Art – who is like the wise?

Who is like the wise?
And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine
and the hardness of his face is changed.
Ecclesiastes 8: 1

Postmodern thinkers speak of something called the death of the author. This refers to an artistic creation being separated from the intentions of its creator. Instead, the Artwork’s authority is created though other providential means. This idea is directly related to the postmodern idea that there is no definitive truth and that truth is whatever narrative stream is dominant or proposed.

Interpretation is the most interesting thing to contemplate then. I believe truth matters and thus the “interpretation of a thing” often is contingent on the context in which that thing is produced and what the producer or artist’s intention is. Sometimes this information is not available, this is the case with many ancient artefacts. The ability to interpret art is a skill, it takes talent and understanding. Most importantly it takes wisdom. Interpretation is discerning that the truth and meaning isn’t relative. Interpretation is the appropriate application
of culture.

Culture is very difficult to define but cultural products are easily acknowledged, identified and explained. Cultural products are a good indicator of the health and nature of a particular culture. What is a cultural product? Anything produced in that culture that bolsters, reinforces, supports, directs and corrects or creates that culture itself. Art is the greatest and most powerful cultural product.

God values art, He directs culture towards worshipping and honouring Him, Christ values art as He reconciles all culture towards Himself. In His wisdom, God gave us culture to lead us. He commissions cultural products, He commissions the destruction of cultural products like idols. Which is in itself is a creative statement.

Rembrandt Belshazzar’s Feast

In his great painting depicting Daniel 5, Rembrandt tells a story from the Old Testament. The central figure in the heavy gold and fur cloak, turban and comically small crown is Belshazzar, the son of the great King Nebuchadnezzar and now the new King of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had looted the Temple of Jerusalem of all its sacred vessels, which God himself had commissioned from the artist Bezalel when he set up a culture of worship in the desert. Once Belshazzar tasted the wine, he had an idea. He ordered that the sacred gold and silver vessels looted from the temple and used these to serve the wine to his 1000 royal guests.  I can imagine it must have been good wine to think that it require such an extravagant vessel from which to drink it.  The scripture goes on to say: in Daniel 5:4: “They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”

What Belshazzar didn’t realise was that he had used what God had intended for sacred worship toward Himself. He had used theses ornaments in the false worship of idols. Through these objects, intended to be used for worship, honour and sacrifice, God had designed a culture that placed Himself as the Holy of Holies. Belshazzar subverted these cultural-creative implements toward idol worship. This was an affront, an offence to the Most High God’s purposes.

Immediately in the middle of the party God’s hand appeared from a cloud and wrote in Hebrew script: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin (Daniel 5:25). None of the Kings Magicians or wise men could translate it, only a seemingly forgotten Daniel, whom once was held in high esteem by the previous king, could translate it as: “… Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed it the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5: 26)

Belshazzar was careless in how he interpreted the cultural value of the implements and vessels, he was careless in the application of culture. Conversely, due the fact that he was full of fear and reverence, he took the utmost care to interpret the writing on the wall. Belshazzar had strayed so far from the truth, he could not discern it, he used the sacred for the profane and it cost him his life.

By Nathan Jansen van Vuuren