I’m knee-deep in research for my white paper, “A Model for Moving Forward,” which will eventually be a book chapter but for now is sort of my “manifesto” for how we can talk about what we do, as artists and leaders who hover over the intersection of faith and the arts.
The premise I’m working with, in the paper and in all of our advocacy work, is that unless we know what we’re doing – i.e. how the arts work – we can’t talk about why we’re doing it. And unless we can talk about why we’re doing it, we can’t engage support for it. And we need to engage support for it, in order to be able to do it better.
So far, the paper has focused on the “instrumental” benefits of the arts. You can read more about what these are in my summary of the terrific book, The Social Impact of the Arts. But, in a nutshell, the instrumental benefits of the arts are those that result in a change of some kind in an area that doesn’t necessarily relate specifically to the artwork. An example of this would be how watching a historical movie might make you more knowledgeable about a period in time; or how playing the violin can make you better at math (proven by many research studies); or how a well-designed campaign poster might impact how you vote. Knowing something about history, being better at math, and political activism are all effects of the “instrument,” or tool, of the work of art.
The alternative to “instrumental” benefits of the arts are “intrinsic” benefits of the arts, the belief that the arts are valuable in and of themselves, vs. as tools with which to achieve some other goal. It is the “art for art’s sake” perspective that has dominated views on the impact of the arts since the mid-1800s, and which many of us adhere to most strongly today. Even though, after my research, I have developed a new appreciation for instrumental benefits, I still cringe a little when I think about art being “used” to achieve some other agenda, unrelated to the work of art.
The church seems to be most comfortable with instrumental benefits. If a work is evangelistic, devotional, or leading in worship, it’s okay. But, for some Christians, invoking intrinsic worth to a work of human hands smacks a bit of idolatry – and, in fact, may have been what the Lord was warning against in the second commandment, and what the Protestant iconoclasts rejected.
The world, however, is torn between the two paradigms. In the realm I follow most closely, arts policy and education, it’s a battle that’s waging fiercely – mostly because it impacts how funding is apportioned and used. It’s a whole lot easier to justify spending money on proven outcomes; and it’s a whole lot easier to come up with statistics on outcomes for instrumental benefits. “X” number of arts students graduated from high school, vs. “Y” number who didn’t take arts classes. Local restaurants in an arts district made “Z” more dollars than those not in an arts district.
But how do you quantify “art for art’s sake”?
I have had a gut feeling for years that there was a way for Christians to speak into, and help to justify, the intrinsic argument, perhaps even helping the world view (and fund) it without crossing “church and state” lines. But I don’t quite have the language for it yet….
The book I’m reading now, Art in Action by Nicholas Wolterstorff, may help, since it took on the instrumental vs. intrinsic argument more than thirty years ago. I decided to pick up the book, after having it on my shelf unread for years, for three reasons:
- Wolterstorff is a well-known theologian and arts philosopher,
- I anticipated, based on the title, that he would have a disposition towards instrumentality, which I’m still trying to get comfortable with, and
- He is speaking at a conference that I’m attending this weekend.
Sidebar: I am SO excited about attending New City Arts’ Forum on “Art, City, and Society.” The New City Arts Initiative (Charlottesville, VA) is doing incredible work, and I’m so eager to learn more about them, and to benefit from everything they’ve accomplished. They have an A-list docket of speakers lined up, including Nicholas Wolterstorff and Dan Siedell, author of God in the Gallery, speaking on Sunday morning about the role of the church and the arts. If you can work it out to attend, I highly recommend it. They are taking walk-up registrations. And, if you ‘re going to be there, please let me know at email@example.com. I’d love to connect with you there.
I am not even ¼ of the way through Art in Action, and Dr. Wolterstorff is already helping me to better understand the “intrinsic,” or “art for art’s sake,” argument. In its purest form, it is not about idolizing works of art – although that has, unfortunately, been how it has sometimes played out in human life. It is about the role of contemplation in how we experience a work of art.
I’m a big fan of etymology, the study of how words evolved. And – Dr. Wolterstorff might get to this in the book – guess where “contemplate” comes from?
con (with) + templum (building for worship)
So it would seem that contemplation has a fundamentally spiritual context. Which is probably also the part of “art for art’s sake” that makes it scary for the church. And is probably also the part that makes it unquantifiable, and a little bit icky to talk about, for the world. How do you put a number on spirit? And how do you advocate for something you don’t even believe in?
Doesn’t that explain a lot?
More to come, as I continue my research….