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Catherine Hadro and Dan Kuebler on Purposeful Lab Podcast.
Purposeful UniverseApril 15, 20243 min read

Purposeful Lab: Why Do We Need Art?

In this episode of Purposeful Lab, Dr. Katie Kresser, a Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University and Magis Center writer joins Dan and Catherine to discuss the fundamental questions: why do humans create art, and what does that reveal about our unique nature? Is art essential to human flourishing? This episode is for both seasoned art enthusiasts and those seeking practical means to incorporate art into their lives.


How do We Define Art?

Dr. Kresser says that art is notoriously difficult to define historically. While some might say that art is only created by its context or place in a gallery or museum, Dr. Kresser would argue that art has a more universal, intrinsic quality.

She defines art as something created by humans thatis a window to the true, good, and beautiful. In many respects she considers art to be a Christian phenomenon, born out of the Christian belief that God has revealed nature to be good.

Art in Pre-Christian Times

Before Christian art, the records show that most ancient civilizations had no word for art. Instead, many of the objects that we call art were made for other purposes, and someone eventually decided that these things could be called art.

For instance, cave paintings were not made with the same intention as paintings that would be put into an art gallery. Instead, most ancient “art pieces” had utilitarian purposes and shared characteristics with what we could consider to be art but did not have the same intention behind them that we do now.

Art and Faith

Art came from a genuine human longing to communicate, hold, manipulate, or keep the divine. Many ancient objects we look at today that were used for religious purposes were not used as a window towards the divine but rather as a magical container for the divine, otherwise called idolatry. In the Christian tradition, God is presented more as transcendent, and art became a more humble window towards the divine, which kickstarted a deeper creativity.

How the Incarnation Changed Art

Dr. Kresser explains that there are two ways to look at how the incarnation changed art history.

The first way is that the incarnation demonstrated that there is something about matter, physicality, and the human form that could be assumed by God and could properly evoke and embody God without distortion. Gods were often depicted in ancient cultures as chimeric beings, but with Christ becoming incarnate, an ordinary human being becomes elevated as being able to participate in the divine. Consequently, art got new attention on the human form.

The second way is that the incarnation indicated that the human mind and human behavior can imitate God. The human mind has the capacity to reflect the creativity of God. Matter, as created by God, is inherently good which lends to a deeper appreciation of the beauty of nature.

Because of these two aspects, art has revolved around depicting the truth, beauty, and goodness within the world as revealed by God and incarnation for a long time.

The Modern Period of Art

However, in the late 19th to 20th century, art began to see the rise of abstraction. Particularly in Europe, the continent had undergone a century of violent revolution, government instability, and suppression of traditional religious values. For creative people, this created massive instability. The old visual vocabulary of how you express yourself seemed outdated or, at the very least, irrelevant to the turbulent violence and the movement toward an atheistic worldview.

This instability caused many artists to turn inwards for creativity as they had no stable account of culture or how the world works. By turning inwards, the world saw the rise of subjective art, which only represents the internal life of the artist. Instead of focusing on how art can encapsulate the values of a culture, modern Western art has turned towards exclusively focusing on the individualistic artist and their inner life.

Take a Listen

This episode demonstrates that there is a deeper reality to art than many people believe. We need art because art can peer through a divine window that contains the values, beauty, truth, and goodness that cause humans to find purpose within the world. Art can demonstrate the transcendent and unite cultures around shared values. By learning to understand art as being able to unite culture, we can turn away from hype-individualism and back to the ultimate purpose of art, which is to depict God. 




Purposeful Universe

The Purposeful Universe seeks to explore and present, through award winning videos, the abundant order in nature that funnels biological systems toward increasing levels of complexity and sophistication—suggesting that human life is the purposeful outcome of a complex, ordered system.