The Integrity of Using Art, Part 3

2013-04-04 10.38.17
East Sands, St Andrews

In “The Integrity of Using Art, Part 1” I suggested that when using art, affirming the integrity of the work is immensely important. Then, in “The Integrity of Using Art, Part 2,” I went on to argue not only that we might use art with integrity, but that failure to do so goes against the very grain of reality.

That said, we must be careful for it’s all too easy for abuse to masquerade as use. We’ve all seen this before, and I suspect that many of my readers are nervous with all this talk of ‘use’ which to their minds can result in nothing but abuse. But we do well to remember that the enemy here is not use, but abuse characterized by impatience and a failure to receive.

Regarding the latter, C.S. Lewis has noted:

The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.[1]

We’ll return to Lewis, but for the time being suffice it to say that we need to receive, and that means looking and listening. More recently, David Brown has noted: “Culture needs to return as a Christian concern, but one where as much time is spent listening as in trying to contribute.”[2] And even more recently, Daniel A. Siedell has commented:

What the world does need, and needs desperately, are Christians who embrace our freedom in Christ to such a degree that we can listen to and participate in the art and culture that is at hand. What the world needs are fewer makers, doers, and theorizers and more receivers.[3]

I think that Siedell is right in emphasizing, with Lewis and Brown, the necessity of receiving. That said, I wouldn’t want to put receivers in opposition to the rest for receiving properly might very well lead to making, doing and theorizing. The issue has less to do with not using, and more to do with not using in a particular fashion. As Lewis has noted:

The real objection to that way of enjoying pictures [i.e., using] is that you never get beyond yourself. The picture, so used, can call out of you only what is already there. You do not cross the frontier into that new region which the pictorial art as such has added to the world.[4]

Lewis’ notion of receiving, then, is one in which “we exert our senses and powers according to a pattern invented by the artist” instead of “treat[ing] it [i.e., the work of art] as assistance for our own activities.”[5] Fleshing this out a bit, Brown explains:

“A constant temptation among Christians when looking at art or music is to view their role, when legitimate, as at most illustrative, confirming or deepening faith but never challenging or subverting it. It is therefore hardly surprising that there is so much bad Christian art and music around, if even the more informed among us want to keep their influence in a safe pair of Christian hands, such as Rembrandt or Rouault in art, Bach or Bruckner in music. The more liberal minded, in spreading the net more widely, may believe themselves immune from such criticism, but often the same fault is still there: art seen as merely illustrative of what is already believed on other grounds.”[6]

Brown concludes: “Art and music need to be viewed and heard and valued in their own right.”[7] And so where does this leave us? What if, instead of caving to modern aesthetics which insists on the false self-sufficiency of art for art’s sake, we insist that art points beyond itself, but that we must first look, listen and receive. In so doing, we might just find ourselves in William Desmond’s previously mentioned “between,” the terminus of the “fourfold way,” a border that begs the question of transcendence.

We certainly need receivers, but we also need receivers who, having received, interpret. This is the integrity of using art. I refuse to accept that “[i]n the hands of interpretation, art becomes, at best, merely the visual illustration of an idea best expressed through other means.”[8] That it might be so is certainly the case, but to say that it must be so goes against the grain of reality and denies the possibility of redemption.

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] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 19.
[2] David, Brown, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience, 2-3.
[3] Daniel A. Siedell, “Free to Receive.” 
[4] Lewis, 21-22.
[5] Ibid., 88.
[6] David Brown, “The Glory of God Revealed in Art and Music: Learning From Pagans,” in Celebrating Creation, ed. M. Chapan (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004), 44-45.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Daniel A. Siedell, “Art and Explanation,” cf. “A Response to Siedell’s ‘Art and Explanation.'”


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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  1. says: Joshua Genig


    Thanks for the wonderful post! I think you’ve highlighted some things which need tending among us.

    I wonder, however, after pondering what you’ve written above: How does your view correspond with the Eastern Orthodox view of, say, icons?

    As I understand it, icons for the East are not unlike relics. They are windows to another reality, yes, but they also convey the energy of the essence of the one they depict.

    I wonder if this idea has any connection to your thoughts above.



    1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Josh, thanks for this. There are certainly those who, as you likely know, have made just this sort of case, Siedell among them (see his God in the Gallery). That said, I’m not so sure that a theology of the icon should be extended to the whole of art. And to clarify, that’s certainly not what Desmond means to say. I’d need a bit more space to unpack what he does mean to say (i.e., in distinction to a theology of the icon). Perhaps I’ll write one more post in the series in an attempt to do so. Here again, you’re likely already aware of the resource, but for a brief introduction to issues related to art and faith, and icons in particular, see George Pattison’s Art, Modernity and Faith, 118ff. Cheers, CB

  2. says: jfutral

    “What if, instead of caving to modern aesthetics which insists on the false self-sufficiency of art for art’s sake, we insist that art points beyond itself,”

    Speaking of interpretation, I think this is a mis-interpretation of art for art’s sake, at least as the Modern artists view art. When you study the likes of Rothko, Kandinsky, and other modern artists, even Picasso, I think you find a philosophy that insists that it is not complete until the viewer participates. I remember reading something similar from Lewis, where he talks about the power of the viewer to interpret art in ways that can take something innocent and give it a vulgar twist. As such there is a certain intrinsic pointing beyond itself, necessitated by the artist’s own intent.

