Thursday, July 05, 2012

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.

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) once identified the distinguishing feature of an artist as the capacity to "co-create," in a fashion, that is, analogous to God's creativity (the verb is intentionally placed in quotation marks), and few declarations have stirred up as much feeling in 20th century discussions of art, though perhaps especially in Protestant circles, as this one.

While Madeleine L'Engle ran with the idea in her book Walking on Water, the Dutch Reformed philosopher Calvin Seerveld felt that it led dangerously to elitist notions about the vocation of artists with respect to other human vocations. In its stead he encouraged us to view the artist as a co-cultivator. Working within a similar theological tradition, Nicholas Wolterstorff, who expressly operates with the "royal" imagery of the book of Genesis, argues that the artist should be seen as a responsible gardener of the world.

Jeremy Begbie, in Voicing Creation's Praise, advances the idea of artist as "priest of creation." Through the artist, he writes, "the inarticulate (though never silent) creation becomes articulate.” Four ways in which artists function as priests, he suggests, are these. First, it includes a discovery of and respect for the mysteries of creation. Second, it involves a development of the hidden treasures and structures of the created world. Third, there is a redeeming of disorder, “a renewal of that which has been spoiled,” which is what he would call the negative dimension of creativity--that is, the pronouncement of judgment on all that disfigures the world and an exposing of the ugliness of sin. And finally, our creative priesthood takes place within a corporate context, mirroring the creative activity of the Trinitarian God.

Moving in the direction of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in his "Address" at the Sistine Chapel, Nov. 21, 2009, paraphrasing Pope John Paul II, talked about the artist's calling as that of "rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.” While Flannery O'Connor would have been sympathetic to this view of things, she stated the matter more plainly: "If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work."

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:

"Do not separate your art from your faith. But leave distinct what is distinct. Do not try to blend by force what life unites so well. If you were to make of your aesthetic an article of faith, you would spoil your faith. If you were to make of your devotion a rule of artistic activity ... you would spoil your art. The entire soul of the artist reaches and rules his work, but it must reach it and rule it only through the artistic habitus. Art tolerates no division here.... Christian work would have the artist, as artist, free."

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:

"Therefore, just as when we are learning the art of painting, the teacher puts before us on a panel a beautifully executed model, and it is necessary for each student to imitate in every way the beauty of that model on his own panel, so that the panels of all will be adorned in accordance with the example of the beauty set before them; in the same way, since every person is the painter of his own life, and choice is the craftsman of the work, and the virtues are the paints for executing the image, there is no small danger that the imitation may change the Prototype into a hateful and ugly person instead of reproducing the master form if we sketch in the character of evil with muddy colors."

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.


21 comments:

Mark Allen said...

I'm *really* enjoying this blog series, David. The Maritain quote – yes! Can't wait to hear what you have to say about the artist-as-prophet. I'd also love to get your thoughts on the designer-as-artist. As a designer/art director myself, the issue you raise about the possibility of highway billboards revealing the ineffable has piqued my interest, partly because I can't tell which direction your rhetorical question is leaning. While teaching at SMU, many of my students struggled to see design/advertising as something that can transcend slimy Madison Avenue stereotypes – to see their craft as a genuine art form on its own merits, perhaps distinct from, but not entirely unlike, the "finer" arts. I find it interesting that many schools lump design and advertising in with the "vocational arts" along with architecture, welding and small engine repair. There's a longstanding debate amongst designers concerning the label we put on our so-called art. Are they examples of "communication art" or just... art. But I recognize the tension my students and colleagues feel because there are times when I go back and forth myself. After all, I started out as a drawing and painting major – before I sold out to the man, that is. Looking forward to Part III.

w. david o. taylor said...

Mark, you've got a great combination of skills and experience to tease out this question. I left the direction of my rhetorical question intentionally vague because I think it's more complicated than folks usually like to make it out to be.

It's funny to me that designers, architects and welders are placed under the heading of "vocational" arts. What a funny use of that term, hey? Why not call them "technical" arts or "practical" arts? And why call the arts on other side of the divide "fine" or "high"? Why these terms? Why this sense of refinement or direction upward? I again think these are the kinds of questions we need to keep asking.

At some level the answers might be straightforward. At another the answers are complex.

My hobby these days is to watch how people *use* language regarding the arts--regular people, scholar people, professional people, artist people, people who should know better and people who don't know how to make heads or tails of what comes at them through media and news outlets.

Fascinating business, I guess.

The Bean said...

I am so glad that there are people out there like you who are not just outsiders but people who are "working" in this field to bounce ideas of and have encouragement from.

