Art as an Ascetic Practice
Viewing art is about fun, about lightening up, about being whimsical, right? Really? If that's true, I want nothing to do with it.
Contemporary culture misunderstands artistic practice and the academy is complicit. It presumes that art's primary goal is self-expression and the celebration of the artist's individuality and creativity. The work of art is a confession in paint, a means for the artist to express her thoughts and beliefs, purge her emotions and trauma, or generate and sustain a profitable brand and create a tribe. It also assumes that viewing art is fun, that it's about lightening up and having a good time, being spontaneous and whimsical. It helps you unwind from a tough day of doing really hard things that grown-ups have to do to earn a living. These popular assumptions are an inextricable part of studio art education in art schools and art departments throughout North America, even in Christian colleges. A college art curriculum is often little more than an extension of fifth grade art class, a break from the rugged difficulties of serious academic pursuits. It does not matter whether content is traditional or postmodern, craft-based or conceptual. The misunderstandings and distortions remain. Art is where one's individuality and creativity is affirmed, celebrated, and defended and where one's personal testimony is heard while it offers leisure, entertainment, and affirmation for your audience.
If this is what art is and what art education supports, I want nothing to do with it. I believe what Tolstoy believes about art: "To define art correctly it is necessary first of all to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure, and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life." I also agree with Rilke in his famous poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," that art grabs you by the throat and tells you that you must change your life. Art must involve the struggle to deny such temptations as self-indulgence and self-expression. Serious art is not found in self-expression but in self-denial.
An artist's distinctive, singular voice emerges only to the degree that she allows herself to be shaped and formed by great works of art, literature, poetry, music; molded by great works of love, self-sacrifice, service, suffering, and heroism; and hewn through the resistance of a particular artistic medium. Only by recognizing, learning from, and perhaps even submitting to the great work of others will the self develop fuller in its integrity, wholeness, and singular integrity. This is authentic individuality.
We as Christians misconstrue art if we only see it as culture making, as affirming the creation and celebrating its excessiveness and gratuity, by producing cool artifacts for others to consume. Art also requires martyrdom, the narrow way, and death. This is not merely Romantic idealist hyperbole. This approach emerges from the understanding that Christian life is one of self-denial. This ascetic outlook saturates the Gospels, in the life of Christ and the life that he urged on his disciples: a life of self-denial, of taking up one's cross, of fasting and prayer, a life of remaining awake and alert. So, art shouldn't dull our senses; it should awaken them, put us on edge.
The intimate connection between the aesthetic and the ascetic is a theme I often probe with my students. We talk about developing and cultivating disciplines in the studio that will mold, cultivate, and enhance the decision-making required to produce powerful work that comes from a rich and robust life experience honed through sustained encounters with and lived for others, for our neighbor and even for God. These disciplines are adapted directly from the classical Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting, reading of Scripture, alms giving, solitude, silence, contemplation, and physical labour.
Like Christian practice, artistic practice is a struggle. For both, the goal is ultimately aesthetic. The Christian is to present her life to the Father, lived with and through the work of Christ and the Holy Sprit, as a work of art, a beautiful work wrought through denial and struggle in love. This is the theme of one of the great but overlooked books on aesthetics in Christendom: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It is also the theme of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece, The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966). As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians, we are God's "workmanship"—that is, quite literally, his "poem," his work of art. It is in the relationship of the aesthetic to the ascetic that the studio art curriculum can make a positive contribution to culture.