How Art Serves

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?

5 Replies to “How Art Serves”

  1. To focus on your last few sentences about Christians knee-jerking (Harry Potter anyone?):

    I don’t want to make Jesus into my image, however I think it is valid to see him as an artist. Christians who miss this have not paid attention. He was certainly a word/metaphor/story artist. Anyone who communicates for a living can easily recognize this. His parables/story-metaphors are truly classics in literature and oral literature. This is high art, indeed.

    And (admittedly we just cannot know since there are no records) I think we can assume he was an artist in stone (if “teknon” refers to a stone mason instead of a carpenter–sorry, hate to shatter long held cliches about Jesus). From the work done in Seppohris where Jesus probably worked it is highly likely that Jesus was a skilled artisan. This is functional art–but art all the same.

    I agree with your thoughts about body-spirit. We have so divorced body and spirit, physical and spiritual that we look more like ancient Greeks than Hebrew Christians who saw body and spirit as an integrated whole. I cannot deny the Greeks were incredible artists–but it seems to me the Hebrew/Christian mindset has more potential being rooted in the goodness of creation and the goodness of the physical.

    This is really a stream of consciousness comment here, sorry! But it also seems to me that some experiments in art/music/theatre where there is no rhyme or reason fail to take root among the general public because they recognize that pure chaos is ugly. (I’m not referring to styles I may not care for–they usually still have a form or structure). Discordant music that sounds more like a child banging on a keyboard or art that has no technique or poetry that is nothing more that obscene words repeated and broken and divided (I actually saw a poem entitled “You’ll Never Forget This Poem” that was just a particular obscene word repeated over and again with enjambments between the continuous verb form–it was, first shocking, then boring) cannot truly be called art, in my opinion.

    Love the topic of the blog! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Darryl,

    I’m curious about the stone mason Jesus. Can you tell me more about that? I completely agree about the greek/hebrew tension you address, and with the statement about chaos being ugly. Depends how the terms are being used, but order and beauty and chaos and ugliness are intrinsically linked, seems to me. An obscenity doesn’t disqualify a work of art, I don’t think, but pretty words arranged in chaotic fashion probably does. In the end, I tend to think form is what qualifies a thing as art, though content is what will determine whether it was worth the effort to bother making the art in the first place.

    Thanks for the conversation…


    1. Also, I agree that form is primarily what makes something art. There has to be a discipline used to produce the work otherwise can it even be called a work of art? Even so, (as you mention) chaos becomes a backdrop–the drab background to the diamond, so to speak–to draw attention to the beauty of a creation.

      It is the true artist who can take a horrible flaw in his work (perhaps someone mars his work while he has walked away from his studio) and then takes the flaw and through his discipline and technique incorporates it into the overall work transforming it into a thing of beauty.

      I’d like to recommend a beautiful short story by a guy named Mason entitled “The Furniture of Heaven” (book by the same name) which addresses the idea of the imperfection of art.

      1. Thanks for reminding about the phrase a “work of art.” And the material below about the stone masonry…that’s really interesting. Thanks!


  3. I concur that an obscenity does not disqualify something from being art. The example I used was just a very extreme form of artlessness. The word did not have to be obscene for the poem to completely fail. No one would ever find that poem artful or interesting regardless of the particular word (with possible exception if the word enjambed in different places formed a word in its own right).

    The word that is often translated carpenter is the Greek teknon which, according to Dr. Bill Grasham, is better translated “stone mason.” Dr. Grasham has done post doctoral work in Jerusalem. He points out that wood is not the primary substance used in ancient Galilee to make things. Even feeding troughs (mangers) were cut out of stone–another different image from the life of Jesus. He has said he was able to see stone mangers that were probably 2,000 years old! So the greater likelihood is that Jesus was a stone mason rather than a carpenter.

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