… That instinct was at work 17,000 years ago in the artisans of Lascaux who decorated the walls of the caves with images which move us still today.
Among theorists as well as ordinary folk who enjoy the arts the recurring question, “What is art for?” finds its way into conversations. This is a question about the value or the meaning of art and it plays into our pragmatic concerns. Two very different answers are given to this question.
The first draws on the romantic tradition and perceives art as self-sufficient having no need for engagement with the common good or matters of moral concern – an art for art’s sake viewpoint. The second answer sees art as willing engaged with a worthy purpose outside of itself. Art for example could be socially redemptive. Many today hold the view that art is a luxury, not a necessity. And so we assume the best route is to simply forego the arts when more important matters call for our attention. This may foster a cavalier disregard for the arts and a failure to capture their significance for the human community and their important role in our social settings. It may well be folly to try to provide a case for the “necessity” of art but I am willing to make the effort by drawing on three ideas; one anthropological, one sociological and one theological. Too much for this short piece but I will aim for brevity.
New Zealand professor of art Denis Dutton in his book titled The Art Instinct makes a case for art, based in evolutionary science. The suggestion is that art is a universal phenomenon like language and tool making. It is one of the ways we share the feeling of recognition and communion with other human beings.
We speak readily about creation and art and about incarnation and art – but are largely silent on the work of the Spirit and art.
The inclination to imagine scenarios, make fictions, craft images, perform rituals and the attendant capacity to enjoy these things is rooted in the “art instinct”. That instinct was at work 17,000 years ago in the artisans of Lascaux who decorated the walls of the caves with images which move us still today. On this view art is not an option for humanity – though it may be for any given individual – it is a necessity.
Art flows from a deeply embedded instinct that is part of what it means to be human. At its origins art may have been associated with magic – with the desire to master an unknown world. But with the fading presence of magic in our more sophisticated scientific world art now sheds light on the natural and social order and provides hints for reordering or at least for fresh understanding. Countless numbers of people read books, listen to music, go to the theatre, visit galleries or watch film. Why is this so?
There appears to be a world-hungry longing within us that reaches out beyond the confines of our own small selves. We want to break free of our isolation and connect with the natural world and with others in the human community. We are by nature (and by biblical mandate) culture makers. Artistic activity is all around us and serves as a tangible expression of the culture in which it exists and of the inner life of some of its members.
The Romantics looked to the transcendental power of poetry as a source of hope. Utopians and Marxists felt confident that the arts would serve the cause of social change while today many wonder if art is at all relevant in our troubled world. I for one do not doubt the relevance of art for our troubled world. It is a resource for both comfort and insight, for hope and a vision for a way forward. Art is capable of exposing our failures and of motivating us toward the good. I am thinking of those smaller worlds in which we participate, not the troubles of our global community though art could certainly have something to say there as well. Tolstoy has argued for the necessity of art as a source for social coherence and as indispensible in moving humanity toward well-being. The third idea affirming the necessity of art is one that links art and theology.
What I have in mind is the connection between artistry and the Holy Spirit. I have been intrigued for some time about this connection. We speak readily about creation and art and about incarnation and art – but are largely silent on the work of the Spirit and art. Jonathan Edwards the eighteenth century New England theologian was much occupied with the subject of beauty. He suggested that it is the Spirit that is the harmony and beauty of the Trinity and who has the function of communicating beauty and harmony in the world. It has been argued that what enables human artwork to become expressive of divine radiance is the human will responding freely to the movement of the Holy Spirit. And further, that the purpose of all art is to participate in the disclosure of God’s glory.
So here again it appears there is an inevitability about human artistic activity. It rides on the expressive energy that is found in the Trinity and which we in a small way express as those who bear the “imago” of God. The presence of good art, grounded in the biblical narrative, is an urgent need for our fragmented world. Art will not save us but it has the potential to awaken us and assist us in seeing more clearly.
Nicholas Wolterstorff has observed; “works of art are objects and instruments of action…. whereby we carry out our intentions with respect to the world, our fellows, ourselves and our gods” (Art in Action).
Art that speaks the truth and unmasks the deceptions of contemporary culture is essential to stabilize a world out of kilter. Art shaped by a Christian understanding of things – rooted in the big story of the biblical narrative is one place where we will find light to dispel the darkness and hope to dispel the despair.