The Integrity of Using Art, Part 4

Over the course of the past four months I’ve been addressing “The Integrity of Using Art.” In this, my fourth and final post in the series (cf. Parts 12 and 3), I’d like to return to a comment made by Jim Watkins in response to my first post. He comments:

I tend to think of “integrity” as “otherness.” It is all the ways that the work of art pushes beyond my attempts to use it for my own purposes, and so to use a work of art responsibly (to respect its “integrity”) means to recognize that this work of art is not ready made for my own purposes. What do you think of this more expanded way of thinking about “integrity”?

More fully, he explains:

I am fully on board with the idea that theologians should engage with the arts in a genuine dialogue. While I think you’re right that this is the more important point, there is still the issue of how one holds this dialogue, or, to put it another way, how one respects the integrity of the other.

In an effort to respond to these questions I will draw upon two books, both by George Pattison: Art, Modernity and Faith, 2nd ed. (SCM Press, 1998), and The End of Theology – And the Task of Thinking About God (SCM Press, 1998).

To begin, it seems that we should acknowledge the situation that Pattison describes in the opening chapter of the latter; namely, that theology is no longer Queen of the Sciences, but a “fellow-worker.”[1] He explains:

Western theology has reached a critical phase in its history. Assailed from without and subverted from within, the once proud Queen of the Sciences now finds herself having to eke out a living at the margins of academic life, foraging amongst the uncultivated borderlands of other disciplines.[2]

Here, I simply wish to point out why it is that we’re having this conversation. Ever since Kant we’ve been wrestling with our apparent inability to say much of anything about the really real. Acknowledging “the failure of ontology,”[3] Pattison notes: “The really real, then, is itself no longer a single entity, but the best result of the best research to date across a multiplicity of fronts.”[4] Interdisciplinarity is the name of the game and dialogue a requisite skill, and this is the case whether you’re with Pattison or the previously mentioned Desmond (i.e., on metaphysics/ontology).

In any case, the “using” that I’ve been describing over the course of these four posts assumes this sort of framework, i.e., a dialogue that “is less concerned by … abstract considerations than by the thought that truth is always truth spoken or expressed by someone.”[5] That said, I’d like to address Jim’s question from a different angle.

Over the course of the past six or seven years I’ve gotten to know a number of artists, mostly through my efforts at Calvary Baptist Church, Grand Rapids, MI. And so when I think about the integrity of using art or the nature of the dialogue, it’s no abstract consideration. It’s personal. “The Other” has a name: Julie, Rick, Alfonse

These and other friends have welcomed me into their lives and studios, and the dialogue that began there continues. And through this dialogue, I “become a thousand men [or women] and yet remain myself…. I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”[6]

How does one respect the integrity of art as other? Clearly, there’s quite a bit that could be said, but suffice it to say that putting a face and a name with what would otherwise be an abstract consideration is a great place to begin the conversation.

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story.


[1] Pattison, The End of Theology – And the Task of Thinking About God, p. 2.
[2] Ibid., p. 1.
[3] Ibid., pp. 19ff. That this is the general consensus is certainly the case.  Even so, I would, with Desmond, wish to question this conclusion.
[4] Ibid., p. 29; cf. Pattison, Art, Modernity and Faith, p. 9.
[5] Pattison, The End of Theology – And the Task of Thinking About God, p. 45.
[6] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 141.

6 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    So, Chris: Once we know the artist, how do we then engage with his art as the Other that is our Friend?

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Great question Cole. I might respond in several ways, but perhaps the easiest way would be to suggest that you read the copy of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism that’s sitting on your shelf (which I can see from where I’m currently sitting), though I’m sure you already have! In one sense, my use of “use” is more like Lewis’ “receiving.” It’s just that I don’t see these two as mutually exclusive. What Lewis calls use I would call abuse. Use, rightly understood, can only happen (with integrity) after receiving. Add to Lewis David Brown’s God and Enchantment of Place with Brown’s emphasis on listening to culture in an effort to cultivate a “sense of learning and discovery” rather than resorting to “the imposition of predetermined judgments.”[p. 7] If that response isn’t helpful, I’d say re-read the four posts with the fourth post as context. I’m not sure that I can do much better than that. How would you answer your own question?

  • betty Spackman says:

    I am interested that you have put photos of your children with this article.
    Perhaps they are the most articulate/accurate representation/response to the questions put forward.
    Art is not only a discussion of meaning any more than integrity is an idea to be debated. Both are embodiments of life and as such one needs to encounter them as one would encounter a child. We either talk about them, or we talk with them, get to know them and listen to what they have to say, learn who they are. As in any relationship this requires a great deal of work and time for both the artist who gives birth and the viewer/experiencer of the art as it presents itself to the world. One does not use one’s child. One loves one’s child. At least that is the choice.

    Betty Spackman

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Betty, thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that we need to take the time to get and know and listen to art. Here again, Lewis would call this receiving, and my discussion of use is rooted in this context.

      More recently, James Elkins has written a series of posts for HuffPost Arts & Culture (“How to Look at Mondrian,” “How Long Does it Take to Look at a Painting,” and “Are Artists Bored by Their Work?” – all three accessible through the final post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-elkins/are-artists-bored-by-thei_b_792913.html). In the last of the three, Elkins refers to “slow looking,” suggesting: “One way to pursue this subject is to ask how long it took the artist to make the work in the first place. If Rembrandt took a year to make a painting, then it might make sense to take a year to look at it.” I like Elkins’ idea of “slow looking.”

