Is Art Useful or Useless? Yes.
I know I've promised to write a response to Matt Milliner's review in First Things. I will. I promise. But it's a far more complicated review and I've simply not had the time to decide how exactly I want to respond. I also don't even know what to do with the comments it's generated. So I'm hop-scotching it.
For now I want to respond briefly to Steve Guthrie's review in the recent Stoneworks issue. He raises a concern that I've seen several times now and I'd like to address it, even if only in rough form. Here is how he put it:
"If, however, the collection reflects some of the wisdom the church has gathered concerning the arts, it also provides evidence that there are still issues to be thought through. Two of the essays in the collection, for instance, insist that the essential character of art is that it is “useless” (Andy Crouch); that it “isn’t for anything” (Barbara Nicolosi). Two other essays however – those by John Witvliet and Lauren Winner – argue against this common association of art with uselessness. Far from being a “purely academic” difference, these different ways of understanding what art is lead in fact to different visions of what art should be in the life of the church.
Another example: in some essays, contributors attempt to make amends for the church’s neglect of artists by extolling artists as a uniquely gifted class of human beings. (Artists are uniquely insightful, uniquely sensitive to spiritual truth, uniquely responsive to meaning, and so on.) Artists, Barbara Nicolosi believes, “genuinely perceive spiritual realities,” which they then try “to get through to the rest of us” (118). In other places, essays encourage pastors to be patient in shepherding artists, because artists are (of course) brilliant but moody, creative but scatter-brained, sensitive but quirky, passionate but eccentric.
These characterizations, however—the Artist as High Priest of the Human Spirit and the Artist as Brilliant-but-Tortured Eccentric—are far from universal, timeless descriptions of creative people. Instead they echo a certain 19th-century Romantic vision of the Great Artistic Genius. Of course there are artists who fit these stereotypes. On the other hand, there are moody auto mechanics and creative, spiritually perceptive kindergarten teachers! I’ve also known Carnegie Hall-caliber musicians who—as human beings—were about as quirky and passionate as wallpaper paste.
The point is, in order to think theologically about the arts, we need also to reflect carefully upon what art really is. We should welcome the arts into the life of the church. We should not, however, uncritically welcome every cultural stereotype about the arts. The essays in this book arise from a 2008 conference entitled “Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts.” As the title of the conference indicates, the church should not only participate in culture, but also transform it – and that includes our culture’s conceptions and misconceptions about art."
1. My first response concerns the book itself. By nature of the form, a "multi-author" book generates divergent and sometimes contradictory views on its subject matter. It certainly happened with For the Beauty of the Church. From the symposium two years back, I had a good sense of what to expect for the book. I could expect strong opinions and sharp disagreements. I state this in my introduction as a heads-up for the reader. What I couldn't, and wouldn't do, is soften the edges. There was always the temptation to re-write people's essays. But that was never my prerogative, only my temptation.
I didn't agree with everything that was said; nor did I agree with how things were said. But I felt then and still feel now that the reader is better off by leaving disputable statements in place. At worst, and I would rue this, the reader would leave confused. At best, the reader would be forced to think for him- or herself. Even better, I might dream that the reader would re-read the essays, slowly, carefully, and trace out the lines of logic within each essay and then determine the resonance of logic among the essays. From my end, yes, I would re-write the introduction and afterword to help guide the reader a little better. From the reader's end, I would hope for a patient reading of the essays before sending me reactionary emails. (Here I insert emoticon smiley face.)
2. My second response is this: that art is always both useful and useless, and that it needs to remain both. I feel that strongly enough to leave the statement standing naked and bold.
3. My third response follows on this statement by asserting that the terms need to be handled carefully. By "useful" I mean that art can serve a myriad purposes "beyond itself." Look around the room you're sitting in. Look at every single item in the room. Look outside your window, if you have one. Everything, literally everything, around you possesses an artistic aspect. Whether the quality is high or low, whether the art has served its useful purposes maximally or minimally, is a separate issue. The point is that art is perfectly capable of serving other domains: sports, education, business, politics, religion and so on. I would add that we should gladly welcome its service. God's world will be the better for it, especially when the art is done well. An artistically beautiful airport, in both its functional and gratuitous aspects, is always better than an ugly airport (new RDU throws down on old RDU). An artistically well-crafted cup of coffee is better than a cheap one. Hoosiers is a righteously better sports movie than Rocky V.
