Art and the Reformation - On being a Christian Artist 500 Years Later

Paul Burmeister (Waukesha, Wisconsin USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Paul Burmeister, a Minnesota-born artist and educator, teaches design and illustration at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and has previously taught at three institutions of higher education. He paints in acrylic on a variety of supports and explores a variety of themes. His intellectual interests include the doctrine of vocation and concepts of time. He may have the world’s best collection of Elvin Jones recordings. He and his wife live in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

[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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Justin Wilkens (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 8:15:17pm
Mr Burmeister,

I greatly appreciated the ideas that you presented in this article. One section that stuck out to me was your story about Vasari, and how he was called by God into this artisitic vocation "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". This stood out to me, because in all times and places, and no matter what jobs or vocations we may have everyone can always be assured that we are doing what God wants us to do. This comforts me because I am studying to be a pastor and I know that there will be many difficulties throughout my ministry, but I can always cling to this knowledge. A question I have regarding your article is how can we make it clear to people in the congregation no matter what their vocation may be that God has them where he wants them to be (in terms of job, and even financial situation)? Thank you for your contribution to the conference!
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-06 9:23:18am
You're welcome, Justin. I am not a pastor, so my expertise on preaching and teaching is limited, right? I have been an active member of congregations my entire life and served in many church offices, so I have plenty of experience observing how vocation has been preached and taught in WELS and ELS. Your question is timely to me because just yesterday I participated in a between-services Bible study on Luther, where other lay members lamented all the effort and expense that Christian churches in history have allocated to the "opulence" and "luxury" of visual art. To his credit, and my gratitude, our pastor noted that Old Testament worship involved a visual aspect and that New Testament worship has been enhanced by a natural, pedagogical alignment with art. My pastor understands my vocation.
So I guess my first answer might be that pastors should make the effort, in humility and respect, to learn something about the vocations of their members. Christian empathy can go a long way to talking about the value of vocation in individual situations.
Another thing I think I have learned is: while our justification (God's saving work for us) is clear, and while vocation is clearly about God doing his holy work to provide for the earthly needs of all people, the particulars of an individual vocation often do no provide clarity in present experience. Curtis Jahn has memorably written to me that very few vocations feel like the captain of the ship; most vocations feel like swabbing the filthy decks over and over again. So maybe my answer is to remind parishioners that vocation is usually about the theology of the Cross; we put down our needs and desires in order to take up the needs of others.
Just a couple of quick thoughts, sorry.
Grace (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-02 3:05:16am

Mr. Burmeister,

Thank you for your commentary on the concept of a modern-day Christian artist. I greatly appreciated your article and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I especially liked when you wrote, “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!” As I was reading this, I stopped for a moment to reflect on just how valid that statement is. Far too often, my other obligations seem to suffocate my creative spirit. As a college student, there is always a huge batch of homework or an activity or a project that must be done, and this usually takes precedence over art. I wish this were not the case, as it is so very important to exercise all of one’s God-given abilities. Sometimes, if I haven’t done art for a while, I feel a sting of guilt. Reading this, it was nice to know that I am not alone.

One thing I wondered while reading this article was, “when did artists become free agents that operated outside of the church?” I am currently taking a Fine Arts course, and we just learned that almost all artists were, at one point, under the patronage and control of the Christian church. I was just wondering if you had any commentary on this?

Thank you for this thought-provoking contribution! God bless!

Paul Burmeister 2017-11-06 8:56:43am
Thanks, Grace, for sharing your reflection on how the Christian must manage a number of vocations simultaneously. I especially noticed your mention of "the sting of guilt" experienced as a real feeling when that part of your personality has been neglected. "The sting of guilt" is a common feeling for artists, Christian or otherwise?, because they become aware something about their well-being or balance is being upset.
Regarding your question: remember, the history you are learning is probably framed in a Western context and probably somewhat simplified; your professor is probably speaking of the Byzantine through proto-Renaissance eras—artistic expressions of a Christian theme certainly dominated these centuries of Western art history. The situation in the 21st century, of course, is vastly different.
In another part of my presentation (not published here) I included this thought: "The Christian artist who desires to create work that is explicitly Christian faces these challenges—to place artistic excellence in a position where it is not displaced by piety, to find an audience for the work at a time when patronage is mostly local and sporadic, and to be ready to face the opposition when critical theory is biased against the work." The second clause (about audience and patronage) has been true, with rare exceptions, for at least 200 years. You might want to look at the Saint John's Bible project, for such an exception. Here, the world's top talent in calligraphy and illumination have produced a comprehensive masterpiece that fits Sir Kenneth Clark's description of excellence—(I paraphrase) "above all the work of artistic genius absorbed by the spirit of the time in a way that makes specific experiences universal."
Sam Koepsell (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-02 11:22:48am
"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"

