Artists as caretakers of the imagination: six thoughts
As I look forward to our Laity Lodge retreat this coming Thursday, here are six thoughts I hope to explore on our given topic. Thankfully I'll not be exploring alone. Along with Jamie Smith and Isaac Wardell (see here for Part I of this post, as it were), we'll be joined by a group of artists (of all sorts, including special guest artists Roger Feldman, Jay Walker, and Jim Janknegt), worship leaders, senior pastors, academics, directors of professional societies, and counselors, all of whom will contribute to a very rich experience. It's a full retreat this time and I'm excited to see what God will bring about during our four days together.
1. It is far from self-evident what the phrase "artists as caretakers of the imagination" actually means.
While at first glance it may seem like an persuasive or desirable notion, the moment we begin to tease out what exactly we mean by "imagination" and by "artists" and by "caretakers," it is at that moment that we begin to encounter significantly disparate ideas about each. It is at that moment that we need to slow down and to commit ourselves to careful, deliberative and self-critical thought. While I agree with the phrase, because I coined it, I confess that I've yet to figure out what I really mean by it.
The fact that historians and scientists and stay-at-home moms are also to be regarded as caretakers of the imagination only complicates--er, enriches--the discussion.
2. The imagination makes present through "models" or "patterns," not necessarily through "images," what is inaccessible to direct experience.
This is an idea I get from Garrett Green in his book Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination. It's one of the best books I've yet read exploring the imagination from a theological standpoint. (Hans Frei and George Lindbeck feature prominently in his argument, if that means something to you.) Green phrases the idea this way more precisely:
"Imagination is the means by which we are able to represent anything not directly accessible, including both the world of the imaginary and recalcitrant aspects of the real world; it is a medium of fiction as well as fact."
Throughout the course of the book he unpacks, in theologically specific language that he hopes is also accessible to a public readership, how this idea relates to things real and illusory, imaginative and imaginary, fantastic and deceitful. It is an idea that is essential, he argues, to the domain of scientific projection as well as that of science fiction.
3. The imagination enables us to live beyond the givens of the world; or alternatively, echoing Sam Wells, the imagination enables us to take the right givens for granted.
Trevor Hart and Richard Bauckham in Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millenium put the same point this way:
4. There is a dynamic relationship between the imagination and the notion of imitation.
We become what we imagine repeatedly, and it is the very stuff of our lives that constitutes the repository of our imaginative activity, that is, what we imagine possible or impossible, probable and improbable.
Stanley Hauerwas over the course of his career has given repeated attention to this dynamic between imagination and imitation. A passage from The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics is illustrative of his standard argument:
“We acquire character through the expectations of others. The ‘otherness’ of another’s character not only invites me to an always imperfect imitation, but challenges me to recognize the way my vision is restricted by my own self-preoccupation…. From this perspective we are not the creators of our character; rather, our character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift.”
5. The different media of the arts, each in its own language or way of being, disclose things about God and our world that escape both (merely) analytical and (merely) empirical observation, which is another way of saying that they activate our imaginations in their own way and we should not suppose that they do so otherwise (generically, predictably, hierarchically, etc).
This point needs stressing, because it is far from clear how Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake informs our imagination similarly or differently to a MARVEL graphic novel.
How do a piece of music by Edgard Varèse and the choreography of Pina Bausch underscore what we imagine as a "given" in this world?
In what way are both the author of a congregational hymn and Barnett Newman's "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?' shaping what we imagine possible?
How do the movie "Bernie" and the design of my Apple computer enable me to imagine the kingdom of heaven?
In order to answer these questions we need to attend carefully to the manner in which each medium, in any given context, operates.
6. To cultivate a right imagination requires the adoption of right practices and habits.
It also goes without saying that if we wish to encourage others to become good caretakers of the imagination, we must first choose to be careful caretakers ourselves, and this applies not only to our work with art but also to our personal, relational and spiritual lives.
All of this is to say, in conclusion, that we are going to have a heck of a retreat on our hands and I'm eagerly looking forward to learning from everybody there.
|Poster by PhaedraJeanArtMachine|
PS: This poster will be up in the pjeanartmachine shop this coming week, and my wife tells me that all these "Make" actions are things that she wishes to fold into our common life these days. I think it's wonderful.