Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


The Vocation of the Artist - Sandra Bowden


So what exactly do we mean when we speak of the "work" of the artist?
by Sandra Bowden
“Vocation" and "artist" might be considered by many to be opposites. Don't artists just play? Are they not just pushing paint around? Do they really work? Once I went to a dinner with my husband and some of his corporate friends and announced I thought I needed a sabbatical. Their stunned reaction was, "Aren't artists always on sabbatical?" Be­hind these questions lies an element of truth; the lines between work and play for me are indeed blurred. I wake in the morning and can't wait to get to the studio to "play" at work. The explo­ration of new materials is very inviting; the struggle to make an idea work is exhilarating. So what exactly do we mean when we speak of the "work" of the artist? What does it mean to be called to do what an artist does? How do I find validity in being an art­ist of faith?
I consider my work as an artist to be a calling, a vocation. There has always been a compelling element to my work. I've never questioned being an artist, perhaps, because for me there has been no choice. The dictionary defines "vocation" as " ... a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action, a divine call to religious life; a call to or fitness for a certain career, especially a religious position; a work or career for which a person has a sense of special fitness."
An interesting point in this definition is that the word "vo­cation" was originally associated with those in religious life. Perhaps that is more relevant than we imagine. For the artist of faith, spiritual gifts and natural gifts must merge to produce work of significance.
Vocation as Mask of God
Martin Luther's writings about vocation indicate that in our work we all wear a "mask," that we are God's “mask” in the world. Good deeds are done in God's name, in the name of Christ. In so doing so we are representing God, wearing the "mask" of God in our world. Luther assumed that this principle applied to all-to the plumber, the laborer, the doctor, the teacher, and the artist. God knows our needs and so often provides for those needs in the form of another's work or vocation. As an artist, I find this understanding of calling to be one of liberation and freedom, knowing I have an appointment from God and that God is working in and through me as I participate in God's care for the world.
Historical Background of the Artist
The role of artists was not always what it is today. In most cul­tures, before the emergence of the modern period that began somewhere between 1500 and 1800, artists were primarily crafts people. Art-making referred to making objects according to certain rules of the trade. Artists were accomplished artisans who knew how to carve ivory, work in gold or silver, or paint illuminated manuscripts. Artists were members of guilds just like other skilled workers. Some were master artists and took the commis­sions for the shop. Others were helpers, apprentices, or servants. A studio was in fact a workshop with a subtle division of labor under the leadership of the person who now we would refer to as the artist, whose name we only sometimes know.
Artists did not have the high honor we tend to give them today (there were exceptions in the case of artists who were hon­ored by their patrons), but they did make beautiful things-so beautiful, in fact, that centuries later we still admire their works and often pay much to have their works restored in order to hand them down to the next generation. No European tourist brochure fails to show with civic pride these lasting monuments of the past. All these artifacts and monuments testify to the fact that the work of art was not simply an "add on." Rather, art formed an integral part of life. These earlier artists produced great treasures-towering churches, carved sculptures, stunning stained-glass windows, dramatic frescos, embellished illuminat­ed books, and astonishing altarpieces-and today these objects are of great value, and considered "art."
Why are their works still worth looking at? Some are master­pieces, but not all. Yet, most have a reality, a solidity, a human value, that testifies to great craftsmanship. They were produced along the lines of a strong tradition that handed down patterns and schemes, knowledge of techniques, and the skilled handling of tools. Their designers were, and felt themselves to be, heirs to the achievements of predecessors. Solid work, not originality, was the aim of earlier artists and beauty was the natural result of the appropriate materials and techniques handled with great skill. Works of art prior to the modern period were not necessar­ily meant for intellectual debate and a specialist's interpretation, but for use in everyday life and worship. Yet within tradition, rules, and standards, there was freedom. Although quality, rather that originality or novelty, was cherished, artists still were called to express themselves.
Art with a Capital “A”
The role of artists began to change in some European countries during the Renaissance when human achievement was given central focus. Religion gradually became secondary, and Renais­sance art reflected this new belief. Craft gradually gave way in the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, to an understand­ing of art as "fine art," and craft as something quite inferior. The artist became associated with genius, someone with very special gifts who could be used to give humankind objects of almost re­ligious importance-and art for some began to take the place of religion. Subject matter slowly became more secondary, leading in the twentieth century to the rise of movements indicating that the old norms and values were gone.