Goodness. How easy it is to forget that our modern concept of the artist is an extraordinarily recent development. This line, and the rest of the excerpt for that matter, really served to remind me that, despite the differences in patronage, the artists of today still share the same vocation: to glorify God and edify one another. I often find myself lost in a desperate attempt to achieve originality and innovation in my art, and because of it can lose sight of what is truly important about my art. God tells us that there is nothing new under the sun; I'd like to thank you for reminding me that WHAT I'm making is not as important as WHY I'm making it.
I do wonder, however, what with the modern artistic boom of the last century, how the dynamic of pursuing the artist's vocation has shifted. In the time of Luther, if you could paint, you painted well and in a certain way for a certain people with a certain source material. Nowadays, the term "art" applies to everything from mono colored canvasses to derelict snowshovels. WIth such a hugely growing field of what is considered "art," how can the Christian Artist avoid becoming lost in the sea of critical interpretation and artistic oversaturation?

Thanks again for your contribution, and God's blessings on your work.
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-06 8:29:08am
Thanks, Sam, for wrestling with issues of artistic vocation in the modernist eras. I think confessional Lutherans especially struggle because our search for Truth is carried along by the faith that Truth rests in the Word—an ultimate, objective reality. Conversely, there is no ultimate, objective reality in the domain of art. Maybe there never has been, wherever Art has been practiced with a self-sustaining or self-perpetuating force of will? The Christian artist should not despair, however, because her call is personal, from a loving, Creator God who has known her before time (and before the modernist era with its idolatry of theory) and is preparing her for eternity. In addition, may I argue the Christian artist should be careful not to simply close off the world and dismiss the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp without considering why they are important to the history of art in the last 100 years?
Don Moldstad (BethanyLutheran College) 2017-11-06 11:34:31am
Nice article, Paul. Wish I could have been at the opening to hear it in person.
Erin Malsack, Shawna Abbott, Abby Lowrey (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-06 4:53:32pm
Thank you, Professor Burmeister. Something that I always find interesting when I consider how art specifically applies to vocation is the understanding of calling. I believe many people, myself included, either choose to identify themselves one of two ways. “I make art” or “I am an artist.” It’s interesting to consider how that thought process has evolved over time especially in the context of religion. Is art something I do or who I am? I think personal conviction in this question greatly influences how an individual approaches art.
Shawna Abbott (WLC) 2017-11-13 3:40:35pm
This is the first semester at WLC that I have found a love for art and creating it. I agree with Erin on the conversation of 'I make art' or 'I am an artist.' I have always considered myself to be someone who makes arts verses being an artist. I think that Erin would agree with me on some degree. At an different angle, you could consider that same for the different types of arts (performance included) and how you consider your role in that as well. Are you giving God the glory? Or are you giving credit to yourself? Compelling questions that we rarely think of in the process.
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-07 9:27:52am
Hello. So, do you think a calling in art is special, or unique, relative to other callings? Allow me to propose several things for your consideration.
First, who does the choosing in your calling? We like to think it's us, but there are so many factors and influences, even in our youth, that lead up to the point where we begin to "choose" for ourselves. And whose needs are we to choose for—the needs of ourselves or of our neighbors?
Second, identity is a tricky concept because our culture places emphasis on the achievement of an identity, whereas, identity has philosophically been defined in terms of giftedness, or something that accumulates over time, not the result of our achievement.
Third, as you are aware, identity is usually defined by either what we do or who we are. The Christian framework is, what we do is not as important as who we are. Stanley Hauerwas and Joel Biermann argue what the Christian does ought to look like what the Christian knows about herself. The Lutheran framework, which Biermann does a great job of explaining, is that what we do follows from our being baptized into the family of God, having become heirs of the righteousness Christ earned for us . . . and therefore, living as children of God. This framework reminds us, in every vocation in the present—no matter what we have "chosen," no matter how it matches our perception of identity—we are to honor God and serve others in love.
Last, you write of "personal conviction." I like to contemplate the role that personality plays in calling because God has known each of us as a personality before time. Your attention to the personal can be important. The danger of "personal conviction" is that it can become a kind of idolatry, right? I might be personally convicted to do something for which I'm not personally gifted or that serves my needs at the expense of my neighbor's needs. Also, personal convictions change, depending on how we're feeling or how life looks to us or how we experience validation, etc. There is plenty of evidence to suggest "personal conviction" is about noticing in ourselves what interests us the most and what are we willing to work the hardest at.
Thanks for your response.
Erin Malsack (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-08 10:57:10pm
Would you say that current cultural standards confuse the concept of vocation (artistically or otherwise)? Young children are often told that they can be whomever they would like to be. There is hardly ever mention of what is necessary, needed, or called upon to do. I don't believe that vocation can be entirely devoid of personal choice. However, where is the meeting place between hearing a call and rising to meet it? I think some level of personal conviction is the difference between hearing a call and listening to it.
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-13 9:21:30am
The concept of vocation is confused by so-called enlightened theory and by pop culture. The message to children that their dreams are unlimited and inalienable runs wide and deep in our day. Erin, imagine the pressure on today's parent, making it difficult to counsel their child against following whatever dream makes the child feel something big and special. You're right about the importance of being gifted and competent.
To your question about "hearing and rising," about "personal conviction:" a first caution is always to not make an idolatry out of rising and personal conviction, and to not have those things replace the present needs of others; and a second caution is to remember that many people do not recognize the liberty or possess the ability to "choose" or "be convicted," and this is not their failing. Many people, as result of wellness, social, or economic situations, are called to their vocation because it is their only available option. Every individual situation is different, right?
Cora M. ( Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-08 10:03:13pm
I really enjoyed your lecture on being a Christian artist in the modern era. I could relate to everything you discussed because I, like any other Christian artist out there, have wrestled with my purpose and place in the world. Of course, I want to serve my neighbor and do some good on earth, but have sometimes questioned whether the best way to achieve my purpose is through art. My grandfather was one of my biggest supporters early on and I specifically remember him telling me that God gave me my skills and talents for a purpose. He made me promise I would never give up on what God had blessed me with. I was so glad you brought the story of Vasari back to my attention. That story really reminded me of what my grandfather said and how God works through us even in ways we may not understand. I am about to graduate come December and your speech reminded me of my purpose. I realized that what I make and how well I make it is less important than why I am doing art in the first place and how I can glorify God through my work and by living out my faith.
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-13 9:01:03am
Thanks, Cora. Isn't it wonderful how grandparents, living faithfully in their vocation as grandparents, can have such an effective influence on the lives of others? My grandmother supported my life as a young artist in many ways, and I am grateful for her as long as I live.
Tessa MacPherson (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-09 5:52:27pm
It is rare that a speaker comes and speaks and I follow along with every word and can relate to everything that is said. I have struggled with finding what exactly I wanted to do with my life, and your talk solidified and gave me confidence to continue being an artist.
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-13 9:02:11am
Thanks, Tessa. Your words encourage me, just as I have encouraged you.
Isabella Lattery (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-09 10:31:55pm
Mr. Burmeister,

