We live in a brand-saturated culture. We see icons everywhere. The most famous (and most cliche ones to mention in an article that references branding) are the McDonald’s arches, the Nike Swoosh and the Apple… well… apple.
These things have become a stamp of approval or disapproval depending on our experiences with the brand. When we see the Apple logo, we have an immediate response. Our brains don’t have to process our experiences again or think about all the places we’ve seen Apple products used or who we’ve seen use them. All of those sentiments are manifested at the sight of an apple with a bite taken out of the side.
The same is true as we drive down the highway and see a sign bearing the symbol for a park or a hospital. These pictures immediately tell us “I am a park” or “I am a hospital” and “that is enough information. That is all you need to know for now.”
Over the centuries, Christians have come to use symbols as visual representations of deeper philosophical beliefs. The cross, for example, has taken on dozens of official shapes, like the latticed and highly decorated celtic cross. And while the cross has taken on different proportions and embellishments, it often remains a symbol for sacrifice – for the laying down of Christ’s life for the sake of humanity. At other times, it has become a meaningless shape worn around the next or embroidered with flourishes on the back of a shirt.
The cross has become so iconic, that its shape represents many things to many people. It has become a symbol that we put on top of a building to distinguish it as a meeting place for Christians. It has personal meaning as well that may elicit positive or negative emotions depending on our experiences. Like a road sign indicating the direction of a hospital, the use of a cross often says, “This thing is Christian, and that’s all you need to know for now.”
In addition to the cross, we commonly encounter other repeated symbols – or icons – such as pictures of saints, the symbol of a dove or the ichthus.
But, recently, I’ve wondered :
Has Christian iconography killed the creative heart of the Church by allowing it to settle for the banal?
As I’ve had the opportunity to create interactive art installations around the country, I’ve often invited people into creating original works on a common space. And one thing I’ve noticed is that when the environment of the installation is particularly “Christian,” many – if not most – will present one or more of these icons in their work.
For example, if individuals are presented with a prompt like “use this canvas as a space to create visually as an act of worship,” often times the canvas, by the end of the experience, will be covered in crosses or transcribed Bible verses. And while these things might have intrinsic meaning to the participant, they seem to be a surface response to the prompt – something that could be presented without thought.
Additionally, because of their repeated use, icons have undergone an unspoken approval process. They have become a safe response that will ensure no risk is taken and that no criticism will ensue. It’s a stamp of approval to say, “this is a ‘Christian’ environment in which I’m expected to create a piece of ‘Christian’ art. This cross or scripture reference validates my work as ‘Christian’ approved.”
So it seems that we’re able to participate in what we would call “art” without thought, introspection or risk – three things that I would consider essential elements of the creative process.
So often, I am given the opportunity to partner with amazing organizations to create interactive art pieces. The people of these organization sand the work that they do around the world are AMAZING!
But I have noticed something. The prompt for one of the installations I have done before is this : “Here is a box covered in a grid of nails. Consider your relationships. Who are you most intimate with? Who are the next closest people in your life? Who is distant from you that you would like to rekindle a relationship with or reach out to for the first time. Now, choose a nail. This nail represents you. Stretch rubber bands outward from this central nail to other nails that represent these people in your life. As you do so, consider and pray over your relationships with these people.”
During the days the piece is up, there will usually be hundreds of people that will contribute to what will become an interwoven web of relationships represented in the form of overlapping rubber bands.
Yet, while this prompt in no way moves people toward religious iconography, many of the participants see the grid of nails as a series of cross after cross. In the first few days, there are at least a dozen rubber band crosses stretched over the grid. Perhaps in the minds of those participants, the piece had now become more spiritual or was now officially approved because it bore the mark of the Christian brand – the cross.
Simultaneously, these crosses allowed some people to participate in the piece without having to be introspective about their relational life. There was no exertion of mental or spiritual energy. It was an opportunity to appear – and perhaps even feel – spiritual without having to engage in spiritual discipline, introspection or listening.
And this is why I would suggest that Christian iconography has, indeed, made us lazy.
It has given us the impression that there is such a thing as “Christian art” and that works are labeled “Christian” – not because of the heart of the person who created it – but because of the content of the work. And works are labeled “art” because they are representational of a simplistic ideology or ideal.
Therefore, a Christian who creates from a low point or a dark place may create a painting or write a song that doesn’t contain elements of hope. It’s a recognition of the pain of life without the bow of the word “but.” This work might be considered by some as a work that is not “Christian” because of its dark content. And some might not consider it art because it is not representational of an ideal.
But an atheist could paint a winding road under a colorful sunset, and at the end of that road – off in the distance – a small cross. The message is clear. “Walk the road. There’s always hope. Just keep walking.” And regardless of the heart or motives of the creator, thousands of paintings just like this one are sold in bookstores all over the country every year. It is “Christian” because it has the stamp of the Christian brand. And it is “art” simply because it can be framed and hung on the wall.
But I would ask, “Which one is truly art?” The piece that depicts the trite and predictable – that could be created without thought or introspection? or the piece that is the result of the experience of the individual who – through living – has created through honest expression?
One of the things I find interesting is that – in writing this article – it’s simple to describe what would be contained in the painting sold in the christian bookstore. But the description of the other piece – created out of honest expression – is necessarily nebulous because these works of art would be as numerous and unique as there are people who would be willing to create them.
Now back the cross as an icon. It absolutely can and should have deep meaning. But the cross certainly does not reflect the easy way. It reflects the difficult road. It is a symbol of the Christ pleading that he would be spared of its pain – even to the point of sweating blood. It’s the symbol of the willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of another. And it’s a symbol of walking the hard road because it’s the right road.
So let me suggest this : The very message of the cross – in a way – prohibits us from using it in our art.
The cross prohibits us from taking the easy way out. It requires that we would search deep within ourselves and that we would embrace both the highs and lows of life. It means that we don’t live life flippantly but fully.
And so too must our creative process embrace this hard road. So we let go of our easy, pre-approved stock imagery and search the depths of God and ourselves for the path that only we can walk.