Christian art as the cutting edge

Jan Swafford in “Slate” has a fine discussion of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” a recording of which is topping the classical charts. The article shows just how wild, avant garde, and mind-blowing the piece is. But especially noteworthy is that the article shows what music criticism can do on the web: Swafford includes audio links of snippets of music to illustrate aurally what he is talking about. See The surprising popularity of Bach’s complex, esoteric The Art of Fugue.

We have seen something similar in our recent postings on the art of Lucas Cranach, as experts are realizing just how innovative he was.

Here is the point: these devoutly Christian, yea, Lutheran, artists were not stodgy. Their faith did not prevent them from being creative, original, and cutting-edged. Indeed, I would argue that their faith opened their imaginations up to complexity, depth, and aesthetics of the highest order.

I have noticed that in English literature, the most overtly pious authors are also the most innovative: George Herbert reinvented poetry by breaking it free from a dependence on set stanzaic forms, inventing a new form to reflect the meaning of each poem. Milton pursued things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. Hopkins re-invented poetry again, on the level of the very line and metric foot. Eliot invented literary modernism, not just before his conversion but afterwards as well.

Christian artists today, in whatever genre, will have no cultural impact as long as they merely follow the culture and try to emulate non-Christian artists. The very culture is crying out for something different, a way out of the current aesthetic and philosophical dead-ends. Christians, who have a basis for art that secularists lack, can lead our civilization out of its wilderness. If, that is, Christian artists can get in touch with that basis in the creativity of God, if they can take their part in the Christian artistic tradition, and if they can recover art as a Christian vocation.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.timbaron.blogspot.com Tim Baron

    Dr. Veith, (and others)
    I’m curious if you have any follow up suggestions on how Christians are to have more of an impact in the arts. A short list perhaps of minimum 5 things a Christian who’s an artist should be doing.

    It’s way too easy for Christian artists to settle for having their own art shows at their church, etc., but what should Christian artists be doing to break out of their Christian ghetto and impact culture?

  • http://www.timbaron.blogspot.com Tim Baron

    Dr. Veith, (and others)
    I’m curious if you have any follow up suggestions on how Christians are to have more of an impact in the arts. A short list perhaps of minimum 5 things a Christian who’s an artist should be doing.

    It’s way too easy for Christian artists to settle for having their own art shows at their church, etc., but what should Christian artists be doing to break out of their Christian ghetto and impact culture?

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    Right on!

    What is also part of being a Christian artist is being a part of an arts community. The folks in my arts community find me a little peculiar because of my Christian lifestyle. Artists are a different breed and need missionaries as much as anyone else. What would you say to this?

    Thanks for the post!

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Maryland

    Right on!

    What is also part of being a Christian artist is being a part of an arts community. The folks in my arts community find me a little peculiar because of my Christian lifestyle. Artists are a different breed and need missionaries as much as anyone else. What would you say to this?

    Thanks for the post!

  • Booklover

    This is a very interesting post.

    “devoutly Christian, yea, Lutheran”
    Loved this quote. Perhaps it should be the name of a church. Or a child. :-)

    I’m a professional musician–I get paid to play piano for whomever asks me. Everyone pays me, that is, except the church. (My husband and I are not Lutherans–Lutherans pay their musicians. Ours pays the one minister of music, but not the other piano players.)

    Anyway, Tim Baron asked what Christian artists should be doing to impact culture. I am not intelligent enough at this point to compose. Here’s one little thing I do to impact culture, at least in my house. My four sons think that music is an “unmanly” pursuit. I keep my beautiful painting of Bach and most of his 17 children surrounding him, up in my music room. This lovely painting is called “Bach with his Family at the Morning’s Devotion.”

    To impact my home culture, I also shut off some of that horrid repetitive contemporary Christian music when it comes on the radio, and I play a lot of Bach, Mendelssohn, etc. One contemporary Christian song I really like, though, is Sarah Groves’ “When the Saints.”

  • Booklover

    This is a very interesting post.

    “devoutly Christian, yea, Lutheran”
    Loved this quote. Perhaps it should be the name of a church. Or a child. :-)

    I’m a professional musician–I get paid to play piano for whomever asks me. Everyone pays me, that is, except the church. (My husband and I are not Lutherans–Lutherans pay their musicians. Ours pays the one minister of music, but not the other piano players.)

    Anyway, Tim Baron asked what Christian artists should be doing to impact culture. I am not intelligent enough at this point to compose. Here’s one little thing I do to impact culture, at least in my house. My four sons think that music is an “unmanly” pursuit. I keep my beautiful painting of Bach and most of his 17 children surrounding him, up in my music room. This lovely painting is called “Bach with his Family at the Morning’s Devotion.”

    To impact my home culture, I also shut off some of that horrid repetitive contemporary Christian music when it comes on the radio, and I play a lot of Bach, Mendelssohn, etc. One contemporary Christian song I really like, though, is Sarah Groves’ “When the Saints.”

