Good Art Is All About the Crazy

I’m in a hurry just now, but I wanted to throw this out there real quick, and then see what you guys might have said about it once I return from my trip to Trader Joe’s and the post office and getting lost for at least fifteen minutes because I’m not actually sure where the post office is.

I’m going to speak tonight at/to/in front of a group of Christian artists. So I was thinking about what I might say. And (as some of you who’ve recently visited my FB fan page might already know), part of what I came up with was this:

The religious artist seeking to create great art must begin by disregarding his every concern for propriety.

I’m sure that in my life I’ve never given as much thought to any one topic as I have the relationship between art and God — which is to say, really, about the relationship between man and God, which I think is basically all anyone, in one way or another, is ever thinking about anyway. And one of the Big Things I think about the whole Art-God phenomenon is that a person seeking to create great art cannot let anything get between them and whatever artistic imperative is gnawing at their insides. And one of the things that I think tends to most often interfere with the production of truly fulfilling and aesthetically arresting art is the assumption (however subconsciously or subtly it presents itself) that the end product must in some very real and important way be okay with God.

I know Christian artists often go into their work believing that whatever they produce must arrive essentially pre-approved by God. Like it’s a given that whatever they ultimately create must come bearing a big “God-Approved!” stamp.

And then, in the making of that art, they choke. They either come up with something too soft and … pablumy, or they get nothing at all. But it doesn’t work out; at best, the end up with the equivalent of motel art.

And you know why that is, I think?

Because art is about the human crazy.

And giving that form and expression isn’t really God’s thing.


You might enjoy my post: “Brilliant Work of Modern Art, or Actual Garbage?

And it’s vaguely possible that you won’t be entirely repelled by my post, My Answer to Christians Denouncing R. Crumb’s “Genesis Illustrated.”

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  • Well I mentioned this on your Facebook posting.. but it does raise this whole question about Muslims who go into homicidal rages whenever an artist addresses their beliefs… even to the point of ordering the murders of Theo Van Gogh and Salmon Rushdie. Now there's a new Facebook movement that has designated this Thursday, May 20th as "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day".

    Why do you think religious art provokes such murderous emotions and how does that square with your own art and that of the people to whom you are speaking?

  • Daniela

    Being someone who paints/ expresses herself creatively (a creative type) I gotta say, for me in order to produce "good art" or art that I approve of in my mind, I have to free myself from all restrictions. I can't think about God or if he would approve, whether my friends and peers or other Christians would approve or anything that restricts the creative process. I have to let all those sentiments go, because otherwise I would fail to achieve the purpose of what my art means to me, which is about expressing myself and most of all, letting loose. I paint/ create for stress relief, -restricting myself would defeat the purpose of why I do it. This is just me. I find that restrictions of any kind would hold me back and not allow my to create to the best of my ability.

  • John: I've often said that I write because I can't NOT write. Same thing for why I sing or attempt to build relationships with people. It's what drives me. I'm compelled. And no, it's not all sweetness and light because *I* am not all sweetness and light! I'm not purporting to be God's messenger… only to offer a very limited, very skewed interpretation of what I feel God said/did/is. Art is expressionistic at its very root…. that makes it subjective. And yes, that sometimes includes anger, despair, frustration, etc. For years I used to dream that I had a room built on the back of my house that was lined entirely in ceramic tile excepting one half-wall. Behind that half-wall stood anyone who wanted to "express" something they were feeling. There were bins of all sorts of breakables around to choose from and the point was to pick up something breakable and pitch it as hard as you could against any hard surface, attempting to achieve maximum force, and to keep doing it until you felt better. I imagined the floor must have been spectacularly beautiful. Almost the very expression of catharsis. Perhaps one day I'll fulfill that dream and send you some pictures. Heck, you can even come visit!

  • Great to have someone else saying forthrightly what I've been struggling with for years: the relationship between God and art, and the implications for those who are Christians and artists. Art is probably about human crazy in the same way that Creation is about God Crazy – surely he must have a tinge of craziness to have produced some of the creatures and scenes we live with in this world (let alone the people!)

