by Gene Edward Veith –
The Turner Prize is England’s most prestigious award for contemporary art. Past winners have included mutilated animals in formaldehyde; a dirty bed; lead castings of the items on a Kentucky Fried Chicken menu; and an empty room. This year’s finalists include rotting fruit, a bronze rendition of pornographic blow-up dolls, and sculptors of corpses being eaten by maggots.
Many of today’s artists of the high culture have given up on the concept of “beauty,” which, according to the current ideologies, is either an imposition of oppressive power or an arbitrary personal construction. Instead, they are concentrating on “transgressive” art, work designed to shock.
Contemporary popular culture is driven by aesthetics, so that questions of truth are resolved according to what people “like” and questions of morality are reduced to a matter of personal “taste.” Entertainment has become the ultimate value, not only in Hollywood but in education and even religion. People define themselves according to the music they listen to and the aesthetically-packaged products they buy. So while aesthetics are very powerful today in influencing the way people think and—what has become almost the same thing—what they buy, creating objects that are beautiful and meaningful in themselves seems out of place.
Those who believe that there is no meaning in life or that there are no objective values can hardly be expected to create meaningful or objectively valuable works. In contrast to secular nihilists, Christians have a basis for art, beauty, and aesthetics, one which has inspired the arts for centuries. But today’s Christians too are often impoverished when it comes to the arts, buying into the same hedonism, commercialism, and subjectivism of their non-believing neighbors.
Christians are in a position, though, to recover the arts. This is important because the arts are valuable in themselves, as gifts of God, and because the arts are a powerful means of shaping the culture and influencing the human heart. At a time when current ideologies are undermining what is most valuable in the arts, the Bible can restore them.
The Gifts of Bezalel
The Bible has much to say about the arts. A good part of the Old Testament is taken up with God’s detailed commands for human beings to make things, specifically, the designs for the Tabernacle, the Temple, and their furnishings and decorations.1 The most direct and explicit Biblical passage about the arts has to do with the calling and the equipping of Bezalel, the artist in charge of making the Tabernacle:
Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.
And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.
Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded. And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the LORD had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. (Exod. 35:30-36:2; ESV)
This is the first text of Scripture that directly teaches the doctrine of vocation: Bezalel has been “called by name.” Bezalel, also the first to be described as having been filled with the Holy Spirit, is given a task by God, who has called him not into some prophetic office, but to work with his hands, to serve God and his neighbors by being an artist.
Those to whom God has given a calling, He also equips, by giving them distinct talents, interests, and abilities. Thus, God gave Bezalel specific gifts to enable him to do the work that God required to make and to adorn the Tabernacle. These are the same gifts necessary for the making of every kind of art and are fundamental to every artist’s vocation. “Skill” must refer to the artist’s innate talent, described here as a gift of God. “Intelligence” underscores that a true artist not only works with his hands but with his mind, in contrast to current views that consider artistic inspiration to be non-rational or even antirational. “Knowledge” as a gift for the arts means that artists must know things, from the properties of their materials to the ideas that their art can convey. “Craftsmanship” refers to the artist’s technique, the difference between a work of any kind being poorly executed or well-made. These gifts with which God “filled” Bezalel are so comprehensive that they can almost be used as criteria for evaluating any work of art, which may exemplify or fall short in some measure when it comes to skill, intelligence, knowledge, or craftsmanship.
That these gifts are not limited to Bezalel only but describe more generally the abilities associated with the vocation of the artist is indicated in the same passage. They are also given to Oholiab, and both artists are given the further gift—actually, in a significant term for education, the inspiration—to teach. The implication is that others will find their own callings and their own gifts through the process of education. The passage explicitly says that the calling extended not only to Bezalel and Oholiab but to “every craftsman in whose mind the LORD had put skill.” Not only did the Lord’s gifting extend to them all, but those who were called knew it by their own inclinations: “everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work.”
The art of the Tabernacle and later the Temple entailed “every skilled craft,” featuring textiles, castings, woodwork, and sculpture. Some of the work was representational, with depictions of plants and animals; some was symbolic, as with the Ark of the Covenant. But the main purpose of the lavish and elaborate adornment of the place where God would meet His people seems to have been purely aesthetic. The garments of the priests were to be made “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). The splendor of it all would glorify God and would offer a glimpse of the glory of the courts of Heaven. As such, beauty is an end in itself.
The Idolatry of Aaron
As Bezalel was receiving his commission on Mount Sinai, down below another artist was at work, using art not for glory and beauty but to construct a false god. Aaron’s Golden Calf exemplifies the Bible’s major theme of the misuse of art in idolatry.
The essence of idolatry is explained in Romans 1:25: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” To worship an idol is to have as one’s religion, to use postmodernist jargon, a “construction,” whether of stone or of ideas; a humanly-devised faith rather than the objectively true God who reveals Himself in His Word.
