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Art for art’s sake?

Saturday, 01 November, 2008

One of the things I have been pondering of late (but have not had time to blog about—heh, story of my life) is the role and purpose of art in the Christian life. By “art”, I mean all forms of creative endeavour: (recalling to mind Wollongong University's Faculty of Creative Arts departments) visual arts (printmaking, sculpture, painting, drawing, etc.), theatre (and all associated art forms—directing, acting, lighting, props, etc.), music (composition and performance), writing (non-fiction, fiction, poetry, prose, plays, etc.) and all forms of design (industrial, fashion, web, etc.). This, of course, is a massive topic, and not one I'm going to deal with in any depth here.

But I thought that the size of the topic should not be an obstacle to me blogging about it, and certainly one of the beautiful aspects of the blogging genre is that it's an ongoing conversation in which you add a bit more every time. So to start, I thought I would post a few thoughts, and then keep returning to the series at my leisure (!).

I've started thinking about it again recently because I started reading The Divided Heart by Rachel Power (which I picked up in Brisbane when I went to visit Kathleen). It's a collection of interviews that Powers did with women who were both artists and mothers. I've only read three chapters, but so far, it is making me cranky (and I'm not even a mother!) I think it's partly because Powers is mired in her own feminist worldview, and because she cannot progress beyond feminism's basic tenet of equality (in every sense) between men and women, she keeps moving in circles. Perhaps it's unfair for me to say that; I've only read three chapters. But in those three chapters, her frustration is almost palpable and, certainly in my case, it gets passed on to the reader.

One of the difficulties those chapters raised for me was precisely this topic—the role and purpose of art. This is something that Powers seems to take for granted: from memory, she speaks of her writing as something that she has to do—something she's compelled to do—as if she has no choice in the matter. That sort of idea has never sat well with me. I guess I don't like the thought of a lack of volitional control, even though I am somewhat sympathetic to her view (i.e. I also feel the compulsion to some extent, and I also get cranky when I haven't had the time to do anything artistic).

But how do you think about this Christianly? What is the biblical perspective? Do we create because we are made in the image of the Creator, as Tolkien (and, from what I've been told, Professor Trevor Hart in this year's New College lectures [still need to listen to those ...]) would say?

I don't know why I have such difficulties with Tolkien's idea. I think because it implies too much license. But perhaps I'm reading too much into it; not everything requires qualification. And certainly it's true: God has created us to be creative beings (and certainly procreative beings!) Our inventiveness is a great blessing; the problem is, because we are sinners, we pervert the means for evil ends. We learned how to paint the human body, but we also invented pornography; we invented the automobile, but we also created the armoured tank, and we used that tank to destroy our fellow humans.

Anyway (and remember this is just a snippet of my thoughts, not my thoughts in their entirety), I was marking up Peter Hastie's interview with Professor Michael Horton, and stumbled across this rather interesting bit:

Michael, many Christians today believe that we can only justify art, science, music or entertainment in terms of their spiritual value or evangelistic usefulness. Are the arts only valuable because they can be used in evangelism, or do these fields of knowledge exist in their own right?

Yes, I think these fields of knowledge and endeavour exist in their own right. We see this in the earliest history of the human race where culture undergoes some significant development in the line of Cain. Cain, as you know, built the city of Enoch. This happened after he murdered his brother. The Bible writer tells us that God gave him protection so that he could build the city, thereby giving it its own distinctive culture (Gen 4:15). In the genealogy listed in 4:18-22, we discover that some of Cain's descendants were responsible for developing the fields of metallurgy, engineering, music and animal husbandry. All of these are significant cultural achievements. The interesting thing is that God allows these developments to occur through his common grace, even though they originated in a city renowned for its violence and wickedness. If God had dealt with Cain on the basis of strict justice by punishing him with death, then it's possible that these cultural developments may never have taken place. It seems that they occurred because of God's common grace.

But how do you answer Christians who say that these cultural developments came from the ungodly line of Cain? They point to the line of Seth, which was distinguished by its worship, and say that we ought to be devoted to church-related activities rather than general cultural pursuits.

Well, I would remind them that Christians are always citizens of two cities. God's providence often has Christians in different circumstances, so our responses to situations will vary depending on where the Lord has placed us. For instance, think of Daniel and how God used him in extraordinary ways in Babylon: God located him in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.

What interests me here is that Daniel's spiritual influence with the king is not lessened because of his secular education and training. He was a leading scholar in the Babylonian academy, just as Joseph had been in Pharaoh's court. In both Daniel and Joseph, we have examples of believers being faithful to the Lord and yet also being able to participate in the common culture of the nation. When Daniel refused to surrender to the culture of Babylon, he only did so in the area of religion. He refused to surrender his faith in Yahweh, or compromise that faith through the cultic idolatry in which he was expected to participate. I think that Daniel is a great example for us here. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we have to renounce every aspect of popular culture and learning. It just means that if we are involved in secular education (whether the arts or sciences), we should think about our new-found knowledge from a Christian viewpoint.

Obviously the examples of Joseph and Daniel are influential guides on this issue, but is there any theological justification for thinking that Christians can embrace the arts and sciences?

It's interesting that when John Calvin criticized the radical Anabaptists (who, by and large, rejected secular culture), he said that all of the gifts we find in secular culture are given by the Holy Spirit. It really is a remarkable statement. When we normally think of the Holy Spirit's work, we usually confine it to the sphere of the church. Yet Calvin (and, I think, with good exegetical support) regarded the Spirit as being at work in creation, providence and redemption. In other words, the Holy Spirit's work in the world extends well beyond the work of salvation.

