[This presentation is a portion of Paul Burmeister's "Artist Talk" at the Bethany Lutheran College Reformation Anniversary Art Exhibition, delivered on October 26, 2017. Here he addresses the question: WHAT IS THE VOCATION OF A CHRISTIAN ARTIST?]
Being a Christian art student and being a Christian artist have some things in common because both of them are vocations. For example, I could have reminded you students that your vocation as a student is not exclusive of other vocations: you also have vocations in your family, you have vocations in your social relationships, and you have vocations as employees and citizens. This applies to the vocation of being an artist, often with even greater intensity. Students, think of your art professors and consider all of the vocations they are managing simultaneously — artist, professor, family (including being a parent or caring for aging parents), church layperson, volunteer, citizen, etc. The Christian artist has a lot to manage regarding his vocation; there are so many vocational obligations and responsibilities he must balance . . . while trying to nurture his creative soul and continue making art!
So, what is the vocation of an artist? Going back through history, the artist worked anonymously as a craftsperson, and his vocation was to simply make things, artifacts that had a specific function and observed a specific aesthetic. In the 13th century, however, artists were known as individual people and a particular genius was associated with the exceptional quality of their work. Vasari writes,
"In the year 1240, as God willed it, there was born in the city of Florence to the Cimabue, a noble family of those times, a son Giovanni, also named Cimabue, who shed first light upon the art of painting. While he was growing up, he was judged by his father and others to have a fine, sharp mind, and he was sent to Santa Maria Novella to a master, a relative who was teaching grammar there to novices, so that he could be trained in letters. But instead of paying attention to his literary studies, Cimabue, as if inspired by his nature, spent the whole day drawing men, horses, houses, and various other fantasies in his books and papers."
I find Vasari's account to be useful to understanding the vocation of an artist at this time: the artist's calling was bigger than himself, and it was willed by God. Cimabue's life of art was in service to the church, panels and frescos for chapels and churches. Indeed, Cimabue's vocation as a decorator was dependent on the church calling him to be among its many skilled artists and decorators. Listen to this:
"As a result, (his) work so astonished the people of the day, since they had seen nothing better until then, that they carried it with great rejoicing and with the sounding of trumpets from Cimabue's home to the church in a solemn procession, and Cimabue himself was greatly rewarded and honored."
Some of us here might consider this a golden age or an apex of artistic vocation.
By time of the Reformation, with the rise of the middle class and transition in systems of patronage, artistic vocation could be in service to church, state, and individual patrons. Dürer was commissioned for numerous important church decorations and was pensioned by the Emperor. His editions of prints and illustrations for books were sold by merchants traveling across Europe. I think it's significant that Dürer is also the first artist to do numerous self-portraits, a kind of egoist exercise that may have been unthinkable until this time. The authors of the Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists write: "(Dürer's) stress on the originality of invention – made possible in this marketable commodity (of prints) which required no previous commission – marks him out as perhaps the first truly 'modern' artist." My opinion is that a subtle but important shift in artistic vocation occurred at about this time. Artists, such as Dürer, were called by God, as all artists at all times have been, but now they were also in a sense calling themselves, to do artwork for which there was no patronage as a necessary condition of their work.
By time of the 19th century, Europe was in upheaval because of political revolutions and the consequences of so-called Enlightenment ideology, and the impulses of individual liberties confused the most basic role of vocation. Look to the 18th and 19th centuries to see how one's calling became a matter of personal choice and self-fulfillment. Artists were often of the artisan or middle class; indeed, Poggioli makes a compelling case for the view that 19th-century Romantic or avant-garde artists were often entrenched members of the bourgeois class they despised. The Romanticists looked inside themselves and reported out what they discovered. Individual genius received primary emphasis. Consider Gustave Courbet. In 1854, he refused to accept commissions for the Salon unless he was granted complete artistic liberty. When some of his works were rejected, he conceived his own show, an exhibition of Realism, for 39 paintings, including the very large The Painter's Studio; A Real Allegory. (Listeners please understand that Realism was a radical, social movement, claiming to possess an ultimately political truth.) One of Courbet's earliest supporters noted that Courbet was prone to flattering popular taste and shocking people at the same time —a propensity that can take us all the way to the mid-20th century and Pop Art movements.
To review: 300 years before the Reformation, it appears that what the artist's vocation obligated him to do was a settled matter —to make art in service of church and state; at time of the Reformation, it appears that the artist's vocation was transitioning, as a result of several internal and external influences; and 300 years after the Reformation the destabilization of order and the rise of individual genius fueled the modernist concept of the avant-garde artist, a type of anti-hero, an agent of exception and antagonism. Especially in the last 200 years, modernist priority and theory have crowded out the traditional understandings of artistic vocation. Is the artist a prophet, a provocateur, a theorist, a performer, a reactionary, an expressionist, a guerilla, a trickster, a shaman, etc, but probably not merely a craftsperson, decorator, painter, or master? Imagine how different a presentation on vocation might look at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Professor Bukowski and I received our advanced degrees.
I will simply propose this: the 21st-century Christian artist is called by God and by some kind of patronage agency to use his or her God-given talents to the benefit of others. This simple statement suggests that 500 years after the Reformation, the definition of vocation has not changed. Our vocations are God calling us to do his good work to serve others. On a personal level, 500 years after the Reformation I find it helpful to be reminded by Veith that every kind of work, including the work of an artist, is an occasion for priesthood, for exercising a holy service to my neighbor. I also appreciate Buechner's statement that vocation is the place where my deep gladness as an artist and the world's deep hunger meet.
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