An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Seerveld on the artist

Art is one way for men and women to respond to the Lord's command to cultivate the earth, to praise his Name. Art is neither more nor less than that.

Art, christianly conceived, is not something esoteric. Art is no more special (nor less special) than marriage and prayer and fresh strawberries out of season. Like acrobatics and careful thought and running a business well, artistry takes training. It is more difficult than falling off a log. To sing with modulated tones, controlled breathing, and fine phrasing, or to take shopworm words and cast them into the necklace of a sonnet form and make them fresh again, or to walk across a stage and slump on the ground in such a way that every eye is struck by the despair cursing the person: all that takes special gifts and knowledge of execution. But art is not, therefore, suddenly mysterious or supernatural.

When Shakespeare lumps lunatic, lover and poet into the same hopper, he has a long tradition behind him.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, V, i)
This poetic definition of poetry and poetic "genius" is justly famous, but in christian fact it misses the mark. Poets are not sorcerers; musicians are not progeny of the legendary Orpheus and his "divine" song. Artistic composition and performance is simply and thoroughly human, no matter how unusual it may seem to the workaday beholder.

There are no biblical grounds either for the usual talk about artistic "creation." Comparisons between God as capital A Creator Artist and man as small, image-of-God creator artist are only speculative and misleading. To turn analysis of "what now is human artistic activity?" into a theological discussion on the unique "creativity" of God is no help at all in determining the nature and place of art on the earth.

Such a would-be christian approach is often caught in the age-old trap of analogia entis. Once you work in that problematics you have to be a scholastic casuist to escape the heresy of mysticism, deism or a covert blasphemy. Man is not God's image, a finite parallel to an infinite Perfection. Only Christ is a spitting image of God. The fact that man is made in the image of God means that men and women carry inescapably around with them a restless sense of allegiance to- And this structural, worshipping restlessness remains to plague man until he finally, as Augustine puts it, is rested with commitment in the true Creator. But imago Dei and "creation" obfuscate understanding art because it looks too hard, and overlooks the limited, serviceable, craftsmanship character of artistic activity.

And it does not help to personalize the misconception as we are apt to do. If we think artists by profession are "creators," while mothers just have babies, we may be caught, unwittingly, in simply adapting, lightly christianized, the old nineteenth century idolatry of the artistic person as autonomous genius. The conception of artist as "creator," something like a superstar next to ordinary mortals, will not be free from the evil Romanticism that tends to elevate a given artist out of the bonds of community. And truly God-praising artistry can flourish only when the artist is deeply embedded both in an artistic community and in the wider, societal communion of sinning saints.

It is not wise to perpetuate the myth of artist as "creator," for it puts an unlawful burden on the back of any serious, young Christian who wants to be an artist. The "creator" analogy also is bound to make dubious (rightly so!) the many people of God who are faithful servants and stewards at work culturally, but don't make it to the first-class "creator" status.

Calvin Seerveld Rainbows for the Fallen World (Stride: Exeter, 1980, 1988)

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