Thank you for the amazing words. These words help inspire young christian artists. I love the reminder of how God calls us to our vocation, and that God gives us our talents. I may not be an art student, but I can see how inspired my peers were by your words. You had an impact on that youth in the room, and I am incredibly thank you I got to experience it.
Paul Burmeister 2017-11-13 9:05:29am
Isabelle, you're welcome. Art students are no more special in their vocation than any other students, but art students may need special encouragement because the time and place they live in does not seem to value their gifts.
Emma Hislop (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-13 9:34:41am
I enjoyed attending and filming this lecture as the topic came as a big surprise to me. As many art lectures I've been to focus on the artist's journey as they develop their skills and focus, I wasn't expecting a lecture targeted to art students themselves. Though I enjoy learning about how artists develop their trade, it was refreshing to hear an encouraging message on how we as artists are fulfilling our vocation if it is indeed something God is calling us to do. It isn't easy being an artist and I have been known to doubt whether or not I am doing the right thing being an artist, especially when I feel my work is lacking when compared to other artists. Your advice to stop comparing yourself to others really stood out to me, as did your reference of the art in the Bible, especially that God Himself had commissioned people to create art for His dwelling place. I've found that comparing artwork with others' generally is discouraging, though other times helpful. It is neat to know that God calls people to be artists just as he calls others to be other callings.