On the vocation of an artist: Part II
|René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967)|
"All art is an imitation of nature." Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD)
"Man is god over all the material elements, for he uses, modifies and forms them all." Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
If you haven't done this exercise yet, I'll go ahead and encourage you to do it now (and I'll keep persisting till this series is completed because I think something valuable might be gained in doing it). Before reading the following post, fill out the following sentence:
"The vocation of an artist is...."
Now that you've filled it out, I'll continue part two of my series on the vocation of an artist.
Part one concluded with this statement: "When you enter into discussion with fellow Christians, the situation unfortunately isn’t much better...especially when we encounter the all-too-ready appeal to the notion of artist as prophet."
Our good man Cole Matson launched a fine salvo on the topic, and while I'm tempted to plunge into the question of "artist as prophet," I'm going to hold off at least one more entry. For now, I'll survey a range of ways in which Christians have conceived of an artist's vocation. While not comprehensive by any means, the views I've included are generally representative of the kinds of comments one will find throughout Christian history. I begin with an Inkling.
This way of orienting the vocation of an artist is one that she owes, in part, to the mid-twentieth century French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain. Over the course of his writings, in particular in Art and Scholasticism, he emphasized the delicate distinction between the Christian as Christian and the artist as artist, which O'Connor in turn sought to embody in her life's work. It's a distinction that has bedeviled Christians from the start. It still does. As Maritain puts it:
If we return to our earliest history, we find a general agreement revolving around a Hellenistic idea of the artist's calling. Working up against the backdrop of art as "imitation," Gregory of Nyssa gives voice to the patristic mind when he writes:
Imitation here is not to be thought as slavish mimicry but rather a faithful re-presentation of the earthly domain or of God's domain, of reality or of Reality.
Finally, you hang around the church long enough and you'll no doubt hear this plaintive cry:
“All I want is for my art to give glory to God.”
This, to my mind, is the worse kind of statement. Not only does it present itself as self-evident, when it is anything but that, it also results in making the nearby listener feel all the worse because he should know what that means and he dare not disagree for fear of being seen as the heathenish brother. Who doesn't want their work to glorify God?
The problem with this last statement is that it fails to state anything distinctive about the vocation of an artist. In attempting to say everything that matters, it unfortunately says nothing at all, nothing that discloses concrete understanding about an artist's calling. In point of fact, one might press the same question to all the above statements: In what way exactly is any of it unique to an artist?
How are educators not also co-creators? How are politicians and engineers not also called to be responsible gardeners of the world? Are not businesswomen also co-cultivators? Is not the work of a pastor also, in some measure, that of a priest of creation? Do designers of highway billboards render accessible the invisible and ineffable or is this the exclusive prerogative of singer-songwriters and authors of literary fiction?
And isn't your mother also prophetic? At least maybe in hindsight? I think so, and it is the difference between a biblical prophet, an artist as prophet and your mother as prophet that I hope to explore in the next entry.