Friday, 20 June 2008

Cultural Transformation: Authentic Art

Christ called us to live in a way that reflected the truth within us: the truth of Christ.

How then, does our art communicate something of this truth? Perhaps it begins by making work that is rooted in authenticity. By that, I mean art that is honest, sincere and points to the truth.

The dictionary definition of authentic is that which is “genuine and original, as opposed to something that is a fake or reproduction.” Art that moves beyond Air Guitar mimicry will always seek to be authentic. We might be inspired by or reference greater artists, even imitate but always as an act of tribute and not one of mere copying or plagiarism.

An authentic artist seeks to point to the truth. When Christ explained what the Kingdom of God was like to his followers he chose to do so in the form of a story. “The kingdom of God is like a pearl”, he said or “the kingdom of God is like a net” elsewhere.

These stories were artistic keys that unlocked a door to understanding something infinitely more difficult to understand yet true. His storytelling art was an authentic use revelation of a greater reality. Was Jesus telling lies when he told such parables? Was he tricking his audience or posing riddles to confuse? Of course not.

Like the actor who tells a story through someone else’s eyes or the painter who constructs a visual myth, the stories of Jesus were as compulsive as they were revelational. Christ’s followers kept coming back for another listen. Even the disciples asked, “Teacher, what did that mean?” "Tell us more."

In the same way, our art can stimulate the same intrigue over matters of truth. Rather than spoon-feeding reality to our audience we can engage, get under the skin, cause the audience to come back for more and ask, "What does this mean? Tell us more." All the while pointing to a greater reality found in Christ. This is authentic art.

Interface 08

Interface 08 is approaching fast for 4-7 July.

INTERFACE 08 is a creative convergence I'm involved with of students and professionals in the arts and media who love the Lord and want to see him glorified in the creative industries. As the end of term beckons it’s the end of a year for some and the start of a career for others. Before you jet off for that beach holiday or summer project why not meet with fellow Christian creatives to converse the joys and challenges of serving Christ in the arts.

Interface is a mentoring conference; our speakers don’t talk at you: we talk with each other: This year we'll be thinking through... Life After Art College. Creative Careers for Christ. Self-Expression versus Godly Communication. A Christian Understanding of Dance. Design. Music and Art. Art and the Bible. Visual Communication and Why Evangelicals Don’t Do Art.

There’ll be all the usual open mic shenanigans, show and tell, plenty of prayer, worship and good times. Everyone has the chance to show recent work and to bring your own ideas to the table. Would be great to see you there.

Check out the link on the right.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Cultural Transformation

How are cultures transformed for the glory of Jesus?

You may have spotted the underlying theme of this blog is the role Christians can play in the cultivation of the creative arts for Christ. What role can art play in the transformation of minds and character?

I wanted to write a couple of blog entries reflecting on this question. Please do leave a comment with your ideas too.

Whenever we speak of transformation we have to begin with the gospel. The only means by which our broken culture can find hope is through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. As we hope for transformation we hope by the grace of the gospel. It’s the gospel that brings salvation.

Paul encourages the Philippians to live in a manner that reflects the glory of God. We might say the same of our creativity,

“Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” (Phil 2:14-16)

In our art and in our lives we hope that there is something attractive to those who don’t share our deepest beliefs held in synergy with the proclamation of Jesus’ gospel so those who don’t know might hear, in hearing believe and in believing receive eternal life. We shine like stars and we also hold out the word of life – the gospel of Christ.

Second, we hope for transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit (Christ’s Spirit).

Think back to how Adam made culture in Eden. As he worked the land, the Spirit brought a groundswell of water to cultivate his efforts. When we make culture we always do so in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Think of Bezalel who developed skill, ability and knowledge in design which were gifts of the Spirit (Exodus 31). Think of David who wrote music primarily for the Lord and then later used for communal worship.

Third, we hope for transformation in the name of Jesus.

If we read that with Hebrew eyes we read it as “in the character” of Jesus. Our art is a gift to the name and character of Jesus Christ and for him to do with as he will. Imagine art make with excellence for the fame of God and not the artist. Imagine art with credibility, authenticity and character by the grace of Christ’s gospel, through the power of Christ’s Spirit and created in and for the name of Jesus Christ.

What might that look like? I invite you to keep dancing with me as I try to work this out in my own art and thinking…

Why is this blog called ‘Beyond Air Guitar’?

Thank you so much for reading this blog.

I’ve been surprised and touched by how may people have been tuning in and engaging with what I’ve written. Talk about incentive to think about what I’m writing! May I reward you commitment to reading this blog by asking you a favour… Please do not believe what I say. Challenge these words. Question them. Probe, search and debate what I say. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “TEST EVERYTHING” (1 Thess 5:21)

Please do leave a comment and let me know what you’re thinking and making. Is this blog useful to you? What shall we discuss together?

The blog started with the article 'Beyond Air Guitar'. If you want a bit of background click on the link to May posts on the right and 'Air Guitar Art'

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Our Creative Mandate (Part 5): Cultivating Creation

Creativity is an act of hope.

Creativity carves order and harmony from the chaos. An act of creativity can offer direction where there is uncertainty, illumination where there is darkness or consolation where there is mourning and despair.

To create is to fulfil something of our creation mandate to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Put another way, God’s instruction to Adam and Eve was to cultivate creation and steward it for the Lord. From the word cultivate stems from the same root as the word culture. We are to make culture, bringing growth and blessing as we create.

Not all acts of creativity bring hope. We might say that murder, rape and terrorism: flying a plane into the twin towers are all creative acts yet they do not bring glory to God. Far from cultivation and blessing these acts bring pain and destruction. They stand against God’s desires for His creation.

Not all works of art bring glory to God. Some, by motivation, worship worldly ideals and attitudes rather than honour Christ and his commands.

The freedoms we enjoy as image bearers to God are gilded within a framework of responsibilities. As we create we are to care for the earth, not bring harm.

Today we continue in the legacy of Adam who was the first to cultivate the land. Like Adam, we take hold of that which God has given in creation and in us and we work it. In the groundswell of God’s spirit we pray for the germination of our creativity so that it multiplies, bringing renewal and blessing to the world.

We multiply, enrich, bless, enlarge and grow that which is good whilst restoring, renewing and redeeming that which is broken. We sing, write, dance, skip, paint, sculpt, preach, cook, dig and plant. We cultivate for our King. We make culture for Christ.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Our Creative Mandate (Part 4): Go Ape

Paul Cezanne rarely discussed his painting on the public platform but in a rare interview conducted for a Parisian newspaper he admitted to a form of plagiarism. “ I aspire to be like my predecessors,” he confessed, “building on their legacy.” He was speaking of his artistic hero and painterly father, the French classical painter, Nicholas Poussin.

Cezanne recognised the importance of legacy in his own artistic practice, drawing inspiration from those who had gone before him and, in some ways, imitating their creative gifting.

In a previous blog entry I encouraged fellow Christians in the arts to move beyond mere mimicry in their art: to strive for authenticity, excellence and innovation for the glory our God; to move beyond air guitar. Thanks to Rechord who responded with the comment, "Some art/design/music 'needs' to ape in order to respect its audience and/or its commissioners, and therefore fulfil its purpose in a loving way." I agree and it’s important we hold the biblical mandate for cultural innovation with that of godly imitation. How do we learn from those God has generously gifted with creativity without plagiarising or turning our artistic heroes into idols?

Imitation is a thoroughly biblical value when approached in a godly manner. In fact, it’s part of our creation mandate. In Genesis 2 we read that man is made in the image of God and, as such, is embossed with the blueprint impression of God: Human beings are an imitation of the creator God. Imitation is a biblical value even Paul recognises in his letters encouraging the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 4:16) and the Thessalonians to become imitators of the Lord (1 Thess 1:6)

In the creative arts, how do we imitate in a way that brings glory to God? Are there times when it is appropriate to mimic? How do we know what to imitate? Perhaps we can gleam some help from Paul’s famous words to the Philippians 4:8, substituting “think about” for “imitate”,

‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

One of the most appropriated phrases in Baroque music has to be that of ‘Air on a G string’ by J.S. Bach. British band Procul Harem wrote ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ with Keith Reid’s curious lyrics surfing over the top of Bach’s haunting melody, “We skipped the light fandango / skipped cartwheels ‘cross the floor / I was feeling kinda sea sick / but the crowd cried out for more.” (What on earthy does that mean?!) Anime composer, Shiro Sagisu, re-worked the piece for the soundtrack of the Japanese animation film, Evangeleon. It appears in the Beatles film, Yellow Submarine, David Fincher’s Se7en, Halloween, The Spy Who Loved me and even THAT advert for Hamlet cigars.

What happen to this piece of music with each consecutive imitation? Is Bach’s original somehow tarnished by the appropriation or are the imitators building his work? Do they plagiarise or imitate, copy or pay tribute?

There are times when it is appropriate to appropriate. There are times when we ape.

As image bearers of God we should be aping Christ all the time. As a painter I am indebted to artistic giants who have gone before me on whose shoulders I aspire to climb, not for the sake of mere mimicry but to learn from their creative gifting so that I might be able to better my own creative efforts for the glory of God.

Gather We, No More

A few people have been asking to see some of my recent painting. Apologies to those who caught this image already on my previous blog but here we go: my most recent painting completed four weeks ago.

So here we go, hot off the studio wall. This is oil on canvas83cmX52cm. The church commemorates the meeting point of the ancient Iclanders: the yearly 'Alping' gathering was the focul point of the communities' calender. The Apling was an annual festival where all social ceremonies and law speaking would take place. The painting is something of a lamentation for the loss of community and titles, 'Gather We, No More'.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Our Creative Mandate (Part 3): Holding the Keys to Culture (not Gozer)

I know I know… yet another film revealing both my age and my geekish tendencies but you have to admit, this one was great, wasn’t it?

Forgive a crude link to a theme but the notion of ‘holding the keys’ has captured my thoughts for the last couple of days.Beyond the mere freedom to create in the presence of our God we are called into a mandate with responsibilities for our creativity. As image bearers of God we are charged with the cultivation of the earth: God did not say, "Let there be culture" but entrusted the culivation of His creation to us: as if we have been granted the keys to culture by which we protect and unlock that which God has invented through His word.

After God has created man in his image he says to them,

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:28

There are four instructions given here: to be fruitful, to increase in number, to subdue and to rule. What do they mean? How do we follow these instructions in the arts?

I’ve already said a few things in a previous blog about bearing fruit and multiplication. There was a literal instruction for Adam and Eve to go and have kids but the instruction moves beyond mere reproduction of the species: God’s command comes in the context of developing culture across all of creation. The first humans were to bless the earth and blessing means to enlarge, increase, multiply.

When we read “subdue” it brings negative connotations to us at first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament the word is used to describe the crushing of nations, literally translating as “under the heel” or “crushed down” but Genesis doesn’t prescribe a tyrannical oppressorship of culture. Far from it. We are to bless creation and cultivate fruit, not reduce and oppress. Our subduing of culture marks more our authority in creation as those who rule over it as image bearers of the ruling God.

As Uncle Ben once said to Peter Parker, “With much power comes much responsibility.”

Recently, I heard Ted Ternau speak at the European Leadership Forum on this subject of stewarding creation. He described our role as something like "zookeepers of the imagination". I thought it was a great analogy. If you’ve ever been to a zoo where the animals are badly kept you’ll relate to the sense of despair and hopelessness the animals convey. A poorly kept zoo yields despairing and hopeless animals. As we serve as custodians of God’s creation - this precious gift of God for our enjoyment and care – we are to manage it well, taking care of all areas of society and culture.

I see it something like holding the keys that unlock culture: realise it’s full potential. What are these keys?

They include integrity, sincerity and authenticity: we are called to reveal something of truth in a created yet fallen world. They include humility, prayer and hope: we understand that it is the power of God’s spirit that brings new life and leads our partnership in new creativity. They include artistic invention, critique and hard graft: the tools by which Adam first began to cultivate creation back in the Garden of Eden.

As we hold out the keys to culture we do so in wonder at the gift of governance God has entrusted to us and, if you’re anything like me, with a certain sense of awe that makes you cry out, “How do we do this Lord?”

Monday, 2 June 2008

Our Creative Mandate (Part 2): Dancing in the Rain

Ready for love... with a smile on your face... and... erm... ready to buy a Golf.

It's an extraordinarily generous gift of God that we can make art. He didn’t have to make us creative but by His choice here we are writing, singing, painting, sculpting, designing, acting and dancing. That God allows us to build on what He has already created: to re-create; to make complex and diversify is an astonishing outworking of His character.

God did not say, “Let there be culture” but commissioned Adam and Eve to cultivate the earth with Him and for His glory. Adam is commanded to name the animals: a task of ontologically inventive significance. Prior to Genesis 2 it is only God who names the animals. Now, Adam is granted a creative partnership with his maker, reflecting the image he bears to his sovereign father. Amazing!

When I look back to the creation mandate I see so much that helps me to understand this great human task of being creative.

Take Genesis 2: 4-6.

"When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens- no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground"

In order for creation to cultivate there needs to be two vital ingredients: an action of God and an action of human beings. In this case man works the garden and God brings the water: as Adam worked the land God makes a groundswell of water under his feet bringing life to his efforts - cultivating the land and bringing growth. This is a creative partnership between God and man that we see throughout Scripture. Think of Bezalel who (in Exodus 31) is filled with the gift of God's Spirit (God's action) and works with skill ability and knowledge (Man's action) producing the creative fruit of the art of the tabernacle. Think also of David who wrote songs and hymns while alone in the wilderness. Think of Ezekial and Hosea who changed societies through creative acts inspired by the word of God.

If our creative mandate is to cultivate all things (make culture) how do we experience this groundswell of life in the arts? Do we still experience it or is this just a Genesis thing? How does God bring life enriching water to the creative industries?

Our part seems clear: like Adam we are to work and care for our culture. We are to work well: “Work with all your heart as working for the Lord…” as Paul puts it to the Colossians (3:23). His part is to operate His Spirit. As we work, write, sculpt, dance and sing we do so in the hope of God’s Spirit who brings growth and blessing (enlargement) like the water in the creation story.

I invite you to skip along with me as I try to understand something of what it means to work in the groundswell of God’s Spirit and make art for His pleasure: creating and cultivating; making art in the water; dancing in the rain.

Our Creative Mandate (Part 1): Before I am an Artist I am a Human

After several attempts at starting this blog entry I realised that I was jumbling into something that would be better worked out through a series of entries. So bear with me, good people. Here’s jumble number one with more blogular rambulations to follow in good time.

There’s a sub-plot to Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner that emerges as Harrison Ford runs for his life across the rooftops of the futuristic distopian city trying to escape Reutger Hauer’s brilliantly portrayed replicant human. In the climax, Hauer crouches before his Nemesis and delivers his eulogy: a dying monologue on the subject of mortality. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? He articulates one of Phillip K Dick’s favourite questions, What is a human? Where have we come from? How long have we got? The questions beat down like tears in the rain... Rain. There'll be more of that later.

As I’ve been thinking through what it means to make art beyond air guitar I’ve found myself coming back again to the story of Genesis and our creation mandate. Of course, our understanding of the freedom and responsibilities we have as artists stems from our understanding of the freedoms and limitations of being human.

We have life but we are finite: so we can create and bring renewal through our art but only within the limitations of fallen and broken people. We can make art of celebration, wonder, and praise: proclaiming great joy but we should also lament in our art: recognising that not all is good in the world. Our art, like all humans, exists in the tension of a world that is wonderfully created yet deperately broken, awaiting the hope of Christ's return.

The nature of man’s existence has been the subject of countless writing and has perplexed the greatest minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries. Not surprisingly, the bible has much to say on the issue. As Christians, we believe that our purpose and identity are ontologically entwined with the likeness we bear to our creator God. The jewel in the crown of God’s creation is the only creature privileged to bear His image, man.

God created man in His own image.
In the image of God He created him.
Male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27)

As image bearers to God, we inherit many of His attributes. God is a spiritual being, therefore we have a spirit. God is a physical being and so we have physicality. God is a moral, relational and social. In the same way we each have the ability to make decisions about what is right and wrong, we all look for relationships to find fulfilment and would mostly all want to belong in some form of community whether that be a family, friendships, peer groups or some other form of society. All these attributes of our humanity originate from the blueprint God, fashioned for us when He created us like Him.

In the same way just as God is creative so we are creative. There is no need to justify our creativity. To make art is as human an activity as eating a meal, going to sleep or enjoying being with family. Art is a gift from God, poured lavishly upon us and in making art we fulfil something of our purpose on this earth as human beings.

We are not just free to create, however: we have a mandate. As those made in the image of God we must be creative. Just as we are spiritual, physical, moral, relational and social beings so likewise we are creative. To suppress our creativity is tantamount to denying our humanity. This does not give license to acts of creativity that are irresponsible or harmful. By no means, the gift of creativity is given that we might praise God and bless (bless = enlarge) His creation, including one another.

In Genesis 2 Adam and Eve are placed in the newly created Eden and commissioned them with the unique task of cultivating creation:

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
Genesis 2:15

The work cultivate comes from the same root word as culture: as Adam and Eve take care of God’s creation they are commissioned with the stewardship and handling of culture.

What were Adam and Eve commanded to take care of? In traditional illustrations of bible stories we often see Adam as a gardener (with Eve standing naked behind a conveniently placed bush and holding a rabbit). Adam and Eve were not just to cultivate the garden, however, they were commissioned to subdue the whole earth (Genesis 1:28). The rivers under their charge would flow out of Eden and beyond to Cush, Asher and Havilah: a region rich in gold and precious stones. In other words, their curation would have a wider effect on the cultivation of future societies. In Eden itself, there was a plethora of vegetation and animals but also the rather mysterious trees of life and also tree of knowledge of good and evil. Whatever we understand this tree to represent it is clear that it was more than just a plant and the first human beings were charged with it’s care even though they were prohibited it’s fruit.

So what do we make of this mandate to work and take care of creation?

First, we say again that the mere act of creativity reflects the image of God's character in us. Being creative is part of the human expereince God inteded us to enjoy. As such, we don't need to justify making art any more than we need justify riding a bike or eating a meal. Second, it is clear that we work to cultivate all creation, including the arts. Third, we understand that to cultivate creation is to make culture (the two words stem from the same root). As I paint, write and work I am reminded that, like Adam who wrote Eve her first love song (see Genesis 2:23), I am commissioned with the stewarding of culture: defending it and making it. As I try to be a husband, son, friend and brother I am likewise reminded that Adam administered an intimate culture through Eve and his children. To be an artist is to be human, to be human is to cultivate, to cultivate is to work in and take care of culture.