    Ironically, the artist will not impose their own interpretation, an act which seems to enforce the perception of an art _beyond_ interpretation. It is hard to separate the gallery marketing of the notion of “genius” as a solitary inwardly focused artist from how the art they create actually presents. But, Jose Limon once said (as I am sure other choreographers have said, too), “If words were adequate to describe fully what the dance can do, there would be no reason for all the mighty muscular effort, the discomfort, the sweat, and the splendors of that art. For it has always existed to give us that which nothing else can.” This is not about avoiding interpretation. This is about the viewer developing their own interpretation based on their own receiving of the work, not spoon fed.

    The potential problem with interpretation, as I believe Siedell is expressing, is two fold. First it is usually wrapped up with the need to understand and quantify. As Picasso once said “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand.”

    The second is imposing one’s interpretation as the only viable interpretation. Like the (I am sure) well meaning Christians who want to expose the evil in rock music, or who insist Harry Potter is about promoting witch craft and proselytize Satan worship.

    This does not preclude a transcendent understanding, but even as scripture talks about creation bearing witness to God, it is also true that this “use” is not their only or even most important attribute.

    While I appreciate your approach to “use” and its integrity/validity, I also appreciate your careful attention in avoiding abuse at the same time. Maybe if you also illustrated how use and abuse compare and contrast. I would say just about anyone who might be guilty of abusing art likely does not believe they are doing as such. And as much as I appreciate Schaeffer and Rookmaaker for sort of giving me permission to be an artist, I also find them bordering on abuse of interpretation in much of their critique of Modern (post-war) art.

    Great series. Really has me thinking.


  3. says: Christopher R. Brewer

    Joe, thanks again for engaging the conversation. Regarding your first objection, that my discussion of art for art’s sake is a misinterpretation, it should be noted that I’m following Desmond who objects to this idea that art can replace religion, science, metaphysics, etc. I quoted him to this effect, twice actually, in Part 2. And so it might be helpful to revisit those sections to get a better sense of what I mean when I say “instead of caving to modern aesthetics … we insist that art points beyond itself.” What I mean to say is that I’m not commenting on subject/object (i.e., viewer/artwork) here so much as a modern aesthetic that would compartmentalize art, cutting it off from religion, etc. as if it were a self-sufficient carrier of meaning, a carrier that, left to itself, might deliver the goods, so to speak. Art, left to itself, can’t deliver the goods. As Desmond puts it: “Art is not the remnant that will save the rest. The impossible burden of transcendence is God. Without the religious, we collapse under the burden.” (quoted in Part 2)

    Regarding the so-called problem of interpretation, the desire to plug things into a familiar framework rather than to allow things to challenge or subvert that framework is certainly a challenge, but the point, it seems, isn’t that we should proclaim art’s self-sufficiency, but instead, that we should learn to receive and yes, interpret it. But, and this is a huge but, we must listen and allow the artist, or better yet the artwork, to guide us, so that we might, as Lewis said, get beyond ourselves. And regarding one vs. many interpretations, I certainly don’t mean to say that there’s only one interpretation or that the artist’s interpretation is the only, or even the primary, interpretation. Pattison speaks to this (i.e., pluralism) in his “Art and Apologetics,” something I mentioned in Part 1, and I’m with Pattison on this.

    I don’t think we’re that far apart on this, and hope that the above clarifies my meaning.

    One additional note, your suggestion that I might illustrate the difference between use and abuse is a good one, one that I will do my best to address in a future post. Thanks again, CB

  4. says: Jfutral

    So then the question becomes, is Desmond critiquing birds or ornithology? I say he, and by extension however his views are influencing your position, is critiquing ornithology. And that likely more his understanding of ornithology. I don’t see how any art made with honesty and imbued with any significance, not just by the marketing gallery, but intrinsic to the work, and both implied by the artist and inferred by the observer, does not point beyond itself. How would any being created in the image of a creative Creator, do otherwise? The lines we draw are in our own imaginations.

    Schaeffer lamented Giacometti’s “emmaciated” figures and insisted the artist’s world view was all that mattered in interpretation. He only wanted to see the work from the artist’s point of view. I look at his figures and feel those moments in my own life. I see the beauty that resides where others see only torture and death and ugliness. Whatever the artist’s world view, I find a kindred spirit with whom I can weep and rejoice.

    In critiquing the _notion_ of an art that can _supposedly_ exist without pointing beyond itself and self sustain, let’s not fall in the same trap in reverse. Religion without art does not exist.

    I’d rather enjoy the birds, I guess.


    1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Joe, I’m not sure that I follow the conversation (dare I say it’s for the birds?).

      Regarding Desmond, I’d say read him. Perhaps I’m failing to do him justice, though I think my reading is fair and fairly straightforward. That these lines are, as you say, drawn in our imagination is, I think, the case. And that’s the case that Demond, speaking generally here, is making, but that’s just it, it’s a case he has to make (i.e., over and against the history of modern aesthetics). His Art, Origins, Otherness would be the best place to start. That book was, by the way (and this seems important to note), recommended to me ( by Dan Siedell. After that, you might read the first chapter of his Being and the Between, though the first book lays it out pretty well.

      Regarding Giacometti, I couldn’t agree more. I enjoyed seeing a stash of his work at the Pompidou in Paris several weeks ago, particularly his figure walking in a train car-like box.

      Finally, regarding your comment that “religion without art does not exist,” that would need a bit of unpacking, and unfortunately, doing so would take me and this conversation a bit too far afield. That said, I’m not arguing for/against that thesis. My argument, and Desmond’s, is that art isn’t self-sufficient, but now I fear I’m repeating myself.

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