Friday, August 06, 2010

Are Artists Special: No and Yes.


The good folks over at Transpositions have generously taken on a discussion of each chapter in my book. Thus far they've engaged Crouch, Witvliet, Peterson, Winner, Nicolosi and Banner.

In a comment that Jim posed to Anna's entry on Barbara Nicolosi's chapter, he asks, with respect to the notion of artist-as-genius:

"Even though I am in agreement with what you have said, I still wonder whether or not it is possible to glean some positive value from the romantic concept of the artist; whether or not the romantic concept of the artist is correct in certain regards. So, then, one could add an additional twist to the three questions you pose at the end. How does the romantic concept of the artist make a positive contribution to the Christ-likeness of the creative person, to the discipleship of the artist, and to the critique and support of artists by the church?"

I attempted to reply in brief, but failed. I was far from brief. In the interest of further cross-pollinating discussion, I'm including my reply here.

Anna, great post. Thank you. As you rightly observe--and Jim, you as well--this is a "difficult" chapter, to the extent that Barbara makes strong, sharp-edged statements. I'm glad the chapter belongs to this book. [I respect Barbara and am deeply grateful for the hard, sweaty, bloody labors she's faithfully performed over the years.] Hers represents an important perspective; it also represents a written form of a public talk that, on the night Barbara spoke at the symposium, generated an effusion of positive response from the several hundred artists in the room. In a word: the artists felt known. That is, they felt sympathetically known through the choice and intensity of words which Barbara used. (The several hundred pastors held on for the blustery, often humorous but always unapologetically straight-shooting talk.)

I only have time for a quick response here. Hopefully I'll have more time over the weekend.

First, as with all things in the book, so much of the discussion turns on the definition and application of terms. Jim, I love the question you posed at the end of your comment. That would make for a fantastic article, dissertation, book, symposium and long night of adult beverages.

Second, Murry Watts, who lives nearer to you guys than to me, gave a nice talk at the Laity Lodge a few years ago in which he explored the dual idea of artist as servant and as prophet. Again, much of the persuasiveness of his talk hung on the use of his terms. But I appreciated the way he brought both metaphors to play in the vocation of the artist.

Third, Paul Westermeyer, in his chapter on the psalms in Te Deum: The Church and Music, engages Gerhard von Rad's argument that, from an OT context, one should not pit the priests against the prophets. They operated together, von Rad insists, for the common well-being of Israel. Westermeyer goes on to explore this idea in relation to the church musician. He notes that the temptation has been for the church musician to see him- or herself either in the priestly cast or in the prophetic cast. For Westermeyer this leads only to problematic outcomes.

Lastly, while we are right, with regard to artistic identity markers, to avoid the excesses of the 19th century Romantic movement as well as the excesses of the Pragmatic movement, we must still ask ourselves what is unique in the life and work of certain artists. I say "unique" not over against other persons or callings; and I certainly think we will be wasting our time if we want to protect artists in a more-special-than-thou category. I say "certain artists" because artistic dispositions, personalities, labors and callings are as varied as the human race.

But still. After fifteen years of shepherding artists, I cannot ignore the "trafficking in thin places" quality that I observe in some artists. For the record, I do not think this quality becomes an excuse for self-indulgent existence. Nor do I think artists are exempt from voluntary and regular service in the church nursery, or wherever they might be needed. But when artists, prophets and mystics get lumped into the same group, as they often have throughout history, I think there is something worth giving careful attention to. I think they share a "family resemblance." I think they perform an important, even down-to-earth service to the church. And I do not think we are better off by presumptively, and thoughtlessly, dismissing that claim as chauvinist nonsense.

That, Jim, is why I think your last question deserves serious thought and a serious answer. A discussion like this, I imagine, would take us far beyond Romantic philosophy into discussions (or disputes) around theological anthropology, spiritual theology, psychology and perhaps even cultural or ritual studies. But it sure would make for a great evening of conversation. If we all agreed to be humble, to count to ten when we felt provoked and to not take ourselves too terribly seriously, then ... well then I'd have to move to Scotland with my wife and turn it into a long weekend.

As always, thanks to the Transpositions crew for thoughtfully engaging the material.


5 comments:

w. david o. taylor said...

Let me add two quick things here.

One, on my last point I should include pneumatology. Our ideas about the Holy Spirit will shape considerably how we view the correspondence between heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible, four dimensions and multiple dimensionality, and pretty much every aspect of what it means to be a creature made in the image of a Triune God.

Two, my assertions work best if a few assumptions are granted:

a) that there is in fact a healthy version of a prophet, mystic and artist that we can work with, at least conceptually.

b) that "prophet" and "mystic" are very complex designations.

c) that all giftings, no matter how special they may feel, can be experienced as a blessing only if they are viewed as gifts which we receive from God in order to serve God as well as both the church and the world.

d) that however frequently or rarely an artist taps into other dimensions of reality, however we wish to conceive that, most of their life is spent in the ordinary, boring, sometimes crummy, often tedious but very important work of honing their craft. Sitting, waiting around for the muse to descend usually results in a lot of sitting and waiting around. I'm certainly not the first to state this. But it always bears repeating.

Watkins said...

David, thanks for your comments on Anna post and your interest in, and willingness to engage the question I posed. I especially appreciate that you bring up pneumatology here as I think it may be a fruitful starting point for appropriating one aspect of the Romantic concept of the artist. I can respond briefly to this by saying two things.

