Are We All Artists?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Last Saturday, J. Mark Bertrand posted this quote, from Roger Osborne's Civilization: A New History of the Western World:

"Once the artistic element has been separated out from any area of human activity, whatever remains risks being devalued as mechanical and even contemptible. Once religious paintings were made into works of art, then any church decoration that did not bear the mark of a master was of little interest; any building not designed by a known architect was 'vernacular'; any anonymous folk song might be charming but could only become real art when arranged by a serious composer. Low art disappeared below the horizon of history until its rediscovery by social (but not art) historians.

"This legacy has not simply divided 'low art' from 'high art', but has decreased the possibility of artistic achievement in everyday life. Once the decoration of churches or the painting of icons on the design of cathedrals and guild-halls was taken out of the hands of wood-carvers and masons and journeymen and given to artists, then the role of the artisan was decisively degraded. Artisans may take pride in their work but they must know that it is always somehow second-rate. When the artist is removed from society and made into a special person, then the artist within each of us begins to die."

The quote reminded me of an article I read a few years ago (I think it was in Christianity Today, but I can't find a reference for you) about the historical relationship of art and worship. It seems that from the beginning, art has always been about worship, and it is only in recent centuries that we have birthed the concept of nonreligious art. In fact, there was a time in church history when artists didn't sign their work, because to do so would be like performing prayers for pay.

The only work Michelangelo ever signed was The Pietà. The story goes that he had finished his sculpture, unsigned, when he overheard someone remark that it was the work of another artist, Christoforo Solari. Distressed that another man was getting credit for his art, Michelangelo carved his signature into Mary's sash. Later he repented of this act of pride. He never signed another work.

A book I love about the writing process is From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler. Where he says that good writing (or, I'd guess, art of any sort) comes from the place where you dream, I would also say that it comes from the place where your deepest prayers are prayed.

And I wonder, if that is so, whether we all aren't meant to live out of that place, and whether we are not all artists, made in the image of an artist God who created the snowflake, who began with The Word, who wrote a redemption story full of unexpected twists, astonishing epiphanies, heart-rending violence, magnificent love?

Maybe we write our little books. Maybe we put dinner on the table (and think of the story of Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesen, and how the act of cooking good food can change things, ever so subtly and beautifully). Whatever we do, can we call ourselves artists, and do it all in love?

Thanks to Josa Jr. for the photo.