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  Models of ArtSunday, May 19th, 2024  
or the Usefulness of Art

by Libby Woodhams

I should like to start out this morning by saying that I doubt anything that I will say will be new to any of you. What might be new, perhaps, are the links that can be drawn between some aspects of the familiar and the questions that I believe are not asked rigorously enough of art, art making and art viewing.

My journey of questioning the role of art goes back a long way - to when I was teaching art in the Sacred Heart Hospice in Sydney and I kept being introduced as 'the art therapist'. I was not, and am not an art therapist, and nor did I believe what I was doing was 'art therapy'. I was an artist whose 'pupils' at that time happened to be people dying of AIDS and various forms of cancer. However, I did not, at that stage, have the language to describe what I was doing, what was happening in myself and in those with whom I worked. I did not know why whatever was happening appeared to be 'useful'- in that it appeared to make people 'bigger' and 'more rounded' 'more flourishing' - even when they were becoming more and more skeletonal as they prepared to die.

Two writers and thinkers have been particularly useful for me in trying to construct a model of art that can answer the questions I have thrown at it. In the first place, art is done by human beings and viewed by human beings so to properly understand what role art might play in our human existence it is necessary to understand what it is to be human. Marc C. Taylor, an American philosopher, has a theory of 'nots'- ie we can only define our identity - and understand its meaning and significance - in terms of what we are 'not'. For example, notions of female and mother only have meaning in relation to what they are 'not' ie. male and a child. From this (and many other theories) I take it that we, as human beings, are characterized by an interrelatedness and an interdependence - both of which directly challenge a model of art that sees artists as very gifted 'apart' individuals and their art as a 'product' that has no wider relevance beyond a career, a gallery or a superannuation fund. In short the necessary interdependence and interrelatedness means that art has a critical 'usefulness' for both the artists and their community and we could say then say that art and artists are at the service of their community.

Many might see the notion of 'useful' as somehow demeaning or degrading art which, at various times, has been put on a very high pedestal. But when we think about the useful things that we so commonly take for granted - tables, chairs, cups, knives, forks and spoons and try and imagine how we would live without them it is necessary to think more deeply about the meaning of usefulness. These few commonplace items are also at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community (and, indeed, perhaps, church) - sharing a meal (sustenance) around a table with its talking, debating, discussion, questioning - and telling stories. These familiar and useful things - tools even - might give us a way of viewing art as important for our well being as the crudely constructed spoon was for my father when he was a POW on the Burma Railway. Not only was his precious spoon useful for eating his rice and watery soup but it was a critical tool that he and his mates used to clean out their tropical ulcers.

Taking this discussion further, it was only when I was doing my Masters study that I discovered the work of Ellen Dissanayake, notably What is Art For? and found a theory of art that 'fitted' the questions I asked of it. Dissanayake observed that 'if art was present in all cultures (as it is in some form or another) it must have some evolutionary benefit or otherwise it would not have survived. What was that benefit? What is art for?' In very brief words, Dissanayake's theory has it that the arts evolved to help us have a better chance of survival in the face of anxieties and fears that might otherwise threaten the well-being of the group. But it was not enough to 'just survive' as in merely to exist because we would not flourish- we would ultimately shrivel up and die - physically or mentally and emotionally. And what prompted this response by human beings? This evolution of art? The felt presence of change - something that might threaten our well being as we knew it. Here I will point out an obvious that might often be overlooked. For those of us well used to suffering and turmoil, the felt sense of a change to peace and healing might be as frightening as the distress and trauma. We know what it is like to be suffering but we do not know what kind of person we might be healed and at peace - even if the nature of healing and peace is as resistant to definition as is art itself. However, we know as well as our most primitive forebears, that the felt sense of change produces in us feeling of anxiety and fear because we do not know what is ahead and how it will influence our flourishing. The arts came into being because of what is involved in art making - the various mark making and movements, its repetitions, pattern making, rituals, playing and so on. All the various things that give us a sense of control, a concentration of energy - and a sense of pleasure. How very handy it is at times to remember that pleasure is an evolutionary necessity!

