Art is Not A Commodity header

In a meeting recently with a Christian businessman, Justus (our VP of Operations) and I presented our case for why art in the church should be supported by a patron system rather than the market.

A few minutes into the presentation, the businessman interrupted us with a question that had been nagging at him: “But if the market has been so effective in other areas to get the best product to the people at the lowest price, why not allow the market to continue to work in the arts? Why should we promote the free market in every other area, but not in the arts?”

I answered, “Because art, like the gospel, is not a commodity.” Of all the things I said that day, I think that probably had the most profound impact.

But what exactly does that mean? First, let’s consider how the gospel is not a commodity, and then we can talk about the church’s art.

As Isaiah said, the gospel is free—not because it is cheap, but because it is priceless:

Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you who have no money come, buy and eat.
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without cost.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
And your wages for what does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good,
And delight yourself in abundance. (Isa. 55:1–2)

. . . The gospel is free—not because it is cheap, but because it is priceless.

The gospel cannot be bought and sold. Simon the Magician attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit with money (Acts 8:9ff), and was fiercely rebuked for it. There is a reason Peter and Paul urged that the leaders in the church not be overly fond of money (1 Tim. 3:3; 1 Tim. 3:8; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 5:2). Judas betrayed Jesus largely for money. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10). In Paul’s day, similar to our own, many preachers, “empty talkers and deceivers” as Paul called them, preached a false gospel “for the sake of sordid gain” (Titus 1:10–11).

So we can see, very easily, that the market should not be allowed to dictate what is or isn’t preached from the pulpits of our churches. The market should not be any kind of a constraining force in developing a church’s vision. But we can also see just as easily that marketability most certainly is the main consideration for many church’s today.

What programs will bring in more people and more tithe money? What services will super-boost our star pastor’s book sales? Surveys say people like video presentations, spectacle, youth programs, etc. People want to be affirmed. People want to know how to get wealth and stay prosperous. People don’t want to be convicted. People don’t want to think about the cost of sin. People don’t want to think about God’s wrath and justice. People want their ears tickled. And all the while, market concerns are diluting, corrupting, and debasing the gospel until its truth is no longer recognizable.

So you get it, I hope. The gospel is not a commodity, and making it a commodity actually puts it in jeopardy. Like Solomon says, “To show partiality is not good, because for a piece of bread a man will transgress.” By making a prophet’s living dependent on how marketable his gospel is, you tempt all prophets to preach a false gospel for a piece of bread.

By making a prophet’s living dependent on how marketable his gospel is, you tempt all prophets to preach a false gospel for a piece of bread.

But you may be asking, “What does this have to do with the arts?” Just because the gospel isn’t a commodity, that doesn’t mean art and artists should be similarly free from market concerns. Or does it?

Who made the art that’s included in the Bible—the Psalms, songs, poems, and stories? One particular group: the prophets. Prophets didn’t just preach in propositional, systematic sermons. Some of them wrote poetry and songs. Some of them represented truths through the narratives of their lives (like Isaiah and Hosea). Others performed holy dramas (Ezekiel). Some prophesied with the harp, lyre, and cymbals (1 Chron. 25:1). Some presented the gospel in skilled workmanship for the tabernacle (Exodus 30:1ff). Or the temple (2 Chron. 2:13f). And God commanded all of this. It was necessary for the full presentation of the gospel.

Part of the problem with the modern church’s conception of art is a limited perspective on the gospel. The gospel is not merely expressed propositionally. Or even just verbally. Evangelism cannot be in mere words. If we are dedicated to preaching the whole counsel of God, we need to make sure that no part of that counsel is subject to the market. Not the pulpit. And not the church’s art.

Consider that the minor and major prophets (all poets and therefore artists) were either harshly persecuted or martyred by their target audience (Acts 7:52). The poets and musicians of the Old Testament most often did not make marketable art. Because the market did not usually want good art. Should Isaiah have changed his apparently boredom-inducing “line upon line and precept upon precept” approach (Isa. 28:10) to meet the market demands of his audience? Should Micaiah and Elijah have preached peace to Ahab in order to make a better living in his court? Was it right for Ahaz the idolater to change the art of Solomon’s temple to suit the fashionable tastes of the Assyrians (2 Kings 16:10–18)?

This shouldn’t even be controversial. Art is not a commodity. Christians who are artists have a right to make a living by their work, just like Paul did (1 Cor. 9:4ff). They’re gospel prophets of a different medium, so their livelihoods should not be dependent on how marketable their art is. And don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean all art has to include a gospel invitation. If the stars tell of God’s glory, then an excellent poem or painting of the stars does too. The Christian arts support the mission of the church by making the church appealing to the world (“a praise in the earth”) and by teaching the church’s children to cling to what is truly beautiful. Of all the prophets in the church, the prophets of the arts are the most neglected. And it shows.

And, unfortunately, I’m afraid it will be a long time in the future before the church realizes this, and even longer before we take practical steps to fix it. So, in the mean time, artists must follow Paul’s example. Don’t compromise your art. If God gives you art to make, you make it even if you can’t sell it. Make tents like Paul if you have to, but do not neglect to complete the work that God gives you exactly as he gives it to you. Don’t compromise your art for a piece of bread. Or a few pieces of silver.