  • Michele

    What is okay with God, and what the world thinks is okay with God are two, very different things. The trick is trusting the inspiration that comes and not holding back. The world has many rules, I believe God only has a few fundamental ones. Just because something doesn't please the world doesn't mean it doesn't please God. He's not as picky as everyone makes Him out to be. I believe that when we hold back and produce something that is substandard to what our inspiration set us on the path to create, it's not God we are worried about it being okay with, it's the world.

  • Mary Linda

    I can sorta see the Mohammad thing but then I'm Quaker and we don't do icons. And, geez, I object to images of Jesus on the simple grounds that he always looks simple minded and kind of creepy in the pictures. I don't want a misty-eyed Messiah, ya know?

    As for Christian artists- I've always thought that term is oxymoronic. The folks who create "Christian art" don't: They make Christian fodder for the masses. God's message shouldn't necessarily be (as the billboards for the radio station "The Fish" say, "Safe for the whole family". Life is life and God created us with our bodies full of sexual desire and hampered by gravity, our minds full of cynicism and longing and our egos that pull us this way and that. Give me art that challenges me and makes me question and wonder not some paint-by-numbers song/story/painting created expressly to "inspire and uplift". I find more Truth in "speaking truth to power" old skool punk than in any current christian music, no matter the genre.

    This is not to say that there are no good Christian artists because there are, it's just that they're artists who are followers of Christ. Yes, they have a deep and serious spiritual commitment, but the music or literature or poetry or visual art they create comes from a centered place deeper than trying to "hook" anyone or proselytize. They're artists and, although I imagine God informs who they are and how they live and understand the world, they don't need to shout about it always. They don't have to hit us over the head with A MESSAGE. I think they trust God enough to be able to trust us, their audience, to take from their art whatever we are able to find–as with all art.

  • Elizabeth Fullerton

    Am I the only one who has a problem with art being defined by its theme like this? It's OK for a group to come together for support to define itself that way, just like moms or Italians or AA. Coming to terms with art that way seems like cheating. Are love songs played on stations that only play other love songs? Religious art seems like it's asking for special consideration.

  • Oh! Oh! Please tell me you'll go read (if you haven't already) my post, My Answer to Christians Denouncing R. Crumb's "Genesis Illustrated."

  • Elizabeth Fullerton

    As soon as I can. See, I haven't been all comment happy because I'm still a newbie. So far, you've been very good at anticipating my criticism, and giving new stuff for me to take in. Not to fawn or anything. 😉

  • Mary Linda

    I read it and right on! Some of my very favorite, most spiritually engaging music is created by people who have never, as far as I know, identified with any kind of spiritual anything. And, like, remember that whole bruhaha over the Philip Pullman books, "His Dark Materials" which began with "The Golden Compass"? Philip Pullman is a self-described atheist who is very cynical about The Church and his books were condemned by all kinds of people (mostly those in The Church). But you know, I found this series to be deeply spiritual and very lovely.

    And have you read "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" by Christopher Moore? Hilarious and very irreverant but, again, nicely, spiritually thought provoking. I loved it and thought it did a great job of humanizing Jesus (or Josh, as he's called in the book) and making him seem real while also showing some what he wrestled with on Earth (coffee).

    So, yeah. R.Crumb doing Genesis and why not? I'll take his fresh perspective over any tired old dogmatic church-speak any day (I haven't seen this book yet and I'm hoping Eve isn't depicted as the, um, rather abundently endowed temptress that populate the rest of his body of work. And I REALLY hope Adam doesn't look like most of his men which would give a new meaning to church "member") .

  • I have a career in marketing. I'm a Christian. Does that make me a Christian marketer? My career, my vocation are not described by my faith. Yet for some reason, we like to pigeonhole artists into a Christian or secular arena. Aside from my career, I have published a novel, How Deep Lies the Shadow (shameless self-promotion in action). It's not a Christian novel. It's not a secular novel. There are spiritual elements, both pagan and Christian in the story. There are human emotions (which are often confused with spiritualism). There's action. There's violence. There's sex. There's life. There's truth woven in the form of fiction. It's a story. It's that simple.

