'What's the point?' Summer reading on the arts

Progressing from milk to meat . . . Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin leads us into summer reading on the arts.

Appears in Summer 2007 Issue: Summer reading
June 1st, 2007

In England, a television series called "Wife-Swap" is playing. The formula of this 'reality' show is that, for two weeks, the woman of one household swaps places with someone else in a household whose job contrasts with the other. In one recent episode a conservative, Muslim woman swapped places with a liberal, secular woman working in an upscale theatre promotion company. Not surprisingly (and no doubt welcomed for maximum effect by the producers), the Muslim woman reacted strongly to the decadent nature of some of the posters in her counterpart's workplace. However, unaffected by the hype and glamour of her surroundings, she then raised innocently, but poignantly, the million-dollar question no-one in that environment would ever dreamed or dared raise: "What is the point of it anyway?"—leaving her film crew and interviewers momentarily speechless.

Now you don't have to be a Muslim to ask that question. Many Christians have asked that same question for centuries. More surprisingly, however, even the emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University John Carey recently raised this question. Addressing the issue in his recent book, What Good Are the Arts?, he concluded: "Not much." So the question continues to vex us. Hence, some of the reading I recommend for this summer will touch on this question: 'What's the point?' or 'Why art?'

Recommending books is a tricky business. First, there is the question of readership. What level of understanding and experience can we assume? Should we start with the basics or can we progress from milk to meat? More importantly, can we expect the books to be read with sufficient, biblically seasoned, critical distance?

As if these questions were not enough, what exactly constitutes 'summer reading?' Is it the kind of reading you do at the lakeside, in between a snooze and a swim, or is it the kind that requires the sustained concentration you're rarely able to muster or afford in the day-to-day routines of the working year? In the end I decided it should be a bit of both, and the only thing I'm going to assume is that you are familiar with Calvin Seerveld's books. If you have not read Seerveld's Rainbows for the Fallen World or, say, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, this summer is the time to do so. And, hopefully, this will give you a taste for further reading.

Anyone with an eye on the Christian book market cannot fail to notice the veritable explosion of books on the arts over the last decade or so. Indeed, Christian reflection on the arts on both sides of the Atlantic is in full swing. And as more and more theologians seem to turn their attention to the arts, a great number of theology departments are beginning to include a 'theological aesthetics' or 'theology and the arts' course in their program. Now, as some may know, neocalvinists tend not to be too enamoured of the term, 'theology,' especially when it concerns such things as politics or art. They prefer the term 'Christian philosophy' or 'thought,' in the sense of Christian reflection on the nature and structure of a dimension of the world as God's creation rooted in the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption. However, theology these days is a very loose term, ranging from issues of doctrine or biblical studies to Christian reflection on virtually any subject under the sun. So we can have a theology of debt, or of the environment, of sex and, of course, of art, hence: a 'theological aesthetics.'

Just to give you an impression of some recent titles, let me turn to my own shelf (or rather, 'box,' as most of our books are still packed for their last leg of our move from Toronto via Cambridge, to a nearby village next week). In random order, we have:

Beauty in day-to-day life

The books I recommend, however, are not the ones mentioned above. This is not because they are not interesting or insightful: they are. The books I've selected, however, allow the reader to read the books above both more appreciatively and more critically. Let me explain with one example.

What stands out from even this small selection is the frequency of the word 'beauty.' Much like the term 'theology,' the term 'beauty' has not been looked upon favourably by neocalvinist thinkers—notably Calvin Seerveld, who even coined the phrase 'the curse of beauty' when it comes to art. What he meant by this was the Pythagorean 'Grand Old Theory' of beauty as mathematically ordered unity in diversity. He pointed out that not only does this notion not do justice to the typical nature of art (for which he famously developed the notion of 'allusivity'), it also lends itself to a speculative 'beauty theology' in which earthly beauty is given a privileged position as a stepping stone to transcendental beauty conceived as one of the attributes of God. Although this critique has not lost its force, it is worth observing that the term has now gained a much broader, if much vaguer, meaning. The renewed attention to 'beauty' corresponds with moves in aesthetics at large, and could be seen as an attempt to overcome the emptiness of pure formalism on the one hand and conceptual art on the other. Those using the term seek a more holistic account of art which is able to do justice to the ethical, social, environmental, political, and religious dimensions of the making and receiving of art. Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just is only one such example. Having said that, however, a lot of theological aesthetics is nevertheless, for better or worse, still deeply indebted to classical and medieval aesthetics. In order to be more aware of that indebtedness we need ourselves to gain some knowledge of the aesthetics of that period, which brings me to my first choice: Umberto Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.

