What is it about art?

Landon Whitsett (author, Vice-moderator of PCUSA, Doctor Who fan, social media whiz and all-around decent fellow) is thinking about a follow up volume to his first book Open Source Church. This second book takes the open source concept a little farther, with a working title of “Freedom and Fellowship: An Open Source Theology”. Sounds pretty cool, actually.

As he does, Landon has lobbed a couple of questions that have come to mind in the writing process out into the twitterverse… the one that I keep turning over in my mind this week has to do with art.

Do you agree or disagree that art is of a higher order than rational or physical works? Why or why not?

with a little clarification as people started responding…

What separates art from mere physical objects and rational logic and Trying to distinguish between art and the products of rationality and physicality.

It made me think about the way people distinguish between art and science/rationality.  When someone takes a process of some sort and becomes really proficient or efficient, you’ll hear someone say, “Wow- Joe’s really got that down to a science.”    As if that is the highest level of praise as a means of getting things done.

But then you’ll hear someone else say, “There’s the science of ____ , and then there’s the art”.   Which sort of makes it seem that even when you’ve got something “down to a science” there is value in an artful way of doing that activity.

Oddly, the kiddo and I had a lengthy conversation about some of this the other night, too.  A friend of ours who is an outspoken atheist had posted a link on Facebook to a story about the destruction of a work of art.  It was a piece that has been outraging Christians since it was made public 20 years ago – a photograph of a crucifix suspended in urine and called Immersion (Piss Christ).

So we started talking about why it makes sense that people were offended- in the same way that we can understand people being offended by the burning of a Qur’an or the cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed.  When things we consider sacred are treated without respect for their sacred nature, we tend to respond at a deep level.

But what if the offense is meant to be art?  What is it that moves a piece beyond its shock value into something people see as “art”.   Certainly there are many different and disturbing pieces out there that include an image of Christ on the cross – some that move me, others that leave me scratching my head, and still others that make me want to look away.  But in each of those categories, the work transcends a “do I approve of this?” level of interaction.

I know – or at least trust – that the artist thought about her subject and how it would take shape in her particular medium.  And I imagine at some point in the process the artist imagines someone attempting to engage with his finished piece, and he will have some idea of how he would like those observers to respond.  Somewhere in the midst of those decisions (rationality) and the act of creating a finished product (physicality) a catalyst sparks something that makes it more.

Not everything we create becomes art.  A finely constructed building may be fully functional and look right and good, but it doesn’t connect with the soul the way a Wren cathedral or Lloyd-Wright house or and IM Pei museum does.  Not all fiction ought to be in the Literature section, but there are historical and biographical tomes that lift the reader out of their reality to another place.   Concerts, plays, musicals – all can run the gamut from a show to an artistic revelation.

I don’t know that I can answer any of Landon’s questions after mulling over all this, but I do see some implications for ministry.   For generations we have worked to develop systems and methods and “just add water” versions of churchy things.  There are apologetics and tracts that make a case for the right way to come to faith.  There are instructions for developing a quiet time, guides for discipling this group or that, and even conferences with answers for church planting, transformation, growth and renewal.  We can learn how to be missional, attractional or emergent.

But what we don’t capture in all of these rational discussions about ministry is the art… not artifice that puts a false face or emotion on something but that intangible quality that breathes life into process.  That takes a textbook response to a case study and makes it a beautiful interaction between beloved children of God.  There is a sense that people who are gifted go farther in the arts (I can make a paint-by-number look like Bob Ross, but I’m no Michelangelo).  I suppose there is a bit of that in the spiritual gifts as well.  The Holy Spirit breathes life into the work of those God calls to ministry and pours out gifts into the body to empower the priesthood of all believers.

The life and livelihood of the church isn’t rational any more than it is the physical structure that bears the address of the church.  The life and livelihood of the church is in the art of being God’s people, attuned to the Spirit and responding to the needs of a world in desperate need of beauty, love, mercy and grace.


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