“The sobering realities of our world call us to be agents of change. But it is not just the large and difficult issues where transformation needs to take place…”

I find that my work in the arts constantly poses new issues to be considered and new ideas to be explored. This brief column in the newsletter is a venue for “thinking in progress” and this one is no exception. I want to take up two ideas which have come to the fore in recent weeks. The first concerns how we speak about the arts and the second is a question about what are is able to do. Recently I was asked to submit a one page synopsis of a document I had worked on. Shortly after I received an edited version to review. What I quickly noted was that the word “use” or some variation on it appeared several times – though it was not present in the original. This got me thinking about why I avoid the word “use” when speaking about the arts. We do of course use art. It is used to decorate, illustrate, learn or just to enjoy. But this has not diminished my concern. One reason I have resisted the term “use” in relation to art is because it suggests that art is to be valued not for itself but for something else. Its value comes from its use or function. This is a particularly acute temptation in our pragmatic consumerist culture. I prefer the word engage when speaking about the arts.

The reason for this is that the word “engage” suggests a two way relationship. We engage a person in conversation and we use a hammer. In the first case there is some give and take, the observer of art receives something from the work of art, while in the second case there is a single direction in the relationship, the object is used. In saying this I have no intent to see art as separated from “thinking in progress” its surroundings, its cultural and temporal situation. Rather I wish to see the perceiver joined with the art in a relationship that is reciprocal. If one listens to the music of Bach, views the work of Giotto or reads the poems of George Herbert the experience is that of receiving, being awakened or refreshed or inspired. But for this to happen there is the need to give oneself in the experience. Clearly one can say that even here art is of some use. But my point is that use is not the heart of the matter. The opening words of the famous book by Martin Buber titled I and Thou capture what I have in mind.

The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. The attitude of man is twofold in accordance with two basic words he can speak. The basic words are not single words but word pairs. One … is the word pair I-Thou. The other basic word is the word pair I – It. … The I of the basic word I-Thou is different from that in the basic word I-It. My sense is that placing the weight on the word “use” draws us toward the I of the I-It while “engage” leads us to the I of the I-Thou. The spirit that will lead us into the realms of tomorrow can only be recognized through feeling -Kandinsky. Another way to put this matter is to distinguish between possession (object) and gift (relation). Art (and all of creation) is best approached as gift. A second matter that has come to my attention is a question about what art can do. We hear a lot today about transformation. One could say it is a buzz word of sorts – designed to get our attention and convince us of the value of something. Transformation in. Whether it is personal, social, ecclesial, institutional, organizational or cultural – we are drawn to the idea of transformation.

The question is whether the arts have the capacity to exercise a transforming influence on persons or cultures. Biblical metaphors such as salt and light or yeast leavening bread suggest that the faith community is to be an agent of change for the culture in which it is situated. Memory has the power to transform as does a renewed mind. Then there is the gift of creativity and the engagement of imagination each of which can be a step toward making the merely possible real. The sobering realities of our world call us to be agents of change. But it is not just the large and difficult issues where transformation needs to take place it also must also occur in those small but significant areas of our ordinary lives. Art is one resource that can be a catalyst for change – an agent of transformation.

And here is the link with what I was saying above. Art seen as mere object has a deadening effect, there is no life, no movement, while art understood as that with which we can engage suggests a dynamic relation to the work and opens the way for artistry to have a transforming influence. One need not rehearse the influence of advertising, the music industry or film in getting large numbers of people to think differently and to live differently. It is not that art is a simple cause of transformation but it serves as an active agent in relationship to what we bring to it to move us from one place to another. One of the ways that the yeast of kingdom presence can be at work in the world is through the arts. Twentieth century theologian Karl Barth has noted that the task of culture is “the realization of our humanity”. Any nudges we can get to move us to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human and a more faithful practice of our true humanity in matters of justice and shalom are worth affirming. Art is one of the ways we can be nudged toward that true humanity.

– John Franklin