    I admit, I could feel the church looking over my shoulder as I wrote every word. I had to force myself to let go of ever trying to please the church. With all the schisms and denominations, I'd never please everyone. I think God is pleased with my story. He hasn't told me yet. If he doesn't like it, maybe he'll like the next one. I like it.

  • Mary Linda

    Man, I'd hate to write a book that got panned by God. Gulp. But maybe it would still do well on the West coast.

  • Susan

    John, When I paint, when I sculpt, I surround myself with the Holy Spirit….I have to be walking with God,I have to hear Him…feel Him in every brushstroke, see Him in every colour…my happiness in creating anything depends competely on how close I am to Him…it never occurs to me to exclude anything I live with…be it fear,rejection,joy or sadness…all of it,every feelling,every colour,every whisper of the Spirit of God goes into my Art….in it, I find the exact quiet,intense,blissful joy I find in the most intense sessions of prayer….in it, in those moments of creating I do not know anything other than the feeling of being all He created me to be….and when I am done, I fall in love with my work…even if the end result brings sadness…

  • Elizabeth Fullerton

    Oh, good, Mary Linda beat me to it. Good art is good, and can stand on its own. To see it based only on its theme is a marketing game — and marketing is just another name for how to make things attractive, ie proper. And let’s not forget, God is crafty. Just because a piece isn’t consciously Christian or done by a Christian doesn’t mean He can’t use it for His purposes.

  • Appalachiana

    Perhaps what the world thinks is o.k. and what God thinks is o.k. are the same thing, at least sometimes. I mean afterall, She created the world, right? Why wouldn’t the world sometimes agree with Her every now and then?

  • LoneWolf

    The reason why “God-approved” art ends up becoming “hotel art” is because it is safe. It doesn’t challenge, doesn’t disturb, doesn’t annoy, doesn’t excite, doesn’t incite, doesn’t do anything to stir up that simmering black pool of emotions we call “humanity,” because humanity is “sinful” and “worldly.”

  • you’re funny, Mary Linda

    very funny.

  • I love the FB post. I ran into the Christian sanitizing / whitewashing with my poem Life was so Simple Before I Died. In it is the line "dad's skipped town an' mom's a bitch," which accurately reflects the low of the author's family and the author himself. When I read it on Sunday morning I needed to either drop it or replace it. I ended up replacing it with something softer to make it family friendly, which I was okay with since there were children there and parents want a PG worship service.

    But then my pastor wanted to post the poem on the web site. So I emailed and agreed but said the printed actual poem would need to be posted, not the edited version. I took the time to explain why. Still waiting on the response. haha… that was three years ago. Never posted. Never linked to my blog.

    So many Christians (not anyone here, of course) actually want art which is irrelevant to the larger world and, ultimately, irrelevant even to themselves.

  • r

    Just about all of my art (not particularly good, lol) is an expression of my love for God and all that he represents and gives. It's not for anyone but him and I see it as a love gift and a way to put my feelings into something visual. It blesses me with joy to do it and to remind myself of my faith whenever I walk past, but I know others who see it are often put off. It is very un-PC to the non believer and makes them squirmy. Lol.

  • Shaw

    The minute you think ANYONE or ANYTHING is going to judge your art before you've made it you might as well put down your brush or pen, because the subtleties that differentiate between great art and the other 99% die once you become self-conscious and not art-conscious.

    The only reason so much great Christian art came out of the Medieval period is because you would be burned at the state if your art was about anything else other than popular classic depictions of anglicized prophets who may have never existed and for whom there is no proof of existence or history.

    Thus, anyone remotely talented was brought up in that and forced to find their expression through God. It should be noted that MANY, MANY artists were burned at the stake or at the very least excommunicated— the numbers are uncountable– for creating art that was not Christian in nature.

    But Christianity and the nature of faith is naturally white-washing. You can't be free to create anything you want when you are terrified of sin, terrified of exploring your mind or the world too much, or being ostracized by either an all-knowing God or an all-speaking congregation. You can't know what its like to experience the world in its light based on nobody else's judgments or mythology if you've spent your life trying to force the peg of real-world experience into the square hole of your religion.

