It will be obvious to anyone who has even minimal acquaintance with the Christian tradition that spiritual life has found expression in both withdrawal from and engagement with the world around us.
There has been much debate as to which is the better way. Are we best to withdraw from the world and give ourselves to cultivating a life of contemplation or to opt for the practice of engagement where we are actively involved in seeking to make the world a better place? Each has its appeal. And we may be wise to say that it need not be a case of one or the other.
Many have written about the creative tension present in these two forces in human life. In a little book called The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring – author Parker J. Palmer speaks of his own struggle to sort out which of these to be devoted to. After a long journey and much effort to cultivate the contemplative side of life, he concluded he was an activist at heart. Though recognizing the value of each, he adopted a model of contemplation-in-action. The choice we make can serve either to bring us life or to take life from us.
One needs only to note the frenzied pace of contemporary urban living and how it destroys our relationships and shrivels our inner life while activism for the sake of others can bring great satisfaction and meaning into our lives. Or observe how the turn inward to contemplation can either nurture and refresh the spirit or render us disconnected in our personal lives and oblivious to matters of justice and the challenge of making our world a better place.
When we hear talk of Christian piety we are more likely to think in terms of a turn inward than a turn outward – though piety can be found in both forms in the Christian tradition. I am following this line of thought as a way into the matter of how we look at art. I want to suggest that there are some forms of aesthetic piety present in our culture? The term ‘piety’ here is to be taken in its general sense as “devotion”. Those of a more modern persuasion will exercise their aesthetic piety in terms of contemplation. The work we find in museums, galleries, theaters and concert halls is there for us to contemplate.
We are to be moved by the beauty of what we see or hear. We are to be affirmed in our humanity and reminded again of how much we are capable of as human beings. It is a piety that cultivates a strong sense of the resourcefulness of our human community. A postmodern aesthetic piety is likely to find the devotee rejoicing in self expression more interested in novelty than in beauty or harmony, history or tradition. It is a piety that venerates uniqueness and is often characterized by discontent and prone to disconnect with the past while it champions individual expression and even shock value.
Now it seems to me there is a third way, a perspective which attends to the value of art as a resource for transforming the world: art with a social conscience, creativity that addresses important humanitarian and social issues in a world gone awry.
Believing that art is capable of helping us see more clearly and understand more fully, can we also say that art has the power to move us to act more humanely? Art can call to account a domesticated vision of the world that simply protects the status quo or it can offer an alternate vision that contributes to making a better world. Much of Christian piety has been of the other worldly sort, taking us out of the challenging and difficult realities found in the circumstances of our lives. Art done by Christians has commonly followed that spiritual model and been disconnected from the gritty reality of ordinary life.
The social malaise that confronts us at every turn has been ignored in such artistry, while the ‘faithful’ cultivate their inner life all the time marching with the masses to the tune of a consumerist culture. I have no quarrel with the idea that art is something to be contemplated nor do I want to say that self-expression is always a problem. However I wonder how artistry might move us down a path of social concern. I am asking how the creative gift expressed in drama, dance, poetry, visual art or music might turn us to some of the deep concerns of our troubled world in such a way that we are moved to make a difference.
Let me be clear, I have no wish to set an agenda for artists – to say what they should or must do. I am only asking about what art may be capable of doing.
Matters of social concern are not to be mere appendages stuck on to artistic expression, nor ought they to be issues imposed on the artist from outside. Art communicates and artists have something to say. I am wondering about what is often referred to as the prophetic role of the arts. I don’t see much of that and I wonder why
.Originally published in 2004