Painting God

by Brian Kershisnik
Art, Belief and Meaning Symposium
BYU Museum of Art Auditorium
Friday, November 7, 2008

So, should I paint God? Certainly I have done just that, dozens of times, and yet I continue and continue to ask myself whether or not I should. If there is any merit in those works of mine that depict God, I believe that it is partially because I have never been able to lay down the question of whether or not I should have made them.

This is difficult for me because, notwithstanding regular sublime experiences while painting, I believe the entire realm of pictorial representation is tainted with rather unsavory elements that threaten the concept of holiness from the very onset. I’ll just mention three. Briefly.

1.     First, art is artifice; at its best art reaches for the truth through artificial avenues.  For example, in visual imagery feelings of esteem and sympathy for the subject can be almost immediately aroused in the viewer through the use of physical beauty or attractiveness.  To achieve this end, artists often resort to transient, current trends.  Yet, as hardwired as we all are to like someone because they are beautiful, all of us would like to think we know that outer beauty does not indicate virtue.  So, how does an artist, appealing only to the eyes by means of oil paint applied to a flat surface, paint virtue?

2.     The second difficulty I see in my art with depictions of holy subjects is that for the professional painter like myself, art is a means of generating revenue and must continually define and redefine itself under the constant attack of my need for money.  In such a grip, how do I differentiate between financial need and an interior need to delve authentically and honestly into a sacred subject?  And how can I be sure I’m even asking myself these questions honestly?  What if the style to which I have become accustomed locks me into making more paintings of the Lord whether or not I “feel like it”?  I am alarmed at how authentically I can “feel like doing something” that would prevent the repossession of my home.

3.     My third struggle with holy subject matter arises from a concern that the production of powerful works of art, sacred or otherwise, could propel an artist (myself, for example, to choose the example that really bothers me) into various degrees of local or general fame and the corrupting and distorting influence of well-meant but unwarranted esteem.  As a painter I am a performer on a stage.  I both love and need my audience and yet they pose a most terribly devastating threat to my accurate perspective.

And so it is, at sea in these thrice (at least thrice) troubled waters that the artist, (Brian, let’s call him) takes up his tools to presume to depict the sacred in some useful, honest and illuminating way.  How can it be done?  I will not venture to answer this question for anyone else, let alone everyone, but I will state candidly that for myself, I am most often far, far better off not doing it – or at least not for the public.  I might even have been known to state, when pressed to take a stand, that I suspect more people than now do, should, perhaps pause long to deeply consider whether they might not be better abstaining from holy subject matter more often.  Children, drawing God with authority and honesty as often as it suits them, I completely except from this rule and from them we can learn a lot about true and right depictions of Deity.    The innocence of children, the limited scope of their audience and their considerable indifference to the reactions and tastes of that audience, protect them.  If as adults we could retain the untainted, unapologetic power and honest symbolism of children, then we like them should by all means fall to, drawing God with the honest authority of that sort of faith.  I myself must depend on such childlike revelations either sneaking up on me or tumbling accidentally into my work and experience this very rarely, though I manage it as often as I can.  Accidents are a difficult sort of stuff to manage.

But to speak to the three troubles previously acknowledged, if the first (the inevitable reliance on artifice) can be abundantly and systemically acknowledged within the work itself and the second and third (pressing need for money and the dangers of esteem) can be kept in check (if not completely ignored) at least in the production stages of my work, then I believe it is possible to explore through art sacred subjects in ways that are edifying to both the artist and the public.  Works of art will savor of their primary motivations and, regardless of the approval or disappointment of collectors which can very well be deceiving, the artist is ultimately accountable before God for his own motivations.  My own salvation is abundantly more important than my professional success.

I hardly know how to describe what must sound like a psychosis, but I feel a profound accountability for all of the people in my paintings.  The ways that I manipulate them must acknowledge on their part a kind of agency, for they must never become the mere toys of my fancy.  All the more certainly then, in my depictions of God I must stand ready to account for what I have done and my motivations for doing so.  In this matter I am in constant need of self analysis and course correction, which is nothing other than repentance.

In conclusion, to answer my initial question, “should I paint God?” I have determined that it would be as insincere for me to avoid all paintings with God in them as it would be for me to paint nothing else.  I would hope that my discipleship colors every subject no matter how secular it may appear on the surface, but when it comes to painting God as a subject I never feel free of the searching question of whether or not it is appropriate and acceptable this time.  I have no intention to free myself of that question, nor to cower when it feels right to proceed.

“By proving contraries truth is made manifest.”
–         Joseph Smith Jr.

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey.”
–         Wendell Berry

“Art is a lie, but a lie that tells the truth.”
–         Pablo Picasso

“One cannot learn much and be comfortable.  One cannot learn much and let anyone else be comfortable.”
–         Charles Fort, Wild Talents