Yesterday, I asked about the service art provides, wondering how to articulate it so that it was somewhat analogous to the practicality of giving drink and food and shelter.
My own reflection begins, as always, with another question. What sustains human life? If I mean physical life only, then the answer is food and water, etc. If I mean spiritual life only, then another answer is in order. But what I mean neither? What if by “life” I mean the totality of mind-spirit interaction that makes up what we call a human being? Some food (and this will differ from person to person, at least to some degree) will nourish both body and spirit, while other food feeds one (say, body) with one quality and the other (say, spirit) with a different quality. And then there is some food that really nourishes neither very well.
On the non-food, non-water side of things, we can list elements that sustain us by a different kind of ingestion and metabolism, from which our spirits and souls draw life first (although studies are showing more and more the degree to which these non-food, non-water elements impact physiology). Compassion, kindness, truth, metaphor, words, images, stories, thoughts, dreams, literature, plays, paintings, sculpture, sermon, emotions…these are a few of the nourishing elements that human beings must have is they are to live, and live well. We all know by experience what it is to “metabolize” these elements, being renewed emotionally and spiritually (during which there is usually a definite uptick in physical feeling and health as well) by a story, a film, a word of kindness, or even a well-crafted defense of an idea. Art, to my mind, is the shaping of material into meaning form, usually with metaphor heavily involved, in order to delight, enlighten, challenge, and inform, all of which are opportunities for humans to ingest and metabolize unseen elements that nourish not just the spirit, but the whole of who they are, no less than bread.
In fact, one of the greatest things about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet was the artfulness of the choice. What better symbol (which is another reason for being for art–symbol making) for the life Christ calls us to? It’s got dirt, humility, intimacy, shame, grace, resistance, beauty, and love, and my instinct is that all of these should be part of our processes of making. We serve by not only by feeding, but also by grappling alongside our audiences as all of us face the chaos of things, all of us hoping to clear away a bit of dust and dirt, so that we can better order our minds, our worlds, and our compassion. By “order” I do not mean to imply rigidity, control, or hyper-editing, but rather the ability to continually frame disparate experiences in order to find meaning and purpose in the constantly pressing ambiguities and overload.
And frankly, much of this work must be shouldered, at least on the front end, alone. We serve by being willing to go into the lonely place. The wars of imagination are fought both in isolation and in community, but the “war” metaphor is an apt one. In both the private sphere of the mind, as well as the public square of our post postmodern culture, there is, and has always been, an ongoing debate for what is “good” for human beings in the areas of love, family, health, and freedom. Art makers serve by staring into the most difficult places with or without fear, and being willing to do the hard work of thought and metaphor and image in order to attempt to be helpful to those trying to figure things out.
The human being needs beauty, truth, debate, education, faith, prophecy, inspiration, informed critique and vision casting, and sometimes, something pretty, soothing, or charming to adorn a wall. All of these fall within the purview of art, and in providing pieces of art to fill these functions, artists serve.
A life without food and water is unimaginable. Can you imagine a world with no design, where no materials are shaped into meaning form? No color, no beauty, nothing according to the golden mean?
Art-making serves by sustaining and creating life, much as its cousins food and water do.
It is often said that food keeps us alive, and the arts give meaning to our being alive. Christians might knee-jerk and call that idolatry, but I would suggest that as we follow the Christ, we take all manner of material and shape experience into meaning form, and that is the artful life of incarnation.
What will you make today, and who will it serve?