November 22, 2014

Artists are made, not born

The Redemption (detail)
- E. Riojas
"See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach." (Ex. 35:30-34a)
I've often lamented the lack of good art in churches (I know: understatement of the year). Ultimately, the lack of art boils down to a lack of artists. Which isn't to say that God isn't distributing that gift as generously as he should—obviously, it would be foolish to find fault with the Almighty. But in my estimation, a good artist has equal portions of two things: God-given talent, and Godly training. A talented artist with no training may not even know he has a gift—it's untapped potential. When it comes right down to it, we aren't actively training artists. We're just waiting around for a harvest when we haven't planted any seed.

Martin Luther College, which trains all of our WELS pastors and teachers, doesn't offer any studio art classes. They offer two art-related classes: Art Survey and Art in Elementary and Middle School. The first must be woefully inadequate, and the second is geared toward teaching art to lower grades. But it leaves me wondering how people who have no artistic training themselves can teach it to others. If it seems like I'm being unfair—that I shouldn't expect our pastor-teacher training college to invest in art teachers and art curricula when synod resources are already stretched so thin—you're right. MLC isn't a liberal arts college. But it will always be the case that our resources are stretched too thin. Even if the synod had a surplus of resources, the visual arts tend to fall exactly at the bottom of their priorities. I'm not saying let's prioritize art above theology or hermeneutics or Hebrew. But is there room somewhere between music and basketball for that which our Lord and the church have valued so highly?

Based on the level of investment in the visual arts at our teacher training school, it's little wonder that the majority of our WELS schools don't have art programs beyond craft paper and popsicle sticks. What if our Lutheran elementary and high schools were even half as serious about art education as Luther was about music education? The worst that could happen is that within a few decades our laity would find themselves being less ignorant and apathetic about the arts. But the best outcome would be a steady crop of talented artists emerging, beautifying our churches, focusing our eyes and our worship on Christ, and instructing Christians through the visual arts.

Why should the devil have all the good artists?

Guess who is doing a great job producing artists? The Latter-Day Saints. I don't know what they are doing right, or where they are all coming from, but if you're searching for high-caliber biblical illustration, chances are about 1 in 3 that it's by a Mormon artist. (Full disclosure: I made up that statistic.) After the illustrious Arnold Friberg, there seems to have been a steady stream of realists coming from Utah ever since (e.g. Walter Rane, Jeffrey Hein). And, frankly, some of it is kitsch (e.g. Greg Olsen). But kitsch or not, it's talent largely wasted, as the LDS church buys the copyright for those beautiful works to use as propaganda for its teachings. There are few artists in the world (let alone in the Lutheran church) who possess the technical mastery of some of these artists. To me, that's a little embarrassing.

Just so you don't get the wrong impression, I don't judge artists purely by technical skill. Nor is realism the ultimate measure of artistry. The Lutheran artists I know of are more creative, are better at symbolism, and teach pure theology with their art (e.g. Edward Riojas). Which, in my estimation, makes them better artists all around.

Triptych (closed) - W. Bukowski
So to be fair, we need to see the positives, too. Lutherans are not doing poorly across the board. Bethany Lutheran College is doing an incredible job training artists. (Full disclosure: it's my alma mater.) I can't say exactly where I would be artistically if I had gone to school elsewhere, but I give Bethany much of the credit for the artist that I am today. BLC has a small but passionate art department that is making a perceivable impact within our fellowship. More than that, Bethany's Trinity Chapel includes stained glass and a huge altar painting by Bill Bukowski (even before altar paintings became cool). To me, that says that they don't just encourage artists to act out their faith—they put their money where their mouth is. The chapel embodies the idea that art can be as valuable a contribution to worship as music. In short, Bethany molded, taught, inspired, and pushed me to be the artist I am today.

Learn 'em young.

This isn't intended to be a commercial for Bethany. Because frankly, if you wait until you're an adult before you decide to pursue some kind of formal artistic training, you've already lost precious years. If you're a parent who sees artistic potential in your child, let him pursue the gifts God has given him, and don't worry about whether you think he'll be able to support himself. That's God's job. Besides, in hard economic times, I think we place far too much emphasis on a four-year degree. A private liberal arts college isn't exactly the most cost-effective way to get artistic training.

I think a major part of the solution to the artist shortage is to start providing artistic training at a young age. Not just for those who think they want it, but for everyone. Make it a standard part of your curriculum, and invest in it the same way you would in math, history, or science. And at the very least, get children into an honest-to-God art program by the time they're in high school.

LYA Triptych - J. Jaspersen
Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School has the talented Jason Jaspersen in their employ. Jason, another Bethany grad, has been teaching art classes there for 14 years. I envy his students; I wish that I had had an art teacher of his caliber in high school. As much as young artists need a skilled and experienced teacher, they also need a wise mentor. Jason has those qualities, and it's not hard to see in him the kind of traits ascribed to Bezalel in Exodus 35. Under Jason, the art program at MVL has blossomed into a program that, for some students, is the highlight of their high school education. Some would say that the art program is one of MVL's strongest suits. I say, good for them! Go and do likewise.

Parents and students have a lot of pull at schools—probably more than they think. Make inquiries, talk to your school administrators. Talk to other parents, and make a coordinated effort to get art programs established in our schools. Not just because your child may have a gift—which would of course be wonderful—but because our synod desperately needs your child. Even if he doesn't turn out to be the next Jason Jaspersen, we need laymen who have an appreciation of the arts. And by that, I mean a hands-on, historically informed appreciation. As opposed to "Oh, yeah, I liked that picture of a beach I saw at a hotel once..." Your child is our only hope! Take charge of the future of our church. Invest in your children, and God's kingdom will reap the benefit.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your glowing report! This issue has weighed heavily on my mind and heart since I was a high school student myself. It's been a tremendous blessing to be part of a solution.