First, The romantic concept of creativity (i.e. genius) is an individualisitic 're-working' of the classical notion of inspiration (the muse). If we critique the individualism inherent in a romantic concept of creativity we do not do away with inspiration. In fact, the opposite happens. A theory of creativity that emphasizes relationship and collaboration raises the possibility of (begs the question even!) a relationship between the human artist and the divine because creativity is being redefined as a posture of openness rather than as an autonomous space/activity.

Second, Pneumatology might be the place to begin within Christian theology to explore how God might relate to a human artist. In particular, the Holy Spirit, as a respecter of particularity and diversity, might avoid the main problem of the Muse (that it possesses the artist and destroys human freedom).

As it happens, inspiration is an aspect of creativity that is being revisited by contemporary theorists (esp. Timothy Clark, 'The Theory of Inspiration' and Derrida). But inspiration might be only one aspect of the romantic concept of the artist that can be retrieved and redeemed.

Thanks again - Jim.

ellen said...

In music the romantic concept of genius helped elevate the belief that music without words or text was just as important (if not more so) in describing the unknown, particularly the romantic fascination with our death. In music we start seeing a move away from instrumental dance forms (baroque) and formulaic writing (classical) towards freer use of rhythm and harmony. Opera and sacred music are no longer the only "classy" or "worthy" western music genres.
Pros - the "genius" composer or performer made breakthroughs and could support themselves doing their own work (not the case for patron situations of the baroque/classical where the patron's taste dictated)
Cons - the "genius" music canon is so entrenched it's hard for new compositions (of equal or greater "genius" if you will to get any play time in traditional venues.
I'm sure there are lots of other pros and cons, too. There was much more uniformity when the nobility ran the show in music. The rise of the middle classes = the rise of the "genius" concept. In a way (in music) it represents the notion that your ability/relevance have nothing to do with the wealth or social rank or your family.

kelly said...

Below is my response to the review at Transpositions. I think that makes this a response to a review of an essay transcribed from a speech:

"Thanks, Anna, for your thoughtful discussion of this essay. And thanks to your whole team for your reviews of this book. It’s often difficult to find folks nearby with whom to discuss a thought-provoking book.

I find that I agree with just about all of your critique of Nicolosi’s essay. Yet I was at the symposium and very much enjoyed her talk. Now I’m trying to reconcile those two things in my head.

First, as David mentioned, this was a transposition of a talk. Of the essays that were also part of the symposium I feel like this one lost the most when written down. (Jeremy’s lost a bit because his talk drifted beautifully in and out of his piano playing, but his talk still works well as an essay.) There was a brashness and humor to Nicolosi’s delivery that prepared the audience for her hyperbolic declarations. I for one expected her to be shooting a bit past the truth to get her point across.

Second, I think the strength of her message was much more pastoral than theological. When I read the essay I found my eyes glazing over when reading through the first section defining art, artists, beauty, etc. I’ve read so many others, Barthes and Wolterstorff included, that deal with these things with so much more depth that I just didn’t take her all that seriously in this area. But then when she gets into the section on recognizing artists and then asks if artists are crazy and/or lazy she seems on much firmer ground because she’s speaking from experience.

Banner’s essay is the more balanced and grounded of the two essays about working with artists. But Nicolosi’s is the more vivid which, at least in person, connected well with the artists. I think a bigger part of why it connected had to do with the lived experience of the artists in the room. The risk of artists taking on the Romantic ideas and thinking that they are above everyone else is real but in my experience it is rare in the church. More often, artists have felt left out and less than others in the church. What Nicolosi tapped into was the sense that our working life as artists is just different from others around us. Our working processes often don’t fit into the patterns of the hourly or salaried working folks with whom we worship. Nicolosi describes the process of imaginative work in ways that artists have lived it. She points out that artists often process ideas constantly in the background and have uneven bursts of productivity balanced with long periods of preparation (or fear). Even if they aren’t universal among artists, these are the parts of the working life of an artist that can present the biggest interpersonal challenges.

Many of us have experienced these things in isolation and with a great deal of guilt at not living up to societal standards of efficiency and effectiveness. What we heard in Nicolosi’s talk was that (1) we are not alone, (2) we don’t need to feel guilty for functioning differently from others, and (3) laughing at ourselves is quite healing. These points are more pastoral and even sociological than theological and therein lies their value. I wish that she hadn’t drifted as far into the faulty ideas that you’ve articulated well here. Fortunately, though, her essay is in the midst of a book in which others handle those things better."

w. david o. taylor said...

Jim, thanks for your comment. I think a Trinitarian pneumatology is one of the richest fields of Christian thought left largely un-explored by contemporary theology, or church people for that matter. There are pockets here and there, and the literature continues to grow, almost at an exponential rate. So that's encouraging. The unfortunate habit of Christians, however, is to think of the Holy Spirit in non-Trinitarian ways. That leads to so-called Romantic ways of fusing the Spirit with the Muse or to any number of individualistic conceptualizations of the Spirit's work in a person's life. If you do any work along these lines, I look forward to reading it.

Ellen, I'm always grateful for the ways you help me understand the music world better. That's so fascinating.

Kelly, I'm grateful for your on-the-street perspective, as one who attended the symposium and was involved at many levels. Both your personal observation and your observation of Barbara's talk and essay are very helpful.