Wednesday, March 22, 2006
A Vision for Cultural Renewal (via aesthetica)
I was sitting last Wednesday at the Brentwood Tavern with Dan Davis, our de facto evangelical bishop in Austin, and I got a brainfire. It seems I am driven by a restless, sleep-loss-inducing desire to find a total vision for the arts. (I grant tendencies towards the delusional, but it's worth a try.) I'm not interested simply in an artistic revival of the liturgy. I understand the missional benefits of artistic excellence. I wholeheartedly support the calling of the artist, no less, no more than that of the preacher and missionary. But I'm looking for something else, something all-encompassing. I'm looking for a way to connect all the dots: the church, the individual believer, the culture, the relativity of time and place and the universal power of the Gospel.
And I think I'm getting closer. I certainly don't pretend to be the only one looking for the blessed holy grail. There are many others, hither and yon, and we need each other more than we perhaps realize. But my search is a specific one. I search as a pastor and a social activist.
I care deeply, that is, for the well-being the body of Christ, and that body is only as healthy as its individual members are healthy, and I care deeply for the renewal of the culture, which as Frederica Mathewes-Green remarks in a recent CT article, isn't a "them over there, that thing separate from us" but an "all of us together, a mix of the good and the bad, the holy and the corrupted, the saints in the same boat as the sinners" thing. It is to these two things that I give my primary energies. I am not an academic, I am not a professional artist, I am pastor who loves his sheep and wants Austin to be a great city.
So then . . . the following struck me while eating my fried okra. It is a vision for cultural renewal by means of the artists in our communities.
Artists need four basic things in order to flourish:
1. Artistic formation. This usually happens best if begun during childhood. There's nothing like learning a new language when you don't realize you're learning a new language. It's sorta hard but it's your only reality, so you don't yet know how to complain intelligently--like a teenager. You whine, you pout, but you keep playing your scales and rehearsing new words because that's still your only reality; and there's usually a cookie on the other end of it. But I've also learned in recent years that it's never ever too late to start. Artists need training, exposure to the best in their media, the habit of disciplined work, the opportunity to present their work to others, and lots of stimulation from similarly minded artists. They also need wisdom to know how and where to proceed. This can come from "experts" or other thoughtful, discerning persons.
2. Spiritual formation. To paraphrase Jesus, what does it profit an artist if she studies at the greatest schools, under the best masters, to the acclaim of the largest audiences, accruing a fine fortune and yet along the way loses her soul? The answer: nothing. Not "a little," not "ok," but nothing nothing. Artists, like every other Christian, need to pursue the things of God with as much zeal and studied commitment as their artistic projects. This means, among other things, constant growth--indeed, daily growth--in the true knowledge of God, the practice of the spiritual disciplines, and in friendships that expand our capacity to love those unlike ourselves and that open us up both to the searching light of God and the severe love in those closest to us.
3. Business help. If an artist wishes to move beyond personal hobby to a commercial exchange, where the art is viewed, appreciated and bought by a public audience, then she will need practical help. She will need help to mass produce, advertise, market, distribute and to represent her work in as many places and on as many occasions as is deemed beneficial. She might also need legal help. This of course is the stuff that drives most artists bananas. "Will someone just let me be creative and free me from having to worry about the business!" they cry. Truly it's unfair to expect artists to have a business aptitude. Most of us don't. This is where the appropriately gifted in the body of Christ can jump in.
4. Financial support. It's one thing to have someone help you practically, and often as a vested or gracious favor, it's another to have money. Without money you can't do all that much. Yes, we've heard the cheerleaders tell us that money shouldn't stop us from making art. But honestly, eventually the constant lack of money will drive us crazy. In order to make a living you need money. The life of a professional artist is no different from that of a small business owner or Olympic athlete or research scientist: we all need money to keep going forward. Without financial support it's nearly impossible to make new work, and without making new work it's impossible to become better.
This matters not just professionally but theologically. If part of our calling as humans is to feed each other with the best fruits (with organic, nutrionally rich fruit, not plastic, insalubrious, engineered fruit), then artists need an opportunity to develop the capacity to make great art, or at least the best to their potential. With such art--emotionally satisfying, metaphorically rich, aesthetically excellent, prophetically truthful, and so on--we feed each other's souls with the energy needed to love our God and neighbor more fully.
This also is where the rest of the body of Christ jumps in.
I have two other parts to this brainfire, "Cultural renewal through strategic influence" and "How to accomplish this renewal," but I need to get to the office and do a lot of brain-grinding, piddly stuff. By faith I believe that it's a part of the exciting renewal of culture, but mostly it feels like a lot of deliciously unfun phone-calling and emailing and list-making.
(PHOTO: Amanda Leggett, Acoustic Concert at Threadgill's, 2005 HopeArts Fest.)