This very readable, short introduction to medieval aesthetics was first published in Italian in 1959, well before it was translated and published by Yale in 1986. Amazingly, Eco wrote it when he was only twenty-six years old, while serving in the Italian army. His lieutenant supported the project by giving him daily time off to write and a small office. Eco modestly refers to the book as a "survey" of medieval aesthetics, but it really is much more. Eco not only studies the written texts of those times, but also tries to connect these theories with the way people in the Middle Ages experienced beauty and art. In his chapter, 'The Medieval Aesthetic Sensibility,' Eco argues that despite the medievals' overall Platonic understanding of the concept of beauty as a primarily intelligible rather than sensuous phenomenon, they had a deep love for the visible world. Think, for instance, of the multi-coloured stained glass windows of a gothic cathedral. Indeed, he argues, it was precisely because of this intense fondness for beauty in day-to-day life that the medievals felt it necessary to give it a 'spiritual' justification: beauty is good not primarily because it was a good gift of creation, but because it is able to direct our thoughts away from the world toward 'higher' things.

However, what is striking in reading Eco's account of medieval aesthetics, whether transcendental beauty, proportion and harmony, lumen and light, symbol and allegory or any other subject, is how many notions and themes reappear in contemporary theological aesthetics. I find that the best authors are usually those who are suitably aware of their medieval sources. Patrick Sherry is a good example, but so are Richard Harries and Francesca Aran Murphy. The problem is with authors who seem largely ignorant that the ideas they so confidently put forward as new and original have been around for many centuries. For them and their readers, Eco's book is a very helpful reminder of what is both best and most problematic in medieval aesthetics, thus allowing for a much more informed and critical reading of these recent works.

Art as biologically inherent

My second recommendation, John Dewey's Art as Experience, is a very different work. Based on a series of lectures given by John Dewey at Harvard University in 1931, the book had been on my mental 'to read' list for several years but I never felt really compelled to do so. The reasons for this included a subconscious continental prejudice against American Pragmatism (How could a movement associated with functionalism and utilitarianism have anything to offer to art, or philosophy in general for that matter?). I was also prejudiced by the odd dismissive reference to Dewey by Seerveld ("the American do-it-yourself world and trust-to-luck of technologist Dewey, almost blushworthy in its optimistic superficiality, but dismayingly successful—In Experiment We Trust!"). And these influences were not overcome by the excellent article on Dewey and Seerveld by Carroll Guen Hart in Pledges of Jubilee: Essays on the Arts and Culture, in Honor of Calvin G. Seerveld that should have put the prejudices to rest. However, I used the book as one of the course texts in my two final classes at the Institute for Christian Studies. Now that I have finally studied and discussed it (such is the joy of graduate teaching!), I find it contains many valuable and relevant insights, especially for our times. I was also pleased to discover that one of the more interesting authors mentioned above, García-Rivera, also draws on Dewey in his book, A Wounded Innocence referring to him as someone with "one of the greatest insights into the nature of art." Dewey sees art as inherent to our human biological make-up, and as one way of connecting and engaging with the world. Art, most of all, is about human experience. Such experience is always intrinsically temporal, embodied, and meaningful. This clearly distinguishes theologians who draw on Dewey, such as García-Rivera, from those who draw on Plato and the like, such as Sherry and Harries. Instead of seeking to glimpse a timeless reality, art is about the temporal and sensuous engagement with the world. This is how Dewey himself formulates his dissatisfaction with Platonic models:

It [art] is tolerated only as a vehicle through which man may be brought to an intuition of immaterial and non-sensuous essence. In view of the fact that the work of art is the impregnation of sensuous material with imaginative values, I know of no way to criticize the theory save to say that it is a ghostly metaphysics irrelevant to actual esthetic experience (305).

