‘Art Needs No Justification’

Several months ago, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the future, I realised that the majority of my gifts were in the arts – such as writing, playing music, and the study of languages. To make a living off these interests is not impossible but is more difficult than other fields (such as STEM). In a society that moves towards more and more utilitarian in terms of career, it becomes more difficult to justify any foray into the arts. Is playing in a band a waste of time? Does God want me to do this sort of thing? Does an artistic pursuit have to express the gospel? You’d be remiss not to feel that evangelical culture implicitly says that it does. These are some of the tensions Christians that love the arts face. It is a true tension.

Jesus gave us the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25: 14-30). After reading this recently, I wondered how I could make the best use of my gifts instead of burying them in the sand out of fear like the cowardly servant. I don’t believe it means that every single gift we have will find its full fruition. But this does touch on the fundamental issue around how we consider and divide what is God-honouring/useful and what is not despite our giftings.

Hans Rookmaaker was a Christian art critic/theorist that discussed many of the issues inherent in art and the Christian faith. I think his extended essay, Art Needs No Justification, assists Christians to answer some of these issues around the arts and gives them good reasons to pursue the arts with God’s grace. This post highlights some of the helpful points made by Rookmaaker on this point which ultimately a call for Christians to ‘weep, pray, think and work’.

The Modern Idea of Art

The first aspect of Rookmaaker’s views on art is that the modern era has opened up a new posture regarding what the arts became: a somewhat ‘mystical’ area full of originality and uniqueness flowing from the artist. Prior to this point, what is considered ‘the arts’ was a form of artisanship that blended with ordinary life in the form of sculptures or other objects. Rookmaaker states:

Not originality but solid and good work was looked for. Beauty was not an added quality but the natural result of the appropriate materials and techniques handled with great skill.

This notion of Artisanship was part of the older form of the arts. This is something I noticed in the traditional sense of Japanese society which I wrote about here, in that Japan contains both mass consumption but also artisanship. However, what Rookmaaker is highlighting here is a distinction between the development of craftsmanship and the uppercase ‘Arts’ that modern culture came to view later on. He states:

The artist became a genius, someone with very special gifts which could be used to give humankind something of almost religious importance, the work of art. Art in a way took the place of religion.

It is no wonder that evangelicals rightly see this modern notion of art as idolatrous. As the modern world moved on attempting to seek a universe independent from the Revelation of Jesus Christ, it turned to things like Cartesian dualism (the so-called objectivity of science/subjectivity of religion) and later on with the irrational (with a turn to Eastern religions and drug use, etc.). The arts became esoteric and the artists became overburdened with their uniqueness to display something new and fresh. However, this has resulted in a bit of a retreat from the arts and world by the church:

Too easily, large areas of human reality, such as philosophy, science, the arts, economics and politics were handed over to the world, as Christians concentrated mainly on pious activities. If the world’s system was a secularized one, missing true spirituality, the Christian’s attitude also became a reduced one, missing its foundation in reality, being uninterested in the created world.

I would submit that this is the influence of a certain kind of Greek thinking and elevation of the spiritual, inner life over living fully integrated lives in the world. What this has created is fundamentally the wedge that most artists in churches find themselves, in a state of constipation because too frequently there is an emphasis on Christian activity plus the arts, a false dichotomy that has created a confusing view of art and living. I love God but can I also love creating music? I love God but can I still enjoy making films or pursue photography?

How do Christians begin to reconcile the stress brought about by these dichotomies?

Issues with Evangelicals and ‘Christian’ Art

I was recently in several discussions about bands that were Christian (or formerly Christian). I’ve always found such discussion kind of weird. What is quite unusual about them is that we frequently discuss the members of the bands and their Christian witness rather than the art itself. Someone also asked me recently if a group of bands that played a recent gig of mine were ‘Christian bands’ and I had to reply with ‘No, but they were Christians in bands’.

The adjective use of ‘Christian’ is so frequently placed in front of certain kinds of art forms that would make those artists surely cringe. I don’t personally believe that art is a-historical; artists are products of their times and express what is within them. Therefore there is a sense in which we should judge the content or message. I think this kind of reservation is justified if the purpose of the artist is purely evangelical, but frequently these sorts of bands are not. What this may mean then is that we are committing a kind of fallacy. The ad hominem fallacy is when instead of addressing an argument, you attack the person instead. Similarly, the way we have been assessing art as Christians, is very much according to these principles, as opposed to whether or not what is being produced has anything good to be praised (Phil 4:8). Of course, we should charitably criticise our brothers and sisters that are producing art that is anti-Christian or unbiblical. But we are often allowing and commending artistic things by non-Christian artists on their own grounds. This is a strange way of assessing things, is it not?

