Confession: this summer, I walked into an art gallery for the first time.
Second confession: I loved it.
Third confession: I didn’t know why.
I’m a self-admitted art dilettante, with experience largely of the history-books-and-billboards kind. Walking into a gallery and realizing, two hours later, that I didn’t want to leave was quite unexpected. Walking out of the gallery and being completely unable to articulate why was even more unpredictable.
What was the last painting that caught your breath? When was the last time you walked out of a movie? What was the last book you didn’t finish – or did finish and promptly chucked at the wall? What was the last line of poetry that demanded to be spoken aloud simply so you could taste the words? Art is meant to seduce, provoke, pierce, bind, and unleash…but only as far as our willingness to engage with it.
We are creatives, not simply consumers. We create because it is inherent to us as bearers of the imago dei, but we consume because we live in a created world. What we consume informs what we create, and the processing of it is the bridge between the two. While for me it was the storied glory of the Scottish National Gallery, for you it may be the gut-wrenching grip of book hangover or the starry-eyed stumbling after an intricate movie. What was the last experience that begged to be processed and not simply consumed? As artists and souls in development, choosing to engage further is crucial to our growth. Can we dig past our first impressions and engage with the nature of that which we consume?
What you hated – why? Was it twisted, uncomfortable, badly-portrayed, or confused?
What you loved – why? Was its siren-song heard by a longing that should be encouraged or kept in check?
When you meet truth – will you know it? When you see beauty, can you tell me why it has captivated you? When you meet ugliness, can you tell me why it is ugly and not simply unique?
When we react to art, can we take a moment to ask why? Why couldn’t we put the book down until the last page? Why couldn’t we tear our eyes away from the spectacle – whether grotesque or wooing? Our experiences with bad art can and should be as formative as our encounters with the soul-enriching kind. While we should seek and laud the best kind of art, if we don’t learn to process the art we encounter, we may not recognize the best kind when it comes. Perhaps our responses reveal that we never dug deeply enough to see the creator’s intent. Perhaps our eyes need to see a little better to understand the honesty of horror or the triumph of ordinary life. Perhaps our moral compasses need an adjustment when we realize that what desires of our soul are being fed. Perhaps, when we stand before a self-portrait and marvel at the season of life captured, we will know better how to articulate why, and in doing so, nurture the imago dei we confess with our lives and our art.
It’s much the same as our faith: we can settle for the beauty of the sunset, or uncover what it says of our Creator. Eventually, maybe we will learn something of ourselves, for what God is this who can tear the sky with thunder and paint it gold at dusk? And who are we that we can taste both?