  • saddler

    A few thoughts Tim: If Christians are to play hard ball in the big leagues, then they’ll have to get used to the idea that the rules for gaining traction in a tough market aren’t any different for them than they are for the pagans. The number one rule is a relentless pursuit of quality. “So…what’s quality?” you ask. We inch closer to quality when we submit ourselves to an ongoing, intense search for the optimum composition, balance, value, etc., etc. Exceedingly high quality never goes out of style.
    I’ve been asked, “How do you market your stuff?” Short answer: make things that are irresistable in every way (aesthetically and functionally). Granted this is easier said than done.
    I’ve never been more convinced that, as Christians, we have a tremendous advantage over nonbelievers. Christ has set us free. The more we realize that we are truly liberated, the more we will find that quality and clear-eyed creativity can flourish.
    Too often this discussion seems to short circuit the process. Our reach exceeds our grasp when we skip our homework (the pursuit of quality) and start talking about marketing first.
    It seems a bit like a contestant showing up on “Idol” and telling the panel of judges how good one is and how many years of experience one has. They would be trying to market themselves thinking they have all the quality issues figured out.
    Put another way: what if we viewed the pursuit of quality as an integral part of our marketing plan? Furthermore, the good doctor is right: quality is not an ethereal abstraction we make it out to be. It transcends subjective taste. That’s were we want to be in all of our vocations.

    Forgive my ramblings. Comments encouraged.

  • saddler

    A few thoughts Tim: If Christians are to play hard ball in the big leagues, then they’ll have to get used to the idea that the rules for gaining traction in a tough market aren’t any different for them than they are for the pagans. The number one rule is a relentless pursuit of quality. “So…what’s quality?” you ask. We inch closer to quality when we submit ourselves to an ongoing, intense search for the optimum composition, balance, value, etc., etc. Exceedingly high quality never goes out of style.
    I’ve been asked, “How do you market your stuff?” Short answer: make things that are irresistable in every way (aesthetically and functionally). Granted this is easier said than done.
    I’ve never been more convinced that, as Christians, we have a tremendous advantage over nonbelievers. Christ has set us free. The more we realize that we are truly liberated, the more we will find that quality and clear-eyed creativity can flourish.
    Too often this discussion seems to short circuit the process. Our reach exceeds our grasp when we skip our homework (the pursuit of quality) and start talking about marketing first.
    It seems a bit like a contestant showing up on “Idol” and telling the panel of judges how good one is and how many years of experience one has. They would be trying to market themselves thinking they have all the quality issues figured out.
    Put another way: what if we viewed the pursuit of quality as an integral part of our marketing plan? Furthermore, the good doctor is right: quality is not an ethereal abstraction we make it out to be. It transcends subjective taste. That’s were we want to be in all of our vocations.

    Forgive my ramblings. Comments encouraged.

  • Anon

    As we bite and devour ourselves, what Lutheran artist-wannabe would dare do something cutting edge? Half the synod would condemn her as a heretic, the other half would say it wasn’t useful in reaching the lost.

  • Anon

    As we bite and devour ourselves, what Lutheran artist-wannabe would dare do something cutting edge? Half the synod would condemn her as a heretic, the other half would say it wasn’t useful in reaching the lost.

  • http://www.timbaron.blogspot.com Tim Baron

    Saddler,
    those are great thoughts. I’ve seen way too many ghastly products in Christian bookstores which are a “Christian” version of a video game, comic book, band, etc.

    So yes, a relentless pursuit of quality is an excellent place to start.

    A friend of mine told me in a conversation that art can be part of the evangelism process…not in a loud bullhorn kind of way, but in a tilling of the soil kind of way.

    Art (for good or for ill) is an excellent way to bypass the little man at the door of one’s mind who decides what comes in and what doesn’t. (Hollywood and Madison Avenue knows this all too well.) So in a way, art can immediately penetrate obstacles to faith.

  • http://www.timbaron.blogspot.com Tim Baron

    Saddler,
    those are great thoughts. I’ve seen way too many ghastly products in Christian bookstores which are a “Christian” version of a video game, comic book, band, etc.

    So yes, a relentless pursuit of quality is an excellent place to start.

    A friend of mine told me in a conversation that art can be part of the evangelism process…not in a loud bullhorn kind of way, but in a tilling of the soil kind of way.

    Art (for good or for ill) is an excellent way to bypass the little man at the door of one’s mind who decides what comes in and what doesn’t. (Hollywood and Madison Avenue knows this all too well.) So in a way, art can immediately penetrate obstacles to faith.

  • Booklover

    Sadler is right in that if Christians want to impact the art world, we have to do it with quality. When I teach my piano students, we go over and over technique—scales, arpeggios, etc. They can’t get creative if they don’t have the basics taught to them in a systematic, orderly way. They need the building blocks before they can build. Same goes for drawing and other art. It’s better to teach a child how to draw systematically rather than to say, “Here, draw this!” Artists of an earlier age had apprenticeships under their mentors. Those in the classical education movement have realized that before students can get creative (rhetoric), they need the basics of grammar and logic.

  • Booklover

    Sadler is right in that if Christians want to impact the art world, we have to do it with quality. When I teach my piano students, we go over and over technique—scales, arpeggios, etc. They can’t get creative if they don’t have the basics taught to them in a systematic, orderly way. They need the building blocks before they can build. Same goes for drawing and other art. It’s better to teach a child how to draw systematically rather than to say, “Here, draw this!” Artists of an earlier age had apprenticeships under their mentors. Those in the classical education movement have realized that before students can get creative (rhetoric), they need the basics of grammar and logic.

  • http://www.thejourneysproject.com/ jamescutler

    Christian books are something that every born again Christian believer should own. I believe that a good Christian book helps you to grow closer to Jesus Christ. It gives us a strong purpose in every way. Thank you

  • http://www.thejourneysproject.com/ jamescutler

    Christian books are something that every born again Christian believer should own. I believe that a good Christian book helps you to grow closer to Jesus Christ. It gives us a strong purpose in every way. Thank you


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