In his magnificent reflection on the nature of art, Real Presences, polymath George Steiner invites us to make a thought experiment: What if we lived in a city where all talk about art, mere talk about art, was prohibited? In other words, what would follow if we did away with artistic criticism qua criticism, an activity derivative by nature and one Steiner calls “high gossip”? In this posited city, what Steiner calls the Answerable City, the only permitted response to a work of art would be another work of art. Thus participation in the “art scene” could never launch itself from the risk-free loft of criticism, but it must be real participation, a participation that demands that the viewer invest something of his own imaginative capacities. In this city, the word “interpretation” denotes not something exegetical, but something performative; an activity not of professional academics or theater critics, but of actors and directors — as in an actor “interprets a role.” Here, art means incarnation, not judgment.
But such a city is only a thought experiment, and since judgment requires the participant to invest less of himself, it will always be easier to be a critic than to be an artist. And therefore the artist will always be tempted first to pass judgment rather than to respond with his own creativity.
After a decade of trying to walk the slippery ridge between “he who does” and “he who discusses” art, I have tried to avoid criticism these last couple of years to focus only on doing. But I feel the need to again jump into the critical ring, thanks to a recent article in GQ Magazine (it was sent to me by a friend), an article on my own town, Grand Rapids, and its increasingly famous festival, ArtPrize. (more…)
As Siedell observes, “Ozment liberates Cranach from the confines of art history by offering a broader cultural framework within which to evaluate Cranach’s historical significance.”
One of the merits of Ozment’s study is that he thus situates Cranach in the context of his position in the royal court of Frederick the Wise:
His duties included decorating the Elector’s castles, designing and painting festival tents and uniforms, documenting hunting trips and his extensive relic collection, as well as making cake molds for birthday parties. This kind of workshop production has struck art historians as unbecoming of a fine artist.
Indeed, there is much in the modern approach to art that disdains such worldly and workaday considerations. As Siedell writes, noting a piece on the entrepreneurial aspects of early modern art, “most artists, especially those working at the highest echelons of culture, are obsessed with getting paid, in part, because at those levels, payment is much more sporadic and asking for it much less becoming.”
Indeed, “Art does not exist without some kind of market. The task of any artist is to find—or create—it, yet art historians have been slow to accept the market as a defining feature of artistic practice.”
As for the theological and religious aspects of his life and work,
Ozment’s Cranach embodies a proto-Lutheran approach to culture and vocation. Apparently unconcerned with the burden of demonstrating or achieving his salvation through his work, Cranach was freed to use and enjoy his God-given talents as a painter, politician, businessman, and advisor. He is also a historical example of what James Davison Hunter has called, in To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), “faithful presence.” The Serpent and the Lamb makes the convincing case that without Cranach’s faithful presence, the Lutheran Reformation would not have possessed the scope that it had.
And for more on art, culture, and the Christian calling, check out Abraham Kuyper’s newly-translated work on common grace in science and art, Wisdom & Wonder (also reviewed in the latest issue of Books & Culture).
Phillip Long is a professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Grace Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and blogs over at Reading Acts. Phil does not normally review this kind of book, but was drawn to it due to Abraham Kuyper’s popularity and his contribution to worldview issues today.
Long shares some good observations and this book and its relevance for Christianity today, particularly those with an aversion to the study of science and the pursuit of a career in art.
With its subject, use of Scripture, and majestic soaring choruses, George Ferederic Handel’s Messiah is easily the most recognizable musical piece in Western Civilization. It is also perhaps the most widely performed piece of classical or choral music in the West. After hearing a performance of the Messiah, fellow composer Franz Joseph Haydn simply said of Handel, “This man is the master of us all.” Not to be outdone, Beethoven declared, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
The text of the Messiah, compiled from Scripture, was sent to Handel by his friend Charles Jennens and begins with Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Part 1 of the Messiah deals with the prophetic pronouncements of the Virgin Birth, and the actual birth account taken from Luke’s Gospel. Part II deals with Christ’s passion and his atoning death, his resurrection and ascension, and sending out of the Gospel. Part III is a celebration of the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, the victorious nature of Christ and his triumphant reign. It is a bounty of Christian doctrine packed into an English oratorio. Amazingly, Handel composed the work in 23 days. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Handel said, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”
Messiah is so masterful and celebrated it overshadows some of Handel’s other stellar work. Concerning the Messiah in particular, there is quite a bit of information out there about Handel the entrepreneur. Below is an audio story about Handel’s entrepreneurial endeavors and his charitable work tied into the Messiah that aired on PBS in 2009. You can watch the video version of the story here.