When it comes then to myself or Christians thinking about pursuing the arts, how should we then consider it in line with our Christian convictions?

Why Christian Art is Usually Bad

I think one of the main reasons why so many Christian films are so bad is that the messages are too ‘on the nose’. They’re too didactic, or sometimes copy what others are doing. An interesting video by political commentator Tim Pool explained that he would be skipping the upcoming ‘Birds of Prey’ film because it has been revealed that it is ‘a Feminist movie exploring Mysogyny‘. According to Pool, this is like the imposition of religious ideology into a film.

Pool’s interesting point is that even though he would not necessarily oppose feminist ideals in a film, this film more-or-less functions as Feminist propaganda. This same issue is rampant in contemporary films and tv shows where certain kinds of ideology take over film rather than the creation of compelling characters and storylines. While film critics and philosophers may assume that the masses are blind and unthinking, people can usually tell when you’re peddling something like a slimy used-car salesman.

Another angle to look at this issue is that it is like the difference between portraying love in the form of a statue or painting, vs. painting a love heart. One of these methods allows the ideas to be transmitted in a nuanced way through the showing of an idea or emotion, whereas the other needs to explain it to you and make it obvious. (Ok, maybe we really are that thick!).

Christians do often make inferior works of art by imitating the forms of our culture. Rookmaaker states:

Often we are satisfied too soon, too easily. We pick up what the world does, change some obvious things, and then we think we have arrived. Our paintings are sometimes the same as “theirs,” maybe just a little bit less shocking or radical. But to be a Christian is not to be conservative or less exciting.

I think someone that does a good job at avoiding this is Fujimura Makoto. His unique Nihonga style is informed by his theology, and the relationship between brokenness and its expression found in art. (Check out this video about his style and philosophy). I think Fujimura displays one way that a Christian can explore interesting and original ideas without attempting to insert certain ideas into his art that cause it to become stifled by trying to teach a biblical lesson. Fujimura was taught by those who had mastered the art and he would have copied and learnt certain techniques in order to find his own expression which ultimately flows from the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control (Gal 5: 22-23). A thing of beauty is surely something that flows from these kinds of things, and in a culture like ours that prizes ugliness, we may have something redeeming and worthwhile to add to our culture (Fujimura wrote a book about this idea called Culture Care).

Being a Christian and Legalistic Art

I’ve become more convinced that the trouble with many of us today is that we are all about the activity of the Christian life in its evangelical pursuits, rather than also remembering the fact that Christ makes of us a new creation first (2 Cor 5:17, Gal 6:15). This new creation and life from the Holy Spirit should permeate our whole lives to overflow to others. Again, to quote Rookmaaker at length (emphasis mine):

We are Christians whether we sleep, eat or work hard; whatever we do, we do it as God’s children. Our Christianity is not only for the pious moments, our religious acts. Nor is the aim of life evangelism; it is seeking the Kingdom of God. To put it into a metaphor, art should not be compared with preaching. The best work of art would still be bad preaching. It may be compared with teaching, but the teacher often has to speak of mathematics, geography, history, botany and sometimes, even if rarely, about religion. But the best comparison is maybe with the plumbing. While we find it to be totally indispensable in our homes, yet we are rarely aware of it. Likewise art fulfills an important function in our lives, in creating the atmosphere in which we live, in giving us the words to speak, in offering us the framework in which we can see and grasp things, say a landscape, even without our noticing it. Art is rarely propaganda, but it has been very influential in shaping the thought-forms of our times, the values people cherish. So the mentality that speaks out in art is important. Its greatest influence is perhaps where it is most like plumbing, where we are not aware of it. We should not say that there is something behind our actions. The deep strivings, the love and the hate, the wisdom and the foolishness, the knowledge and the insight as well as the shortsightedness and false idealism, are not behind the action but in it. Therefore, to work as a Christian is not doing the thing plus something added, the Christian element. A Christian painting, if we use that term with any intrinsic, serious meaning, should not be just a painting plus an added something. Nor should it be holy in a special sense. Art has its own justification.

There are many ideas here that are worth noting.

Firstly, as I have also highlighted: we are Christians first before we do anything. Before we act, we have a certain ontology. We are new creations that are in the world and participants in the world, who are part of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we will think and act and apply ourselves differently from those around us.

