What's Wrong with Message Art?

We all know someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Here's a picture of what it looks like to take that attitude one step further:

The tattoo appears to be a real, not Photoshopped, and the artist is keeping busy after a photo of his work went viral, winning something like a million "likes" on Facebook. It certainly is a provocative work, although maybe not in the way the artist intended.

Maybe the message of the work is something like Teresa of Avila's reminder that "Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours." So act accordingly when you use that hand! Maybe it would make you think twice before flipping off someone in traffic, or punching that snotty bank teller.  You'd always have to think, WWJHD? (What Would Jesus Hand Do?)

But even morally neutral acts are going to look flippant at best when it's your "Jesus hand" doing them. Really, your only choices, after getting this tattoo, are to either never use that hand again, or to make peace with the idea of letting your crucified savior pick your nose, scratch your armpit, and tote your Gatorade. The not-cool possibilities are endless.

The artist's intentions are good, and I don't mean to mock him. But this tattoo illustrates perfectly why we always meet with disaster when we use art as a message delivery service. As Jack Warner reportedly snarked, "If you want to send a message, try Western Union." There is nothing wrong with receiving a message from art; but when an artist sets out to deliver a message, there is no end of bad, unintended consequences.

When we're talking about an optical illusion tattoo, it's pretty easy to see how "message art" can go awry (see: Gatorade). But the same problem exists, in different forms, whenever we make any kind of art into nothing but a message delivery system. The same problem exists we tell ourselves that art is good when it delivers a good message, and bad when it delivers a bad message. Approaching art this way -- whether we're talking about paintings, music, movies, architecture, or whatever -- has two rotten effects:

  • It limits the art, because once you get the message, you can say, "Yup, I got it" and be done with it. On the contrary, when art is good, you're never done with it.
  • And it limits the message, and gives the impression that the good, the true, and the beautiful can be contained in a frame, recorded on ninety minutes of film, or balanced on a pedestal. On the contrary, when art is good, it reminds us how boundlessly generous the virtues are. 

If you're a Christian artist, and you want to use your skill to make the world better, I'm begging you: never lead with the message. Instead, listen with your inner ear until something hits that special note. You don't even have to know why it resounds for you; just listen, and tell other people what you heard. Hone your skills, stay close to God in your personal life, always be looking and listening for new things . . .  and above all, take off that delivery man's uniform. That's not your gig. 

Good art always opens up worlds. It's fine if the opening itself is a small one -- an orange, say, or a pair of dark eyes; a story about a horse, or a guitar chord you've somehow never heard before. These small gateways lead to the world that God made to be beautiful, good, and true, and a world that is also complicated, mixed, troubled, and pained. If these less-tidy gateways are the openings that call to you, then don't be afraid to walk through them and see where they lead.  

What's wrong with message art is the same thing as what's wrong with the 3D crucifix tattoo above: no matter how good the intention, art like this runs the risk of turning Christ into a puppet. 

If you're an artist and you want to be the hands of God in the world, then don't settle for being a delivery boy. Instead, serve Him by showing people the small signs that refuse to leave you alone. The message that christians need to hear is already here. The Word is already complete, already boundless, "having all delight within it."  What the world needs now is for artists to find and open those small doors to the sweetness and delight of that Word that has always been waiting to be heard.