Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Arts as Soulcraft: Love

Again -- these are preliminary thoughts, often disjointed and not well strung togehter -- I'm interested in your feedback/thoughts:

The first of the fruit of the spirit listed in Galatians is Love. This shows that love takes primacy over all the other gifts – indeed, it seems as though all the other gifts grow naturally out of love.

I Corinthians 13 gives us the most penetrating view of love, though it is in danger of becoming cliché because of overuse at weddings. The statements about love could be taken as a litany of the other fruit of the spirit “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (v 4-7). So we see that love, in the primary place among the fruit of the spirit is the overriding feature.

However, the challenge here is that much of art’s efforts are all about love – defining love, exploring love, explaining love, encouraging, exhorting, and seducing. Simply because love is a subject of intellectual content of art, our approach to how art produces Godly love within us becomes much more tricky. We mustn’t confuse what particular artists have to say about love with the actuality of love as it is being worked out within us by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus tells us that the two great commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – he says “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (From Matthew 22:37-40). From this we see that love is oriented toward the other – it is not a sating of an inner itch. Love is not consumption of the other like a tasty morsel that momentarily slakes our appetite. Love is our becoming consumed with the reality of God and concerned with the dignity of humans made in God’s image.

So how do the arts further the growth of love within the Christian disciple? It is far easier to tackle the challenge of the other fruit of the spirit because they are easier to define. As we look at each of the other fruit of the spirit, we will come to understand the answer to how the arts grow love within the disciple (and how to recognize counterfeit idolatry).

Yet there is one compelling piece we can talk about immediately – motivation. What is the driving factor in an artist creating or a layperson receiving art. Artists, like people in any other profession, are driven by a confusing mélange of motivations that manifest themselves in as many unique combinations as there are artists. But at any given time, certain motivations rise to the fore of one’s psychology – affecting the decision making process and personal behavior. It is these motiviations that are the first clue in whether an individual is a hero or a scoundrel (they are certainly not the last word, but they are the first clue).

Why does the artist create? Among the many reasons might be:
A need to express inner turmoils and longings and passions
A hunger for respect of peers.
An affinity with the perceived lifestyle those with the artistic temperament
A desire to change minds and make prophetic statements.
A satisfaction that arises from the pure fun of doing art
A longing for attention and affirmation from audiences.
A recognition of talents and desire to use them.

Why does the receiver take in art? Among the many reasons might be:
Cajoling from friends
A desire for distraction/entertainment
Agreement with a particular artist’s position
Enjoyment of being thought intellectual/artistic
Liking the way art makes them feel
A longing for a deeper understanding
A desire to learn how to better produce their own art.

However, for the Christian disciple, the desire to create art must always be infused with the desire to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In an interview with World Magazine, author John Erickson touches on this overriding need; he was asked “You've said that you learned from parents and teachers that your ‘business is not books. It's nourishment.’ What do you mean by that?” to which he replied “People need good stories just as they need home-cooked meals, clean water, spiritual peace, and love. A good story is part of that process. It affirms divine order in the universe and justice in human affairs and makes people better than they were before they read it. If artists are more gifted than ordinary mortals (we keep hearing that they are), they should find order and harmony in human experience. That's what Bach and Handel did. Artists should nourish the spirit, not poison it.” (Interview from December 2, 2006 issue). If artists are to approach their task with love, then it needs to be about more than ego, prestige, and power. Nourishment is a fine model for considering the needs of others in the creation of art.

Then there is art that is simply for the glory of God – art that aims at reflecting beauty, truth, or goodness simply because it reflects well upon God. These too have their place in the soulcraft of the Christian artist.

Yet we mustn’t forget the receiver of art as well. How does one receive art lovingly? How does one approach a work of art with full understanding that there is a serious human being behind it with serious intent? Author Zadie Smith laments the consumer-driven laziness of receivers of art: “But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, "I should sit here and I should be entertained." And the more classical model, which has completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.” (from an interview on the KCRW program Bookworm, November 2006, emphasis mine). The radical idea here is that receivers of art give a gift to artists by attending thoughtfully, diligently, and indeed lovingly.

Attending to the work does not imply agreement with the message of a work nor does it imply enjoyment of the emotions aroused by the work. Attending to the work means that as a labor of love we seek to experience and understand. Francis Schaeffer, in the face of an anti-intellectual evangelicalism of the 1960’s, reminded evangelicals that we need to extend love and compassion to artists “These paintings, these poems and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live, yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.” (The God Who is There, 36).

We might also consider that loving God by attending to the work does imply something beyond simply attending. I’m not sure if it would be evaluating the work or interpreting the work. Perhaps it would be deconstructing the work from within Christian worldview.

Soli Deo Gloria

Other links for the series and related posts:
The Arts as Soulcraft: Introduction
The Arts as Soulcraft: Patience