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.
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.
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: 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.
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
"The words are an introduction to feelings that the words came out of" -Odetta
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...
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.
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.
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?
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.
Thanks again for stopping by and for the questions.