Another critical 'duty' or condition of being human is the ancient one of 'know thyself' - and to thyne ownself be true. It seems as though we cannot care (or care adequately) about what we do not know - even if it is some aspects of ourselves much less of others. 'Know' in the sense of Inga Clendinnen's 'imaginative engagement' not 'know' in the sense that I just read it in the newspaper and it never really entered the story of my being. How can we 'use' our unique gifts and talents if we do not know what they are? Or if we are too afraid to use them because we might think spoons are only to be used for scooping up soup not maggots? That is, we are constrained in how we 'rise to the occasion' of the challenges of our lives because we do not know how to use the tools we have at our disposal to regain and maintain our flourishing.

So, after all this what is art? Art is very simply story telling - it is us telling stories to ourselves so that we come to know who we are better. It is our way of making sense of the various experiences of our lives. In those stories that we write, paint and tell our own roles of being teacher and student swap over continuously so that we, as well as our viewers, teach and learn from what we have managed to make of the experiences of our lives. And when we exhibit our work (or write it or perform it) we tell our stories to others so that they can come to know us - and themselves better - and so that we can more properly care for and about each other. What is not so often referred to in the commonplace of story telling is courage. When we tell stories of truth we tell the story of our souls - they are like black and white drawings which leave precious little room to hide. I can well remember the terror of my first experience of exhibiting my work when I felt as though my soul would be up on the wall for all to see. I did not fear that some might like my work and nor did I fear that others would dislike it. What disturbed me was the thought that some would walk past - and in their indifference not see my soul hanging there in its nakedness. Perhaps, though, it may not be indifference that makes us walk past the story of another but a recognition that to answer the invitation to stop and listen means that we have also recognized the demand of our essential humanity - we are who we can be only in relation to others - and that recognition means that their story is ours as well.

So, to recap. We, as human beings are characterized by an interdependence and an interrelatedness. Art evolved to enable us to have a greater chance of survival - flourishing and we were able to do that because the processes of art making made us feel more powerful, more in control and more pleasured and it was these elements that helped us to survive and flourish. It enables us to tell, hear and listen to the stories that we need for us to be fully human - and it is those stories that both define and challenge the moral fibre of our communities. So, if we now go back to some of the more common descriptions of art and art making 'art as expression', 'art as a means of communication', 'art as conceptual', 'art as catharsis', even 'art for arts sake'(what ever that might mean) I would suggest that what is missing from each of these very truthful (though incomplete descriptions) is the always necessary 'so that..'. for example, we employ 'art as a means of expression' so that we can come to know ourselves better and so that others can come to know what it is like to be us and so that we can have a better more caring society. Some might say 'Can't we just enjoy doing art for its own sake?' without any further discussions and obligations and notions of service and usefulness? Of course we can have private pleasures - even obsessions - about making art. We can and do derive great pleasure and satisfaction from our art making. But we are also defined by the essential interrelatedness and interdependence of our humanity so that we also like to share our passions and pleasures, we need to tell our stories and have them heard by others, we need to share what we have learnt from it all and - in a sense we contribute all this - we lay it at the service of our community because by doing so we enrich it and ourselves. Which is also why, Australian artist, John Brack, has it that a painting is not finished until it is exhibited - that is it is returned to the community.

My final thoughts are concerned to answer the questions that relate to 'quality'. Are we all artists? Is all art equally 'good'? Yes, to the first question for the simple reason that it makes no logical sense to say that only capital 'A' artists are destined for a life of survival and flourishing. I would seriously raise my blood pressure if I now started to address the great disservice that we have done to countless generations by alienating them from doing art and appreciating what art can be. Again, it makes no logical sense that we teach children to use the tools of words and numbers so that they have the skills of literacy and numeracy but beyond kindergarten we are sometimes afraid to teach then how to use the tools of art making lest we 'kill their creativity'. Is all art equally good? We judge this by the same criteria that we judge any story told - by its truthfulness and its sense making - and that logically means, of course, that not all art is good. We all have the skills to judge these qualities because a good, truthful story that makes sense, engages our imagination and gives us hope, energy and enthusiasm we tell over and over and over again. At each telling it becomes clearer, more coloured, more complex, more surely crafted, more demanding and different aspects of the same truth emerge - as Chagall would have it - it all begins and ends with Love.

© John Mark Ministries

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