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.


shannon newby said…
to your willingness to be a strong voice for us as artists in the church, openness to respectful disagreements (and well-stated responses), and to the useful and useless umbrella art, I insert an emoticon smiley face!
andy crouch said…
Personally I would appreciate seeing more serious engagement with my essay (and Barbara's) than simply quoting the word "useless." The first time I use it, in reference to art, I qualify it heavily (I use the phrase "incapable-of-being-expressed-as-useful" and explain what I mean at some length). The second and third times I use it, I am referring to play and pain, not directly to art, and any fair reading would see that my use (!) of the word is at least rhetorical, if not polemical. I have no illusions that my essay is comprehensive, but I hope it is suggestive—however, based on the commentary so far it seems either I failed to be clear enough in my suggestion or my blogging and reviewing readers have failed to take up my suggestion.

In conversation after conversation with working artists who intersect with the church (as recently as lunch today) I find that the biggest challenge they have is explaining that their art has intrinsic value rather than merely delivering a message. We might wish that churches were at a more advanced stage of aesthetic conversation so that this somewhat facile dichotomy could be deconstructed and transcended, but for the moment my own judgement is that Protestant Christians need, first of all, to learn that art is a gift, and that in life as in worship, gifts are the most essential (not merely useful!) things of all.
kelly said…
I noticed and enjoyed the differences between the essays, especially in regard to use and uselessness. It made it feel like a great conversation between thoughtful people with different backgrounds and interests. It made me want to get them all back together (with Lauren and Joshua added to the mix) around a table with beers to hash out the differences, find where the differences were superficial or reconcilable, and come to some thicker concepts than any one of them could come to on their own.

I've always appreciated Wolterstorff's insistence on the usefulness of art in 'Art in Action'. I felt like it included the way my field of architecture works as art in ways that other concepts of art & use do not. But when he spoke at the IAM conference last year he discussed how he had needed to clarify his own thoughts about use in the 30 years since the book came out, insisting that aesthetic contemplation is in itself a good and valid use of art.

David: Thanks for putting together the book. Andy: Thanks for your wonderful contribution to it.
kelly said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Janknegt said…
I would also recommend "The Responsibility of the Artist" by Jacques Maritain and "Painting and Reality" by Etienne Gilson.
steve scott said…
Hope this is helpful
bruce herman said…
Isn't it true that God's very being is revealed in gratuitous beauty ("lilies of the field..."). In like manner, art seems to find its greatest "use" in its very "uselessness" (is that an oxymoron?). Romanticism and heroic notions aside, as a visual artist I have always felt a bit like a fifth wheel in the church. (But maybe an extra wheel will come in handy some day.) :) Thanks David & Andy & Lauren & Jeremy...its good to have big brothers and sisters fighting for us weak little garrett dweller geniuses.
David JP Hooker said…
David- I so appreciate this response. The question of the definition of "useful" or "useless" seems to me to be the big snag. "Useful" to whom?--that's the unexamined question.
Bruce, you beat me to the punch when you mention "that God's very being is revealed in gratuitous beauty ('lilies of the field...')," I was thinking about how "useful" it is to create a universe so vast that we have no real way to comprehend it, much less observe it. Doesn't seem very useful...
Anyway, I have found a part of the problem lies with a misunderstanding of the process of creating an artwork. The assumption is, largely, that the artist starts with something they want to communicate. If that assumption is true, then it is certainly possible to consider it "useful" by its effectiveness in getting its message across. But I think this is only true for a small majority of artists. I think my starting point is something more like material, my relationship to that material, and my relationship with my environment. I found Dorothy Sayers helpful here (although maybe tangentially), as her model for creativity (a Triune God) includes the concept of free will. When we, as makers, try to force an artwork to be "useful"--to communicate some message, evangelistic, political or otherwise--we end up creating lifeless automatons (bad art). I have been there many times. For me to let an artwork live I have to give it space to be/say what it needs to be/say. I have to trust it. To start there is to have to radically rethink the whole notion of "useful" to begin with.
Andy, if you happen to read this far (this has gotten away from me) just want to say how much I enjoy your take on all of this, I certainly find "Culture Making" a useful work in the very best sense!
Mark Chambers said…
"Isn't it true that God's very being is revealed in gratuitous beauty ("lilies of the field...")"

Well said Bruce. God's extravagant grace is a great paradigm of thinking, feeling, and living through, with, and in the arts. It is evident, I think, in the multiplicity and potentiality of creation.

I wonder if we need to even use the words useful and usefulness in the discussion about art. (I really need to read "For the Beauty of the Church" - it's on my desk, just need to get to it.)

As a composer of fairly esoteric, abstract music thinking in terms of usefulness or not misses the point. It's not even a question I am trying to address in my music. Certainly there will be something, some kind of question(s) implicit in the very model that I employ for my music but usefulness is not part of it. I think maybe it is a matter of categorization instead.