Crisis in Art
We now have come to a crisis in the arts. Art has become a kind of religion, a source of revelation, a mystical key to deep­est quests. Art--high art-has been lifted out of daily reality and placed in its own temple, the museum. At times it is as if the museum catalogue serves as holy scripture, a guide to some sort of "liturgy." Blockbuster shows draw crowds of spectators expect­ing art to have something to say about the meaning of life. If they have no religion or faith, the museum is as good a place as any to find one.
The idea that artists through their calling have answers to the deepest questions of life is both a blessing and a blight; if the ar­tistic search becomes an individualistic one, a search for mean­ing and identity in and through art per se, the enterprise is like a person looking in the mirror – everything is a reflection of self. Basically artists are being asked to design their own religion. Art becomes "Art for Art's Sake," a kind of irreligious religion, in a world where religion has no clearly defined practical role.
The Role of the Artist
Against this backdrop, what is the calling of the Christian who is also a visual artist? How do we find our way? The following insights are some thoughts on the vocation/call­ing of an artist as seen from my perspective of being a practicing artist of faith for 45 years. These principles are what has guided me on my journey as an artist. They reflect how I have adapted in an art world that is floundering and in a Christian community that has only just begun to rediscover the visual arts as a means of expression and devotion.
1. Follow your Giftedness
My first advice is that if art is not fun, rewarding, or something without which you cannot live fully, why be an artist? I am not saying that being an artist is easy, because it is difficult in many ways. But it should feed your soul, enrich and teach you in ways you know are right for you in following this particular talent. I find that my work as an artist has taught me, has suggested ques­tions I was to pursue, and has prodded, revealed, and rewarded.
2. Follow your Passion
Many people have talent, but talent alone does not make an artist. Much more is required. A strong sense of calling embed­ded deep in the soul, coupled with giftedness, is what makes an artist. It is important to ask yourself, is this something I can live without? Will something essential die within me if I give it up? This is about our need to be a more whole human being as we serve in the church and in the world, as we wear the "mask" of God.
3. Be a Birthgiver
Madeleine L'Engle has said in Walking on Water that the creation of art
... is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is will­ing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command ... I believe that each work of art ... comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me. And the artist either says, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord,' and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses.
The artist is a form-giver, one who gives birth to an idea. Giving birth involves conception (the idea comes to the artist); gestation (the idea begins to take shape inside the mind of the artist); labor (the struggle of making it come together and the willingness to fail in that attempt); birth (the actual creation of the work and its comple­tion) and care (rigors of framing, taking the photographs, writing about the piece, marketing, selling).
4. Create art that illuminates, not just illustrates
The artist does not deal with things just as they are; the artist's mission is to help all of us see, in nature and human life, what the physical eye, unaided could never discern. The artist's role is not to merely put on canvass what anyone can see but to show something we have not seen, or have only imperfectly realized. The artist is an interpreter, a teacher. Art is not merely illustra­tion, but illumination.
Finally, as you take up the journey of the artist: 1) Look at art, go to museums, and visit galleries. Always be seeing the real thing, making this a priority. 2) Become a student of art history. In order to have work of depth, there must be a solid under­standing of the rich visual heritage that we all have been given as Christians. Know that history. 3) Read. Be a student of many things. In order to have anything to say visually there must be an understanding of both your world and your faith. 4) Work at your art on a very regular basis. You cannot be an effective artist without hard work, discipline, and productivity. 5) Have a local group of artist friends to help keep you encouraged. 6) Be part of a larger group, a national organization like Christians in the Visual Arts. We were not meant to be "lone rangers."
Several years ago an exhibition of Warner Sallman's paint­ings at Yale University Gallery won national attention. Sallman's Head of Christ has functioned for many of us as a sort of Protes­tant icon. Cliff Davis took Sallman's Christ, clothed him in the apparel of middle America, cleaned up his hair cut, gave him a tie, and made him look a bit more "respectable." As I look at this picture I am reminded how easy it is to see Jesus through our own image. We create a Christ like us, rather than letting Christ recreate through us. As Christians and as artists, it is our highest calling and responsibility to let Christ be the "transform­ing" and form-giving force in our lives, so that our art can be infused with spiritual insight. Our vocation or artist's call is to translate a profound understanding of our faith and culture into work of integrity, quality, and beauty.
This was published as a chapter in Mel Ahlborn and Ken Arnold (ed.): Visio Divina. A Reader in Faith and Visual Arts, LeaderResources – Leeds, MA, 2009.