I heard a piece on NPR not long ago about the rebounding market in fine art that has collectors and investors pouring enormous amounts of cash into art auctions throughout the western world. Some of them have no intention of displaying what they bought, or even pretending to like it. It’s just an investment, and they’re hoping to flip it quickly before the bubble bursts. Others are wanna-be collectors with more money than they know what to do with, and a yen for owning the work of a famous artist as a stamp of cultural authenticity for their good taste. Reminds me of the old “Sorry Charlie” canned tuna ads.
So I’m reluctant to admit that we are collectors. Over the last thirty years we have haunted art museums, galleries and studios in nearly every place we have visited, have fallen in love with pieces here and there, and have bought what we could afford. Friends smirk that we live in an art gallery with bedrooms and a kitchen. You are not going to find any of the greats of the last several centuries hanging on our walls, but you will find some outstanding examples of art, mostly abstract or post-impressionist, produced by gifted artists whose reputations are largely local from various regions of the country. There are also a few pieces bought for sentimental reasons.
Is our collection worth anything? Should it be insured? Is it an investment? It’s worth a lot to us. We look at it every day, and find pleasure in what each piece has to say, something that is always changing. We’ve asked our kids not to sell it in a garage sale after we’ve gone because it’s worth more than that. Should we insure it? A piece of art is, by definition, irreplaceable. What would insurance accomplish? No piece could ever be replaced. Insurance agents always want to know what the base cost was, how much each piece has appreciated, and what the future value might be. How can you explain that their base cost was delight, they have appreciated in depth of appreciation, and their future value is irrelevant? So are they an investment? Not a chance. No way. They will never be worth in cash what they have given to the enjoyment of our lives.
Art, in that way, is like you and me, and each of us. Our family and friends to be sure, but all of humanity, indeed creation itself. We are imperfect works of art created in the complex web of nature and nurture, yet bearing in our souls the image of God Almighty. For some of us that imago dei seems to float almost to the surface. In others it appears to have sunk so deep that it can no longer be seen at all. In most of us it’s a bystander, always hanging around but mostly ignored. The point is that each of us is a gift of fine art that, each in our own way, can bring pleasure into the lives of others. What we are and what we have to say is always changing. It never stands still. Even one’s constant, intimate presence in the life of another will offer something new each day.
We, you and I, were not woven in whatever web we were hatched, nor developed by our own hard work, nor made in God’s image, to become objects of speculative investment that someone else can buy and sell for their own profit. We are not made to become stamps of cultural authenticity used to validate someone else’s status. We have no intrinsic future cash value to be insured. Indeed, “…no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave.” (Ps. 49). We, you and I, are marvelously unique works of art cherished by God.
Needless to say, I can easily see that in you and hope that you might see that in me also. But that’s not enough. A few days ago I sat with a meth addicted mother as her meth addicted baby died. Could she also be a work of art bearing the image of God? The web of nature and nurture that formed her was an evil one; about that there is no doubt. But had she, herself, become evil? Or did her tears of anguish and self recrimination force open, at least for a moment, the door behind which the image of God had been locked away? It isn’t easy. I don’t think one has to love every kind of art, or even like it at all. But I do think one has to acknowledge that it is art, and that it does have something to say to somebody. I don’t think I have to love (in human terms) every human being, or even like some of them, but I do have to respect and honor the dignity of every human being. It is easier for me to see that young mother as work of art in which the image of God may yet shine through, than it was for me to see it in a former parishioner who was a life long abuser of his wife, whom he kept in virtual prison, albeit a luxurious one, for over fifty years. I once said he was a despicable person about whom I had nothing good to say. Was he also a work of art in which one might find the image of God? Maybe, but I’m going to have to work on that one.