What is the connection between art and life?
In the Christian understanding of marriage, a man and woman cooperate with God, the source of all being, to welcome new human life into the world. We use the term procreation, rather than just reproduction, because the human parents cooperate in the act of creation. An artist picks up a paintbrush and pigment, or a chisel and stone, or some other tool and corresponding medium, and makes art. Does the artist need to cooperate with the Creator, before a new painting or sculpture enters the world?
Our creative ability is one of things that we have in common with the Creator, although our ability to make art is different in both quality and quantity from the Creator’s. God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. Human beings make art by rearranging substances already created by God. However, vital aspects of art, such as the artistic idea, vision, touch, movement, seem to emerge ex nihilo from us, as they are “new in all the world.” Our brains, hearts, etc., have already come ex nihilo from God, so we can’t really claim ex nihilo abilities. (Here the thinker, poet, artist and lover cry, “Foul,” because there is a divine aspect and wholly original aspect to creative work that deserves its due.) But in the physical execution, wherein the realm of idea or vision becomes a physical, tangible work of art, we always reform and rearrange materials already created by God. Yet, even here, too the artist feels a sense of the divine as he molds and remolds, learning in an uniquely human way to manipulate God-given matter with much of the delight He must feel.
Accepting that we do not, strictly speaking, create ex nihilo, and accepting the distinction between God as creator and human as maker, no one can argue that we are not wildly creative. Even people who say that they cannot draw a straight line usually turn out to have some other artistic talent. At the very least they will garnish their sour cream dip with a sprig of parsley; not even the sparrows outside the window bother to garnish anything. As G.K. Chesterton stated in The Everlasting Man: “Art is the signature of man.” When you see art on the walls of an ancient cave, you know that one of us has been there, thousands of years earlier, decorating the walls.
A striking theological observation, or perhaps more properly, demonological observation, is that the devil cannot make anything. He cannot create ex nihilo the way God can. And furthermore, he is shockingly crippled and deficient in comparison to us in terms of his artistic ability and execution. He cannot make even the simplest things that we can make. The devil can’t sew, weave, draw, dance, and contrary to popular opinion, can’t play the fiddle. (Even Screwtape can’t actually write a letter.) As a folk singer twanged: “The devil can’t make a pickle in the brine, much less a cucumber on the vine.” What he can do is seek the ruin of souls. But regardless of the ruin he makes out of human lives and loves, the devil (and anyone who cooperates with him) is nonetheless created by the Creator. The devil can only meddle in a world already created and governed by God.
To make things challenging for artists, the devil actively seeks the destruction of beautiful things made by human hands. He will try to prevent beautiful art from being made in the first place. Failing that, he will try to sow confusion and despair in a myriad of ways, as we try to preserve or restore its beauty. The devil hates artistic beauty almost as much as he hates an ordinary man and woman when they marry to “go forth and multiply.” Art reminds him of the Creator’s power and of humanity’s participation in that power. He despises our uniquely human reflection of God’s Image and Likeness.
Sometimes artists and designers are told that their work doesn’t really matter very much in the great spiritual struggle between good and evil. We may hear: “The Church is not about the building. The Church is not about stuff. It is about people. It is about souls.”
Is is true that we must care passionately for the salvation of souls. And we should not be pure materialists or at least not atheistic materialists. (See our post “Why are you such a Materialist?“) But if it is not about “stuff,” but only about spirit, that is religious dualism, the basis of destructive heresies such as Gnosticism. When a heresy “explains” life as a battle between spiritual and material forces, either spirit or matter is seen as lower, evil or (in the case of atheistic materialism) non-existent. When matter is denigrated, and human beings strive to live in the lofty realm of the spirit alone, they quickly find themselves in the devil’s preferred realm, since he is a purely spiritual force.
How should those of us involved in art and restoration deal with the difficulties and confusion that often attends artistic work? First, we should not be too surprised by the setbacks and difficulties we face when we do our work. Next, we should thank God that He has given us this uniquely human power to make beautiful things and that we are assisted by His Grace in this. Then, we should be persistent, doing the very best with the materials available.
This is where planning is important. It is important to have a plan to go back to when things become confused, noisome, etc., as they often will, during the creative process. Then, even though the devil sticks his purely spiritual nose in to our work, we can go back once again to our plan. Our plan cannot be just an idea, however. That is too purely spiritual. It should include a drawing or set of drawings, along with a written description of our methodology for the execution of the work.
What is the connection between life and art? In both life and art, we should be fruitful and multiply. We should not fear that we are merely wasting time and resources or indulging in a guilty pleasure. We give glory to God by generously welcoming children into our families and making beautiful churches filled with art, and by conserving and restoring as much as possible the beauty that past generations have left to us. We are doing our uniquely human work in cooperation with the Creator.
See also G.K Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, from the chapter entitled “A Meditation on the Manichees,” San Francisco: Ignatuis Press, 1986.
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