As a current 11th English teacher, I often have situations arise that give me new ways to consider the relationship between art, imagination, and the deeper meaning of life. For instance, recently I gave my students a creative assignment which I thought was going to be a great hit. Our class was reading a play, and each student was assigned a character. The student’s task was to write the “backstory” of his or her character – a made-up sketch of the character’s life before the drama begins. I thought that the assignment would be a fun, imaginative exercise giving the students freedom to dream up whatever they wanted about their character. To my surprise, however, the students completely resisted the assignment, seeing it as a waste of time! “What’s the point of doing this?” they kept saying. “What is the use?” This small assignment perhaps brings into relief a conflict that is increasingly common in our culture today. In a world more and more driven by productivity and utility, the student’s question actually makes sense – and pushes Christians to think even more deeply about the purpose and “use” of creativity, the arts, and the imagination.
In a previous post titled “I Wonder: Work, Art and the Deeper Meaning of Life,” I discussed Josef Pieper, a 20th century German philosopher, who was concerned with modern culture and the relationship between work, leisure, art, and spiritual fulfillment. Pieper was alarmed that the world of “total work” that promoted utility, efficiency, and productivity was producing a civilization which took the gift of existence for granted and squelched man’s deepest spiritual longings. He therefore advocated activities, such as the arts, which have no “use” other than trying to explore and portray the deeper meanings of human existence. In his book, Leisure as the Basis of Culture, Pieper’s views on the origins of art provide an interesting nuance that at first sounds foreign to our work-oriented culture.
Significantly, for Pieper, culture and the arts are NOT rooted in the realm of work. The purpose of work is to provide humanity with their immediate needs and to allow them to survive. Pieper maintains, however, that current civilization has elevated work to a status it has never had and, in doing so, has lost the proper association between work and its counterpoint: leisure. The ancient and medieval worlds knew the right relationship: they saw work as existing for the sake of leisure, while we believe that leisure exists in order to enable us to work, a view which has diminished our ability to nourish “useless” activities such as the arts.
Instead, Pieper maintains that the arts are most definitely rooted in leisure. Pieper insists that we have forgotten the true meaning of leisure, from which springs richness, fullness of life, existential meaning, and happiness. Leisure is not idleness or even relaxation (both of which Pieper ironically says are other forms of work). Instead, leisure is the openness to the given world, an attitude of considering the things before us in a celebratory spirit. Ultimately, Pieper maintains, leisure is rooted in the idea of festival! Festival is humanity’s chance to rejoice in our being and offer thanks for our lives; it is the joyful homage we bring to the Creator for the harmony of his world and our place in it. In this regard, Pieper writes that “the highest form of affirmation is the festival….to festival belong ‘peace, intensity of life, and contemplation all at once’. The holding of a festival means: an affirmation of the basic meaning of the world, and an agreement with it, and in fact means to live out and fulfill one’s inclusion in the world, in an extraordinary manner, different from the everyday.”
This seems an intriguing perspective from which to approach the arts – that we are made for festival, for celebrating in joy and thankfulness, first – and then we work in order to sustain our efforts to do so. In order to portray the meaningful dimensions of life, our art are best rooted in this pattern. In my own small classroom, it would have been wonderful to see my students take the time and space to celebrate imaginatively their characters’ lives, not for their own use, but in their joy at the beauty of their characters in the whole of creation (ah…wishful thinking!). Consider, however, the wonderful impact that art rooted in this dynamic, could have on a world crying out for meaning instead of use.
 Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings : Art and Contemplation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 22.