Wolterstorff’s expanded view on the arts: Practical activity, meaningful memory, and intrinsic worth

Dr. Wolterstorff, image found at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture page of the University of Virginia website.

In 1987, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote Art in Action, promoting practical application of art in contrast to the prevailing view of purely aesthetic contemplation. Rather than keeping art cloistered within the walls of elitist museums and exclusive galleries, Wolterstorff advocated putting art into action to elevate urban areas and ennoble private homes.

The book caused some controversy, but it also fueled the creative fires of artists who strive to enrich human lives and glorify the divine. It became such a seminal work that the International Arts Movement (IAM) chose “Art in Action” as the title for its 2009 conference, at which Wolterstorff was invited to speak.

A video of that speech is available on IAM’s website. It was fascinating to hear Wolterstorff express his views on the subject more than twenty years after the publication of his book.

While acknowledging existing criticism of the book, he said he still stands by his original premise about the need to live and act artistically. He revealed he’s had some new thoughts since writing the book, especially two additional ways he thinks about art.

Wolterstorff reiterated his belief that “an enormous amount of art” ennobles or elevates work or common experiences, making them less painful or boring. “How impoverished our lives would be if they weren’t ennobled in this way!”

He then related how two epiphanies have expanded his view. The first related to memorial art, and he cited the example of people viewing the Vietnam Memorial. “Aesthetical contemplation is not the point.” He described their active participation. “They descend into this gash in the earth. They touch the wall. They cry.”

He remarked how this participatory experience contrasts with museums’ usual rule: Don’t touch.

“Philosophers have had nothing to say about memorial art,” he admitted. He sees it as art created for “the effect of keeping alive memory.”

Wolterstorff believes memorial art is more than effectiveness. It also reflects an “intuitive sense that only art befits the worth of the person or event remembered.”

In connection with memorial art, he spoke about how great artists honored the birth and crucifixion of Christ. He also related how he and his wife had commissioned a requiem in honor of his son’s death in a mountain-climbing accident. (Their personal grief is recounted vividly in his Lament for a Son.)

Wolterstorff’s second epiphany occurred when he attended a poet reading and workshop. The poet often illustrated points by showing earlier versions and final drafts, explaining his changes by saying simply, “Because that made it a better poem.”

What struck Wolterstorff was that the poet didn’t say, “Because I liked it better” or “Because I thought it would give my readers greater aesthetic pleasure.”

This generated a revelation about art as something of intrinsic worth, a good thing of its kind.

“That’s what I and all my fellow philosophers, I think, had been overlooking,” he said. “And that’s why my critics felt uneasy with Art in Action. Yes, art ennobles what we do. I shall continue to defend that thesis with vigor. Yes, sometimes only art befits the worth of what we want to accomplish. And I shall continue to defend that thesis with vigor.”

“But what also happens in the arts, I submit, is that the artist produces a painting, a sculpture, a work of music, a poem, a play, a dance that is of intrinsic worth. Not just something of instrumental worth, of intrinsic worth. Something that increases the world’s stock of what is intrinsically good.”

“Engaging art differs from the other kind of art I’m talking about,” he said. “It does not accomplish something. It does not have worth because it gives delight upon attending to it; it’s the other way around. The worth and delight of attending to it lies in the fact that, doing this, we’re putting ourselves in touch with something of intrinsic worth.”

“The appropriate response to the gift is love,” he said. “One form being drawn to something on account of its worth, of relishing in it, reveling in it. That’s the form of love Augustine thought we ought to have for God.”

Wolterstorff offered three concluding comments:

1. “I find it nothing short of astonishing that intrinsically good paintings, sculptures, poems, dances and so forth, should be so incredibly diverse.”

2. “God as Creator makes things of intrinsic worth…you and me, tigers, hawks, butterflies…so the artist in creating things of intrinsic worth is like unto God. Artistic creation is one aspect of bearing the image of God.” At this point, he warned about the danger of idolatry, which some artists have succumbed to.

3. “I think we have to see these creations of intrinsic worth as radiations of God’s good, sort of the rays coming out from God, as it were.”

“Humanity longs to be part of a great story, but it needs great storytellers to point the way,” he said. “Humanity needs artists, and yes, artists need humanity.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 42 & 43 of the March 5, 2014, issue of Christian Renewal.

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