Why Most Visual Art in Worship Isn’t Really Art

 

Don’t confuse art and design. Each employs different worldview. Designers create solutions. Artists create questions.

T hat’s a tweet I shot off one day recently. After I wrote it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I suppose it helped others, too – it turned into my most retweeted line of the year so far.

What did I mean?

 

Artists create questions.

Ask ten people to define art and you’ll get ten answers.

The very fact that art belies a single definition hints at its worldview. Art causes people to think differently about something. It unsettles; it raises questions. By use of affect, it forces us to reconsider our comforts and assumptions.

Art can be disconcerting to religious folks because it can tip sacred cows.

Art is capable of moving people to (re)consider a big idea because it is divergent – rather than pushing people to a single “point,” it is a kind of thinking that explores many possibilities, which results in a kind of learning that is different than the convergence of a single answer.

Art exists in worship because wise people know that we don’t just decide to do something, and change our heart and life, based on a purely cognitive understanding of a truth. Real change occurs in the consensus of our heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the artist’s way.

 

Designers create solutions.

Every man made thing around you is designed – as I write this, I see a pen, a computer, a chair, the carpet. Good design improves our human experience. A good chair affords the artist the comfort to sit and create.

A designer’s fundamental goal in life is to solve problems. I wouldn’t have made this statement ten years ago, because at one time I equated design and visual fashion. But while design usually has a visual component, it is not simply a “look” or trend, regardless of its application. It exists to help us do something better, whether as an interface to a smartphone or a means of processing information in someone’s presentation.

Essentially, design is convergent. When a designer solves an industrial dilemma like a vacuum cleaner that loses suction or creates agency branding that communicates a corporate vision, she is creating a solution to someone’s problem.

 

Art and design employ different worldviews. 

Art seeks meaning through inquiry and design seeks meaning through analysis. Perhaps this is why starving artists often have disdain for commercial artists (besides financial envy): artists prefer to ask questions, and designers prefer to find answers.

And there is more money in design than in art, because design is more easily monetized than art. It’s easier to sell design because it has a direct return on investment: you have a problem? I provide a solution.

Design is easier, too, in that it’s less tied to personal identity than art.

While design is more common, it isn’t superior. Both divergent and convergent thinking are worthwhile as a means of learning, and both improve our rational and spiritual experience. But they are very different, and when applied to teaching or any sort of idea communication lead to radically different results.

Now, what does all of this have to do with worship? Let me ask you a question:

 

How many points are in a parable?

Perhaps you have heard the story of the prodigal son. Here is my brief and inadequate summary: There are a father and two grown sons. The younger brother prematurely asks for, and receives, his inheritance from his father. He squanders it with hard living. When he finally returns home, expecting to receive his father’s wrath, he instead encounters radical grace and hospitality. But, a twist – the older brother is angry at his father’s forgiveness and generosity.

The truth of the prodigal son is myriad and depends on your perspective. A quick summary of ideas: from the perspective of the younger brother, it tells of the danger of hard living, but also about patience and trust and the value of honoring your father and mother. From the father’s perspective, it tells how to impart values, the importance of letting go of those we love, and how to offer forgiveness and demonstrate spectacular love. And from the older brother’s perspective, it is a reminder to the righteous to never forget what it is like to be the one who has been eating with the pigs.

As I progress through life, from son to father, my awe at the story has deepened. It contains many powerful truths. Someone might argue that all of these truths point to a single truth of grace, but that’s an easy response that would cheapen the Prodigal Son story’s power and depth. There are many “points,” or truths, to this parable.

The problem is that many church leaders have been taught, and teach, that parables always have a single point. That’s convergent thinking. I believe parables, like any good story, hold many truths. They are full of divergent possibility. They are Jesus’ art.

 

In spite of the recent focus on the arts in church, there’s still not much art in church.

For many years I was part of a cottage industry that made short films and screen art for worship. After a while I began to realize that, even as the quality of what I saw was improving, there wasn’t much art happening. No matter how beautifully made, most of our visual arts in worship seek to communicate a single point. They are designed. They push toward a specific solution, whether to set up a sermon topic, encourage people to serve, or what have you. Most visual art in worship isn’t really art.

Convergent thinkers, who seek answers, believe worship should make points. They can’t understand the worldview of someone who prefers to seek truth by asking questions.

Most visual art in worship is actually design. While I have no beef with design, there’s more to truth than analysis. There’s more than one point to a parable.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

17 Comments on “Why Most Visual Art in Worship Isn’t Really Art”

  1. Len, you have expressed a complicated thought well.

    Let me practice some of the thinking that I have been learning about signs. In my current study of signs I am learning about the differences in thinking. I really like the thinking of Pierce whose basic construction of sign is object, representamen and interpretant. The way signs work is through the coinherence of the object, representament and interpretant. When art is the sign, Pierce’s model helps to open up endlessly divergent possibilities as there are as many interpretants as there are persons and groups of persons to be the interpretant. However, the other way to understand signs is by Saussure whose basic analysis is a dichotomy of Signified and Signifier. Over simplifying the ideas, Saussure’s model is convergent thinking. Within the context of the culture there is one conclusion to be arrived at from the sign (signified) is presented. Pierce is more like art. Saussure is more like design.

