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…?