Of course we all want our work to glorify God and as someone who USED to say that a lot I realised that it goes without saying and that specificity forces us to think, really think through the specifcs of God's call to us as artists. Which may often mean going outside of the box to find out...

Thanks! Can't wait for part 3

Unknown said...

The vocation of the artist is to make something beautiful, beauty being that which pleases and has wholeness, harmony and clarity. If the artist is a Christian artist the beautiful thing made will have something to do with the narrative of salvation history. Not every Christian who is an artist is a Christian artist or needs be.

w. david o. taylor said...

"The Bean": thanks for the good word. And keep showing us the things for which we should rightly be grateful.

Unknown: that is certainly the way one part of the Christian tradition has thought about the vocation of an artist. You're definitely in good company with that statement.

I just wish I knew who "unknown" was? Are you an artist? A "Christian artist"? Are you known by a name? Do you hang out with other artists? Are you a part of a church community of any sort? Just curious.

Marc Proctor said...
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Marc Proctor said...

The vocation of an artist is... an immense burden not to be desired, or elevated. Not for reason inherent art itself, but primarily the for the ambiguity such talents bring with them.

Not to fade the topic into superlatives. It ("it"- maybe "it" is being creatively inclined, as some have pegged me)shares every element of usual humanity. It has struggle, and triumph. I always wonder at how the claim, "a call to make, write, or promote worship music" is colloquial. Not because I dislike the effort, but I fear two directions from its use:

1. I have horribly missed something, and struggle to "just do it"

2. Culture, generally, seems to lightly consider, or rather misplace the weight, and meaning of what it means to be "called to... etc. etc."

In any regard, I (obviously) have none of this figured out. As such, I am thankful for your blog and efforts. I feel a growing distance between my creative side and my faith (particularly as grounded in my culture/local church). Apparently this trend is common, as indicated by the research of The Barna Group (who are by no means unbiased). However, I think you'll find this link interesting: http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/545-top-trends-of-2011-millennials-rethink-christianity

I must stop, these ramblings would just continue if allowed, thanks for the blog post.

Sorry, deleted the comment by mistake

Marc Proctor said...

Also, this feels somehow relevant:

"The words are an introduction to feelings that the words came out of" -Odetta

Cole Matson said...

David, I am *so* digging these posts. This one has many of the people I love (Sayers, Wolterstorff, Maritain, Popes BXVI & JPII...). Thanks for the shout-out, and looking forward to #3!

Greg Scheer said...

It's been a long time since I've delved into the arts/faith conversation, in part because I found that there are some people who want to define it and some people who want to do it, and I wanted to be part of the latter. The fact that your delving is *informed* makes a big difference, and I'm really enjoying reading it and thinking about these things.

For what it's worth, the definition that popped into my head was: The vocation of an artist is to make stuff. (It could use some finessing...) Which was quickly followed by: the vocation of an artist is not a vocation at all unless you take out the "earn a living" part of vocation's definition. (I wish we could go back to the days of the "craftsman," in which people thought a lot less of artists, but the artists could make a reasonable living. Or, as a composition teacher used to say, "Bach went in the back door with the baker.")

To the "glorify God" line of thinking, in practice this usually comes out as "God gave me this song." I hate that. Always have a response ready when someone says that. Here are a few:

-God gave you that song because he didn't want it anymore.

-Divinely inspired? Like the Bible? It must be time to reopen the canon!

-When God wrote the song, did he purposely misspell that word? (or notate the melody incorrectly, or...)

-If God gave you the song, then why is your name on the copyright?

-When God gave you the song, did he sing it out of tune like that?

Well, you get the picture...

w. david o. taylor said...

Marc, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I'm sorry to hear that you're feeling a separation between your faith and your work. Hang in there. You're not alone in this, and hopefully it won't be as bad as this forever. I do hope you have folks close by with whom you can talk these things over.

Cole: thanks brother!

Greg: When you stop by my blog, I know I'm going to be in for a treat. This time was no exception.

My favorite response to the "I do my art for the glory of God" is your first one. That made me laugh out loud.

And I guess I fiddle around with these ideas because it's my job and I get to fiddle around with them. I've also seen so many artists fall by the wayside because they were sold a dodgy bill of ideas (e.g. "the glory of God"). Hopefully I can bring a bit of clarity to the discussion so artists will feel free to throw themselves fully to whatever it is that they have been called to and to whatever occupation God has entrusted to them at the moment, even if, perhaps, it's not the ideal one.

emily said...

David, thanks for this series of posts. I look forward to reading part III where you will (hopefully?) offer a constructive view of your own on the vocation of the artist.

