The Spirit Behind Art
an Essay by Daniel Botkin
Illustration by Daniel Botkin - Published in Gates of Eden 2005
I have often heard people use the words spirit and spiritual when talking about art and art-related topics, but I have rarely if ever heard anyone explain what the somewhat vague adjective "spiritual" actually means when it is used to describe art. As an artist who makes his living primarily by writing articles on theological subjects and teaching the Bible, I would like to share some things which validate the idea that art and the creative process are, indeed, spiritual.
We are created in the image of God. There are several aspects of God's nature and character which He imparts to His human creatures, and one of those aspects is His urge to create. As a matter of fact, the very first thing the Bible says about God is that He created: "In the beginning God created..." In the Hebrew text the verb "created" actually comes before the subject "God," thus emphasizing the importance of the creative urge and the creative process. The creative urge is in us because we bear the image of God. We desire to create because the One from whom we derive our existence has a desire to create. In this respect we are like God. We want to do on a small scale what He did on a much larger scale when He created the universe.
Thomas Cole, a painter of the Hudson River School, said it this way: "Art, in its true sense, is, in fact, man's lowly imitation of the creative power of the Almighty." The 20th-century Christian mystic A.W. Tozer took this idea further and suggested that even the atheist and agnostic artists may be inspired by the God in whom they do not believe. In his book The Pursuit of God, Tozer wrote the following: "It is my own belief (and here I shall not feel bad if no one follows me) that every good and beautiful thing which man has produced in the world has been the result of his faulty and sin-blocked response to the creative Voice sounding over the earth. The moral philosophers who dreamed their high dreams of virtue, the religious thinkers who speculated about God and immortality, the poets and artists who created out of common stuff pure and lasting beauty: how can we explain them? It is not enough to say simply, 'It was genius.' What then is genius? Could it be that a genius is a man haunted by the speaking Voice, laboring and striving like one possessed to achieve ends which he only vaguely understands? That the great man may have missed God in his labors, that he may even have spoken or written against God does not destroy the idea I am advancing."
Of course not all people have the creative urge like artists do. Why is this so? Contrary to what many artists believe, it is not because artists and poets are more God-like than non-artists. Different individuals are gifted with different measures of the various aspects of God's character. We artists have been given a large dose of the creative urge, but many of us severely lack some of the other aspects of God's character -- things like patience, humility, common sense, mental stability, and emotional soundness. So let's not think of ourselves as being superior to non-artists.
The account of the creation in Genesis shows that God's creative urge caused Him to bring order out of the chaos of the primal creation, when "the earth was without form and void" and when "darkness was upon the face of the deep." As artists, we are following the example of our Maker when we labor to achieve order and harmony in a work of art. When we apply and blend colors to a canvas, or mold and shape clay, or piece together various materials, we are, like God, bringing something new and unique into existence. Of course one major difference is that we, unlike God, are not able to call our raw materials into existence.
Most works of art require a series of steps -- preparation of materials and media, preliminary work, roughing in, filling in details, etc. As we carry out the steps which are necessary to bring about our creation, we are imitating our Creator, for He, too, created in stages, six to be exact. During the six days of Creation, God completed each of the various steps, and when He "saw that it was good," He went on to the next stage the following day. The satisfaction we feel as we see a piece of our artwork taking shape is similar to the pleasure that God felt as He created the universe. "Thou hast created all things," proclaim the four and twenty elders around God's throne, "and for Thy pleasure they are and were created" (Revelation 4:11).
We artists are sometimes accused of being impractical, especially by people who see little or no value in creating art unless it puts bread on the table. My wife, who in other respects is a good wife, is one of these people. Some time ago I told her to meditate on Genesis 2:9, which says, "And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food." I wanted to see if she would get the same Divine revelation that I got from this verse. Not being an artist, she didn't get it, so I had to explain:
"Notice that there were two reasons for the creation of trees," I told her. "The first and primary reason was to be pleasant to the sight. The secondary reason was to produce food. As an artist created in the image of God, I have a holy obligation to follow this same Divine priority. My first concern must be to create art that pleases the eye. Whether or not the artwork puts food on the table must be of secondary importance." My wife didn't buy it, but I'm still working on her.
When we complete a piece of art, the creating process is finished. There is one more thing we want to do, though. We want to exhibit our work so it can be viewed and enjoyed. In this, too, we imitate our Creator. The Bible says that at the end of the sixth day, "God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good." We are told that at this time "the heavens and the earth were finished." The week was not yet complete, though. God was not totally satisfied with the universe until he added a seventh day, the Sabbath, which He blessed and sanctified to be a weekly memorial to His Creation. A universe that was merely "very good" was not enough. It needed an element of the holy in order to be complete.
The sense of satisfaction that we experience when our work is exhibited and enjoyed by others is similar to the sense of satisfaction that God experiences when He sees people enjoying His creation at the end of each week on the Sabbath. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his classic The Sabbath, Its Meaning for Modern Man, draws a parallel between art and the Sabbath: "The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation: as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we. The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common."
I agree with Heschel, and I believe that the same holds true for art. Man's love for art, like his love for the Sabbath, is also the love of man for what he and God have in common.
The above essay by Daniel Botkin was published in Art Calendar, a business magazine for visual artists. The author grants permission to reprint his essay with the following conditions: The essay must be reprinted in its entirety without any form of editing and must be attributed to Daniel Botkin.