Editor’s Note: This is the first post in our new Artists in Residence series, a series intended to draw working artists like Bruce Herman, Alfonse Borysewicz and Makoto Fujimura into the theology/arts conversation here on Transpositions.
In his book Real Presences, George Steiner begins half-jokingly by imagining a country where no “secondary” art criticism is allowed; where the only critique of a painting is another painting, the only analysis of a symphony is another symphony. Of course the joke is that this country exists everywhere and always has, and the primary “criticism” of art-commenting-on-art has always been around–but the secondary form of criticism has overtaken it in the past hundred years or more. Analysis has nearly replaced making-as-commentary, verbal critique has eclipsed the traditional means of elaborating or evolving a style. In former centuries an artist or poet assumed that she or he must first master the tradition personally before “commenting” on it by producing a better or more complex or different and developed style or content or form. That tradition might be called the “long apprenticeship.” And a central part of that tradition was courtesy––the welcome and gracious admission of the younger artist by the master into the conversation of art.
In Real Presences Steiner spends a full third of his book elaborating this concept of cortesia, the intellectual welcome that is required of the artist as well as the beholder, writer as well as reader, composer as well as audience. Without this elemental trust and gracious welcome the apprentice never learns. Without this open door to enter the world of the novel or symphony the reader or audience member never experiences the beauty and mystery of the story or music. It is the nature of genuine courtesy to create a space of freedom and ease, a place of warm welcome where those lacking confidence and status can experience and participate. In one sense, all hospitality is like this: the stranger, the needy treated as the honored guest, just as in Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast. And art is meant to be a feast open to all.
In the past three years I’ve had the blessing of collaborating with two close friends on projects that model the reality of artistic courtesy. In the first instance, the co-authoring of a book, Through Your Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), in the second, a touring exhibition entitled QU4RTETS (read the Transpositions review of the latter here). In both cases the whole became greater than the sum of the parts. The synergy created in the conversation, the constant dialogue required to produce these collaborative projects, was ennobling and stretching and helped to propel me into a creative space I hadn’t known on my own. In effect, the hospitality and courtesy required to collaborate is the very thing that generated the work of art.
My co-author, Walter Hansen, was the common link in both the book and the touring exhibit–and it was his literal hospitality that created the space for both of these successful projects. Walter invited Mako Fujimura and me to dinner and served us great food, great wine, and great conversation. It was that evening, during the meal that we discovered that the three of us shared a common influential text, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot’s masterpiece became our touchstone. Since then, Yale composer Christopher Theofanidis has written an astonishing piece of music to accompany the touring show. At the Still Point harmonizes the entire project and extends our artistic vocabulary.
The other project, Through Your Eyes, contains in its title the very heart of what I am laboring to express: it is through the eyes of the other, through their ears, imagination, intellect and heart that the work of art comes into being. The courtesy and risk of hospitality, the welcoming of the other across the threshold into one’s intimate place of being––this basic risk is what brings the work of art into the world. Without this kind of trust between artist and beholder, between artist and artist, the work of art remains dormant or dead. The hospitality of collaboration and the courtesy of welcoming the other into our deepest conversations are the hallmarks of great art. And the greatest artists are accessible to all audiences.
Why is this? Because accessibility is not mediocrity, but a sign of courtesy.