The Integrity of Using Art, Part 2

2013-05-28 07.48.01
Swiss L’Abri, May 2013

In my last post, “The Integrity of Using Art, Part 1,” I suggested that when using art, affirming the integrity of the work is immensely important. While what we mean by “integrity” might need additional attention, and perhaps expansion, I wish to return to the question with which I ended: what underlies this assertion of integrity, and how are we to be assured that use does not become abuse?

In an effort to answer this question, I begin with William Desmond, Professor of Philosophy at KU Leuven, Belgium. He notes:

Modern aesthetics tends to be too much in the grip of an aestheticism that compartmentalizes art: in its excessive insistence that art is art, that art is for art’s sake, that art is resistant to any intrusion from what is other to art, post-Kantian aesthetics ends up divorcing art from its origin in the fundamental creative and tragic powers of human existence.  In elevating art into a false self-sufficiency, it ends up diminishing art’s metaphysical power. This power interests me.[1]

And here we find the beginnings of an answer to our question. What underlies this assertion of integrity? Not a false self-sufficiency (i.e., art for art’s sake), for as Desmond notes:

art cannot be the sanctus sanctorum in which the burden carried by religion, science and metaphysics can be sustained, and renewed. Art can be a carrier of transcendence, only if these others are themselves in robust spiritual shape…. 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.[2]

Like Desmond, I am interested in art’s metaphysical power as a carrier of transcendence, but what does this have to do with the integrity of using art?

For Desmond, conversations of metaphysics move along a “fourfold way,” from the univocal (which stresses sameness), to the equivocal (which stresses difference/diversity), to the dialectical (which stresses mediation of the different), and then, and this is Desmond’s unique contribution, to the metaxological (which stresses intermediation, i.e., the between).[3] Whereas the dialectical seeks determination, the metaxological recognizes “the overdetermined givenness of being.”[4] The metaxological is, according to Desmond, hyperbolic.

And this is where Desmond contributes to our conversation on the integrity of using art for while art is given it is also suggestive and excessive. It suggests transcendence, and not merely as metaphor, analogy, or symbol, but as hyperbole “from the ‘is’ that is immanent to the ‘above’ that is transcendent.”[5]

But what does all of this mean? As a given, created good, art has integrity, and as a hyperbolic, redemptive word, it exceeds its uselessness, pressing us beyond ourselves and the other into Desmond’s ‘between’ where the question of God is brought to mind. But givenness and excess are related, and this in much the same way as integrity and use. And so I would argue not only that we might use art with integrity, but that failure to do so goes against the very grain of reality.

In my next post I’ll say a bit more about what using art with integrity looks like, and this in conversation with C.S. Lewis, David Brown and Daniel A. Siedell. For the time being, suffice it to say that Desmond’s metaxological metaphysics underlies my previous assertion of integrity in Part 1 with respect to using art, and that Pattison’s “Art and Apologetics”[6] provides a cursory framework for conversation. Clearly there is more to be said. Bear with me.

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] William Desmond, The William Desmond Reader, ed. Christopher Ben Simpson (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012), 167.
[2] William Desmond, Art, Origins, Otherness: Between Philosophy and Art (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 289-290.
[3] Desmond, The William Desmond Reader, 3.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 121.
[6] George Pattison, “Art and Apologetics,” Modern Churchman, 32 no. 5 (1991).




  • 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.

More from Christopher R. Brewer
Review: Heavenly Participation
Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,...
Read More
Join the Conversation


  1. says: jfutral

    I’m still kind of unclear what you are looking to use art for. Apologetics? As the testimony to biblical/Christian derived data?

    Oddly enough (or not) I have come back around to your series via a talk I heard that Dan Siedell gave which was tweeted by Mako Fujimura, or maybe it was somone else at I-AM. I never gave Siedell much thought though I had heard of him and he was recommended by several people I know who also know my frustrations with Christians and art. By chance? luck? divine intervention? I came back to your series on Siedell. This became for me great back ground research for this series. So it seems that you are sort of still responding to Siedell or at least his notions in as much as others may (like myself) share them.

