So I’ve been thinking a lot about the purposes of art lately, considering what it can and cannot do. For years I have gravitated towards creative writing, theatre, film, dance, and a variety of artistic enterprises in much the same way that ivy crawls across a wall. The connection to art comes so natural, that I respond almost unthinkingly, presupposing its intrinsic richness and worth. Reflection upon the subject has taught me that we are inevitably a story-telling people, who seek meaning in the creative and perpetual re-telling of our lives. And for those who have suffered inexplicable tragedy or the hidden burdens of mental illness, art is the most obvious consoler. It may not resolve the riddle of suffering, but it does speak to the heart of it; art names the complexities of human experience with the exquisite stroke of a brush, the rhyme of a verse, or the arc of a body in full expression. It does not answer every question, and therefore avoids the false trapping of providing fixed solutions where there may be none. Its technically disciplined, emotionally unrestrained rendering of our lives may be just the companion, not the explanation, we most desire.
And yet, beyond its abilities to assuage and console, art has been employed as a goad to prod social action and reform. In his article, “What Art Can and Can’t Do,” writer Philip Yancey laments how slow society can be to hear the prophetic witness that art offers. He cites Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who while recognized for his own work, reminds us of “his colleagues who died unknown in the gulag, their works taken to the grave with them” (The Best Spiritual Writing, ed. Philip Zaleski). Governments and churches may endorse artists, but they also have a track record of censoring, limiting and dictating the subject and message expressed.
Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, claimed that in order for a work of art to be considered religious, it need not be explicitly themed so. In other words, a biblical scene or gilded halo was not the litmus test for religious art. Rather, Tillich argued that what made a work “religious” was the degree to which it touched upon deep existential concerns within the human condition.
And yet, my hunch is that despite Tillich’s influence, unless the performance or composition is overtly religious we are not accustomed to granting it that cachet. We may call a movie inspiring or meaningful, but do we acknowledge its substantive religious qualities? Or do we insist on keeping separate boxes for religion and culture?
In a recent blog entry for IMAGE journal, Tony Woodlief, comments upon this disconnect in reverse. He explains how contrived, inauthentic and overly sentimental Christian movies can be, particularly when their singular focus is to tell a “wholesome” story. “That word,” Woodlief says, “applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.” We are spoon-fed a kitschy faith that glosses over our painful, messy lives in order that an account of the faith may read more like a marketable Christian formula than a stripped confession. When religion is reduced to these utilitarian means (conversion, unflinching devotion, cure-alls and solutions) it becomes magic. And when art is subjected to a similar contortionist act, prohibited from speaking of the profanities that dot and streak our world, it is no longer art, but propaganda. It is no longer at the service of truth, but enslaved to a political agenda paranoid of dissent and the lose of control.
When asked by a group of Jesuits how to inspire vocations, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (former superior general), responded, “Live your own joyfully!” It would seem the real challenge is not conversion, apologetics, or staging a missionary-style intervention, but actually living and openly beholding the mysteries of the spiritual life as they unfurl. Our lives should speak for themselves and for the divine drama conspiring within them. That might mean that some questions go unanswered. Some critical tensions may not immediately resolve. Assumptions may shatter and the seemingly unmovable bulwarks of faith may tremble. But in beholding these cosmic shifts of understanding and bearing them freely before one another, a new song emerges, which is what we call art (and really good theology).