Being a Culture-Shaper

A few months ago I started writing a new book, and the project was interrupted.  I have picked it up and gone in a different direction.  I hate to waste good writing, so here is that material from the “cutting room floor.”  I think some of the ideas are interesting, but too heavy handed for this next project.


Very often I am invited to speak to groups of people who have never heard me speak before.  After the shock of my self-description as a “modern urban monk,” my audience (largely evangelical Christians) are curious why I devote so much time and energy to discipling artists.

Imagine what the world would be like if creative artists were discipled believers in Jesus Christ?

The TV shows you watch would be different.

The music you listen to would be different.

The ads you see would be different.

The magazine covers, the paint on your wall, your clothing styles, your shoes, your websites, your floor covering, your hairstyles, and on, and on, would be different.

The arts touch every area of our lives.  Sadly though, most people do not see this reality.  We don’t think of the arts in this way.  We think of the arts in terms of the “fine arts” and frankly, we think they have little influence in the lives of normal people.

As a dear friend told me this morning on the phone, “The arts have been hijacked.”

Each year crowds clamored to see the opening of the salon.  It was the decisive moment for art, artists, and society in Paris, Vienna, and London for much of the 19th century.  It might be hard for us to imagine, but there was a time when nations took the production of new art seriously enough to supervise a national annual gallery opening.

Art for the salon was first submitted to a panel of judges.  The judges decided which submissions would make it into the show based on several criteria.  First, a painting needed to represent a mastery of technical skill.  Second, its subject matter had to convey the core values of culture–often subjects were of mythological or historic events.  Finally, salon paintings were designed to stand out from a crowd of paintings hung from floor to ceiling in a massive hall.  If you spend much time with paintings that were created for the salon system, you find that salon paintings are often large, and use operatic elements of color, light, and arrangement to capture a viewer’s attention.  Paintings in the salon were designed to uplift, entertain, and instruct.

When you read art history texts or hear lectures on the history of contemporary art, you get a sense that the salon was a horrible system of control and censorship: a band of white European men looking at paintings and arbitrarily deciding what is or is not good art. The salon exerted tremendous power over the art world.  In order to become an established painter in a major European center, you needed to be a success at the salon.  First you needed to be admitted, and then you needed to receive acclaim during the exhibit.  Out of the prestige of the salon a painter would receive commissions and move on to private exhibits that would lead to sales and other successes.

I recently spent a day with a major exhibit of the work of J.M.W. Turner, a British painter who transformed nautical painting.  It’s clear from his early paintings that he was striving to meet the criteria of the salon in London.  Even so, by the end of his life he was successful enough to push the limits and boundaries of painting.  The Salon was a launching pad for careers.  If you didn’t make it into the salon, you didn’t have a career.

So what was the salon doing?

In my last book, An Army Arising, I talk about the power of the story, and the role the artist plays in that story.  The artist is the supreme storyteller.  The artist is also the most important person in preserving and transferring culture.  A culture is really a collection of stories that are passed down from one generation to another that the express values, virtues, and strengths of a people or nation.  These stories are collected into a body of art, literature and music (and food!) and the hopes, dreams, and history of a people are preserved and strengthened.

Behind the rigid system of the salon was an understanding that a great people created great art.  There was tremendous national pride in the salon system.  The judges of the salon were looking for paintings that said “the French have the most skilled painters in the world.”  They were also looking for paintings that told the stories that were central to the values of the nation.  It’s no surprise that British painters of this time produced scores of paintings of knights on horseback and victorious British naval battles.  German painters produced hundreds of paintings of Parsifal, and Frenchmen produced paintings steeped in Classical history and the events of the French Revolution.  These paintings were about the values and history of these nations.

It was understood that acceptance into the salon was like passing the bar exam today.  An artist who has the qualities and skills necessary to represent the culture to the world gets accepted.  Whoever lacks these skills and qualities will not get accepted.  For these outsider painters, a career in bricklaying or fish mongering was the future.

In the 1860s a group of painters gathered in a cafe in Paris to discuss the salon “problem.”  They were all revolutionary painters, and they were pretty much excluded from the salon.

You know most of their names–among them were Monet and Renoir.  They were the men we have come to know as the Impressionists.  They decided to have their own alternate exhibit in a small gallery at the same time as the salon.  Today we would call their show “outsider art.”  Their decision to hold an alternative to the salon became the origins of the counter-culture.   At the same time James McNeill Whistler would begin doing a similar thing in London, he began intentionally planning exhibits that mocked and mystified the established art community.  Whistler would make his motto, “Art for art’s sake.”  In other words, art not for the church, nor for the salon.  In Vienna the Secession formed to create an alternate art community that cemented the values of this shift in the arts.  The Secession in Vienna would transform the norms of art, and art exhibition for over a century.

Art was no longer about the established rules and norms of the nation or society.   With the Impressionists and Whistler the emphasis shifted from the artist’s duty to the culture to the artist’s personal vision and fulfillment.   From the 1890’s on, art would be about questioning and challenging cultural rules and norms.

These gifted and creative men succeeded in destroying the salon system (they had some help from a series of European wars, and the demise of the aristocracy).  But they also left a legacy that they probably never intended.

Art was no longer rigidly controlled, but it was also no longer the conveyer and preserver of culture.

Somehow in the past 150 years we have entrusted the transmission and preservation of culture to a group of men and women committed to questioning, challenging, and destroying culture.

As I talk with artists, leaders, thinkers, and pastors, they all say the arts have been co-opted.  We have lost the arts.  Because we have lost the arts, we have lost the culture.  Sadly, for 50 years the church has focused on politics to shift the cultural arena, and all of these efforts failed.  In a representative government the politics of a people follow the stories that the people believe.  Politics trail behind culture.

Earlier this year I spent some time with my good friend Kaye Gauder.   She is a woman who loves people, and wants to see cultural healing and transformation in her city.  During our visit we spent a few minutes talking to some young men who own a tattoo parlor.  These guys were covered in tattoos–and I mean covered.  And they had about a dozen piercings as well.  As we walked away from the few moments of fun with these tattooistas, Kaye looked at me with sadness.

“The culture is screaming,” she said.

* * *

Eight years ago I received a dramatic call from God to raise up an army of artists who build Jesus a throne in the earth.  In my last book, An Army Arising, I talked about this moment in history.  We are living in the moment of the story.   That book was about the first phrase that God gave me–raise up an army of artists.  This book is about the second half of that commission–build up a throne in the earth.

In order to unpack the call to build a “throne” for Jesus, we first need to revisit the Biblical vision for the artist, and redefine the role of these people who are called to transmit, transform, and preserve culture.   Next we need to explore this idea of what God means by building a throne for Jesus.  Finally, this book will explore the bigger vision God has for the arts.

We are living in a season when Christians across the world are waking to the reality that God can and will use their creative gifts, and that they can fulfill their destiny as artists.  This is a book about a bigger vision, and a bigger destiny for the men and women called to shape culture in this new era.  Journey with me as we make a pilgrimage to build a throne in the earth.


Christ Otto is the director of Belonging House.