The history of Western art is bound up closely with the history of Christian iconography, and the history of Christian iconography is bound up with Christian theology. As a Methodist minister exclaimed when he learned that the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from burning the palms from the previous Palm Sunday: “All this Catholic stuff is connected!”
In the iconoclasm controversies in the eighth century the church debated whether Christians could create images for worship. The iconoclasts said it was a violation of the commandment not to make graven images. The iconodules (those in favor of images) said that because Jesus Christ was the image of the unseen God–the perfect image had been given to the human race. Christ being the ‘icon’ or image of God therefore made all images (and by extension all art) good. However, in saying that all art was ‘good’ this is not to say all art is equally well done. Instead Christ the icon of God validates the image making facility of humans.
J.R.R.Tolkien said that man was a ‘sub creator’. If we are created in the image of God and God is the Creator, then when we create any form of art we are being fully human and are acting like our creator. These two factors–that images and image making are good because Christ is the image of God (God therefore makes images) and that our creative and imaginative faculties are part our being in God’s image not only validate the action of art, but also give us a foundation for proposing what makes art ‘good’.
The Christian therefore asks what is ‘good’ about the supreme image–Christ the image of God. Jesus Christ–the image of the unseen God–is a good image because Jesus Christ combines in himself all that is beautiful, good and true–all that is god-like. Jesus Christ is an image of reality. He not only reflects the reality and truth and beauty of God–he is the reality, truth and beauty of God. ‘Good’ art will therefore, in some way, reflect and incarnate the beauty, truth and goodness of God.
To do this, good art must first of all be mimetic. That is to say, it imitates reality. A good picture, a good movie, a good story, a good play all portray reality in a fresh way. They help us to see reality in a new way. Art that is totally unrealistic or which portrays reality as negative, ugly or brutal cannot be good art.
Secondly, good art must have meaning. If it is beautiful it must also be true. However, this does not mean that a Christian painting has to portray a Bible story or be overtly inspirational or didactic like the Jesus on the Beach picture. Indeed, such pictures are usually no more than illustrations. They are therefore, one step removed from the reality as a story is one step removed from the actual event. A Christian painting may be illustrative and therefore inspirational, but when it becomes didactic a picture misses the p0int. I knew a wonderful Christian lady who was a fantastic artist, but she felt she had to caption all her pictures with a Bible verse. As the famous film director said, “You wanna send a message? Use a telegram.”
“Christian” art–whether it’s a movie or painting or a story–that is didactic misses the point. The art itself is the message. If the art is Christian and reflects the wonder of the incarnation, then the artwork created by the artist as sub-creator–must also incarnate the beauty and truth in the artwork itself.
Just as Christian art should avoid didacticism, it should avoid sentimentality. Sentimentality is artificial or contrived emotion. This can be done through an appeal to nostalgia (as in the work of Thomas Kincade and Norman Rockwell) or maternal feelings (as in pictures of puppies and kittens) or patriotism, eroticism or false religiosity. Sentimentality is an error in art not because it raises emotion (art should raise emotion) but because it is false emotion.
If all these other philosophical factors are in place, the question then arises, how successful has the artist been in being a sub creator and incarnating beauty, truth and goodness in a work of art that imitates life and reality? We then consider technical questions of craftsmanship, talent, skill in execution etc. Those with expertise and experience inform us of the success or failure of a piece of art just as surely as a mechanic informs us of the success or failure of our car’s working.
It is therefore, possible to evaluate a work of art and make a judgement. Is Jesus on the Beach good Christian art? I’m afraid it is a failure. Here’s why: First of all, while it is mimetic (it seeks to imitate reality) it does so badly. The figures are poorly drawn. The sky is unrealistic for a didactic purpose. The colors are garish and unreal. Secondly, it is didactic. It is telling us the ‘footprints in the sand’ poem in a blatant inyerface way. It is not only didactic, but derivative. It is not original. It is hitch-hiking on an already cliched poem. Thirdly, it is horribly sentimental. It draws on nostalgia–who doesn’t like a beach? It draws on the sentimentality of gentle Jesus meek and mild who carries his poor lost lambkin…it is creepily erotic–with the woman in a low slung dress being carried by Jesus like some sort of bride across the threshold.
This overt sentimentalism is the worst thing about the painting because the artist intentionally attempts to create a false emotion within the viewer. This is manipulative and creepy–and the fact that it works for many people makes it even more disturbing. This painting is therefore not beautiful, not true and not good.
Thus saith the preacher.