At some point in the modern era, artists began to argue for art's intrinsic worth. By that they meant that art could and, in many ways, should be enjoyed "for itself." Music need not be restricted to ecclesiastical or military purposes. Music could be enjoyed for the sheer delight of the sounds that the composer crafted. Hence concert music. Visual art likewise could be appreciated as an exercise in fascination with texture and light. Hence the museum culture. Drama could be enjoyed as a pedagogical aid to spiritual formation (the morality play) and as a tale of comedies (Shakespeare or Beckett). So on and so forth.
What this tradition argued, it seems to me, is a twofold apologetic: 1) that art, whatever medium, contains its own internal logic which needs to be understood as such and 2) that art can be enjoyed for that which it is, not only for that which it serves beyond itself. Sound, movement, color, play, taste, form--God vests all of creation with these aspects. God also invites us to take pleasure in them, to take pleasure, for instance, in the sound, movement, color, play and taste of an apple, not just in its gastrointestinal or commercial benefit. Artists come along, craft the stuff of creation into imaginative form and invite others to respond to the artwork. The artwork may be simple and silly, it may be difficult and troubling. It may, depending on the context, be either "useless" or "useful." Or like the umbrella art I've included here, it may be both!
The unfortunate inheritance of 19th-century romanticism is the notion of artist as "original genius." There's no time here for an extended discussion. Suffice it to say that, yes, we must remain alert to the philosophical notions we as artists import not just into the life of the church, but also into our own lives. The notion of artist as original genius has ruined many people's lives. I'll leave it at that.
4. Fourthly, the reasons why people may emphasize one over the other are complicated, and they often reflect the circumstances of the person rather than strictly aesthetic concerns. During the early years of my pastoral work I over-emphasized art's uselessness. For a long while I had carried in me a negative reaction to the demands of my conservative Christian culture. This culture could only envision a useful place for the arts. As I went along in my ministry, however, I discovered a good place for good, useful art. I realized, for example, that the problem wasn't "evangelistic art," the problem was bad evangelistic art. The church has often sought to employ art in service of gospel proclamation. The aim of course would be to do that well. This has never been an easy task, as many of us can testify, and where art or gospel are cheapened, the result is a distorted vision, with the possibility of malformation.
In terms of my book, one might want to explore the broader context for Crouch's or Nicolosi's strong, singular plea for art's useless quality. By reading other essays they've written, you might discover a richer meaning to their respective statements. I think Lauren Winner gives a pretty clear reasoning for her argument. But the rest of her writings will always supply a deeper context of meaning. Would they want to amend their essay two years after the symposium? I don't know. Is the collective result of all the essays more noise? Possibly. Could a constructive outcome result if we paid close attention to the particular arguments within each essay? I'd hope so.
Do all these authors recognize that no essay, no book will say perfectly what they might like to say? I think so. The hope of this book is that it will serve the company of saints who have gone before it and those who will follow after. The hope is that those who do their work with the help of this book might say things even better, more precisely, more thoroughly. And in so doing, my hope is that the church will be more deeply edified and that the artists who are nourished and nurtured in her bosom will flourish more fully.
5. Fifthly and finally, if you wish to investigate the matter further, I would recommend the following resources:
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action
Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity
Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste
John de Gruchy, Christianity, Art and Transformation
Robert Farrar Capon's, The Supper of the Lamb
Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World
Jeremy Begbie, ed., Beholding the Glory
As always, I welcome your comments. I don't welcome them if you're the person or company who keeps dumping Chinese soft-porn links into my comments. Then I reject you ... as useful to pernicious ends and useless to the welfare of male souls.