Why Most Visual Art in Worship Isn’t Really Art

August 27th, 2013

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

That’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.

Len Wilson blogs at LenWilson.us.

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