Part 2 of this post seeks to answer the questions put forth in part 1 in a more general way. I asked earlier:
- How important is art to our sense of memory and belonging in a place or community?
- In what ways can art cultivate a sense of memory more broadly?
- Does thinking about the artist as rememberer change the way we think about art?
We saw through examples of Berry’s fiction the significant role of remembering in the development of community and identity, what Berry frequently refers to as “membership.” I highlighted Berry’s work to suggest that art provides concrete pictures of what the world might look like; in this case, Berry’s literature provides a way to think about cultivating a culture of remembering in community. Here, I want to draw a few conclusions on the broader role art might play in cultivating communal memory and how our view of art might be affected by thinking about the artist primarily as a rememberer.
So, how does art cultivate memory?
Art cultivates memory in a variety of ways. At a basic level, art is a practice sustained by memory and what is passed on from artist to artist. A farmer learns how to seed a row properly and a sculptor learns hows his tools work with certain types of stone. Artists learn from other artists the way tools work and the most efficient practices for carrying out their art. Beyond the actual practice of making art, it also preserves memories of a culture for current and future generations. Can you think of any other ways to think about the link between art and memory?
Does conceiving of the artist as rememberer change the way we think about art?
If we conceive of the artist as rememberer, then I think we necessarily have to broaden our definition of art. While painters may help us envision a picture of the world at a given time or from a certain perspective, the farmer preserves local knowledge of place in his understanding of the soil, slope of the land, and drainage. Within a broader definition of art, the art of farming is no less important than the art of painting, especially as they relate to cultural memory rooted in place. Berry charges us all with the responsibility of participating creatively in creation and responding with care to the world given by God.
Berry’s judgments about the artist also change the way we think about memory and place. Michelle Roise asked in her comment on Part 1 of this post, “What does this mean for Americans whose history of place has ever been disjointed— from their divergent immigrant forebears (who often purposely strove to forget) to the present day mobility of much of the culture?” When, as a culture, we are overwhelmingly displaced, how can we expect artists, more than anyone else, to remain in one place and preserve memories through their actions? We cannot expect the artist to be a rememberer if we take away every means they have for communicating that memory—namely, the possibility of community and rootedness in place.
Despite this, Berry reminds us that even if the artist neglects or is robbed of this role, the arts always necessarily stand in relation to the world. Their embeddedness in a social practice, their techniques, values, and subject matter, all connect art to the world.
Still, I do not know the best answer to Michelle’s question. Questions of place and community memory are increasingly more complicated in our dis-membered society. But Berry reminds us that the possibility of membership cannot happen except through a cultural re-membering. Artists have an important responsibility as they enhance and interact with the world around them, as they preserve traditions and pictures of community life, as they reveal for us the significance of the particular, and as they show us how to live in and make places. Berry’s picture of the artist as rememberer at least gives us a lens that can clarify our vision in the overly-mobile, even homeless, society in which we live. It suggests that cultivation of the arts is an important, if not necessary, aim for those who believe that personal identity cannot be isolated from the people and place around us.