      It’s the reason that my wife and I collect, and the reason that I miss the pieces that we weren’t able to bring along. I used to wake up on Saturday mornings, walk downstairs, make my coffee, grab a book and sit next to Alfonse’s “Easter Sunflower” (http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtsharedexperience/6945973800/in/set-72157628593097639). I would watch as the shifting light played with the paint on the canvas, particularly the honeycomb in the bottom quarter of the painting. We have his Lumens #53 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/gtsharedexperience/7472648272/in/set-72157628593097639) here above our piano. It’s one of two pieces we brought with us to Scotland, and I often sit with it. Looking. Listening.

      I’ve said it a number of times before (i.e., before writing this series), but I’ll say it again: they’re like old friends, really.

      With reference to the boys, I wish I had posted a third picture, one of the boys showing off their hands on which Alfonse drew his trademark honeycombs, an ephemeral gift, one that they looked at until it washed away.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Chris, thanks for taking the time to think further about my question, and to respond so thoughtfully. I greatly appreciate the personal dimension that you draw out in this post, and I couldn’t agree more that if theologians are going to dialogue with the arts, then their engagement with the arts should be personal, on some level. I imagine that you would accept that this personal engagement need not always involve personally knowing the artist, or even owning a work of art. After all, for the vast majority of art work, this is simply impossible. Even still, it seems to me that your point has wider applicability, and it is a challenge to theologians who want to speak about art or “use” art to be regularly viewing (or reading, listening to, etc.) that artistic medium.

    When I originally wrote that question, I was responding to your phrase “the integrity of the artwork,” which you wrote in part 1. It did not occur to me then, and it only occurred to me just now, that we may have been talking about two different, but related, sorts of integrity. This post clearly seems to be more about the integrity (could one also say “responsibility”?) of how one uses art than it does about the idea that a work of art has its own kind of integrity.

    At any rate, I wanted to add that I think “the integrity of the artwork” means much more than the work’s relationship to the artist. This is what I meant by “expanded way of thinking about ‘integrity.\'” Your point about knowing the artist is a good one, but I would want to point out, as I did in the comment you quoted, that this is only one aspect of “the integrity of the artwork.” I think that a work of art has a “life of its own” and that respecting “the integrity of the artwork” means recognizing and exploring the various meanings it has in different contexts. For example, class, gender, culture, historical time period, etc, are significant contexts that shape the way one interprets (or “uses”) a work of art. To put this in the more “personal” terms that you use in the post, you could say that respecting “the integrity of the artwork” also includes getting to know some of the other ways that people interpret a work of art.

    I hope what I am saying makes sense, and I hope that I am understanding you rightly.

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Jim, thanks for continuing the conversation. To address your first question, no, I wouldn’t want to argue that a theologian’s engagement with the arts need not always involve personally owning art, or even knowing the artist, though I think one or both preferable. I had intended to mention that when we lived in Grand Rapids we were members of the Grand Rapids Art Museum as well as the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. We would visit both regularly, and I, of course, had my favorites, pieces that I would return to, here again, to look and listen. Since we’ve moved, I’ve missed my friends, and so I’ve added a book to my Christmas wish list: 100 Years, 100 Works of Art: Introduction to the Collection of the GRAM. All this to say that if a theologian isn’t able to own art or get to know artists they should, at the very least, commit to supporting and visiting their local museums, looking and listening along the lines that Elkins describes.

      Regarding your clarification, I think you’re right that integrity has been used in (at least) two senses, but this was quite intentional, and from the very beginning, thus the title of the series. My intention has been to argue that the integrity of using art is rooted in the integrity of the artwork. Put differently, use couched in uselessness, or redemption in creation. Like persons, artworks have integrity, and ought not be used (i.e., where use is abuse), but as Scruton reminded us, friends are certainly useful. This fourth post was meant to illustrate both points (i.e., with regard to friendship, and then, by extension, art).

      Regarding your final paragraph, I think that’s right, and I’m happy to accommodate an expanded notion of integrity. All this being said, and it hardly needs saying, my four posts were never intended to be a fully fledged theological aesthetics, and so there are bound to be things I’ve missed, left unsaid, neglected or even completely forgotten about. As you know, multiple volumes have been written trying to get to the bottom of these issues. What I wanted to do here was to respond to popular rejections of any talk of use. These sorts of rejections are common, but problematic. Clearly, abuses have taken place, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Moving from creation to redemption, I want to argue that arguing for uselessness apart from use, as some have, is akin to telling half the story, stopping at Genesis 2. We must press on, recognizing the many uses of art and the possibility of redemption, all the while maintaining our mooring in art as created good. Practically, this means spending lots of time with art, and as we both know, we could be occupied with this first bit for the rest of our lives, and perhaps that should be our focus, but always with an openness to use.

      It’s a delicate balance that requires multiple tensions to be held simultaneously, something that makes conversation difficult for we must keep the whole in mind, and this in both directions (i.e., from theoretical to practical as well as practical to theoretical) as we work through each bit. Am I making sense?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,481,907 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments