Jesus was a performance artist.
The account of Jesus’ prophetic act of turning over the tables of the money changers and letting out the doves in the temple (Matt. 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:15) was a needed response to an outmoded order of atonement and a deliberate performance. Jesus rebelled against the sacrificial system of the temple, as it, like the fig tree, was no longer bearing any fruit. His actions were loaded with symbolism and intentional gestures, and His purposive comportment aroused shock and intrigue to all those around Him. While Jesus’ behavior looked more political than radical, one must remember that in His day and age, these actions were nothing less than shocking. No, Jesus didn’t get shot like Chris Burden, share a New York exhibition space with a wild coyote like Joseph Beuys, or create the outlandish viral videos like Shia Lebeouf, but He did shake up the long-lasting social institution that governed Israel. Indeed, it was this demonstration that lead to Jesus’ arrest and eventual crucifixion. Jesus’ performance portrays one of the many ways that artists can engage culture theologically. In this post I would like to talk about the different ways that art engages God and culture, and how we can learn to appreciate it.
How Do Artists Engage the World?
Rebellious prophecy was just one way that Jesus approached social issues. The rebel-artist is the person who stands in the face of social injustices, critiquing the power-holding institutions and status quo. In this sense the rebel-artist is like a prophet offering transformative poetic utterances in hopes of catalyzing social change. Prophets seem rebellious because they are rebelling against a social institution. But, if the institution is corrupt, then that critical energizing voice is needed. Jesus’ rebellious gestures occasioned a necessary performance. But Jesus also approached social issues in many other ways. The world knew Him as a teacher, sage, miracle worker, apocalyptic preacher, savior, and prophet. Each expressive mode of action and reaction engaged theological and existential issues differently. In the same way, art engages culture and God in diverse ways. If the work aims to impart wisdom, or demonstrate a narrative arc, then rebellion would seem out of place. Successful art carries out its conceptual framework in the manner that is most fitting to the piece. If an artist’s conceptual framework induces social critique, then it ought to be, in some sense, rebellious.
Artists come in all shapes and sizes and fulfill an array of social roles. All artists engage culture, but the engagements vary as the artist’s conceptual framework shifts. Is the artist affirming or critiquing a part of culture? Is the artist promoting or breaking social mores? Does the artist have a political agenda, or is s/he disinterested? Is the artist’s work didactic or introspective? The artist’s approach portrays what sort of concept works implicitly in their art. Additionally, people engage the world theologically from different angles. One can speak about God and others through a number of disciplines (art, music, theology, politics, science, etc.), and in a number of ways. Art is a powerful means for communication that allows a person to communicate in holistic, and not only cognitive, ways.
How Should We Appreciate Art?
Art is not monolithic and one must be open to the many forms that a work of art can take. It is wrong to judge a specific work of art by rules that are irrelevant to the piece, just as one should not judge contextual theology by its historical accuracy. Art should be judged by the criteria that ensue from the piece’s internal logic.
This is one way that a person can appreciate a piece’s value from a place of neutrality. One can learn to appreciate art even if he or she doesn’t like it. A friend once told me that evidence of maturity is the ability to exist with ambiguity. Can we as Christians appreciate a work of art for its own sake?
I would like to challenge you to go to a contemporary art opening at a gallery or museum. Go to a cutting edge gallery and absorb the work that is presented. Talk to the artists at the opening. Talk to the other viewers. Exert your mind and body aesthetically. Be slow to judge, and take it all in. Art is more than a Bob Ross rerun or an “authentic” Thomas Kinkade print; it is a conversation. Art is packed and revelatory. Let’s give the artist the benefit of the doubt and assume that s/he has spent many hours grappling with a concept and its manifestation. What you see is a testament, a labor of love. I bet you’ll learn something about God and the human condition by appreciating art. If we approach art with generosity and curiosity, then perhaps we will walk away from the piece as changed people.