This means that when science comes upon a great discovery that alleviates a particular disease, we should send up our praises to God. We need to recognize that the Holy Spirit is active in the creation, and still upholds everything through Christ's providence. Once we realize that, we are no longer required to have a Bible verse to justify every great work of art. Nor do films have to include a compulsory conversion scene to validate them in the eyes of Christians. In fact, God doesn't have to be mentioned explicitly anywhere to make a work of art or science legitimate. For instance, while the book of Esther contains no explicit reference to God, his presence is assumed everywhere throughout it. Nor does the Song of Solomon have to be allegorized as a love story about Christ and his church. It's possible that it's just a celebration of human life. Our problem is that we want to elevate creation above creation. We automatically think that there's something that's wrong with creation; we've got to ‘Christianize’ it in some way. Actually, the problem is in our thinking. The Bible says that the creation itself is fine; the real problem is that, as a result of our sin, creation has been subjected to bondage and death. So creation, as a sphere, is not sinful or evil; it's just that what is good is a perpetual victim of human sin and distortion.

And Christians are part of that too. We often think that Christians must be always right and good. Well, I've got some news for people who think like that: have they forgotten that it was a very pious and devout Christian like Kaiser Wilhelm who developed Germany's war policy of ‘Deutschland uber Alles’? Again, Otto von Bismarck is another example: he went to church and was supposedly an evangelical pietist. Well, thanks for two World Wars. We'll send you the bill! Christians often have this mistaken view that if only Christians were in charge, things would be going well. Well, it's just not so. Christians can make a mess of things. There have been a lot of times when Christians were in charge, and it hasn't gone well. I'm firmly with Luther on this one: I'd rather be governed by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian!

Calvin also made another interesting point: he said that God has given special gifts and insights to people. He poses the question, “Are we going to say that the investigations of the astronomers are the ravings of mad men? Are we going to say that those who invented medicine for our use aren't profitable because they're not converted? Are we going to say that those who wrote great literature are utterly devoid of anything beautiful and sound in their thinking?” Here both Calvin and Luther offer a helpful distinction. They remind us that we need to keep in mind the difference between things earthly and heavenly.

Obviously, when it comes to heavenly things, non-Christians are devoid of understanding. As Paul says, “no one seeks after God, no not even one” (Rom 3:11). Nor do they understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:14). However, in things earthly, they can still get a lot done. And when you're looking for a good architect for a building, you might want to make sure that you find the best architect, not just the most devout one. I remember that my dad, who was a very devout Christian, often said that he never used the Christian Yellow Pages. He said he had been burned so many times by people with a fish on their business card that the ‘Christian Yellow Pages’ was basically a guide to people you shouldn't do business with. I know he was exaggerating, but there was enough truth in what he said to make us all have a chuckle. I think everyone understands what he was talking about.

Unfortunately, there's an idea in some Christian circles in America that it's all right to do a sloppy job for another Christian. Business often circulates among members of the church, and you normally feel duty-bound to hire a plumber who says he's a Christian. Personally, I have found it wonderfully liberating to say, “You know, the Bible says that God has called us to be good plumbers, not just to have a Christian plumbing business”. Someone once asked Luther, “What will happen if you throw all the monks out of the monastery and make them work for a living? How will their work be Christian?” And Luther said, “Well, maybe they can make a good shoe and sell it at a fair price!”

Here Luther gives us the foundation of a good work ethic: it's based on the theology of vocation. The problem with so many evangelicals today is that they don't feel that they are ‘called’ to anything unless they are engaged in full-time church ministry. However, the Bible says that everyone has a ‘calling’. Our trouble in the church today is that we have gone back to a Roman Catholic understanding of vocation and calling. We think that ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ only refers to ‘full or part-time ministry’ in a church or para-church context. But that's completely wrong and contrary to the teaching of the Reformation. I am surprised that evangelicals have bought it.

(Oops. This post is getting longer than I intended!)

In among all the good stuff that Horton is saying in this section, he made me realise that I also need to think of human creativity under the realm of God's sovereignty—that God works in and through what I make and do for his good purposes (even if my sinful nature tries to distort that). I'm not sure that completely answers my question about the role and purpose of art, but it certainly helps to remember this biblical framework, and that the rest of theology doesn't get thrown out the window once you zero in one particular area of life.

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Good discussion and reminder, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this series smile

It’s something I think about from time to time, and should probably devote a bit more thought to, although I’m approaching art from the point of view of a profession/vocation more than as a vital form of self-expression. But I will often be among people who do, so shouldn’t ignore that aspect.

Any discussion of the purpose of art is going to huge and unwieldy. And in the end, I suppose, my question would be whether or not it truly matters or if it can be defined in a way that truly encompasses, rather than limiting, the possibilities of art and the roles of the artist. In the end, I don’t have to write (there is no compulsion) but nor do I write for any end purpose (which to me would still involve some form of compulsion). I write because it’s part of who I am, because I love it and would rather do it than not. The process is enough for me, is the enjoyment. It’s not the story or the characters or the theme or message - all of that is about the end product - but the work itself, the way it happens, the word choice and the way its chosen, the way each part works together and how I’m making that happen. It’s said that a work of art is never completed only abandoned and I think that’s true and that this is why: art is about the creation, not about the product.

But that’s just my point-of-view - it’s the importance of art for me - and there are no ends of artists and critics who would disagree with me and do so strenuously. And I don’t know that there is a right or wrong here. For me the end product is… very nice and I’m happy to do something with it. I’d like to think it can express something important to other people and that that message should be to God’s greater glory. Which, as you’ve pointed out, it cannot help but be. But for me it’s about the process which is, to some extent, a view of art for art’s sake.

Well, that was convoluted. I’m planning a wedding! I have an excuse! ;p Hope that made some sense. ^-^



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