In my early 20s, I was strolling through the Smithsonian Museum and was captivated by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of a wizened, naked old woman, her beauty stolen by time. Far from voyeuristic, the sculpture, “She Who Was The Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife,” captured the fleeting beauty of the human form.
Over the years, I have often reflected on the wisdom in the sculpture, reminding me to seek that enduring and transcendent beauty that is not subject to the Fall. The sculpture spoke dozens of sermons into my young heart.
At its best, art ennobles, challenges, leads, comforts, or reveals. It tells the truth about God, the world, and the human condition. It makes goodness fashionable. It shines light into dark places. It teaches us what to love and what to hate. It reflects and illuminates reality.
At its worst, art lies. It can birth every variety of evil.
Or in its more nihilistic form it is fundamentally mute, simply stirring up random emotions based on how each person experiences it without communicating any discernible message. Such art becomes the end in itself, an idol to be worshiped for its own sake. C.S. Lewis wrote that “Every poet and musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the things he tells to love of the telling.”
Art is important. It defines culture and shapes laws. It holds the power to enrich life or to breed despair.
Poet Dana Gioia said that “all art is a language – a language of color, sound, movement, or words. When we immerse ourselves in a work of art, we enter into the artist’s worldview. It can be an expansive and glorious worldview, or it can be a cramped, dehumanizing worldview.” (The brilliant writer and thinker Nancy Pearcey cogently lays out the intimate connection between worldview and art in Saving Leonardo. We are indebted to her and her work.)
The Oakton Foundation sponsors a Visual Arts Competition because art with a discernible meaning that communicates the good, the true, and the beautiful is important to the building and sustenance of a healthy culture. We hope to incentivize the creation of art that will renew our culture.
Our plan is to inspire emerging artists, young and old, to be counter-cultural in their vision for their art, daring to create art that is Gospel-speaking and renews culture. Because we seek primarily to inspire the creation of art “at the edges of faith” – art that is subtle, not explicit – we have two categories of winners, with the subtle taking the prime spotlight. We hope to eventually build a cadre of like-minded artists, excellent in their craft, and provide them a platform to market their work. We hope this art will spark conversations of consequence, providing visual aids to inspire people to be salt and light in the world.
Some schools relegate art to a second tier behind the hard sciences, thinking it an “elective” like wood-shop or cooking. They are ignorant of the importance of art in shaping who we are and who we wish to become. At its best, art is not a diversion from life, but it holds the potential to point us to the reason to live. Art should be a rudder for the soul.
And not just the soul of an individual, but of a civilization. Culture is upstream from politics, shaping our laws and our mores. The 17th Century Scottish Parliamentarian Andrew Fletcher wrote, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” That’s why we should care deeply about what kind of art is being produced.
There is a place for pastoral scenes that communicate simple beauty. And there is a place for highly individualist art that is deeply personal but also fails to communicate a shared message to its viewers. But of these two genres of art there is an abundant supply. Where there is a shortage is art that is subtle and sublime yet discernibly communicating goodness and truth to a truth-starved culture.
We prize the ability to communicate deep truths in ways that are accessible on one level to those who are not followers of Jesus, but on a deeper and more profound level for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see (Matthew 13:16). In the realm of music, bands like Switchfoot and U2 have both done this very well. Lewis’ Narnia series did it for literature. We hope to see more of this in the realm of visual art.
Our civilization is suffering an epistemological crisis in our rejection of absolute truth. Not all truths are absolute, but some are. Absent this recognition, we are left with rampant individualism and subjectivism. Good and evil are reduced to preference. “If there is no God, then everything is permissible” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky). And so the artist is left with nothing more than self-expression. And viewers of art are left with only “what this means to me,” breaking the community that should be born from a shared understanding. The “glue” that should be art becomes a lubricant that distances us from one another. The result is increasing isolation, disharmony, and anomie. It is only “my truth,” not “our truth, our hope, our vision, our responsibility.”
The antidote is the affirmation that truth exists. Though we do not pretend to fully know every contour of truth, we believe it exists and can be known in some measure.
Flowing out of that affirmation of truth should come art that reflects the good, the true, and the beautiful without being trite, bombastic, or overly didactic -- not lighthouses with Bible verses (though there is a place for that), and not art so obscure that ten people have ten different interpretations of its meaning. We look for artists who can create a piece with excellence and discernible meaning to most people. The art may be abstract or realistic, but it should communicate a layered message that reflects the truth about the world.
A tall order, that. But a worthy one, too, because art matters.