In January 2020, Evangeline Denmark asked fellow Anselm Guild artists how we would respond to someone who wonders why artists don’t simply stick to making “pretty pictures.” Why draw people in anguish? Why broach darkness or disturbing matters of grief in short stories, books, and films?
The ensuing conversation made me realize how much I’ve gained from observing and being in community with thoughtful people who love Christ and His kingdom. Below is the response I offered. Much of my perspective on art has changed from being in this environment, and it’s one of the gifts I am most grateful for in this stage of adulthood.
I’ve asked two artist friends for permission to share their work and for some insight into the thought process behind their paintings, which you can find at the end of this post. Many thanks to Kory Denmark and Paulette Triplett for their generosity!
There are a great many others who have said this better than I’m about to, but here’s my response, as I thought about you all this afternoon:
Pretty pictures can be wonderful, and sometimes — for people like me who often need a counterbalance to melancholy and the darker underside of things — they can be life-giving. I’ve been through seasons when mental darkness so overwhelmed me with fear and sorrow that I had to stop watching a movie about the Holocaust because I could feel a panic attack coming on.
In those seasons, every ounce of beauty in nature and in short stories with happy endings and in beloved film scores was a rescue line, a foothold out of the pit to help me remember that God is a good God — so I don’t want to discount the viewpoint of those who are so deeply in need of healing that they ask for art that highlights hope.
But sometimes we simply want pretty pictures because we think that art is merely a decorative backdrop or a light form of entertainment. A pleasant backdrop in a plain hallway.
If we assume this, we miss calling Christian artists to their responsibility in the church and in the kingdom. The role of the artist is often to tell the truth and show the truth — not about the future, but about the present: the present state of things, and how it relates to the truth of God now. In this day and age, this means addressing our anguish, pain, dysfunction, nearsightedness, need for comfort, need for awareness of sin, and all manner of other things.
An artist in the service of Christ is not so different from a prophet in this sense (in the truth-telling function, not in terms of ordination): sometimes the artist makes way for her hearer to be jarred by reality so that the hearer turns more fully to God.
I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor, Asher Lev, and Eugene Peterson’s definition of prophets as I write this. But, Scripturally, a confrontation of the underside of humanity was necessary in the poetic art of the Psalms. It was necessary when Nathan told David the “fictional” story that would break his heart and call him to repentance. It was necessary in the parables that Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus, and the prodigal son, and the sower and the seed. It is necessary in the visual artistry of creation — the flowers of the grass that are meant to remind us of the fleeting length of our days, the majestic passages in Job that remind us of our size compared to God. It is necessary in the musical art of Mary’s Magnificat, in which we remember that the proud are struck down; and it is necessary in the grand choruses of Revelation, when the glorious song before the throne turns out to come from a great multitude who were slain for their faith. There is no getting around the grief and the trauma and the blow-to-bone suffering of persecution. But there is no comparison to their reward, either.
Given all this, I think I would simply say gently: it would be a pity if we asked all of the artists in the church to paint only pretty pictures. If an artist is to be faithful in following her Lord, we must allow her the space to play a role in the mission of the kingdom — whether that means plowing a heart to make it realize its own depravity, planting a seed of salvific truth, watering a young saint with kingdom-based beauty, weeding out the burrs of pride and sin that get embedded in our souls, or tending a prodigal soul who needs to hear that the mercy of God still applies to him.
Sometimes we need pretty pictures to nourish the hope of the church. Sometimes, surprisingly, we need pictures of anguish in order to do the same. When I saw Kory’s painting, I was struck by the similarity in intensity and anguish to Paulette’s rendering of Christ with the crown of thorns on his head.
Put them side by side, and tell me again that He came to take my brokenness upon Him. That He can sympathize with my weaknesses. I’ll listen. And what’s more, I’ll remember.
“When I set out to paint or draw a portrait, I like to find references that have some emotional depth or visual aesthetic beyond the generic ‘Olan Mills’ family portrait. The pain in this girl’s expression tells a story I wanted to recapture and explore.”
– Kory Denmark
“For those of us who have spent a lifetime seeking truth, freedom from guilty torments of the mind and depression, we pursue the seemingly illusive peace that passes all understanding. A few years ago I was in a deep, dark and painful place, crying out to God – in the dark night of the soul that was overwhelming me.
I saw Jesus on the cross and three times He threw back His head and screamed in suffering and agony. He then spoke to me: ‘I suffered and died for your pain; I know this agony you are going through and I bore it for you.’
In my spirit I saw His agony and suffering and I heard His screams so vividly and I wept. It was so real and profound that I knew I had to paint it, so as not to forget.
My 33 year old bearded son was going through hell in his life at the time and I explained what I saw and asked if he would model this for me as a reference to paint. I borrowed a crown of thorns designed for ‘The Thorn’ production and we went into the sunlight of my backyard, and because of what he was going through, he nailed it on the first shot! It was just what I had seen.
I went on to capture it in watercolor. This experience and image was profound for me in the process of release and relief for my body, soul and spirit. The process continued over several years with the help of sage midwives that helped me along in the birthing process into freedom, truth and peace in my innermost being!”
– Paulette Triplett