Art is unuseful

Read Part 1.

In the second part of his essay “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?” (published in For the Beauty of the Church), Andy Crouch argues that the church should not justify art in terms of its usefulness to the church’s ends, for then we violate the very definition of art:  those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility.  Let’s stop forcing Christian art to be functional, and just let it be!  Art for art’s sake, not for some canned moral lesson.

Many times churches will permit art on its grounds only if it depicts an explicitly “Christian” subject—if it is useful in teaching a biblical truth or inspiring greater devotion.  Indeed, throughout history the church commissioned art to serve this pointed purpose, but, as Crouch points out, “even the artist who made these goods couldn’t help but explore beyond the boundaries of strictly religious usefulness, and in this way they went far beyond the straightforward purposefulness of so much art created for the church today” (38).  In medieval churches, for example, there were crucifixes, yes, but there were also gargoyles, and nonrepresentational stained glass.  In Bible manuscripts, there were depictions of Christ and other characters, but there were also flowers and deer and intricate interlacing and ornamentation, details that, though lovely, were completely irrelevant to the stories they illustrated.

Crouch reminds readers that art is valuable as art; its purpose can be explained only in terms of itself.  For example, it would be easy to explain why you want four walls, but how would you explain why you want wallpaper?  With almost all cultural goods, there is the option of paying extra money for an artful quality which has nothing to do with the usefulness of the good.  Think lamps, shoes, dinner plates, bed sheets, cars, and so on.  Our willingness to pay a higher price for, let’s say, a car with a sleek exterior, or a dresser with a carved border, shows that we value the unuseful, though it’s hard to explain why. 

Art aside for a moment, Christians engage in the unuseful on a daily basis.  In fact, it is what sets us apart from the adherents of most other world religions, Crouch says:

What is Christian faith itself but the embodied conviction that religion is not, after all, about utility?  For many of our ancestors and many of our contemporaries, religion was and is a means to an end.  It is a way to cajole the gods into propitious attitudes, to bend the mysterious forces of the cosmos a little bit toward our needs by the right mixture of supplication and praise.  But what if the world, from beginning to end, is a gift?  What if God is more utterly, completely for us than we could ever be for ourselves?  What if we no longer have to offer a sacrifice that might waft up into his nostrils and compel his distracted attention—what if he himself has taken the initiative, become the sacrifice, torn the temple veil?  What is left but gloriously unuseful prayer and praise? . . .

So we Christians have a lot at stake in the unuseful.  We stake our worship every Sunday on the belief that we do not need to convince God to be useful to us, and he does not require us to be useful to him. . . . .

Art and worship stand together on the common ground of the unuseful.  (38-39, 40)

Our praise does not accomplish anything but praise.  Our prayer does not manipulate God into being useful to us but is good because it is prayer.  Like art, these things, their value, can be described only in terms of themselves, not in terms of their outcome.

So does all this mean that Christian art ought not to serve a purpose?  No.  Crouch says that artists do two things:  play, and enter into pain.  And as they do so, they ought to bring us into contact with that play and pain.  Christian art, Crouch says, should show a balance between beauty and brokenness—avoiding the all-too-common traps of escapism on one hand, and hopelessness on the other.  The gospel, grace, is beauty and brokenness, play and pain.  It’s a grace that renders all our merit “unuseful,” but that blesses unuseful endeavors.

______

What do you think of Crouch’s argument?  In your opinion, what should a Christian artist should strive for in his or her work?—or, what is the value of Christian art?  (Can it be described in terms other than itself?)  Is there any place for didacticism in Christian art anymore?

I found myself nodding in agreement through much of Crouch’s essay, but I also hesitated at points.  Art communicates.  It just does.  It preaches and teaches, or can, at least, and previous to reading this essay, I would have said that that’s a good thing, as long as it’s authentic, comes from a real place.  I have always thought that the calling of a Christian artist is to communicate truth and beauty—the same as a non-Christian artist, only with different definitions and perspectives.  Beauty comes in many forms, and so does (or so should) Christian art.  And a painting’s teaching can be very subtle.  Christ need not be inside the frame to qualify a painting as “Christian”—nor do angels, folded hands, or any of that.  Human experience—and everything it comprises—counts as truth and beauty.  What of all the lies and ugliness, though?  Yes, even those are worthy subjects for Christian art, if approached with a gospel vision:  lies exposed, ugliness redeemed—truth unveiled, beauty called forth.

The fine arts are called such because they draw the audience toward consideration of the finer things; they are meant to elevate the mind and soul.  For Christian art, that inward and upward pull should lead the audience in some way to God, for he is Beauty and Truth.  Does this count as a “use”?  I’m not sure that Crouch’s essay changed my overall view of Christian art, but he did bring up many interesting points, some of which I’m still pondering as I seek to develop a better understanding of the role of art in the life of the church, and the responsibility of the Christian artist.

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2 Responses to Art is unuseful

  1. Pingback: Culture is God’s idea | The Jesus Question

  2. jwebsd says:

    Christian faith itself but the embodied conviction that religion is not, after all, about utility…” Amen! Indeed, if God ποειω-ed the world as it is written in Genesis 1:1 in the Septuagint, then all is grace, All for sheer joy and hence pain, hence, as man’s participation in such grace is nothing but art.

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