inner turmoil that many of us experience regarding all of the sad news we experience each day and are unable to articulate with words.
Van Gogh, a troubled artist himself, captures perfectly the anguish and sorrow that people feel as they age and are closer to death. Even Christians can struggle with the knowledge of our impending end on this mortal coil. Yet, most of us struggle with an inability to communicate the deepest fears and longings in our hearts with mere words.
While words are the primary means by which God has communicated to us His revelation (Jesus Himself is “The Word”), the language of God’s revelation includes the artistic beauty of the world around us. It informs us, and serves as a means for communicating what is at the center of our being, when we cannot formulate words.
Art is that expression of the human soul to put into a visible form something we cannot utter in words. One of the clearest expressions of the inner turmoil of my soul over the pain and suffering of this world and yet the hope of Christ is the hauntingly beautiful “Gabriel’s Oboe” by Ennio Morricone from the movie The Mission. In the movie, a Jesuit priest is attempting to build a relationship with natives in South America. His oboe becomes the means by which the natives become interested in the priest and the message he is seeking to communicate. It is beautiful and expressive of hope and joy, and haunting in its minor tones because of the struggle and strife that end the movie (I heartily recommend the movie but be prepared to have your emotions tugged back and forth). Another piece that expresses that same struggle is “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber which is the main theme of the movie Platoon. And when it comes to the general feeling of hopelessness, consider Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time“, written while a German prisoner in WWII. And it need not just be modern music. Find me someone who isn’t moved by Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D Minor“. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (1495) represents that sadness on the part of our own Savior following the announcement that one of the disciples would betray Him. The look of sorrow on His face is striking. We too are the disciple that betrayed our Lord. It invokes feelings in our core that are hard to speak aloud.
It is not just sadness or inner turmoil that art speaks to, but joy and rapture as well. Holst’s “Jupiter” lifts your heart and spirit as it progresses through movements of joy! What about the old fashioned sound of happiness in Copand’s “Hoe Down” from his larger “Rodeo”. Or, what is more joyous in all of music than the overture to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” And Monet’s “The Cliff Walk at Pourville” (1882) just makes your heart feel warm.
Painting, music, movies, can help to put words to the inner feelings of our soul. We are creative beings because our God is a creator. We yearn to give expression to what we feel, and what emerges is art. There is good art, and bad art, just as there is good expression of the longings of our souls, and bad expressions (on that note, everyone must watch this excellent video about beauty by my favorite modern philosopher, Roger Scruton).
Christians at one time were at the forefront of art and beauty as a manifestation of the goodness of God in making us creative beings with impulses to express the vast expanse of human experience to the glory of God. More Christians should be involved in this same movement today. If we hope to see better art, we need to learn to appreciate better art, and to encourage people to use their talents to express the inexpressible to honor God and educate our souls.
For a critical look at how art has tended to denigrate itself over time, see Nancy Pearcy’s excellent, Saving Leonardo. On how we as Christians should be doing art, see the classic Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer and Phillip Ryken’s, Art for God’s Sake.