Friday, 9 August 2013

Structure vs Expression

Jackson Pollock, Number 8 (detail), 1944

Is it more important to make art in a structured manner or an expressive manner?  Does organising, planning and measuring not wrench the life out of our creativity?  Does a grid sheet not reduce our ideas to a monotonous format?  But conversely does random, thoughtless, ‘instinctive’ creativity really work?  Is freedom of expression really freedom without some kind of framework to restrict it from bursting into nonsense? 

From the very beginning, the bible esteems both structure and expression.  Think of the seven days of creation.  Each act of creation is penned into a day and yet within the fenced off areas we find abundant expression of colour, form and substance.  Each day God gives the same examination of what he’s made, at the same time and in the same manner, and yet each day is remarkably different with new landscapes being formed and dreamt up animals parading the earth. 

As we go through the bible we continue to see structure and expression held in perfect harmony.  An amazing example of this is the book of Lamentations.  What you read is beautiful expressive poetic language contained within an equally beautiful structure.  There are five poems (chapters) in the book; the first two and the last two contain 22 verses with three lines each.  Each verse in these four poems begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In the third poem, which is at the centre of the book, there are 66 verses of one line each.  In this chapter, three verses are assigned to each successive letter of the alphabet.  This is just the beginning of an explanation of the structure and already I’m sure I’ve lost you!

In the New Testament in a book like John’s Gospel we see the same thing.  It is a series of profound stories put together in a thought-through structure.  In this case it is a simple structure.  There are seven ‘signs’ (or miracles) and seven ‘I am’ statements which repeat Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  In and around these main elements there are beautiful stories with layers of meaning.  When these are read in the context of the rest of scripture and the contemporary culture they leave you completely in awe.  Once again there is strong structure and real, heart-moving expression.

So what do we make of all this and how do we apply it to the art that we make?  Well it seems that throughout scripture, which is God inspired art, we see a remarkable partnership between expression and structure.  God doesn’t recognise a dichotomy between the two and neither should we.  As Christians we should embrace these elements in our art and in everything we do.

Monday, 6 May 2013

What Does The Bible Say About Music?

Below are a couple of very brief thoughts from two William Edgar lectures.  Follow the link for the lectures in full…    What Does The Bible Say About Music?

Where is Music in the bible?

When you think of music in a Christian context you probably think of worship music.  What we find when we look at the bible however is something quite different.  Yes, music is used in worship again and again but it’s also used in all these different situations:

-          Work songs Num 21:17, Is 16:10, Is 27:2
-          War Num 21:27, Psalm 68, 2 Ch 20:21, Ex 15:20
-          Instruction, prophecy, mutual edification 1Kings 4:32, 2 Kings 3:15, Col 3:16
-          Love songs and seduction Psalm 45, Song of Sol 2:12,
Ezek 33:32, Gen31:27, Jer 25:10
-          Entertainment Job 21:12, Is 24:9, Dan 6:18, Luke 15:25
-          With dance Ex 15:20, Psalm 68:25, Mat 11:17
-          Derision Job 30:9, Lam 3:14
-          Mourning 2 Sam 1:18-27, 1 Kings 13:30, Mat 11:17

These verses are just a drop in the ocean of where music is talked about in scripture and affirmed as being a good part of humanity.  Perhaps the greatest affirmation of the goodness of music is seen in the life of David who God calls, “a man after his own heart” (1Sam 13:14).  We all know that David wrote many of the Psalms that we still sing in the church today but did you know David played the lyre every day with no mention of a singing accompaniment (1Sam:18:10)?  God didn’t see it as a waste of time for David to make music even though he had a host of other, what some would see as more useful, gifts.  In fact it was David’s gift of making music that really made him stand out in the world (1 Sam 16:17-18).  So if you are a Christian and you are good at music, keep it up.

What Does Music Do?

There is a word of warning for when we engage in music.  It seems to have the effect of heightening human emotion and moving our affections.  This can be good and it can be bad.  The great theologian Jonathon Edwards comments about worship,

‘[T]he duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.’

Music can lead us in good directions and help us enjoy God and his creation but it can just as easily lead us in bad directions.  Another great theologian, Augustine, took the emotional effect of music very seriously,

  'Yet when it happens to me that the music moves me more than the subject of the song, I confess myself to commit a sin deserving of punishment, and then I would prefer not to have heard the singer.'  Confessions, X, xxxiii

You might not agree with Augustine but the point is we have to be careful about what we listen to and when we listen to it.  Music does affect our emotions and our emotions affect what we do.  It is a rich gift from God but like all his gifts their ultimate purpose is to help us delight in him.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Artist in Residence: Could it be you?

Just a few more days to get your application and proposal in for Forum's Artist in Residence.  This is a fantastic opportunity to create a dynamic piece of work that helps over 1000 students to engage with the  creative arts, and practising artists.  Could it be you?

Deadline for applications is Friday 3rd May.

Check out the application, have brainstorm today and get applying!

Ps Last year's artist, Pete Glasgow, wrote a blog post on here reflecting on his experience - check it out.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Christian Involvement in (dramatic) art

Giles Fouhy, a minister from East London wonderfully helped London Interfacers to think Christianly about the arts this week.  I'll do my best to summarise! As an actor he'd written his paper specifically for the dramatic arts, but much of what he said is very useful for thinking about the arts in general.

He began introducing 3 really helpful questions that Christians are faced with as they engage with the arts - questions we found we'd all struggled with, or thought about:

1) Morality: Is not the immoral content of drama/art spiritually damaging to audiences and practitioners? i.e. the very act of becoming different characters, depicting sin can be dangerous.
2) Reality: Drama is imaginary and therefore unreal and untrue - isn't it just an escapist lie?
3) Utility: What use is drama/the arts? Is it not just frivolous time wasting?