Secondly, and the most important idea I think in the whole essay, is the idea that Christians are not doing something ‘Christian’ that is ‘tacked on’. Nor does the art need some kind of qualifier to justify itself that has its relation back to its motives. You have to be careful not to miss the point here: Art flows forth from the Christian who is living out the values in accordance with the Kingdom of God. Rookmaaker again:

…we are struggling to express clearly what the Christian element in the work of a Christian is, what the Bible calls “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). What has to be stressed is that it ought to be human, real. The Christian element never comes as an extra. In discussions I am often asked what one has to do if one wants to work as a Christian. I have the feeling that often these questions are within a legalistic framework, as if the Christian element consisted of following some rules, usually of a negative kind. May I do this? Can that be done? But in that way we understand our own spirituality too mechanically. We are not human plus an extra called our Christianity. No, our humanity reacts to the world outside and the Word of God in a way that is specific to our particular personality.

All forms of legalism result in a lack of love and freedom, so does a legalistic approach to art. If I sit down and say ‘This song I write must say this and that’ for it to be Christian, then I’ll likely find myself writing something too forced and mediocre (as much Christian music is). Perhaps I may write some piece of poetry that deals with depression, or write a novel that mentions nothing specifically Jesus Christ. What makes one ‘more Christian’ or ‘less Christian’ from the other? Its purpose perhaps defines the bounds of what makes it good or not, but even still:

Life and art are too complex to lay down legalistic rules. But that does not mean that there are no norms. Although one cannot define the wrong kind of seductiveness or the right kind of prettiness and attractiveness of a woman by the length of her skirt or the depth of the decollete’, nevertheless women know the exact boundaries, especially the seductive kind of women as they just play over the borderlines. So in music and in art in general good artists know what ought to be done at a certain place and time, what is appropriate. It is a matter of good taste.

As I stated above, we are almost committing a certain kind of fallacy when we assess things too much to do with the express motive, or notion that something is ‘Christian’ because it is explicitly so. Rookmaaker elaborates on this issue:

If we talk about Christian music, we do not necessarily mean music with words that give a direct biblical message or express the experience of the life of faith and obedience in the pious sense. Obedience itself is not confined to matters of faith and ethics only. The totality of life comes in. It is the mentality, the lifestyle, that is given artistic form and expression. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion is Christian, but so are his Brandenburg Concertos. Not only the words of the cantatas are Christian, but also the instrumental parts of them. Otherwise we make Christianity narrow and leave a great part of our life that ought to show the fruit of the Spirit outside the commitment to God, our Lord and Savior. 

Some Concluding Thoughts

I think Rookmaaker helpfully shows us that Christians can pursue the arts in freedom and without the need to feel guilty for not having a specifically evangelical element in it. If the Christian is walking with Christ, they should be conforming all aspects of their life to the Lordship of Christ. The way they do art is effected by their walk with God.

What this has helped me to see is that I should produce material that is good for what it is. It should not be for the pursuit of fame, nor evangelistic pretense. (The ideal some Christians say is pursuing ‘excellence’, although I don’t think this is true in their actual practice. It also is problematic because it implies an included element, which we have been exploring as a false dichotomy. Good work is either there or it isn’t. If you care about it, you’ll do it). According to what other art may be out there, what I produce may be considered of good taste compared to it or not.

Jesus warns of trying to acquire the praise of the world, or worldly possessions, at the expense of the soul (Matt 16: 26). We must fight the tendency to desire the praise of man.  So long as I am doing the work the best I can, I should be content with that. Along with this thought, I should fight the tendency to be prideful and envious (1 John 2: 15-17). I should boast in Christ, as I have not these abilities all on my own, but I have received them and their limits from God (1 Cor 4:7). This is the complete opposite of the modern notion of the artist, the genius, with a mystical uniqueness and originality welling up from within himself. The Christian is a steward of the gifts he’s been given.

And this brings us back to the Parable of the Talents. If we are seeking to love and obey the Lord, we should pursue the things we enjoy and are good at wholeheartedly because that’s how God has made us. He expects a return on His investment and the glory from it. Jesus says we are lights and salt in the world – our good works cause others to give glory to God (Matt 5: 14-16). And if you’re anything like me in feeling the strain in reconciling these points about faith and art, then you might just find the inspiration for more art to the glory of God. This is also what I conclude from all of this – it ain’t easy.

Therefore, pursue the arts, that is, unless God calls you elsewhere.


Art Needs No Justification by Hans Rookmaaker can be found here:

Art Needs No Justification (Complete). Hans Rookmaaker

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