Some arts would fall into the category of usefulness such as a military march but others I am not sure that either term is helpful. Arvo Pärt's music clearly would not be useful, as the march would be, but I do not think uselessness would be the defining characteristic of his music. It is in a completely different category and therefore to speak of it as such misses the point(s). It was good to hear Wolterstorff speak on the value of aesthetic contmeplation.

Again, I should probably go and read the book but these are just a few thoughts that come to my mind.
Mark Chambers said…
After I posted my comments I see that David JP Hooker said what I was trying to. I defer to his great comments, well said.

kelly said…
After my comments yesterday I got to thinking that I hadn't done justice to Wolterstorff's arguments. He's a subtle and precise thinker and I wanted to get a little closer to the actual point he made:

He had always been clear that aesthetic contemplation was a valid use of art. In 'Art in Action' he was challenging the idea that that was the highest use of art and that anything that was caught up in some use (hymns, work songs, architecture) was inferior. Art can enoble or elevate many actions and is not inferior for doing so. The clarification he's made more recently is that even if art is caught up in some use it still has intrinsic value that is separate from it's usefulness for whatever purpose.

I think this point aligns well with Andy's comment that 'art has intrinsic value rather than merely delivering a message' and his and others' points that it is a gift or gratuitous. The modern mind so often wants to divide things up or pull them apart, but God's given us a world where things can be useful and gratuitous all at once. That kinda rocks.

A podcast of Wolterstorff's full talk is here:
Steve Guthrie said…
Thanks for taking the time to respond to this review David. I’m glad it’s stirred up some good conversation here! I also wanted to provide just a little bit of historical context: Stoneworks contacted me and asked if I would write a review of your collection. They also indicated (1) that it should be for a general (rather than an academic) readership, and (2) that I should aim for an upper limit of 750 words. (By comparison, David, your response here is almost 1800 words!) So, I want to acknowledge and affirm Andy’s point above – certainly each essay deserves a more thorough, subtle and careful assessment than I was able to provide in the space I was given, and I’m sorry about that. I was hoping to provide a quick snapshot of some of the most interesting insights, issues and tensions in the collection. I apologize if any of the contributors feel I’ve misrepresented them. - Steve
Good friends, thank you for your comments. It is so refreshing to encounter a generous-spirited discussion on so difficult a topic. I have a few thoughts that are climbing around in my head. For the moment, though, I will need to wait to respond. But thank you kindly for taking the time to share your thoughts and to encourage the conversation along.
Burning Myth said…
I am glad I think of my art-making, as 'useless'. A film production has enough forces of machinery and money already.
Steve Guthrie said…
I don't know that this really matters to the substance of the conversation, but again, I just would like to clarify what I did and didn't mean to say in the review. I think the discussion above is really helpful and interesting. My review though doesn’t express any opinion at all on the whole issue of use and uselessness – whether one or the other is the best way of characterizing the arts, whether the two are complementary, whether the whole distinction is completely specious or facile or whatever. All I really meant to do in those two or three sentences was observe an interesting difference of emphasis between some of the different essays. And as I said, I think this difference highlights the fact that this is an area where there are further conversations to be had. (The kind of conversation that's been happening here!) For the record, I agree that the idea of gratuity is incredibly important in thinking both about God's creation and our own.
Gwen said…
The sign on the side of my bandwagon says, "Artists Welcome: ALL Personality TYPES! Even the happy, hardworking, dependable artists."

It really bugs me that artists are so often seen as dysfunctional. My 15 year old keeps saying, "Mom, that's not normal." All I can say is, "Normal is a setting on the dryer." (Can you HEAR his eyes rolling?)
Gwen said…
The sign on the side of my bandwagon says, "Artists Welcome: ALL Personality TYPES! Even the happy, hardworking, dependable artists."

It really bugs me that artists are so often seen as dysfunctional. My 15 year old keeps saying, "Mom, that's not normal." All I can say is, "Normal is a setting on the dryer." (Can you HEAR his eyes rolling?)b
Buddy Eades said…
Can I Just say that it is really awesome that people are actually talking about Art and Faith! I appreciate the education I get just lurking!
Buddy, thanks for stopping by and saying hello. Appreciate that.
Watkins said…
Hi David. I am a student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts in St Andrews. We have started a blog called Transpositions, and we are hosting a review of 'For the Beauty of the Church from Aug 2 - 9. As our first post, I have written a review of Andy Crouch's essay, and I think it may add another interesting dimension to an this (already) interesting blog post and discussion. You can view that post here:

We would really love it if you have some time to look at the review and offer your own thoughts!
Jim, many thanks for the heads-up and for your interest in the book--and an extended interest at that. Very excellent. I look forward to reading and interacting as much as possible.
D.C. said…
I enjoyed being stretched by James K.A. Smith's recent nuancing addition to this conversation in Comment. Bon appetite...


"We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we "find God" in our plays and poetry. In a way that is provocatively close to the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, such a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite "useless" —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn't have seen otherwise—and often because they've just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation."
Thanks for passing that along, D.C. Much obliged.

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