Let’s face it. The creative response to creation that we call art doesn’t play a prominent role in the church. As pastors and Christian leaders, we’re just not quite sure what to make of it. But taking art and the artist seriously can be more than organizing art museum visits, hanging paintings in the sanctuary, hosting an artist in residence or talking about beauty.
Through my twenty-year career as an art historian, museum curator and art critic, I am convinced that the artist is an untapped resource. One of the most important needs of the artist is in the conversation on vocation, which, as Tim Keller and Katherine Leery Alsdorf suggest in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, is one of the church’s most pressing concerns.
How can art teach the church about vocation?
The modern artist Edvard Munch said, “Art comes from joy and pain.” And then he added, “but mostly from pain.” The myth of the tortured artist, in which he struggles with depression, addiction and alienation, operating on the margins of conventions, has unnecessarily made the artist the target for exaggerated adulation or condemnation.
This myth obscures a basic fact: the artist is exactly like us. Most of our work comes from pain as well. We all suffer. As Oscar Wilde observed, “The secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything.” We struggle with precisely the same existential problems and insecurities as Munch and Wilde, possessing the same self-doubt, insecurities and struggle with failure. Yet our vocational conversations in the church usually prevent such admission and the necessary reflection that could follow. Artists, however, are comfortable operating in this most uncomfortable of realities — we’re failures. The artist operates in a disarmingly vulnerable space, a space we non-artists are able to deny.
Responding to faith
In addition, the discussion of vocation inside the church often limits itself to career choice and placement. Yet, for Martin Luther, vocation was much more comprehensive. It was the result of reflection on the social and cultural implications of the doctrine of justification, forming how we respond to the faith that the Word has created. Vocation was the means by which we loved our neighbor and the means by which God was active in the world. Even artists who do not confess Christ recognize that their vocation is something more than a job or a career — it is a calling.
Vocation underwrites all of our social roles, not just the one at the office. From the beginning, artists recognize that their calling consists of more than material achievement, even more than the work they do in their studios. Their vocation bleeds out into other areas of their lives.
Most artists also come to realize quite quickly that they cannot support themselves by selling their work. This is the case for nearly all artists, even the most successful. Artists are thus bi-vocational by necessity, and so are in an important position to offer insights for others struggling with the tectonic shifts in the present-day workforce.
The experience of the artist in the studio offers a fresh perspective from which pastors and other leaders in the church can reflect on the Word that establishes the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17) — and the realities of failure, suffering, and doubt in this work.
Dr. Daniel A. Siedell is the associate professor of Christianity & Culture at Knox Theological Seminary. He can be reached at [email protected].