Idolatry is associated with paganism, of course, and also with greed (Colossians 3:5). Today, it has been observed that, for many people, art has taken the place of religion. Contemporary aestheticism looks to art as the source of meaning and values and transcendence, rather than to their own Creator.
The Ten Commandments contain an explicit prohibition against worshipping works of art:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. (Exod. 20:4-5)
What is forbidden here is idolatry. The prohibition against making “any likeness of anything” does not rule out every kind of representational art, since God’s commands for the Tabernacle and the Temple include the depictions of pomegranates, palm trees, lions, and even cherubim. Still, the prohibition of “likenesses” has been taken very literally by the ancient Hebrews, by Muslims, and by many Christians. Even its most extreme application, however, does not forbid art; rather, it channels art in a particular direction, towards pure aesthetics.
For the Greeks and other ancient pagans, art was seen as “mimetic,” an imitation of the external world. Art without likenesses, though, could instead be “creative.” The kind of art favored by the ancient Hebrews—as we see in their pottery and artifacts—could be described as abstract. Intersecting lines, geometric forms, swirling colors, and interlocking shapes depicted no “likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.” It was non-representational, a rendition of pure form. Art that is non-representational includes also music—universally praised in the Scriptures—and what would later develop as fiction and fantasy.2
What was problematic was art that pretended to be true, when it was not; art that presented itself as a sacred object, conveying a meaning that brought people away from the true God into a domesticated, pleasurable, man-made kind of spirituality that was a counterfeit for the real thing. The artfulness of art, though—the product of skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship that was for glory and beauty—was not problematic at all.
Nor was the problem in a particular work of art. One of the objects d’art cited in the Bible is the Brazen Serpent, an artifact made to communicate God’s judgment against sin and to prophesy the Cross of Jesus Christ (Numbers 21:4-9; John 12:31-32). When the children of Israel, plagued by poisonous snakes, looked to the brass snake lifted up by Moses, they were healed, a type of the Atonement, when Christ would be “lifted up,” bearing in His Body the sins of the world. Later, this great evangelistic work of art would be turned into an idol, its gospel-bearing meaning effaced by those who would superstitiously turn it into a cult object, and it would be destroyed in the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-4). The point is this: the danger comes not from the art but how it is used.
But looking at art for its form and its beauty, rather than as a cult object, was made possible by the Bible. The early Christians rejected the religious content of Greek mythology and its mimetic artistic tradition and what was left was aesthetics. According to historian Werner Jaeger, “It was the Christians who finally taught men to appraise poetry by a purely aesthetic standard—a standard which enabled them to reject most of the moral and religious teaching of the classical poets as false and ungodly, while accepting the formal elements in their work as instructive and aesthetically delightful.”
The conceptual foundation for a Biblical view of the arts and aesthetics is the doctrine of creation. God created the universe ex nihilo. He did not imitate pre-existing ideal forms, as in the classical tradition, nor did He re-arrange existing matter, as in the pagan creation myths. Rather, He created everything that exists. God, therefore, is the ultimate artist. The universe is God’s work of art. Not only the physical creation but its underlying laws and properties—including the aesthetic dimension of life and the human ability to perceive it—are the work of the Creator.
Human beings were created in His image, which means, among other things, that we too are creative. Adam was given dominion over what God had made, which includes the obligation to work in and with the created order. He was given the capacity to “name” what God has created (Genesis 2:19). Though the Fall ruined and corrupted human nature, traces of this creative stewardship remain. We make our living, according to the old theologians, by the interaction of “art” and “nature,” applying the human “art” of farming to the natural order and thereby growing our bread. Every creative human activity, from shoemaking to medicine, is an “art” by which human beings make their living and serve one another in vocation.
Human beings can therefore be “subcreators,” to use Tolkien’s term.4 Our little creations are nothing next to God’s, both in magnitude and in depending on what He has already made, but they testify to God’s design and to the powers He has bestowed. This Biblical way of looking at art gives back what Scripture seems to have excluded: representational art. If the creation is God’s art, painting what God has created becomes a way of honoring Him.
This is the way the Reformation, with its new Biblicism, influenced the arts. Reacting against the practice in Medieval Catholicism of using art to represent or even to embody spiritual beings, something that smacked of idolatry, the Reformers channeled art into another direction.5
Luther insisted that art could indeed point to Christ and to the historical truths of the Bible, inspiring major artists such as Dürer and Cranach and having the Bible he translated illustrated with woodcuts. Calvin was more iconoclastic, but in a way that, ironically, would inspire the arts. “I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible,” he wrote, since irrational fear of art is as superstitious as irrational adoration. “But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each.” Teaching directly that art is a “gift of God,” he then laid down a principle that would shape Protestant art for centuries: “Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing.”6 Instead of painting idealized representations of angels, saints, and God Himself, artists would focus on the visible realm: historical events, scenes from daily life, and natural landscapes.
