In such things as politics, finance, sociology, and so on, there really is a philosophy and a Christian tradition; we do know more or less what the Church has said and thought about them, how they are related to Christian dogma, and what they are supposed to do in a Christian country. But oddly enough, we have no Christian aesthetic—no Christian philosophy of the Arts. She has, of course, from time to time puritanically denounced the Arts as irreligious and mischievous, or tried to exploit the Arts as a means to the teaching of religion and morals…. And there have, of course, been plenty of writers on aesthetics who happened to be Christians, but they seldom made any consistent attempt to relate their aesthetic to the central Christian dogmas. Or better, it represents an attempt to articulate how I as a Christian see art and the aesthetic dimension of reality. For I find that my thoughts about art and the aesthetic do not arise independently of my Christian convictions.
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In college I studied music theory and then went on to work as a musician. It is painful when I come across the notes for these talks now. My twenty-two-year-old self would have been offended by this assessment. I had a degree in music, after all, and had played music all my life. But this involvement had only intensified rather than corrected my misconceptions about art.
Wolterstorff was for many years professor of philosophy at Calvin College and then, until his retirement, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale. His book is rich with Christian wisdom and theological insight.
Our culture of high art, for instance, portrays the artist as an innovator. The Great Artist pushes back boundaries and breaks new ground. But, Wolterstorff points out, other times and cultures have thought of the artist primarily as someone immersed in a tradition , someone who preserves and develops what has been received from the past. Yes, says Wolterstorff, but there is also an important sense in which the artist is to be responsive , and this is something our culture has largely overlooked.
Our culture of fine art has often conceived of the artist as an iconoclast. He shocks and challenges, he overturns conventional ways of thinking. He may at first be unappreciated, but the true artist is unconcerned with the opinions of the general public.
He must follow his art and his own creative vision. Perhaps, Wolterstorff responds. The artist is a responsible servant. Most importantly, in the modern era our culture has increasingly thought of art and beauty—which for centuries served to enrich and enable ordinary life—as something altogether set apart from ordinary life.
We think of art as something that lives in museums, concert halls, and theaters—purpose-built structures specially designated for aesthetic contemplation. Artistically man acts. Song and dance and story are universally and paradigmatically human activities. Moreover, God has made human beings for shalom , for delight.
And so a world in which beauty has been cordoned off into museums, in which the look and sound of things is the unique concern of professional critics—this is an impoverished world.
Cultivating a world made delightful by art and beauty is in fact part of our calling as human beings and as Christians. If we hope to think in a Christian way about the arts, we must know not only something about what Christianity is but also something about what the arts are. Art in Action is such an important resource because of the way it educates us in both of those areas.
It is a book that requires your full attention, and in some places a bit of work. But it is also a book that is worth your full attention and will repay whatever time and effort you invest in reading it. You must be logged in to post a comment. Please prayerfully consider becoming a partner with us today by giving a financial gift in support of the StoneWorks vision, that will also enable us to continue to provide these web-based resources for artists without charge.
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Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic
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This work is a simplification of his more academic treatise, Works and Worlds of Art. Even so, the ideas about art Wolterstorff tackles require a modicum of familiarity with terminology and discourse on the subject in providing a Christian alternative to modernist aesthetics. Wolterstorff attempts to address what he sees as a critical problem in thought about art, namely, an aestheticism that understands the consumption of art as a passive contemplative experience. He views this perspective as a result of modernism, which saw art as a way to save mankind from mere rationality. Relegating the experience of art to one of mere contemplation, Wolterstorff argues, divorces art from the rest of life, elevates the artist above the rest of humanity, and promotes an aestheticism without true responsibility. Wolterstorff begins his argument by illustrating the various ways art serves action in the real world, thus disproving an exclusive purpose of disinterested contemplation.