Panel Discussion: Christian Perspectives on Art and Culture (An Excerpt)

Image courtesy of Favian Ee

Last month, I attended a fascinating art exhibition organised by CRU and held at Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. DO YOU BELIEVE IN UNICORNS? showcased a wide range of works by Christian art students and graduates from LASALLE, NAFA and NTU. Its theme centred on issues related to personal world view and the wider culture. (A detailed review of this exhibition is found here.)

There was also a panel discussion titled “Christian perspectives on art and culture” towards the end of the exhibition. Poet Aaron Lee (AL) moderated this insightful session with installation artist Julienne Tan (JT), photographer Sean Lee (SL), missions worker and artist Patrick Ng (PN), and theologian-musician Philip Satterthwaite (PS). Here is a snippet from the discussion which I just wanted to capture for posterity.

AL: What do you think is the role of the arts for the Average Joe?

SL: One thing I feel very strongly about is that art need not be useful. For example, when we ask the question what role should it have, it’s like — what should it do, should it do something? Does it need to have a material purpose, or utility? I guess there are many kinds of art, and some art is activist, which is great, but I also think it does not need utility. It needs only to exist.

What does reading a book do (if it’s not a self-help book)? It’s hard to say what it does, but we know that if it is not there, something precious is gone. For me, when I read stories, I don’t choose a book by what it will do for me. When I think about it more deeply, I find that the fact that it exists, and that I want to pursue it, is a clue to the meaning of the universe. I think we write stories because we are being told that our lives are stories and there’s a grand narrator. This is a clue that there is such a thing as a God.

When you look at the sunset, it’s made up of different colours. When we look at it, we don’t really think about how these hues of red, orange and yellow come about. We look at it and immediately we recognise that it’s beautiful. So it’s a built-in thing, this capacity to appreciate something beautiful. The thing about beauty is that it has no utility actually, and that is the glorious thing about it.

PS: What goes beyond utility? The fact that we’re dressed in different colours, the fact that when we go to a restaurant, we expect our food to be presented in a certain way…art is just there. We don’t have to ask about its place in society. It’s intrinsic to us. It’s one of the ways in which we explore questions of meaning and shape our experiences.

PN: I kind of resonate with what Sean said. I feel, in a certain way, that art can be an end in itself. Yes, it accomplishes things, it does things, but it just is because God is. Whenever I take a picture of a sunset, I like to put up the caption, “God is the Ultimate Artist.” He created the world in such a way that art is a part of it. Beauty is a part of it. Art is a tribute to the One who is most creative.

It’s intrinsic but at the same time, it also does things, that’s the beauty of it. Art communicates, art connects, art just brings about a higher level of appreciation of the beautiful things in life. It just makes life that much more liveable and bearable.

JT: I agree in as far as it pertains to beautiful art. But I think you know there’s art that doesn’t exist to be beautiful. There’s the kind of art that will puzzle the Average Joe. When you walk into a gallery and you don’t understand it, what does art do for you? And I think that there is art that doesn’t exist to be beautiful, but raises questions, is confrontational, and makes you think about things. I think for an average person, and even for artists as well, for art that we don’t necessarily appreciate, there’s always something to be read and learnt because I think such art seeks to tell you something about the world we live in. Each piece of art is a product of an artist’s worldview, and if anything, it’s a good mirror for society today whether we agree with it or not.

AL: How should the church treat artists and what they do? Artists are notoriously hard to disciple, and churches often have a lousy track record in discipling artists.

JT: Firstly, I’d like to thank this church for hosting this exhibition. This is one very good way to partner with artists. As you can see from this exhibition, there are many other genres of art besides drawing and painting, there are installations…things which might seem strange but they are the product of the artists’ deep Bible Study, prayer and processes in their life. Through making the work, they now have a deeper understanding of God’s Word.

If you’ve seen the visitor’s notes on the noticeboard outside, there were questions asking what you believed in as a child and what you believed in now. And if you’ve read some of the answers, what they show me is that some of the people came here feeling lost and angry. But when they came, I think that they got it. When they saw these works, they understood what the artists wanted them to think about and they responded openly. Many of these visitors are art students themselves, and it proves that these works spoke to them in a language many others cannot convey. A church can look at artists as missionaries to places where it cannot go, to reach people who would never step into a church otherwise, and speak their language.

The church can train us (Christian artists) to pray for our friends who are hurting, train us to spread the Gospel and take it to the next level. The church has to be a safe environment where we can bring our friends back. Our non-cookie-cutter friends need a safe place and feel accepted. They may look different or sound different or have different habits, but they need a safe place. Artists are glaringly absent in the church, and they need to be back in His family. If you want to use arts as an outreach, we have to be ready to accept artists as they are when they do come in.

PS: The church needs to send the message that to be an artist is a genuine calling from God, that it’s not an inferior calling. The church has to give young artists a certain freedom to develop their own vision, their own way of saying things. I imagine it takes a number of years for an artist to fully understand and express themselves in a particular medium. If they seem to be expressing things that don’t seem very obviously Christian in character, the church should try to make the appropriate allowance, and even encourage such explorations and developments.

SL: There’s this tendency to think that if my job does not directly serve another human’s needs in a practical way, it somehow shouldn’t be a calling. I don’t really think so. I think people are serving in different capacities. Perhaps this is the main point: make people feel that being an artist is a worthwhile and valid vocation. In fact, an artist is reflecting an aspect of the nature of God by creating things. Music, paintings, novels, photographs — they reach places that sometimes sermons cannot reach.

PN: From my personal experience, 30 years as a Christian and 20 years in ministry, whether it is church or a Christian organisation, a lot of times when the leaders are not for certain things, it’s because they just don’t get it. People are afraid to deal with the unknown.

I feel the first step, as Julienne said, is to be open about it. Here are your agents who can reach people you otherwise could not. Everything that needs to be out there in culture needs a long time to be proven right (or wrong). If you keep looking at KPIs and needing to check off every little item on that checklist, it would be close shop and go home. That’s why the music and arts scene is the way it is today, it’s because the church has long checked out centuries ago.

I live my Christian life through my art and people see the whole me. It’s about going out there and letting people see Christ because of who you are and your art. The best kind of converts are the kind that come seeking because they saw something, and not because you tried to shove something down their throats.

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