The Royal Family, fellow Germans from the same region of Hanover, were staunch supporters of his work, but this did not translate into financial security for Handel, as the Crown only sporadically underwrote his opera seasons. When weddings or other occasions called for it, the Hanovers commissioned music from him, but this was never enough to live on, and, anyway, Handel was no court composer. By temperament he was an entrepreneur. He spent several months of every year striking business deals with theater owners, auditioning and hiring singers, and rehearsing and performing instrumental music, operas, and oratorios. His fortunes rose or fell with the public’s reception of his music, and there were lean times as well as prosperous ones.
Messiah, while popular at the time, was certainly not as beloved as it is today. There was controversy surrounding the performance, specifically that such a sacred piece of music would be played outside of the Church and in secular music halls and venues. And while Messiah was composed for charitable purposes, it showcased more of Handel’s entrepreneurial skills and willingness to take risks.
Handel, a devout Lutheran, loved sacred music and believed every word of what he wrote and composed. As mentioned earlier, Handel took a lot of risks with his music because he liked to perform what he loved most. He was bankrupt at various times in his life and had fallen out of favor with the public. Just a few years before the Messiah was composed, Frederic the Great declared that, “Handel’s great days are over. His inspiration is exhausted.” Handel himself was even close to being sent to debtors prison. Before Messiah, Handel conducted what he thought would be his last performance and retired for a time. When Messiah was first performed in 1742, it raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison so their sons and daughters would not be orphans.
Many readers have of course seen the Messiah performed and may have attended a performance this year or selections may have been performed in their places of worship. It was originally intended as a Lenten piece, but is now largely played in the Christmas season. What is so remarkable about the Messiah to me is not that it is just such a majestic and beautiful work of music, but that it is impossible to separate Christ from the performance. While many sacred works are embraced by a secular world and secular music performers, the meaning of the Messiah is so plain it cannot be overlooked. In fact, Jennens selected the text of Messiah to counter the rising arguments of the deists and secularists of his day.
Messiah thunderously crushes the secular agenda and goals of today or of any period. Theologian Tom Oden offers some profound words on the Western world and Christ in his systematic theology The Word of Life. “It would be strangely unhistorical if the historians accidentally ignored him [Christ] or decided to study all figures except the one who has affected Western history most,” says Oden. He adds that “Western history would not be Western history without him.” Later on Oden observes, “Deeper even than the mystery of his astonishing historical influence is the simpler, starker question that rings through Christian reflection: Cur Deus Homo? Why did God Become human?” Handel answers that so thoroughly, beautifully, and triumphantly with his Messiah.
This book consists of 10 chapters that the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper had written to be the conclusion of his three-volume study on common grace. But due to a publisher’s oversight, these sections were omitted from the first printing. So they appeared first under separate publication under the title Common Grace in Science and Art, and then were added back in to subsequent printings of the larger set.
I’ve been privileged to be a part of this project, as I’ve served as co-editor of the volume with Stephen Grabill. Nelson Kloosterman has done a wonderful job translating Kuyper’s original into a readable and substantive prose. Wisdom & Wonder also features an introduction to Kuyper and his thought, particularly with respect to the topics of science and art, by Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper.
One of the reasons Acton has partnered with other groups to take on this translation project is because of the potential we see for Kuyper’s teachings on common grace to impact and inform the larger world of evangelical public theology. So we’re also pleased to have Gabe Lyons and Jon Tyson contribute a foreword to Wisdom & Wonder, as they attest to the signal contribution that Kuyper’s vision of God’s sovereignty and grace stand to make to contemporary Christian life and work.
A century before the institutions of Christian higher education took up the conversation over faith and learning in earnest, Abraham Kuyper had already masterfully described the terrain. We are indebted to the Acton Institute for publishing this new translation of Kuyper’s work. Wisdom & Wonder deserves a wide readership among all those who have tried to solve the riddle of what it really means to have a Christian world and life view.
As you might expect, I’ll be saying a great deal more about this book in the coming weeks and months, as I introduce and apply some of the lessons from the text to various topics. To get a sense of what the book is going to include, you can check out an excerpt from one of the chapters on art that appears in the current issue of Religion & Liberty, “The Separation of Church and Art.”
And last, but not least, you can sign up to be one of the first to receive your copy of Wisdom & Wonder by preordering through the Acton BookShoppe (either in paperback or hardcover) today. The book will be released to the public at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting next month, but as soon as we get hardcopies we’ll move to fill these preorders. So don’t delay if you want to be among the first to support this larger project and become acquainted with Kuyper’s thoughts on the public and social implications of common grace in science and art.
