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In Defense of Art as a Christian Profession

"I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have." - Leonardo da Vinci.

I remember as a child coming across an opinion written by a certain prominent historical Christian figure expressing the idea that unless accompanied by songs of praise, instrumental music was wicked and wasteful, something in which a Christian should not engage --- or something to that effect. The author had detailed arguments about how such music merely “tickles the ears” and thus has no value because it’s not being used to embellish “thoughts of substance” like praise to the Lord. There may also have been a reference to how the Sons of Cain invented the harp and flute. It seemed absurd, so I did not expend much effort thinking about it. Over the years I occasionally encountered similar ideas in period literature, and I deduced that this concept had some relation to how “playing the fiddle” was at one time associated with the party lifestyle and excessive drinking. I think these inhibitions against instrumental music were an overreaction to alcoholism. People associated the fiddle with drunkenness, so avoiding drunkenness meant eschewing“instrumental music”.

When I first encountered the anti-instrumental argument, I think it was mostly intuition that made me disregard it. I was learning classical violin and it did not occur to me that it might be a sin. I certainly did not associate it with drunkenness. If I were to analyze the argument today, I would say that it does not hold up to scrutiny because the exact same sort of argument could be used to describe tasty food as “wicked and wasteful”. You might as well say, “Spices and culinary embellishments delight the palette, but are of no value because all we need is simple sustenance to maintain our ability to serve the Lord. It is sinful to spend time catering to the delights of the flesh when that time would be better spent in the Lord’s work.

Some people might be swayed by this sort of reasoning, but I think most people could identify it as obsessive and reductionist. Anyone who actively makes this sort of argument has a bone to pick. Maybe they know someone who spends too much time cooking or listening to music. In my opinion, such a "vice" would be more effectively corrected by a smack to the back of the head.

Similarly obsessive and reductionist arguments can be made against the visual arts and fictional literature. These arguments can be similarly dismissed.

I’ve heard people say that fiction is “lying” and is therefore sinful. This is reductionist. Telling a fictional story, which the audience understands to be fictional, is not lying.

I think I may have heard people say that art is “decadent” and is therefore something to be avoided. As an artist myself, I would say that if it puts food on my family’s table, it’s neither decadent nor self-indulgent. Plus, decadence is relative; a shapely loaf of bread would be decadent for an ice-age tribesman. Painting your walls would be decadent for a medieval serf. Having a family photograph taken would be decadent on the American frontier. And decorating your living room with a mural would be decadent for a middle-class family today. I don't know if murals will ever become the norm for middle-class home decor, but who knows what luxuries will become commonplace in the future?

God made us with appetites for music, tasty food, good stories, beautiful artwork, and intellectual stimulation of various kinds. Not all of us share these appetites, but barring special cases or Scriptural prohibitions, I think these things must be legitimate pastimes, pursuits, or even professions.

(Note 1: Just to be clear, failing to put food on my family’s table through art would be reason to find other work. This would be a "special case".)

(Note 2: There is a large amount of art that probably deserves to be burned, such as Rembrandt’s drawings of people defecating and urinating, but this is also a "special case".)

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