Monday, March 14, 2011

The Cost of Pretty

At a recent memorial service for a dear woman of our church, among photos of the woman’s 90+ years hung a couple of landscape paintings. Pastor Becca commented, “She used to offer some of her paintings for sale at the Fall auction. But usually they didn’t sell. It made me sad.”
I recently finished reading a novel about the art world, An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). The book covers the New York art scene from the 1990’s to the present(ish), focusing on a Holly Golightly-like character by the name of Lacey. Lacey ventures into the world of art for the love of it, but something changes in her when she works at a prominent auction house.
Martin writes, “At Sotheby’s, she started to look at paintings differently. She became an efficient computer of values. The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth…When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.”
Lacey pursues art for money’s sake, and hurts a number of people along the way.
It is quite easy to fall into the trap of viewing art through the lens of monetary value. Not just painting, but also literature, photography, woodworks, etc. If someone is willing to pay for it, then it has worth. Stephen King wrote in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scibner, 2000), “If someone is willing to pay for your work, you’re a writer.”
I’ve attended writer’s conference with fellow writers who seemed desperate to see their name in print. Desperate for the validation of a publisher saying, “I’ll buy it” and anxious that many readers would then buy it as well.
But most paintings are never sold. Most poems go unpublished. Most of the screenplays written are never filmed.
So was all that work pointless? Much of it was. But not all.
Paul wrote in Colossians 3: 23 & 24: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
The work we do, the art we create, can have great value, eternal value, if it is done for the Lord’s sake.
Recently, I watched the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy, a historical drama about the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo and Rex Harrison plays Pope Julius II. Both act with hammy abandon.
According to the screenplay by Philip Dunne (based on Irving Stone’s novel), Michelangelo did not want to take on the job. He was a sculptor who didn’t want to paint. He was not inspired by the assignment to paint the apostles. And he didn’t trust the Pope to pay him adequately because he had failed to pay him in the past.
He took the job because he felt he had no choice. He submitted to the authority of the Pope.
But eventually, he took the job. According to the film, he had a vision of the Creation of Man and that was the beginning of his epic recreation of stories of Genesis in what is arguably the greatest artistic creation in history.
According to the film, he was never properly recompensed financially. But I don’t think the artist ultimately cared about that; he came to see the work as something done for the glory of God and not himself.
Those paintings I mentioned at the beginning of the article? They do have an audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if God has his own gallery in which those landscapes are quite prominently displayed.

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