Five Lies Artists Believe
Art is undeniably a form of self-expression. But is the self what art is really supposed to be about?
Artists in the church.
For many, that’s an emotionally loaded topic. I’ve talked to a lot of creatives who work at churches and feel frustrated, and I think there are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes it’s because of practical issues (like pay), and at other times it may be because some staff members (including pastors) unintentionally devalue what the artist has to offer.
Having worked as an artist on a church staff, I get it; I’ve been there. And if you’re struggling, my primary encouragement to you would be don’t quit on the church, even if you quit your church job.
But I also want to encourage artists (including myself) to consider whether some of our struggles come from within us, from lies that we believe. The truth of the matter is that contemporary Western culture trains us to think of art and artists in ways that often conflict with a biblical worldview. The worldview underlying the popular view of creativity—both in terms of how artists talk about their art, as well as how cultural institutions present art—often has a profound influence upon us, even if we’d never state things so bluntly.
So let’s talk about five lies artists believe.
1. Art Is Ultimately About Self-Expression
If you ask someone what art is for, often the answer will often be: for expressing yourself. Whether at a gallery reception or an interview on the radio, the artist is treated like a celebrity—the visionary sharing their brilliant work with the masses. And of course, art is undeniably a form of self-expression. But is the self what art is really supposed to be about?
While a “secular” worldview focuses primarily on the creator of the art, a Christian worldview focuses on the Creator of everything, including art itself.
God, the creator of all things, self-expressed himself when he created humanity, his image-bearers (Genesis 1:27). So when we create, we are simply reflecting God’s imprint upon us.
A biblical worldview says that art––and indeed, every human activity—boils down to worship. We are to intentionally worship God as we exercise dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28), including when we’re using a paintbrush.
2. Our Value Comes From What We Do
In pop culture, the artist is often presented in almost religious terms—a lone genius creating an all-encompassing masterpiece which will have a lasting place in history. The artist’s value and identity, then, are based on how well he or she performs a craft. That view brings with it a lot of anxiety, as your personal worth becomes bound up in how good your work is and how well it’s received. Not only is this a form of idolatry, it’s also toxic for your art.
But as Christians, our value is found in being people created in the image of God, made children of God through adoption into God’s family as sinners redeemed by Jesus. Our personal value—our standing with God—is a gift of sheer, unmerited grace. We don’t have to work for it; we just get to receive it.
The things we do are supposed to flow out of that identity. The art we make, then, does not earn us worth, but is a response to God’s goodness in giving us gifts.
3. We Deserve Praise
Would you be okay if someone appreciated your art, but never knew your name? The sad truth is that sometimes artists become more interested in being celebrities than in making art. While it’s reasonable for artists to rightly be acknowledged for works they make, “getting your name out there” can also become a prideful obsession.
There’s nothing wrong with being commended for a job well done, but ultimately our job is to point to God and give him the glory for anything good in our lives. It’s not all about us—it’s all about him.
When we make anything good and true and beautiful, anything worthy of praise, we’re merely exercising the gifts God himself gave us. When somebody says “you’re talented,” that compliment ultimately belongs to God, the one who made us, who made art, and who out of his outrageous generosity gave us talents.
Think about this: one day, God will call you good and faithful. And the ability to be good was given by God himself—yet he still chooses to acknowledge us! That is how incredibly gracious God is.
Here we can learn from Johann Sebastian Bach, composer of some of the greatest music of all time, who wrote the letters S.D.G. upon many of his compositions. S.D.G. stands for Soli Deo Gloria, Latin for “glory to God alone.” That phrase is one of the Protestant Reformation’s Five Solas, and is at the heart of Christian faith. God is the one who gives us gifts and skills and enables us to utilize them. Giving credit where credit is due means that in the end, credit for anything good belongs to God.
4. Money Equals Validation
In many ways, the world tells artists that you are successful if you are self-sustaining—that is, if you are able to provide for yourself financially through your art. Certainly, not everybody buys into this belief. But oftentimes, an artist’s validity is measured in terms of their bank account. By this cultural definition, many famous artists—huge names like Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe—who were failures during their lifetimes are now only validated by the fact that, many years after their deaths, their works began to make money.
But for a Christian, receiving money in exchange for your art is ultimately, again, a gift from God. Your validation lies in the fact you have been made in the image of God, purchased by the blood of Christ himself, and adopted into his family. What God has done for you is what gives you value, not what you have done for yourself.
5. The Purpose of Art Is Whatever You Want It To Be
The Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is considered one of the most important directors of all time, and his striking, stark films have had a broad influence on cinema across the world. Many of his films deal with the loss of faith, and he himself seemed to have walked away from his Lutheran upbringing. Yet even as an apparent unbeliever, he said this, in an introduction to a book of his screenplays:
As Christians, our ultimate purpose in life is not to please ourselves, but to glorify God and make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20). So, too, regardless of what your art is, the ultimately purpose should fit into that larger purpose.
What that looks like in a particular person’s art may vary widely, of course, but we need to remember: our life’s purpose isn’t making art or receiving vindication—it’s knowing and following Jesus. If your view of your art (whether singing in a band or crocheting for relaxation) has no connection whatsoever with loving God and others, it’s time to reevaluate your art.
What It’s All About
For the Christian, the end-goal of any piece of art is not to impress someone or exalt the artist, but to exalt God. And for the Christian working in a church, it’s to faithfully communicate his gospel.
Our job is not to make the gospel appealing. The gospel is already beautiful, powerful, and appealing without the help of our helpless souls. Our job as artists is ultimately to present the gospel as it is. God is calling us to participate in the work that he is already doing, serving him with the gifts he’s given us. In the end, art is all about our Creator God, the maker of all things.
Eleazar Ruiz is an entrepreneur, graphic designer, author and speaker based in the Pacific Northwest. As a graphic designer, he works with churches, nonprofits, and clients ranging from Tooth and Nail Records to Paul Tripp. He’s also the Co-Founder and Head of Design at Patrol. Eleazar recently released his first children’s book, Golly's Folly, made in collaboration with his family. He and his wife Rebekah currently live in Vancouver, WA.