WORDS of LIFE: A Christian resource of Art, Literature, Scripture, and Teaching
What is Art? 
excerpts from essays by Eric Gill
The incarnation may be said to have for Its object the drawing of men from misery to happiness.  Being the act of God It is the greatest of all rhetorical acts and therefore the greatest of all works of art.  And as from the fatherhood of God all paternity is named in heaven and earth, so from His creative power all art is named.  In the Incarnation we do not only know a fact of history or a truth of religion; we behold a work of art, a thing made.  As a fact of history It is the most interesting and illuminating of all historical happenings.  As a truth of religion It is of primary and fundamental importance.  But it is as a work of art that It has saving power, power to persuade, power to heal, poser to rescue, power to redeem. (from Last Essays, 1942.)

God's work of creation was gratuitous.  Man also is able to make gratuitously.  He is able to make things simply because it pleases him so to do, and things such that they are simply pleasing to him.  Such things are works of art pure and simple.  They leave the world better than they found it, but that is not their raison d'etre; their reason of being is the pleasure pure and undiluted of the rational being who made them.  They do not set out to serve him; they add to his physical well-being only by accident.  (from Art Nonsense and other Essays, 1929)

The word art first all meant skill, and it still means that first of all.  And it means human skill, the skilful doing which results in making, so that, in its full meaning, the word art meant, and still means, the power in the mind of man so to direct his acts that the result of his thought and actions is a thing made.  But though that is the original meaning of the work, and though that meaning is still the true one, we have nowadays almost completely forgotten it, and have come to think of art as though the word did not mean all human works whatsoever, from drain-pipes to cathedrals, from paper-wights to statutes of saints or politicians, from street cries to songs and symphonies, from sigh-boards to Royal Academy paintings, but only the special works of the special people who paint pictures, carve or mould statutes, write books and poems, and design buildings to be looked at. (from Christianity and the Machine Age, 1940)

The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.* This is a true saying; but we no longer believe it. (from Christianity and the Machine Age, 1940)

The artist is the person who actually has the skill and actually uses his skill to make things, to make, to bring into physical existence the things which abides in his mind.  An artist is not simply a person with ideas.  He is a person who has the skill to make his ideas manifest.  He is not even a person with fine ideas or even fine skill; such a person is simply a better artist than others.  Art itself is neither good nor bad; there is every kind of art, from the silliest and most inept to that which embodies the most refined sensibility in the most perfectly precise form. (from Art in a Changing Civilization, 1934)

Eric Gill (1882-1940) was a well known British sculptor, engraver, typographer, painter and artist. He was also a religious and social philosopher for whom life was more than art, because it was the highest art, the art of being human.
Self-portrait, wood engraving 

The Good Shepherd
wood engraving by Eric Gill


All the best art is religious. Religious means according to the rule of God. All art that is godly, that is, made without concern for worldy advantage, is religious. The great religions of the world have always resulted in great artistic creation because they have helped to set man free from himself - have provided a discipline under which men can work and in which commerce is subordinated. (from Art Nonsense and other Essays, 1929) 

Art which is not propaganda is simply aesthetics and is consequently entirely the affair of cultured connoisseurs. It is a studio affair, nothing to do with the common life of men and women, a means of 'escape.' Art in the studio becomes simply 'self-expression,' and that becomes simply self-worship. Charity, the love of God and your neighbour, which, here below, every work of man must exhibit, is lost. If you say art is nothing to do with propaganda, you are saying that it has nothing to do with religion - that it is simply a psychological dope, a sort of cultured drug traffic. I, at any rate, have no use for it. For me, all art is propaganda; and it is high time that modern art became propaganda for social justice instead of propaganda for the flatulent and decadent ideals of bourgeois Capitalism. (excerpt from a letter to The Catholic Herald, 28 October 1934) 

(*Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, 1935)

Also see > Prints by Eric Gill

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