In the meantime, I wanted to ask a question. You pointed to Sayers who writes about the artist as a creator analogous to the divine Creator. Further down, you point out that being a 'creator' is not unique to the arts (which, by the way, Sayers would also agree with). Sayers position, however, is not that creativity (or a creativity that is similar to divine creativity) makes artists unique. She thinks that artistic creativity is paradigmatic for other sorts of creativity.

Do you think that Sayers' suggestion that artistic creativity is paradigmatic is a good one? I think she is right if she means that we tend to think of creativity in business or science in terms of the arts. I do, however, find her suggestion that artistic creativity most closely resembles 'creation from nothing' to be deeply problematic.

Watkins said...

By the way, that last comment from 'emily' is actually from me (Jim Watkins). I didn't realize I was signed into my wife's blogger account until it was too late! I hope all is well, my friend!

Marc Proctor said...

David: Thanks! I don't mean to paint a dismal scene for my situation, or for others who ask similar questions; God is good. I'm certain the future will be brighter, in one way or another. One thing is certain, I definitely have benefited from reading your blog here and there. Your efforts are appreciated.:)

Judith Hougen said...
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Judith Hougen said...

Thanks for your words here--I enjoyed the various perspectives. I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with this series as my own ideas about vocation are ever evolving (and perhaps always will be). As a Christian educator, I want my students to begin to construct their own thoughts about vocation--something, ironically, that is not typically addressed at faith-based colleges (at least mine).

Jennifer Wilson said...

I am an artist. When I paint or draw, my greatest enjoyment is knowing that God truly ENJOYS watching me use the gifts He has given me. When I am creating, we are connecting, and I feel His love for me.

Tim Loraditch said...

I am new to reading this blog and just started with part 1 and 2 of this subject. Some how it seems a bit more complicated then it needs to be.

I am an artist. That actually tells you very little about me, except maybe that I am creative. I am also a Christian, so I create my are in an effort to glorify God which is our soul purpose as Christians. HOW it glorifys God is specific. The designer of websites, the architect and the welder can glorify God with their work too.

My artwork is an expression of worship, much like one who writes songs, poems. Art, whether it is visual, musical, or literary, should always glorify God if the creator is a Christian. However it can still vary greatly in it's content.

Each of these art forms can be for everyone to enjoy, or they may just be personal expressions between God and the author. They may be prophetic IF the author has a prophetic gifting, but I don't think we can conclude that all Christian artists are prophetic can we?

w. david o. taylor said...

Jim (aka Emily): great question. I actually do think Sayers repeatedly emphasizes the unique role of the artist viz other vocations and professions, esp. pgs 38-41 of MOTM. Whether artists create out of nothing is ambiguous in her argument; not because she is a sloppy thinker or writer but because she employs a range of phrasings to clarify and to qualify that point. At one level, I don't buy her argument viz ex nihilo, at another level, I don't think it's necessary.

Whether her overall argument is a good one is not something I'm ready to judge. I feel like I would want to read the rest of her writings in order to get a sense of "the mind of Dorothy Sayers" on the matter. I can say, however, that I've rarely found it referenced or appealed to in the writings of others in the field of theological aesthetics. I'm not sure what accounts for that absence. Other than a historical note, many writers fail to make much of it.

What's your thought?

Judith: thanks for the good word.

Jennifer: that sounds like a good experience of artmaking.

Tim: thanks for visiting the blog. A lot of what I say in this blog series makes better sense in light of what I've written all along. In response to your sense that I'm making things complicated, I might say this. While I wish things weren't this complicated, when you read the church's 2000-year history of its relationship to the arts, how different thinkers and artists have conceptualized their place in the world, the often disparate and competing language that is employed, and the frequent dismissals of opposing views that result in the disenfranchisement of any given group of artists ... well, I'm not sure you could conclude that it *isn't* complicated.

The goal of this series is to tease out how different Christian communities have understand the nature, work and vocation of artists and to suggest a few ways to think clearly about it. No intention here to say the last word. But hopefully people will come away knowing why ideas and vocabulary matter at a very real, on-the-street level.

Tim Loraditch said...

I know what you mean about the past being complicated. Is your blog an effort to explore history for history's sake alone, or are you looking to help chart a course for artists to fulfill their calling in the church?

w. david o. taylor said...

Tim, apologies for the tardiness. I'm on vacation at the moment visiting family. I'd say my blog does a little bit of this and a bit of that, though what holds it together is the desire to explore the nature of the church's relationship to the arts from theological, cultural, ecclesial, liturgical, spiritual and missional perspectives.

In short.

Thanks again for stopping by and for the questions.