    It also has to be noted that art can never be made about something that isn't spontaneous. Much good Christian art was created spontaneously by artists and painters who had no intention, or at least did not start from, a place of making art about God or Jesus. Most of them arrived at this phase over the course of a long career, and largely by accident.

    I should also mention ONE LAST THING. According to the literal translation of the Bible, creating art that depicts Jesus or God is blasphemy by death. Remember the whole Third Commandment?

    "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."

    Game over. I'm gonna go back to writing songs and producing music with my secular, free-thinking rationalist friends 🙂

  • Okay, someone needs a hug.

    So John, how did your talk with the artists go?

  • This might be one of my favorite topics to discuss. I agree with your post completely. There is a lot of liberty (and great art!) to be found in producing art without being concerned with propriety.

    On a slightly different, albeit related, note, i think artists have a great responsibility. If we truly reflect God’s image, and one of God’s largest roles is Creator, then it would go to say that those of us (and in some ways, all of us) that pursue creative endeavors carry a heavy burden. But it’s only heavy if we try to create on our own. And I think the presence of so many “tortured” artists is a result of not being in touch with that creative Higher Power. If we can let go and serve as a conduit for God’s creativity (without censoring the result), the pressure is off and we can create powerful art. But it’s a fine line to walk without being concerned with God’s “stamp of approval” as you mention.

  • I’ve had my writings altered by people who just had to add Christian-ese to the piece, and that to me took away from the original content. I stopped submitting to that venue.

    I’m like many others. I write because I must. It is a gift I’ve been given, so by golly, I’m gonna use it, even if it sometimes crass, or not Cristianally (yes I just made that word up) correct.

  • Jonathan

    Chaim Potok wrote two books that wrestle with this very man-art-God relationship. "My Name is Asher Lev," followed by "The Gift of Asher Lev." Not suggesting it because it answers any questions, but because it is exquisitely written and thought-provoking in all of the good ways.

  • Hmmmmmmm Art is about exploring and investigating the human crazy or how about trying to make some freakin sense out of being human. God (in my opinion) is an integral part of the art making process whether the artist is aware of it or not – rejects him or not – embraces him or not – loves him or not – yada yada

    What's so bad about motel art by the way? 🙂 cool blog!

  • denver

    I agree with this thought – that you can't be worried about propriety. Think about the genius Renaissance artists. Michaelangelo, for example, and the Sistine chapel. After he did the ceiling, they asked him to do the wall behind where the pope would sit. He did… and on that wall is a cherub angel giving the pope the sixteenth century equivalent of the finger. Worried about propriety? Goodness no. Great Christian art? Goodness yes. 🙂

  • beth

    You really cracked me up with this one John, I am a frustrated artist, who paints very “motelly” and has always lacked that spark of genius. LOL..Now I know why…I’m a conservative Christain and a Republican to boot! Double Whammey here!

  • Hey, look what I find when I hunt around the blog?

    I remember having a conversation with somone – forget who and whether it was on or offline – regarding fiction writing and faith. I was told basically not to make an author tract, to “let my faith color my work” rather than overpower it. What I’ve wound up doing, both in writing and in art is doing essentially secular work… into which certain themes always seem to worm their way. It’s neat and subtle.

    And completely crazy.

    I don’t want to sterotype artists, but speaking as one… I have my suspicion that we’re all loons in one way or another – Creative people just aren’t *normal.* And I think we excell when we stop trying to be normal and embrace our abnormalities and don’t worry about fitting the “rules.”

    Frankly, I know some of my art would scare the most straight laced of Christians (not that it’s sacriligeous, just that it’s odd. Some of my choice of art materials in and of themselves is odd and frightens some people).

    I’m not a “successful” artist, but my advice to a Christian artists’ group would be just to let their emotions and ideas “flow.” If God wants to be there, he’ll find a way.

  • Diana A.

    “And I REALLY hope Adam doesn’t look like most of his men which would give a new meaning to church ‘member’.” Too funny!