    As for your Desmond quote, while I agree that “Modern aesthetics tends to be too much in the grip of an aestheticism that compartmentalizes art:” I believe it does so under the Modern bifurcation of rational/irrational, emotion vs intellect, where thinkers like Kandinsky put art fully and authoritarianly (there’s probably a better word than this that I made up) in the irrational/emotion realm.

    So in as much as I understand “art cannot be the sanctus sanctorum in which the burden carried by religion, science and metaphysics can be sustained, and renewed.” I have to disagree. Scripture starts with a Creative God. I would pose that religion, science, and metaphysics are created by a creative God and did not exist until created. But then I think most theological thought on art is working backwards, trying to make art fit into some theological framework;thinking theologically about art instead of artfully about theology.

    Here is where we get to your articles on Siedell and your reference to Lyotard. If creativity comes first, trying to use the metanarrative to justify the creation is working backwards. It is also arrogance to believe we know enough of the “data” to believe we have enough of an understanding to create our own explanation of everything that art must fit within for it to be justified.

    From another perspective, art has to be self-sufficient. A work ultimately has to be able to stand on its own. As interesting and enlightening as it is to know the history of the work or the artist who created it, the work has to have its own integrity. Else the work of Vermeer (for example) would have no relevance today since we know so little of Vermeer or his his history, creative process, or influences. Even C. S. Lewis discusses how much we can deduce about the artist from his art and not just the art from the artist, that the artist puts some of himself in the work.

    I also go back to Scruton and his example of friendship to expand on that a bit from my own recent personal experiences. I was explaining to someone the difference between a personal friendship and a business friendship. A personal friend doesn’t care what you do. A business friend depends on what you do. Personal friends are useful, as you and Scruton note, but that is not why they are friends.

    So here we come back together in that art is useful, as Siedell I’m sure would have to agree. But that is not why we have art.

    So this goes to what I hope and look forward to in your next article, when do we cross the line from a useless friend/art being useful to using/abusing friends/art? I tend to think it is that moment we decide something is to be used, rather than seeking or asking for help.


    1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Joe, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that I understand your question(s), but I’ll do my best to unpack your comment, restating what I take to be your questions, and responding to each in turn.

      Your first question: What are you looking to use art for?

      In my first post, “The Integrity of Using Art, Part 1,” I cited George Pattison’s “Art and Apologetics.” Art and apologetics, then, are, for the purposes of this series, dialogue partners. I quoted Pattison to this effect in the comments to that first post, the central point being that the dialogue should be a two-way dialogue in which we don’t impose pre-determined answers. “Use” is, admittedly, a slippery word, one that I’m doing my best to nuance. That said, I’ve used “use” in several different ways throughout my posts, and so, here at least, I think it best to think more in terms of two-way dialogue, particularly if “use” is, for you, problematic (i.e., for personal reasons).

      Your second question: Am I still responding to Siedell?

      No, at least not directly. I mention Siedell because I’ve discussed some of these ideas previously in a series critiquing Siedell’s views. Siedell had indicated that he might respond to my series more sufficiently (, but I’ve yet to see that response. In any case, references to Siedell in this series are typically in relation to dialogue with other thinkers, Siedell being a more recent proponent of this or that argument.

      Your observation regarding the first quotation from Desmond:

      I’m not sure that I follow this bit, but it seems as though we’re in agreement with regard to the quote in question, and so I’ll move on to your next observation.