Although by the time he wrote this Dewey had left the Christian faith of his upbringing and had adopted a form of humanism which in some of its manifestations may well deserve Seerveld's critique, I believe that much of what he says in Art as Experience not only resonates with a proper "creational" understanding of art, but makes significant steps in helping us think of art as a proper integral part of our day-to-day existence. This also applies to the next book I recommend. This publication is hot off the press, the revised and expanded edition of It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of the Lord, edited by Ned Bustard. The great attraction of this book is that the majority of contributions come from practising artists, drawing on their own experience of integrating their faith with their art. As Susanne Langer once said, philosophy of art is born in the studio, not in the library. The book is beautifully illustrated and gives a fascinating insight to the way Christian artists reflect on what they are doing. Undergirding the entire book is the conviction that, as Ken Meyers puts it in his commendation, "the physical world is too good a gift to be reduced to an object lesson about 'spiritual things.'" As the chapters are short and the topics well-defined, this is an ideal book to take on holiday!

Feel deeper, understand better

My last recommendation is suitable for the cottage or the beach. It is Zadie Smith's entertaining novel, On Beauty—the title a deliberate reference to Elaine Scarry's book. It is a very witty, perceptive, and intelligent account of human relationships revolving around the rivalry between two art history professors and their families: one, a successful, conservative, black West Indian intellectual, internationally recognized for his acclaimed book on Rembrandt, and the other, a white English liberal academic in the (not entirely successful) process of writing a critical deconstruction of the myth of Rembrandt's genius, Against Rembrandt (in her acknowledgements Smith pays tribute to Simon Shama for his Rembrandt's Eyes). Both teach in an affluent, east coast, American university brimming with political correctness. As well as a sensitive portrayal of academic and family life, the fast-paced dialogue and pulsating story line make this a delightful read. Even if at times over the top or, for some, too offensive or vulgar in language, this novel demonstrates that art can enable us to see more, feel deeper and understand better and (if it is permitted to be) highly entertaining and diverting. The latter is something Christians sometimes overlook, but they aren't alone. In a recent issue of Prospect (currently one of the best British journals on politics and the arts), the writer Julian Gough argues that the Greeks understood that comedy (the gods' view of life) is superior to tragedy (the merely human), but that our culture values the tragic over the comic, and that is why so much contemporary fiction is so full of anxiety, misery, and death. To prove his point, Gough refers to the 2007 "Best of Young American Novelists" list selected by Granta, The Magazine of New Writing. As the chair of the judges summed up: "we read many books infused by loss and a feeling that present things would not go on forever." Gough adds that most writers are only in their twenties and early thirties! "Why so sad, people?" asks Zadie Smith, in response to the list.

Writing comedy is not to deny nor to escape the world of human suffering or ecological disasters. What comedy does is help us to relativize our petty preoccupations and to mock our self-importance, precisely in the face of those larger concerns. It teaches us to laugh at ourselves and to rediscover the joy and liberation of laughter as one of God's many good gifts. Such comedy is truly 'divine.' Such a re-discovery of laughter, indeed, is one of the 'points' of art. What better time to appreciate that point than the summer? Happy reading!

Topics: Arts Literature
 

Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin (Ph.D.) is a Teaching Fellow in Religion, Philosophy and the Arts at the Department for Theology and Religious Studies at Kings College, University of London. She lives and works as an independent writer and speaker in Cambridge, U.K., and taught philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto from 1999 until 2007. She is co-author of Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts (IVP Academic, 2011) and currently working on a new book. She is also the curator of the exhibition 'Art, Truth and Reconciliation: the murals of the Bogside Artists' which will be shown in Coventry Cathedral in 2017.

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