Lesson 1 - The Middle Space

What to do with our vocation?

“What to do with our Christian calling to the visual arts in the context of contemporary culture and the contemporary church?”  

That’s the central question of Cameron’s presentation, and if you’re a working artist, this thought has probably occurred to you. As Cameron explains, to be a Christian and a creative professional can feel like living in two separate worlds simultaneously without belonging totally to one or the other. 

Reflect:

  • Before going any further, take a moment to consider Cameron’s central question. How do you reconcile your calling as an artist with your Christian faith? What are some of the difficulties you faced in negotiating these two identities? 

A Double Consciousness

The Artist's Dilemma

Perhaps, like Cameron, you’ve felt yourself pushed into a “false choice” between your art and your faith. Do we really have to choose between Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ and Willem de Kooning’s Woman I? Is it really the case that it’s impossible to be serious about art and serious about faith? It can sometimes feel like it. How did we get here? 

From the sixteenth century on, Protestant Christianity and the visual arts have had a turbulent relationship. Protestants—and particularly Evangelical Christians—have been highly suspicious of the art world and have consigned the visual arts mostly to the realm of “the secular.” As a result, most conservative Christian art tends toward the saccharine, overly-sentimental, substandard, or just plain kitsch. What’s more, many Christians don’t see much purpose in artistic endeavors, especially when there’s spiritual work to be done—the work of pastors, missionaries, and theologians. 

But at the same time, the suspicion has been mutual. As Cameron explains in The Faithful Artist, from the perspective of the fine art community, “any artist who holds to such a [religious] confession will not be regarded as ‘serious.’” Modern artists in particular sought to deconstruct the religious legacy of the Western artistic tradition. Barnett Newman, an associate of de Kooning’s in the New York School, put it like this:

We are freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves.

Barnett Newman

The historical factors have made life very complicated for the Christian artist, forcing us into what Cameron calls a “double consciousness”—a dubious citizen of two worlds. 

Reflect:  

  • How have you experienced the “double consciousness” that Cameron describes here? Why is it difficult to be serious about faith and serious about art at the same time?  

  • How has your work as an artist been received in your religious community? Why?  

  • How has your Christian faith been received in your artistic community? Why?

A Personal Reconciliation

The Tragedy and the Glory

Ultimately, Cameron argues, art matters because it expresses the depth of human existence in ways that other media and disciplines simply can’t. We’ve all had the experience of having something deep in our spirit—something we cannot normally access and cannot articulate—unlocked by a piece of art. Beauty moves us in a way that little else can. 

Art and Christian spirituality parallel each other in this respect. In the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle:

To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it for me, its tragedy and its glory.

Madeleine L’Engle, "Walking on Water"

“What do art and faith enable us to do?,” asks Cameron. “To talk about the tragedy and glory of being human.”

Reflect:

  • Madeleine L’Engle suggested that when we talk about art and faith, we are really talking about the same thing. What do you think she meant by that? How do you understand the relationship between faith and art in your own work?  

  • How does your art capture the tragedy and the glory of being human? Are the categories of Christian spirituality helpful in describing your artistic work? Why or why not? 

Want to learn more? Explore the extra content for this course.