The Modern Idea of Artists and the Arts

Modern culture’s ideas about art seems to designate “artists” as a specialized elite group of art-makers. First are the elite who’s artistic skills are very high. They possess an extreme level of virtuosity—whether as in Paul McCartney or Yo Yo Ma. Second are those who have either gained some level of fame or who have somehow found some commercial traction with their art-making. Third are the artists who have gained some traction with the general cultural elite – this could include popular graffiti artist David Choe.

There is also another way one could describe the modern view of the artist in the Western Modern World; that of high art which is related to institutions of high art. Christian and philosopher Dr. Nicolas Wolterstorff writes the following:

A striking feature of how the arts occur in our society is that there is among us a cultural elite, and that from the totality of works of art to be found in our society a vast number are used (in the way intended by artist or distributor) almost exclusively by the members of that elite. I shall call those works our society’s works of high art. The works of Beethoven, or Matisse, or Piero della Francesca, are examples. Correspondingly , our society’s institution of high art consists of the characteristic arrangements and patterns of action pertaining to the production, distribution , and use in our society of those works of art.

These notions of works of and institutions of high art are mentioned here for three major reasons:

  • First, these categories are not biblical categories. They are not the categories, nor the realities that truly define either the essence of or the role of artistic expression, or artistic expressions themselves.
  • Second, these categories seem to form the unconscious grid through which most Church Leaders evaluate artistic specialists and imaginative human expressions they facilitate.
  • Third, Church Leaders generally hold these modern but incorrect views about the arts and artists; and that leads them to either see no connection between artists and the Church, or to fear that artists and arts might do damage to the agendas of the Church.

This preconceived concept about art, and its relationship to the Church, does major damage to the Church’s ability to pursue artist expression as a means for making worship central to the mission of the body of Christ. Church leaders need to reject this modern view of artist expression, which excludes the imaginative realm of metaphors, symbols and human expressions (or signal systems), and come back to a biblical view of the arts. In doing so, they will find new vitality for worship as the central agenda of the churches.

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