Review of Chapter 3 in For the Beauty of the Church. Transpositions is hosting reviews of each chapter of this book between Aug 2 and Aug 9, 2010.
In this essay, Lauren Winner considers what might be one of the most concrete applications of the church’s engagement with the arts – that of being its financial supporter. As a casual art-buyer herself, Winner considers art-buying for the Christian and the wider issue of the church’s engagement with the arts, making several interesting and engaging points along the way.
While recognizing the concern that Christians might have in regard to spending money on art at the expense of other things (ie caring for the poor), Winner responds in three ways. First, art-buying is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be able to pay an artist for his/her work (and a privilege that the artist needs to have someone exercise should they flourish as an artist). Secondly, she notes the tension of following a God who became poor but is also the God of abundance who calls us to ‘live out of an ethic not of scarcity, but of abundance.’ At times, we are to extend this abundance to the poor and to other times, to the artist. Winner finishes this section by alluding to the act of gifting one’s local church with art of the local community (71).
Winner argues that despite rhetoric of hostility, North American Christianity has engaged with the arts over its history in a more positive way than might be currently thought. For example, Anglicans in colonial South Carolina built their churches within a theology of beauty, believing that the earthly beauty was a shadow of divine beauty (78). In addition, Sunday School teachers have been using visual art in order to teach children for many years (79). While Winner brings to light areas of church engagement, it’s at this point where I think a more critical assessment of how the arts have been used would have been helpful to the discussion, especially considering how she concludes her essay.
Winner ends by critiquing the current defense of art as useless beauty (art that exists in and of itself, without further purpose) and the justification it finds in the non-utilitarian beauty of a God-created nature. While Winner thinks that this ‘apologia for senseless beauty’ is important because it corrects a reductionism to utilitarian purposes, it is misguided because art does have a purpose. ‘A Christian understanding of art involves a recognition that art does things. In our Christian history, art mattered.’ In the examples considered from history, art had a purpose and therefore had meaning (76-81).
There are two important points that Winner makes that I think are worth exploring further. The first is the challenge she makes to the common assertion that the church has not ‘engaged’ with the ‘arts’. As Winner outlines and examples, art is a part of our scriptural as well as historical tradition. In our rhetoric about the lack of engagement between art and the church, Winner challenges us to consider both what kind of art we’re referring to as well as what engagement looks like. As my colleague pointed out recently, could a justified rejection be considered an engagement? This essay made me wonder if we’ve been blinded to areas of engagement by an insufficient definition of what ‘art’ is.
The second point for consideration is related to the first. In the history of North American Christianity, the church engaged with the arts from a position of understanding how it fit in with its theology. As a result, art looked differently in different churches. Art as an expression of theology meant that art was useful, meaningful, and purposeful, providing the basis for a church’s engagement (and by extension, investment). The debate rages about whether art is useful or useless and I really appreciate Winner’s perspective that even when art is not utilitarian (I think an important distinction from useful), it does serve a purpose even if that purpose is to adorn God. What I fear in this essay is that the kinds of examples that Winner cites, especially art for devotional purposes or art for didactic teaching, are the reasons why artists are appealing to art being useless. While this is church engagement, surely it limits the potential of art to reveal rather than just illustrate. Is the movement to uselessness necessary to correct an over-emphasis on what is not useful but utilitarian? I think what Winner proposes is a reminder of the connection between usefulness and the ‘abundance of meaning’: ‘the beautification of the commandment itself becomes a place where God reveals himself to us—if only we take the time to linger there’ (81). That which is beautiful is useful because it leads us to revelation. If this is the case, then the church must seriously consider financial investment of the arts, precisely because of what it contributes.