Leo Jud, an even more radical iconoclast than Calvin, said that artists should not presume to paint images of God made by human hands. Rather, they should paint the images of God made by God Himself: that is, human beings.7 Thus began the tradition of portraiture that would culminate in Rembrandt, in whose art one can discern traces of the Image of God in a human face.
The realism of the Dutch Reformed artists—in their portraits, landscapes, and still lifes—grew out of their particular Biblical view of the arts and of God’s creation. In America, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards explored how nature was God’s creation and thus, in some measure, God’s self-expression. Earthly beauty, he showed, derives from the “beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2, et al) and from the character of God Himself.
The 19th century English critic John Ruskin, building on the notion that God is the source of every beauty and that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”(James 1:17), developed a comprehensive Biblical aesthetic that would prove enormously influential both for artists and for their audiences. He wrote,
It is necessary to the existence of an idea of beauty that the sensual pleasure which may be its basis, should be accompanied first with joy, then with love of the object, then with the perception of kindness in a superior Intelligence, finally with thankfulness and veneration towards that Intelligence itself.8
The very perception of beauty entails love, thanksgiving, and praise.
Furthermore, Ruskin argues that God is the source of every pleasure, so that what gives us pleasure, apart from the distortions of sin, testifies to the nature of God. For example, one powerful aesthetic experience comes from evocations of the infinite, as in the sublimity of mountains, the ocean, or other awe-inspiring landscapes of seemingly never-ending space. Though such scenes can be terrifying, making us feel small and insignificant, they are nevertheless aesthetically pleasing, because they evoke in us a sense of the Infinite, which testifies to the Infinity of God.
Likewise, an aesthetically satisfying work of art displays at the same time both unity and complexity. The Triune God too is both unified and complex, an absolute union of three distinct Persons. Some art is unified, but simplistic; other art is complicated but chaotic. In the best work, the complexities form a perfect unity without sacrificing the individuality of their parts. This is aesthetically pleasing because it reflects the attributes of God.
Ruskin does something similar with other aesthetic qualities: repose (a type of the permanence of God); symmetry (a type of God’s justice); the purity of light (a type of God’s energy); liberty and self-restraint (a type of God’s Law); craftsmanship, technical skill, attention to detail (a type of God’s artistry).
Though Ruskin has been accused of turning art into a religion, it is more correct to say that, in his original intention, at least, he was exploring the aesthetic implications of a Biblical worldview. This was certainly how he was taken by Christian artists such as the American landscape artists who constituted the Hudson River School, the first distinctly American artistic movement, known for their awe-inspiring landscapes, which, in their minds, testified to the glory of God.9
The Biblical heritage of the arts is, perhaps ironically, not one of preaching or moralizing, as is often thought both by the critics of Christianity and by many Christian artists. Though art can indeed preach and moralize—as with the Brazen Serpent—it does not have to and can become problematic when it does. Art, above all, is to be artful.
Far from mandating that all art must be religious art, the Bible tends to be suspicious of religious art. Art that is “secular” is almost safer. The Tabernacle and the Temple were adorned not with images of deities but with depictions of nature—pomegranates, palm trees, lions—not as beings to be worshipped as in the pagan temples, but as beings that have been created.
The Bible liberates art. It no longer has to be narrowly “religious,” though it would be more accurate to say that ostensibly secular subject matter—portraits of individuals and families, natural landscapes, non-representational abstractions—is actually religious after all, in that it all testifies to its Creator and Lord.
The problem with so much of today’s contemporary art, such as the Turner Prize winners, is that it is so empty, so nihilistic, that it fails as art. “Beauty” does not have to mean “pretty,” and shocking or self-consuming artifacts have a rich tradition in Christian art, as is evident in Dante’s Inferno and Grunewald’s Crucifixion. But today’s art of mutilation, pornography, and minimalism is depthless and one-dimensional. It has unity but no complexity. It lacks infinity. It displays little skill, intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship. Today’s artists need the gifts of Bezalel and the God who called him to his work. AJ
Gene Edward Veith, Jr. is Professor of English at Concordia University-Wisconsin. He is author of the book State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Crossway, 1991).
1 For a more detailed account of art in the Bible, see my book State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991).
2 See Ibid., 55-57.
3 Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, trans. Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), xxvii-xxviii.
4 See J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 138-157. See also Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker(N.Y.: Harcourt Brace, 1941).
5 See my book Painters of Faith: The Spiritual Landscape in NineteenthCentury America (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001).
6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Lewis Battles Ford (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1960), Book I, Chapter 11, Section 12.
7 Charles Garside, Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, CT: Yale
Univ. Press, 1966), 171.
8 John Ruskin, Modern Painters (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., n.d.),
9 See my book Painters of Faith for the way the Hudson River
artists appropriated this aesthetic.