So where do we go with these questions? Well we always go back to the Bible. Giles helped us to explore a biblical worldview for the reformation of all of life, which has largely stemmed from 19th century thought (Neo-Calvinist 'reformational' thought to be precise!).  He helped us to see
the scope of Creation (how vast and wide and good it is, how wonderfully sustained it is by God's word, and by us as we carry out our role in society)
the scope of The Fall (that all of creation is subjected to bondage to decay, creation is frustrated, and ravaged by sin.  However, sin hasn't obliterated everything.  There is common grace that restrains God's righteous anger)
the scope of Redemption (the cosmic scope of Christ's work on the cross, and his resurrection must not be underestimated.  Christ is restoring the whole of creation to himself as the head of the Church.)
This worldview leaves us with an antithesis now: we live in a world that is steeped in sin and held in 'bondage' to Satan, and a world into which the Kingdom of God has come in Christ, so that everywhere there lies the potential for redemption.

So how does this affect our questions/objections raised at the beginning?

Well firstly Giles encouraged us to see that along with all creation, the arts are able to be redeemed.  But we need to consume with care.  As Seerveld writes,
"Unless you are protected by the holiness of a biblical innocence and by genuinely wise, critical antennae, then performing or composing or receiving art in the secular city is as dangerous as jaywalking."
The simple framework with which we can approach these questions was outlined as follows:

We look for the structure: 'structure denotes the essence of a creaturely thing, the kind of creature it is by virtue of God's creational law' - we approach involvement in the arts, a creation of God, with positive optimism, searching for that which is creational - which we can affirm and encourage.

We also look  for the direction: 'direction refers to a sinful deviation from the structure, or a renewed conformity to it in Christ.'

So as we approach the question of Morality -  we need to make a distinction between the content of a play/piece of work, and the overall message/story that is portrayed.  So often we can be wary because of the amount of language/nudity, rather than thinking discerningly about the worldview/direction that is portrayed.  Does the story conform to true redemptive pattern of love and self-sacrifce? What is the direction of the piece?
'If our commission to be truthful demands that we portray sin, our commission to be holy demands that we don't glory in it'
With Reality, a helpful argument from Ryken was put forward, that the artistic imagination, correctly perceived, far from escaping reality, takes us into reality.  It's a window.  Good art illuminates reality, while bad art escapes from reality. It's the 'lie that tells the truth'.  As we delve into the Word of God, we see the extent to which the Bible appeals to truth through imaginative story telling and images.

As for Utility, there is a big temptation to divide the secular and sacred, and feel guilty for not spending all our time evangelising etc.  Giles encouraged us to see the real and only divide is the antithesis discussed earlier - and so our discipleship needs to embrace seeing this in all walks of life, from the prayer meeting to the studio.  A discipleship that breaks out of 'the church' and embraces and affirms the whole of life provides the true context for evangelism.

As I reflect on what Giles shared with us, it's immensely exciting to be thinking Christianly about the arts - to be grappling with how the gospel truly shapes the work we produce.  Praise God that He is so wonderfully involved with his creation, that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.   Let's keep looking to Christ as we engage with the arts.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Critiquing Damien Hirst

What should we make of Damien Hirst?  Is his work really art?  Is it any good?  Follow this link for an excellent critique of Damien Hirst by Nigel Halliday 
Of Course It's Art - exploring, defending and critiquing the work of Damien Hirst

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Art by itself cannot save... really?

‘Art by itself cannot save.  Art by itself cannot put us in touch with the divine, or transform us, or make us into better people’  
Ted Turnau, Popologetics
As I came across this quote a couple of months ago, and pondered on what Turnau is saying, I felt at once both immensely frustrated and completely liberated.  Let me explain both having had some time to dwell on it:

Firstly, I felt deep frustration at the fruitlessness of what I was doing week in, week out.  Is my art really not useful at all for the kingdom?  Can it really not lead people to Christ?  Are my grand aspirations of wishing to transform people's view of the world completely redundant?  I felt a frustration at Turnau's prognosis on my work that unsettled me.

But secondly, I think the reason I felt frustrated was precisely because Turnau had pinpointed something in my proud heart that needed to be disturbed and wrestled with.   As I thought more and more about his words, a deep sense of liberation occupied my heart.   What a refreshing tonic to my hard-working, high-achieving soul, that my own art, my own works, my own efforts, by themselves, cannot save.  My work can in no way supply the deep heart transplant that the world so desperately needs.  What a relief! So often I have had such grand aspirations for my work - too grand in fact.  Whilst I long for my work to reflect our awe-inspiring Creator God, and to be a window, a pointer, a signpost, a glimpse of his all-redemptive power and glorious future hope, it is a deeply humbling thing to recognise and stand by the Cross of Christ as the only thing that can save.  The Cross remains the only thing that can put us in touch with God himself, the divine, as that curtain is torn down.  The cross remains the only thing that can transform us as our sin is forgiven.   And day by day The Cross is the only thing that can make me into a better person as I continue live in light of it.

Overall I think Turnau's quote is wonderfully liberating as it lifts the pressure off me, and my work.  I am able to live and work for Jesus, my work is able to be a window, a pointer, a glimpse of the gospel in different ways, without the pressure for anything more.  And most importantly it shifts the glory from myself, onto the one who is wholly worthy and deserving: The Lord Jesus Christ.

Turnau's simple and liberating words have been a necessary pin-prick to my balloon of pride.

What about you?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A Theology of Art in Five Minutes

Just stumbled across this theological snapshot from John Piper - it is literally what it says on the tin: a Theology of Art in 5 minutes.  Grab a cuppa, have a listen, cringe at the Americanisms and be encouraged and spurred on in your creative endeavours!