Thursday, July 09, 2009

3 Reasons Humans (Should) Make Art + A fUn ViDeO

(PHOTO: I took this picture of our thermometer in the backyard a couple of weeks ago. It was in the afternoon time. The thermometer is in the shade. Welcome to our apocalyptically hot summer.)

This coming Sunday I preach my last sermon in Austin before heading off to North Carolina. Cliff asked if I would give Christ Church my best, most awesomest sermon on the arts. I told him that was too much pressure. Instead I'll give them my best shot. And it'll connect to some of my recent reading.

I just finished Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' excellent book, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. In it he explores the aesthetic ideas of French philosopher Jacques Maritain. This he does in chapter 1. In chapters 2 and 3 he considers the impact of Maritain's ideas on two 20th-century artists: David Jones, a poet and painter, and Flannery O'Connor, a novelist. In Williams' final chapter he teases out some of the implications of Maritain's basic presumption, namely that faith or, more boldly, Christian doctrine, far from suppressing creativity, makes "more and deeper things possible for the artist."

I love that. Amen and amen.

I usually read in a chair that sits at the front corner of our dining area. It looks out onto our front yard. I watch people walk by with their dogs. The garbage man picks up our buckets of trash with his superman mechanical arm. Squirrels scamper up the pecan tree that stands to the left of our entrance. I drink my tea. I eat my granola. I keep a small ruler, a pencil and a yellow highlighter on my lamp table, which help me keep track of things that catch my attention.

A few days ago I asked myself for the "eleventy billionth" time why we humans make art. The question per se doesn't trouble me. What troubles me is when I add the word "should." Why should humans be making art?

For a brief moment the answers became very clear. There are three reasons why I believe we as humans, and moreso Christians, should make art.

1. God is creative, therefore we as bearers of God's image are creative. We are creative in many divers ways: as industrial engineers and food scientists, as humanitarian lawyers and figure skaters. One way we express our creativity is through artistic works. God makes the Andes mountains, Frank Gehry makes architectural wonders like the Dancing House. God makes the viper fish, Flannery O'Connor makes The Violent Bear it Away. God makes squirrels who play tag half of the day in our back yard, we make A Mid-Summer's Night Dream and big band music and Texas Hold'Em.

God commissions poetry (in the form of a Psalter) to communicate essential theological features of his way of being, we commission T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers to communicate essential features of our way of being, confused as it may be. This last example ties in to our second reason.

2. We as humans make art as one way to make sense of things. Art specifically enables a process of discovery for us that "ordinary rational naming and analysing fail to represent." Let me allow the Archbishop to speak for himself:

"By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that 'ordinary' seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny. Thus art in one sense 'dispossesses' us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.

So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which 'things are more than they are', 'give more than they have'."

For example, Steinbeck writes Of Mice and Men to make sense of the effects of natural disaster on human community. Sondheim, along with Laurents and Bernstein, creates The West Side Story to make sense of ethnic tensions in mid-1950s New York.

And speaking of musicals, the Disney channel creates High School Musical 3 because it totally rocks to break out into song whenever you feel like it. You can be a jock and a dancer. Oh yea!

3. At the center of the life of the Godhead, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is grace. Grace always offers itself as an excess of divine life. In the being of God we find a super-abundance of love, joy, goodness, creativity and so on. Grace is excess.

Human beings, as image-bearers, will always manifest a life that is X+1. To be human, in my little formula, is to be X+1, where X satisfies all our most basic needs for human subsistence--such as water, food, shelter, work, relationship--and 1 represents the realm of excesses and superfluities, such as, well, everything that makes human life full and rich and, to put the point sharply, true. God gives us not mere water but artesian springs water. He also gives us the imaginative and technical capacity to create Dom Perrier water and Lemonade water and and thirst-quenching Gatorade Tiger water, the official drink of Tiger Woods.



God does not provide us with minimalist food. He creates a world with a capacity to produce over 7,500 varieties of apple. 7,500! From this myriad variety we can make apple juice and apple wine. We can make apple pie, apple crumble, apple cake, apple crisp. We can bake them or stew them. We can dry or puree them. The Brits make a toffee apple. Isaac Newton gets hit on the head by a falling apple and discovers a theory of universal gravitation.

Do we need jazz music? That depends on how we use the term "need." If we equate need with our most basic requirements for human subsistence, then no. But that reduces human life to a minimalist notion, which contradicts the whole ethos of Genesis 1 and 2. Look at God's own behavioral pattern. He does not make minimalist trees. He makes endlessly variegated trees. Why? Grace. Indeed creation reflects the same kind of grace that represents the inner life of the Godhead.

So when we make jazz music, we do so as a way to enter into the very life of God, a life marked by the excesses of grace.

I can't pretend to have described these three reasons for art-making with the highest precision. But I hope I've given us a good enough reason not to dismiss art hastily. Is evangelism important? Yes. Is feeding the poor important? Yes. Are they needful? Yes. The one participates in God's work to mend the human heart through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The other participates in God's work to provide for our most basic needs as humans.

Is art-making important? Yes. In making it we bear out the image of God as creative beings. We deepen our knowledge of ourselves. And beyond that we participate in the always-more-than grace of our triune God who ever pulls us into the Life that is truly Life.


9 comments:

d said...

Williams' book looks wonderful. Art + Love = Goodness.

In reflecting on your Big Three I wonder if perhaps we also make art because of an inherent communal need. Not only do we need to get things "out" but we also need to take in confirmation and challenge that wake us up to various forms of grace. (I've been especially conscious of this in music lately—notably "non-Christian" music.) Making work that builds up can give back to us in its establishment of our selves in our community (and all the better when that community is not virtual!).

dave said...

Grace and Necessity is without a doubt the best book I've read this year. Reading your post, which I enjoyed thoroughly, was actually me taking a break from writing my dissertation, which at the moment I am trying to conclude with an engagement with G & N.

Looks like it might be hard to get together before August, but Hannah and I will be arriving in Durham on the 2nd. See you soon on the East side.

Rosie Perera said...

Bummer, can't watch the video. Hulu won't stream to Canada. :-(

w. david o. taylor said...

D: roger that. It was Barth who, in his magnetic megaphone way, drew attention to the relational dimension of the "imago Dei" of Genesis 1:26. To be human, he argued, was to be fundamentally relational because God was fundamentally relational, so how could the phrasing of image-of-God not include this notion. How then, we could argue, would all our human activities, including art-making, not be informed and formed by this relational reality?

Dave: glad we'll see you in Durham. I'm sorry it didn't work out to meet in Austin. We'll just have to drink a Shiner and remind ourselves of the things we love about Austin, even as we grow to love new Carolingian beers. All the necessary grace to you as you complete your thesis.

Rosie: Oy! That's a total bummer. That's weird too. Man, the world of technology is definitely above my pay grade. I wonder if NBC online might have it.

awvales said...

I love that Grace is essentially excess, of divine life, but excess all the same. I have marvelled at that but without those words. I was both startled to see that and felt at once like, "Yeah I get that, that's what I was trying to say!"

Thank you!

w. david o. taylor said...

And thank you.

techne said...

if possible, can you post the videos elsewhere than hulu? we can't access that up here in canada, eh. please. thankee.

w. david o. taylor said...

Techne: I've poked around and I can't find anybody else who has posted this video, including NBC. You could always poke around yourself and see if you're more successful. I'm so sorry and I wish I understood the mysterious ways of hulu, but it's a funny skit and worth seeing, even if it meant a trip south of the border.

chaiisgood said...

Just read this post. Well said.