It is fitting that the first essay of this collection should offer a theological framework for art. Discussing Genesis 2:4-15, Andy Crouch points out that God is not alien to His creature’s cultural practices as He too makes something of the world: He plants a garden. This garden, Crouch observes, is both useful (good for eating) and useless (beautiful). Instead of accepting God’s good gift to humanity, Crouch argues, the first humans reject their dependence upon the Creator by exploiting the world and trying “to make something of the world that the world simply cannot yield.” Thankfully the story does not end there: “the Creator continues to create ex creatis. He stays in the story. Indeed, he ultimately enters the story at the point of greatest pressure and pain.”(35)
So, where does art come in? Crouch says, “art can be provisionally defined as those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility.”(36) Connecting this statement to Crouch’s development of Genesis, he is suggesting that art is dependent (for its existence and positive value) upon God’s choice to make something of the world that is both useful and useless.
On David O. Taylor’s blog, a very interesting conversation has taken place in response to Crouch’s essay and to Steven Guthrie’s review of the book. In response to Guthrie, and perhaps others, Crouch commented: “Personally I would appreciate seeing more serious engagement with my essay (and Barbara’s) than simply quoting the word ‘useless.’” My post is an attempt at a more serious engagement.
Whatever misunderstandings may have arisen in regards to Crouch’s essay probably stem from his “provisional definition” (above) of art. Definitions of art find critics easily. But Crouch should not have defined art “as those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility” because there are aspects of culture (e.g. love, friendship, learning, etc.) that cannot be reduced to utility and that would not normally be called ‘art’. This definition only obscures Crouch’s main point, which might be better summarised as follows: art is an important set of cultural practices and artefacts that draws our attention to those aspects of human existence that cannot be reduced to utilitarian purpose.
A more constructive critique might begin by asking: “What is at stake in Crouch’s claim that ‘art cannot be explained in terms of its usefulness?’” At one point, Crouch seems to provide an answer. He writes: “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.”(39) Art, then, is suggestive of an economy of grace that defines the Creator’s relationship with his creatures.
What about art, precisely, is useless? James K. A. Smith’s article at Cardus is interesting in relation to this issue, so I won’t belabour the point. Briefly, I think that works of art have an ‘extra’ or ‘gratuitous’ dimension that always eludes and exists beyond the particular ways that we use them. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the making of art. Although artists use their materials, they often have a respect for the ‘otherness’ of their materials, and find value in the way the materials resist the artist’s use of them. Artistic creativity is an encounter with excess beyond utility: a reminder that this object does not exist solely for my use, and that it has, in some sense, a life of its own.
Instead of, or in addition to, Crouch’s development of the Genesis narrative, it may be helpful to provide a Christological foundation for culture and the “uselessness” of art. In the person of the redeemer we have an example of what it means to be human, and, therefore, what it means to be “culture makers.” In the incarnation, the Creator humbles himself and does not consider His creation to be a means to achieve His end, but as a place for the Son to live and redeem. Christ’s self-emptying love, and not logical necessity, is the “reason” for the incarnation. To be Christ-like in our artistic endeavours may mean, then, that we are servants to works that are “other” than us, and for others beside us. Like love, human artistry should not be reduced to utility. The reason for this is not only that we would become poorer artists or art patrons, but also that we would lose an opportunity to become more like Christ.