LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ted Prescott, Part 2: On Identity

Sculptor Ted Prescott earned his MFA from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He has taught at several colleges, including Messiah College where he chaired the Department of Visual and Theatrical Arts, and Gordon College, where he led the Orvieto Program in Italy in spring 2003. He has a long list of exhibitions, commissions, and installations. His work has been included in many collections including the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art at UCLA, the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, and others. His grants and honors include scholarship grants and Distinguished Professorships from Messiah College as well as $25,000 from the Foundation for the Carolinas. He has been quoted or referred to in many books and articles. He edited and wrote the first chapters of A Broken Beauty (Eerdmans) and Like a Prayer: A Jewish and Christian Presence in Contemporary Art (Tryon Center for Visual Art). He has also written chapters for other books and magazine articles. A sought-after speaker, Ted also serves on the advisory board of IMAGE and served as president of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) from 1985-1989.

LeAnne: Many people say that art made by Christians will communicate their faith, either directly or indirectly. In your essay in the book It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, you argue that "not all art by Christians will express or communicate their faith in a discernable way" (p. 323). Can you explain what you mean by that?

In my essay, I argue that it is simplistic to think art made by Christians will inevitably express the Christian faith in some way. It is understandable that people—both artists and audiences—might want this to be the case. And many times art does express the world view of the artist. But I don’t believe that human artifacts and significations are always easily sorted into Christian and non Christian categories. We can’t always tell by looking at an artwork what the beliefs and intentions of an artist are, because there are areas of commonality between Christians and non Christians, and artists use similar means for different ends. For example, two portraits may both be well painted, affirm the dignity of their subjects, and offer insight into the sitter’s character. Apart from being told one painter is a Christian, how would we know? And, other things being relatively equal, does the fact that one artist is a Christian necessarily matter? Cannot the non Christian make work consonant with some aspects of a Christian understanding of reality?

It may be even trickier to discern intentions and viewpoints when the subject matter is Christian. I knew a pastor who had a reproduction of Salvador Dali’s famous Crucifixion of St. John of the Cross done in 1951. It is a compelling, slightly hallucinatory painting, and for the Pastor, an affirmation of Christ’s presence. But I’m not sure one can make the case that Dali’s painting—or his other works with Christian subjects—are the expression of Christian conviction. I want to tread lightly here—Dali’s “real” beliefs are unknown to me. But the whole body of Dali’s work and the statements I’ve read lead me to believe that his use of Christian subjects was not for the purpose of Christian expression. Yet my friend saw in it a confirmation of belief. Perhaps he saw his own beliefs, not Dali’s?

LeAnne: How would you encourage someone who is struggling with his/her identity as an artist and a Christian?

If I understand the question correctly, you are asking how to deal with tensions between two identities—as artist and as Christian. Apart from specific situations, it is difficult to answer. But tensions still do occur from two general predispositions. Christians tend to look for art that fulfills some concept of expressive communication which may be socially useful. And by in large the world of contemporary “advanced” art has neither the inclination nor the critical resources to engage thoughtful work that takes the Christian faith seriously. The friction between these two predispositions creates arthritis in the body of believing artists today.

LM: Is there anything more you'd like to say about Christians in the Arts?

In summary, the answers to this question and to the last question are a) make art; b) read, look, think, and pray; and c) give due respect to good, serious work—regardless of who made it.


mandy said...

this encourages the songwriter in me. thank you for sharing!

LeAnne Benfield Martin said...


I'm so glad! Thanks for letting me know.



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