What is the Service Art Provides?

In what sense is art-making service?

If you give a person a drink of water, when they ingest it, there are immediate, real-world results.  If you offer a hungry person bread, when they eat it, their bodies replenish and become better able to negotiate their day’s tasks and responsibilities.  If you offer a coat to someone who is cold, and they take it and put it on, this new protective layer allows a change of body-state that is palpable, beneficial, and easily identified as something that looks like Christian charity.   Each of these acts of kindness address a physical state of being, providing a temporary remedy to a threat.   Food and drink and shelter and clothing are needs everyone acknowledges as being vital to life in no metaphoric sense, but in actuality.

If you offer a person a painting, when they engage it, what happens?  If you offer a person a song, when they hear it, then…what?  If you offer them a play, and they experience it, is there an analogous benefit that would approach the worth of offering them water or food or shelter?

A teaching friend of mine told me a couple of years ago that he thought the days of having to create an apologetic for art-making were over.   Maybe so, but my sense is that we still have many questions to answer about how art-making actually serves.  Ask yourself this question: if the picture of service is that of Jesus getting up from the table, wrapping a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of his disciples, what is the “foot-washing” art accomplishes?

Some answer the question by connecting their art-making with service organizations, donating whatever profits might come from their art to the supported organization.  In this way, it is easy to make the leap from art-making to real-world meaning and worth in that it literally creates energy for feeding the hungry, fighting injustice, supplying clean water, and so on.   But what if your art and its distribution is not related to social justice issues?  What if you’re really just hoping someone will buy a painting to hang on their bathroom wall so that you can afford supplies to create yet another painting?  And one more thing about the painting sold on behalf of the service organization: once the painting is sold and the profit donated to the service organization, is that the end of its purpose?  Or does it still have service to perform?

Others answer the foot-washing question by granting art the power to engender values such as compassion, understanding, generosity…even love.  And while I will grant that art may indeed have the capacity to do all that, it also has the capacity to create hardness of heart, confusion, miserliness…even hate.   So perhaps art’s service depends entirely on the specific work of art as well as the heart of the artist doing the work.

Even so, I wonder how to articulate what art’s service might be, especially if you try to think of it as an appropriate incarnation of Christ washing the disciples feet.

Tomorrow, I’ll come back and give you my take on this, but I’d love to hear how you answer the question.

Art serves by…? 

7 Comments

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  1. I think — as Buddhists believe — it depends on your intent. If it’s all about ego and narcissism, not very interesting.

    I write non-fiction books (twp published so far) and obviously want them to sell so I can pay my bills and find enough readers to sell the next and the next, which are selfish desires. But I also want my work to resonate, to move people, to change their behaviors — and I have received many personal emails telling me that my work/words have had just this effect. So I’m fine continuing to practice my “art” and knowing it does have some larger value to the world than simply buying my next week’s groceries.

    It’s an interesting question, but I think art nourishes us in ways that other things simply cannot.

    • I love the simplicity of “if it’s all about ego and narcissism, not very interesting.”

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. Congrats on the publications and the obvious resonance you’re having with your readers. Resonance is one of my favorite words to describe the interaction between the artist and her audience. I especially respond to your use of the word “nourishes” in your last sentence. I’ll be talking about that in tomorrow’s blog as I reflect on the way I parse the question.

      Thanks again…

  2. Tricky.
    Once, when I played a song I wrote, a woman came up to me in tears and told me that what I had written was what she had been trying to express her entire life, and had been unable to. She thanked me for finally being able to have something to point to when she turned to her husband and said, this, this is what I have been trying to communicate.

    Needless to say, I was rocked to my core. This little thing, this thing I wasn’t even very proud of, this song that most people tell me they do not like, meant so much to one person.

    If I feel proud of myself, if I congratulate myself, then has my art moved from the service of others to the service of myself? This same problem can occur when we provide “food and drink, shelter and clothing” to those who need it. We feel good about ourselves when we do it. Should we? I don’t know. In a way, it seem like if I feel good about it, then I did it out of selfish reasons. Yet, I don’t see scripture telling us that we should hate service and feel rotten while doing it. I don’t know.

    I think art can serve in a very profound, physical, and immediate way, just like providing for physical needs. However, if you feed someone today, they may be changed forever, but they may just be hungry again tomorrow. I think art has the capacity for more long term impacts, and it has the ability to reach more than one person in a way that one coat cannot. For all these reasons, art is extremely valuable.

    However, just because we create art as service, does not mean we can say, “well, I have served, I am done.” We still need to pound the pavement, providing food, clothing, and shelter. This is the example we were giving in scripture, it is what we are called to do, adding a little extra beauty on the side is just a bonus.

    • Thanks, Jenny,

      I’ll deal with some of your thoughts tomorrow, but it is very special when people share with you how your work has served them in some deep way. In terms of feeling proud of yourself, I’d just say that when someone tells me that my work has meant something to them, it inevitably gives me a good or pleasurable feeling. When does that drop off into pride? Well, hard to say, but I’m not sure anyone is served by trying not to receive the good feeling the person who was served by our work is trying to share with us. “Thanks, but I’m not going to feel good about what you just said to me” seems like an exercise not only in futility, but in ungraciousness. I promise you, people that share things like that are a sheer gift, and I think we can say thank you and take joy in what they’ve told us without falling over into destructive pride. Could be wrong, but that’s one take…

      Jeff

  3. I believe there is an additional layer that needs to be added to the discussion: the nature of art itself. Right now I’m presently writing value/character trait curriculum for secular summer camps in Eastern Europe (from a biblical perspective–we’re allowed to use the Bible). A character trait ‘m exploring for one of next year’s lesson is “Creativity”. This may be something of a misnomer: it may not be so much of a character trait as it is part of our nature.

    In any case, by creating works of art (or anything for that matter), we are reflecting the nature we have been given by the Creator. We are partially reflecting his image. As the bird’s song is praise in and of itself, so is our works of art.

    I especially love writing poetry and most of my poetry is not “religious” in nature nor is it specifically pointing toward God. However, I think it does point toward God because that is part of who I am. Didn’t C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien say something about focusing on writing a good story instead of writing a Christian story and God’s message will shine through anyway?

  4. Ok I submitted before I was completely finished. Sorry!

    Creation (works of art) can be service in itself in that it is a witness of God. As “broadsideblog” commented, intention is important. But those who created the atom bomb inadvertently gave us nuclear power, too (so even evil intent can be turned into a good result–hmmm, Philippians 1 anyone?).

    And as Jenny mentions, sometimes our works of art have amazing, even if unintended and unforeseen, consequences. Ask any preacher, counselor, or youth minister and they will tell you some of the most powerful words spoken were not the planned word from the pulpit, but that simple word we didn’t even remember saying! I think this is true for some of our art.

    • Darryl, thanks again for taking the time.

      So the nature of art is incarnational, to use that great Christian word, and part of what it enfleshes, as you suggest, is the essential nature of the Creator. And is certainly true that art-making being part of that essence need not be explicitly religious or spiritual in order to serve. But I’ll come back tomorrow to talk about how I think about the service of art.

      And so true about the unforeseen impact our work has. Keep writing…

      Jeff

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