      Your observation regarding the second quotation from Desmond:

      Your objections seem to be talking past Desmond. Desmond is responding to those who would argue that we are post-metaphysical. For Desmond, metaphysical perplexity persists. Here, Desmond is working against the general philosophical consensus. That said, he backs up his claim by suggesting that “concern with origin has migrated to art.” (Desmond, Art, Origins, Otherness, 3.) In other words, we’re not post-metaphysical. We’re still concerned with the metaphysical, but whereas the conversation would have once been taking place in the realm of theology, philosophy or science, it’s now taking place in dialogue with art. The issue with this is that “it seems to be without metaphysical presupposition or religious commitment.” (Ibid.) And yet, these “surrogate forms of the religious … are shot through with unnamed metaphysical presuppositions.” (Ibid.) And this is where the quotation comes in. Desmond wants to say that art cannot deliver the goods of transcendence apart from the religious. Art cannot be a substitute religion. If you want to see an example of the sort of thing that Desmond is critiquing, see my review of Jeffrey L. Kosky’s Arts of Wonder ( in which I quote Desmond. Regarding the second bit of your observation about theological thought on art working backwards I would again want to emphasize the two-way nature of the dialogue. Surely abuses have taken place, and this on both sides. Too many theologians/philosophers/pastors/etc. use and abuse art, and too many artists use and abuse theology/philosophy/the Church/etc. Behavior of this sort is completely unacceptable, but the answer isn’t to put art behind protective glass so as to keep the dirty hands of theology/philosophy/the Church/etc. off, but to restore some notion of proper use (i.e., the integrity os using art).

      Regarding your observation on Siedell/Lyotard:

      This, it seems, refers to my previous post (, a post in which I’ve already responded to these objections. I’ve nowhere argued that “art must fit within” some grid to be justified. In fact, I’ve argued just the opposite. Art is given as created good and requires no justification besides its justification as gift. That said, to stop here is to ignore the rest of the Story. Here again, I’ve addressed this previously in the aforementioned post and so I won’t repeat the argument.

      Regarding your observation on the integrity of the artwork:

      I would, more or less, agree that the object has integrity apart from that which it represents, etc. That said, the artist, the history of the work, etc. can provide additional detail. For an example of this in action, see my post on Jonathan Borofsky ( In that post I did my very best to listen, allowing the work to speak for itself, and this in terms of the work itself as well as its various contexts.

      Regarding your observation on Scruton:

      I’m not sure that I follow your logic, but stand by the plain reading of the quotation from Scruton. Friendship absolutely works in the manner he describes, and so too art.

      Regarding your final comment:

      I hope to bring this around in the next post or two. That’s not to say that everyone will agree with my position. Nevertheless, I trust that the way in which I’ve framed the discussion might lead to a more helpful, and informed, conversation.

      Thanks again for your comments. I trust that I’ve represented your questions/observations fairly, and responded to them adequately. Cheers, CB

      1. says: jfutral

        Thanks for taking the time to respond. It is certainly appreciated and I think you understood most of my observations fairly. Not all my points were questions per se, just sort of following a through-line in your articles. There are only a few points of clarification.

        I apologize. I did not mean to imply that you have “argued that ‘art must fit within’ some grid to be justified.” I was referencing that previous article of yours and how others think about “use” and interpretation (as it is difficult to separate the two). I was hoping to show that you three (you, Siedell, and Lyotard) agree probably more than you think.

        I don’t think I was talking past Desmond. I was directly addressing this (at first inferred) suggestion that “Art cannot be a substitute religion.” This is a prime example of theology thinking backward. Religion _is_ art. Religion, science, even the metaphysical are created good, God’s art, God’s expression of himself. Theology begins with creation. Here, Desmond is as guilty of compartmentalizing art as he criticizes.

        I agree “the answer isn’t to put art behind protective glass so as to keep the dirty hands of theology/philosophy/the Church/etc. off”. We cannot keep our hands off because we are in the midst of art, the throes of it when we practice religion, study science, ponder the metaphysical. It is inescapable. So in that sense to use art seems to me like discussing how we can use air.

        I appreciate what you have to say. That it stimulates my own thoughts and ideas and urges me to interact seems to me a good thing. If it did not, I would pass on by, at most, saying “Oh look. Another Christian talking about art. Good luck with that.”

        Looking forward to reading more,

        1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

          Joe, thanks again for your comment, and I certainly welcome the feedback … and the encouragement. Cheers, CB

Leave a comment
Leave a comment

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

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,544,209 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments