My intellect is getting a pretty robust workout these days, pressing some heavy reading about aesthetics, moral creativity (does that make anyone nervous? I’m loving it…), and the notion that surfaces may actually have substance. Just think, lots of people are designing things that are aimed straight at my amygdala, my pre-cognitive, emotional self, and someone is suggesting that’s not a bad thing at all?
Questions abound these days, questions of artmaking, identity, human beings, creativity, moral responsibility, Christian experience, the will, theatre, the nature of a moment, and the Psalmist’s constant reminder that we are dust and grass. Mind-mapping the ideas, metaphors, frames of reference, orientations, and artworks that my students in January will encounter as we talk about The Arts and Culture: A Christian Aesthetic. This year, a new question is nagging at me, and you’d think it would have nagged at me a long time ago, given the title of the class.
What is a christian aesthetic?
Sometimes I’m really slow.
The word aesthetics can be used in a number of ways. It can refer to the philosophical study of the arts, to the artistic sensibilities of an artist, group of people, or a culture, or to the physical properties of design that describe an object. Questions of philosophical aesthetics deal with universal characteristics of art (if there are any), what distinguishes art from non-art, the various relationships between subject and object in art, the affective properties of various aesthetic elements (line, shape, form, color, etc.), the critique and judgment of art pieces, as well as the impact of art and entertainment on behavior, morality, and ethics. So in raising the question of a christian aesthetic, I suppose I am referring to the various ways in which Christian art makers and audiences orient themselves toward the various sensual and spiritual (read “human”) aspects of the artistic/aesthetic work they make or encounter.
Lady Gaga has an aesthetic. The Amish have an aesthetic. Goth Culture has an aesthetic, as does Hip-Hop. The Pre-Raphaelites had one, as did the painters in Northern Europe during the reformation. Rodin has an aesthetic. Pixar has one of the most successful and powerful aesthetics in the world. The War Games of Xbox and other game consoles have an easily recognizable aesthetic, as does anime. Family Bible Bookstores have an aesthetic that is pretty different than say, the bookstore set up by the Episcopal Church.
What in the world would a Christian aesthetic be? Is there such a thing? Should there be? If aesthetics really means nothing more than style, then surely Christianity transcends style, and therefore we should be no attention to it at all, right? Why is it then that as many churches (probably more) split over aesthetic issues as do over theology and doctrine? I know of a church that is currently in the process of losing significant numbers of its members because the music style that had defined the church for nearly a decade was reportedly deemed by a pastor to be out of line with the direction of the church, meaning that the particular style of music was not going to appeal to the masses he was hoping the church would attract. Whether too highbrow or too lowbrow, what is this but a question of aesthetics, and a ready acknowledgment that aesthetics have real-time, street level power in the lives of regular folks like you and me? But from church to church, certain clothes are acceptable and others aren’t. Some tones of voice in prayer are more appealing than others, and the way the reading of scripture is handled says something of the culture of the church. Will it be a beautiful brass or silver that holds the blood of Christ, the rich headiness of wine suggesting the danger and pungency of his sacrifice, or will we throw back a shot of grape juice from small plastic throwaway cups? (Does my bias show?) Does it matter? Maybe not, but change the aesthetics in your church, and see how many people whisper in discontent and complaint, and see how many leave if you don’t change them back.
I ask again, what is a Christian aesthetic? Help me out here. Give me a few thoughts on how you would define it. Better yet, maybe I’ll put out a request for tweets.
And if you don’t think it matters, fine. Tell me that. But look for pushback from this corner…
And God said, “It was very good…”