Idolizing Art

President Bush's decision to increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has stirred up a hornet's nest. Once again, we're debating whether government should get involved in the arts and who should decide what kind of art gets funded by the taxpayers. Although these are important debates, what caught my attention was a largely overlooked remark by a congresswoman from New York about the role that the arts play in our lives. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) told an interviewer, "There's nothing in the world that helps economic development more than arts programs. It was foolish for Congress to choke them and starve them. We should cherish the people who can tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we hope to go." I have two problems with that statement. The first is that Rep. Slaughter got a bit carried away with her rhetoric. I can think of a lot of things that will help economic development more than arts programs. Second and far more troubling is her overblown description of what artists do. It's troubling because it reflects a mistaken belief that is shared by many people: that is, the belief that art can be a substitute for faith, that it can answer the oldest religious questions of origins and purpose. As Steve Turner writes in his book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, "In a secular society, art itself can be the subject of a religious type of devotion. It's common to hear artists talk of their work as being their religion-their personal salvation and also their hope for the world." And it's not just artists who think this way. Turner goes on to say, "The movie director, actor, and rock star are far more readily listened to than the preacher or theologian . . . The modern temptation is to make art with the intention that it be idolized." And there are plenty of people willing to idolize it. We may not literally worship art, but many of us are so impressed by the results of human creativity that we tend to treat it as something sacred and beyond criticism. (Of course, it helps that art doesn't make the same kind of demands on us that faith does.) Such beliefs don't just harm us spiritually, however. They also end up harming our creativity. If art is beyond criticism, we're expected to accept pretty much anything that is labeled "art," whether it's artistic or not. And that's exactly what we've seen happening in the last decades, with everything from urinals being displayed in art museums to foul-mouthed rappers being lauded as great musicians. The end result is that the arts are degraded, not honored. Don't misunderstand me -- I believe the arts play a deeply important role in our lives, a role that I'll be discussing more in the next few days. Writers like Dickens and Dostoevsky, painters like Rembrandt, and composers like Bach all communicate powerful truths about God and His creation through their works. But only faith puts us directly in touch with the source of all truth. Despite what Ms. Slaughter says, it's only by coming to know the Creator that we can truly learn "who we are, where we came from, and where we hope to go." For further reading and information: Leonard Garment, "The 'Bloody Crossroads,'Wall Street Journal, 3 February 2004. Robert Pear, "Bush to Seek Big Increase in Federal Funding for Arts," New York Times, reprinted by the Tampa Tribune, 29 January 2004. Anne Morse, "A Dramatic Calling," Boundless, 23 March 2000. Kim I. Robbins, "Renaissance Man," BreakPoint Online, 14 February 2003. See the Winter 2002/2003 issue of Findings, "Christians in the Arts after the End of Art." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030327, "Real Art." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030328, "What Made Leonardo the Oz?" James M. Kushiner, Creed and Culture: A Touchstone Reader (ISI Books, 2003). Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale, 1999). See especially chapters 41-45. The BreakPoint "Christians in the Arts" kit includes It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God by Ed Bustard (editor), William Edgar, Makoto Fujimura, and David Giardinieare (Square Halo Books, 2000), and Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (InterVarsity Press, 2001). Both are great resources for Christians involved or interested in the arts. Visit BreakPoint's Christians in the Arts page for more resources and links. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (HarperCollins, 1987 edition). Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs (Zondervan, 1994). Jed Perl, "Beyond Belief," New Republic, 11 February 2004. (Subscription required.) Gideon Long, "Joyce's 'Ulysses' under Fire in Centenary Year," Reuters, 11 February 2004. Dave Barry, "Clearly not for faint of art," Miami Herald, 18 January 2004. Gail King, "The Bard in Paducah," Wall Street Journal, 28 October 2003. Nat Hentoff, "A Jazz Master Remembers," Wall Street Journal, 30 December 2003. Eric Gibson, "Can $100 Million Help Make Poetry Matter?Wall Street Journal, 26 November 2002.


Chuck Colson



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