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Is Christian Art Christian?
Rev. Ron O'Grady

"Christian" art is impossible to define.
A strange confession in a magazine devoted to "Christian" art which is published by an organisation dedicated to Asian "Christian" art. It is, however, simply stating a fact.

It has always been the same. When the Asian Christian Art Association was founded in Bali twenty years ago there was strong debate about the definition of "Christian" art.

The closing statement of that inaugural conference included the sentence: "what constitutes a 'Christian' art or who can be called a 'Christian' artist cannot be decisively answered but we will continue to explore the implications of this question without placing too many dogmatic limitations on our discussion." These were wise words which time has shown to be prophetic.

There are three elements to be considered: the artist, the theme of the work and the viewer. All three are filled with contradictions.

A professing Christian artist may depict non Christian or even anti-Christian themes (e.g. glorifying war) while many who do not profess to be Christians have used basic Christian themes, especially the crucifixion, in their art. The fact that an artist claims to be Christian does not ensure that their art is "Christian" or vice versa.

Nor does the theme of an art work make it Christian. We have tended to assume that an art work based on a Biblical story must be Christian, but this is not automatically true. A painting of the patriarch Noah lying drunk on his bed may be true to the Bible but is it Christian?

The theme of the art work becomes even more confusing when we look at abstract Christian ideals. Often we have run exhibitions of "Christian" art and invited artists to submit works.

Some artists may search through their works and re-name a particular artwork to fit the exhibition. A sunset can become Christian Hope, the portrait of an old man can be given the title Faith and numerous garden paintings may suddenly become God's Creation.

Do these works suddenly change from being secular art to being Christian art simply by the changing of the title?

Our best hope for an answer is with the viewers of art. This is not an infallible indicator but there is some small legitimacy in claiming that Christian art is what we perceive to be Christian art.

Christians have had their faith transformed by an icon or a crucifix but equally they can have their faith transformed by a Monet painting of a water lily or the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa.

Neither of these latter two art works would be described as Christian art but clearly they can "do" something to the viewer.

This understanding moves us from Christian art to Spirituality and that is as it should be. It is the Spirit that gives life and it is the Spirit that speaks to our heart through the richness of art.

Contemporary African writer Ben Okri claims that "all art is a prayer" and then he adds that it is basically a prayer for spiritual strength. Great artists have always recognized a hidden spirituality in what they are doing. They are aware of an indefinable "other" which inspires artists and leads them into ever deeper creativity.

In these last twenty years the ACAA has published Image, run exhibitions and produced several books of Christian art. The selection process for these works has never been precisely defined except for the fact that the works should be of good professional standard. Exception is made when we feature children's art or works by promising young people whom we wish to encourage in their journey of exploration to express their Christian faith through their art.

In the end, it is not really important whether we define the work as "Christian" or not. What is important is that the art work speaks to the viewers and reminds them of the Christian values of goodness, truth and beauty. When this happens the art transcends its medium and takes the viewer into the realm of the Spirit.

This is the goal of artists who are professing Christians. Using inanimate materials in a combination of colour, form and texture they seek to produce a living work of art which will draw the viewer into an experience of God.

When this happens the work of the artist can make stones cry out, stars dance and trees sing. To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the images which these artists present will be for them the transcendent voice of God.

That is Christian art.


© ACAA - Asian Christian Art Association