    1. That’s good Byron. I haven’t done much study on this, but I have heard people make distinctions between sign and symbol. To make an analogy, and this is probably a simplification, sign is akin to design and symbol to art.

  2. Amen. Great post! I wonder if the lack of art in churches today comes somewhat from church leadership not trusting what artists might communicate (or how) or a fear that (gasp) something unexpected might happen and control would be lost. I would love to see more art being embraced in the Church today. And hey, we’ve come a long way from clip art & black and white bulletins (some are still hanging in there…) so maybe it can actually happen. 🙂

    1. Mike, I totally agree. Been thinking about this a lot lately, and how churches burn through creatives because creatives need space to explore and churches have deadlines to meet. Obviously this problem isn’t just limited to the church, but there’s an additional layer in the church when we attach theological significance to what is essential propositional and scientific thinking, which seeks to find a final answer but often ends up as control that squashes mystery.

      As Creative Director at my church, I consider that my job is two parts. One part is storytelling, and the other is creating an environment where storytellers want to be.

      1. You are right on all accounts. Love the way you describe your role in two parts, especially the creating of said environment. That’s a great win statement! Unfortunately, I have also seen some well intentioned folks say that’s their goal but reality is way different. It’s a complex issue but one I think we need to keep poking.

  3. This also comes down to what we think worship is about, in some way, doesn’t it?

    If worship is our self-offering to God, and then we see what God does in the midst and in response to this, then the ethos of worship may be a lot more artful, in part because exactly how we will offer what we bring in real time, and exactly what the Spirit will do– even within the constraints of SOME design of the ritual and the ritual space, for example– are necessarily mystery.

    However, if worship is instead conceived primarily as “messaging” or “marketing a message” to “consumers” or “hearers,” then if you want to stay “on brand” pretty much everything needs to support the “message” else it shouldn’t and needn’t be there. It’s all about design.

    Classically, Christian worship is the former. Christian worship has remained so in Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions for the most part, and there has been something of a recovery of this in at least some branches of Protestantism since the early 20th century.

    In my observation, the folks who are talking most about bringing art “back” into worship are, at least in the US, primarily evangelical Protestants whose traditions had long ago essentially banished art (literally whitewashing buildings inside and out, and destroying stained glass windows) and even, to a degree, the notion of worship as the sacrifice of the whole people, for a vision of worship as “delivering the truth” or, as I have suggested, “messaging.”

    Of course, there is a place for SOME messaging in worship, even in “worship as sacrifice.” But not everything in worship can or should be about messaging.

    We need both design and art in worship. We need enough design to know and experience worship AS worship, to support us worshiping well, and to enable us to hear the “planned” messaging for each gathering. But the reality of worship, when it’s truly about our self-offering and God’s response, is much of the “actual messaging” is not what any of us could have planned for or imagined. It’s simply what happens, what unfolds in the moment, or in the moments after the planned service has sent us forth.

    So design, ultimately, is in service to the art… in service to the process of a particular people offering their particular gifts to God in a particular moment, and then seeing what the Artist may do among us, through us, or with us.

    1. Well spoken, Taylor, and thanks for your contribution. A UM pastor friend of mine, Dan Roth, and I had a good conversation about this a while back, echoing some of the things you said here, and also talking about how the differences between Word and Table, or the Protestant emphasis of sermon and the Catholic emphasis of Eucharist impact our understanding as well. What we may be witnessing at a macro level right now is the collision and reforming of these traditions.

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  5. Interesting discussion and I agree with it as far as you have taken it.

    However …

    … after long experience in both “art” (a passion since childhood) and design (my day job), and many years of doing creative stuff in worship, I’d say there are other creative expressions, visual and otherwise, which are neither art nor design, because they are neither asking questions, nor offering solutions, by your definition.

    Namely, those expressions which are created for an audience of One, in the first instance at least. They are directed firstly towards God as expressions of prayer, worship, adoration, lament etc. Their purpose would be fulfilled if they were never seen or heard by another human. I have folders of artwork and musical fragments which no-one else will ever hear, more than likely.

    Now is this art? Is it design? Well neither, by the definitions offered in your article. So what do we call this kind of creative expression?

    And then there is creative expression which is intended to help people draw near to God by reinterpreting the verbal language of the songs with a visual expression. For example, I was “VJing” at a worship conference last Easter, providing motion graphics backgrounds during the worship. I can’t quite fit this into your definition either. I don’t think I would have described this as either art nor design.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, anyone?

    1. Great thoughts Richard. Thanks for posting. I won’t claim to have the answers, but I do have some thoughts, which I’ve been collecting and hope to offer in another blog post, possibly next week.

  6. Len, could you offer an example of what a good example of art in church/the worship space might be?

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  9. Great post, Len! This topic is intriguing and a revelation to me.
    As Creative Minister, I want to use all of the arts to promote the gospel of Jesus. It’s an exciting, fulfilling journey and I am keen to hear more of your thoughts on art, design and worship!

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