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.


Christmas and the Arts

Bartolome Murillo – The Adoration of the Shepherds (from Wikipedia Commons – image in public domain because its copyright has expired)

During the Christmas season, Reformed Christians enjoy the beauty of the arts more than any other time of year. They decorate their homes with artistic wreaths, creative decorations, fragrant greenery, and nativity sets. They listen to Handel’s Messiah and tap their toes to its rousing Hallelujah Chorus. Many use their God-given talents to craft attractive gifts.

The primary way Reformed Christians celebrate Christmas is in worship. They gather with other believers to praise and pray, but especially to hear the gospel proclamation of the incarnation, the mystery and beauty of God who became a man.

Worship is one thing Reformed Christians do very well. They also do church music well. Many familiar hymns are arrangements of great classical music, and much choir music weaves beautiful melodies with biblical words. While Christmas anthems fill our ears with aesthetic tunes, they thrill our hearts with inspiring truths.

Reformed Christians do many things well. But we—and evangelical Christians in general—sometimes lack experience in fostering appreciation for fine poetry, excellent literature, or engaging art. Frankly, believers from high church traditions often have a more comprehensive understanding of the arts. But shouldn’t a biblical believer acknowledge God’s sovereignty over every area of life, including the fine arts?

At Christmas, we easily integrate our faith with beauty. In coming issues, the Lord willing, we’ll explore more about embracing artistic endeavors and the Christian artist’s responsibility to produce art that is true, lovely, admirable, or excellent. All to the glory of God, who became a man in the greatest revelation of beauty and mystery.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 54 of the December 11, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.

Watering Image

Art. Faith. Mystery. IMAGE explores the intersection of those fundamental concepts in ways that stretch imagination, foster creativity, and promote community.

Each issue of the IMAGE journal contains poetry, fiction, visual art, and interviews with artists. Publisher and editor Gregory Wolfe and the rest of the IMAGE folks host the popular Glen Workshop each year in East and West locations.

In fact, it’s not too late to register for Glen West, July 28-August 4 in Santa Fe, NM. The registration link in the previous sentence is still open. If you’ve ever considered attending the Glen Workshop, this might be your year. This might also be a good time to subscribe or donate to IMAGE.

You see, IMAGE needs a little financial help from its friends right now. Gregory Wolfe posted this (with the above IMAGE tree graphic) on Facebook on June 24:

Friends, we need your help. We only ask for financial support twice a year and, for reasons I’m not at liberty to discuss right now (because it pertains to a company we work with that is refusing to pay us), the need is real and urgent. Won’t you help keep the shade tree that is IMAGE watered? It’s hot and parched out there.
He concluded his post with the link for donations.

Yesterday I received a letter from IMAGE that explains the situation more fully, which I won’t get into since it involves legal matters, but I feel very comfortable asking readers to consider supporting IMAGE at this crucial time.

Please help water the IMAGE tree so Christians in all the arts can continue to shelter in its shade.

The two-edged sword of promotion

On this wonderful Wednesday, I’m wondering about promotion, which is a two-edged sword for the Christian who writes. One side of the blade cuts with the necessity of self-promotion, while the other side slices with the desire for kingdom promotion.

I write to glorify God. When I begin thinking about my name on the cover of a book, I try to resist the siren desire for personal fame and remember that it’s all about glorifying God’s name.

Because that’s my basic philosophy, I’ve resisted securing an agent. There may be a time when I feel called to do that, but for now I attempt to rest in God’s sovereignty.

God is my agent. But the reality is that if the things I believe God calls me to write are to be published, sold, and read by anyone, I must actively market them myself. Too few Christians, especially in Reformed circles, support and promote fellow believers who are authors, poets, and artists—even those whose work they admire.

Few things scream “Self-promotion” as much as book proposals. Essentially, a book proposal requires selling yourself and your book idea. And if that sounds a bit like prostitution, it may because a few vague similarities exist.

Writing involves vulnerability. One peels away layers of protection and exposes private thoughts to the harsh gaze of critics.

I’d hoped to submit three book proposals before the end of October, but that appears increasingly impossible as November 1 looms. I’d appreciate prayer if the Lord brings me to your mind over the next few weeks.

What is your view of book proposals? How do you view the division between self-promotion and kingdom promotion? What kinds of things do you do to promote your work in Christ’s kingdom?