In today’s edition of Capital Commentary, HBU assistant professor of literature Micah Mattix explores the question, “How Might the Arts Be Funded?” He ably and briefly surveys the recent history of politics surrounding the NEA.
And he concludes by noting that art is inherently “relational” and that “the problem with large, centralized organizations like the Endowment is that they are often unable to take such relational elements into account.”
However the arts are to be funded, this relational element of art must be taken into account. Instead of encouraging artists to write against their audience out of spite or merely play it safe, funding should help artists to flourish while encouraging them to communicate the truth (of which speaking “prophetically” is part) in love. I wonder if funding the arts at the local level might help to do exactly this.
We can think of it in another helpful way as the concept of subsidiarity (which is a principle of society, not just politics) applied to the arts, specifically artists and their communities and audiences. In some ways this question about funding and the arts is a subset of the broader cultural critique of the market economy, that is, that markets do not support authentic cultural expression. This also has to do with whether you think work, leisure, or some third thing is the basis of culture.
In an argument analogous to that which Abraham Kuyper makes in his treatise, Common Grace in Science and Art, it may be at one time that the arts were necessarily dependent on institutional support from the church and the state in order to exist and grow. But we are certainly at the point, at least in the developed West, where it is not strictly necessary from a purely financial point of view that the government serve as the sole, or even primary, patron. The ideal in this vein is that the arts flourish and mature, come into their own and stand in their own independent space, related to other spheres yet distinct from them in terms of their general sustenance. (This is not to say that civic and sacred art projects are out of bounds, but that they do not exhaust the limits of art as a cultural phenomenon. They are, rather, projects that are intended to illustrate the grandeur of the empire, whether temporal or eternal, respectively.)
Inspired by Art Prize, I wrote a blog about culture, technology, and the universal desire for community. This appeared on Ethika Politika‘s blog today and an excerpt can be found below:
Last week as I was wandering through Grand Rapids’ Art Prize (the world’s largest art competition), I came across the very simple interactive piece that is pictured below. Confess is a large board where people can anonymously write their confessions. Everything from the dark, to deeply personal, to lighthearted, to witty is posted on this public wall for anyone to peruse.
As I watched people write their messages for strangers to read, my first reaction was: “This is dumb and not even art. Why would anyone write something so personal in public for anyone to see?!” However, as I stood observing many people come and go, furtively writing their secrets and lingering over those of others, I was struck by the universal desire for interpersonal connection and communication.
People are communal beings. We desire to know and be known by others, to be understood and to understand… Read More
If you couldn’t make it to Derby Station in East Grand Rapids last night, there are a couple of things you should know. First of all, you missed a great event and some good conversation. Secondly, you need not worry: we recorded it, and you can listen to David Michael Phelps’ presentation on Art, Patrimony, and Cultural Investment via the audio player below.
The bad news is that I was planning to post a little video clip for your enjoyment, but for some reason beyond my ability to understand after too much time spent struggling with computers and such, it’s not working. Which is a bummer, considering that it was a video of Dave inciting the audience to sing a bluegrass tune. The best I can do for you at this point is a quick little screengrab with the promise that I’m going to troubleshoot this thing into submission at the earliest possible opportunity.
Regardless, the audio is below; enjoy, and make plans to join us at Derby Station next time!
There have been some engaging challenges to the view presented of work and its relationship to culture and civilization over the past few weeks (here, here, and here). I hope to post a more substantive response to some of the comments in the next few days. But in the meantime, let me pass along a helpful item that outlines the view of Pope John Paul II on the relationship between “culture” and “cultivation.”
It is also worth noting how closely JPII’s descriptions of the artist parallels his description of workers/entrepreneurs/etc. in other writings. [NOTE: here and here in particular] They follow from the same understanding that man transforms the world (and in doing so, himself) as he gets his hands dirty with the stuff of the world, enacts his creative will upon it, whether it be for a utilitarian end (work) or some gratuitous end (art).
Gratuitous work does not require leisure. In point of fact, as I think every artist worth his salt would agree, making art is rather laborious. Leisure doesn’t enter the picture until one lights a pipe, pours a beer, and sits back to admire the work.
As an aside, David Michael Phelps is the moderator of the latest installment of the RFA podcast, “The Stewardship of Art.” He’ll also be hosting the next Acton on Tap event the night before ArtPrize opens here in Grand Rapids, “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment.” You can check out details at the event’s Facebook page.