The Christian’s Responsibility For Art

The Christian’s Responsibilty For Art – Roberta Ahmanson

“I urge you to stand with our brothers and sisters, who for more than 2,000 years knew what to do on earth because they knew they were headed for heaven.”

The Church today often struggles to engage in and support the arts, but such has not always been the case. Historically, the Christian church appreciated the arts and took seriously the role they could play in displaying truth and beauty in culture. As a philanthropist and patron of fine art, Ahmanson helps cast a vision for how the church can reclaim its civic duty of arts patronage.

Video @ Q Ideas

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Liturgical invitation

A few weeks ago, I was reading for my Music Semiotics course and was blown away by the following combination of thoughts:

An invitation for the listener to identify with the action is a strategy of liturgical Passion settings.  The violin foreshadows an aria [“Erbarme Dich” in the St. Matthew Passion by Bach] in which an alto voice speaks repentantly in the first person, without further specification of his or her identity.  This persona is that of the listener, the believer who responds to the drama by identifying with it.  A Lutheran chorale, inserted after the aria, is placed to reinforce the movement from narrative to response, confirming Bach’s confessional intent. …Working within the framework of Lutheran theology, Bach makes Peter’s denial a universal symbol for acts of self-dislocation from God, representing his interpretative tradition by giving the alto a penitential prayer. …For a listener who is sympathetic with Bach’s theological framework, the aria can constitute an act of real or symbolic repentance.

(Naomi Cumming, “The Subjectivities of ‘Erbarme Dich,'” Music Analysis 16/i, 1997: 21, 36, 37)

As an evangelical Protestant, I have not grown up in a strongly liturgical tradition, although as a Presbyterian, I have perhaps encountered more liturgy than some. However, during my time at Houghton and in London, I developed a deeper love for liturgy in worship.  Speaking common words together in praise or prayer to God, especially words that connect you not only with those people in your time and place but with believers across space and through the history of the church – there is so much beauty and symbolism in this regarding a sense of the unity with the whole body of Christ.

What I was particularly struck by in this article (beyond the fact that it was a reading for class!) was the connection between the way the music was composed and its functional invitation to the worshipers who would watch and potentially participate in the drama.  Cumming points out that Bach’s use of “voice” in this work provides a connection between Peter’s expressive tears, the Evangelist who is narrating about them – and therefore participating in them via the expressivity of the music, and Jesus, whose words are merely quoted, yet come forward through time to speak to each participant in the drama.  When the vocal part stops and the violin introduction to the aria begins, the lack of a particular character, emphasized by an instrumental voice, and the long, expressive solo invites the listener to participate with the beautiful penitential prayer that the alto (who is not a character) sings.  And intriguingly, the chorale which follows is designed as a congregational song, and it is all about God’s grace!

Cumming argues that the construction of the piece itself invites the listener to participate with the singer in actively repenting… if that’s not an integration of faith with music, I’m not sure what is!

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,            Have mercy, my God,
um meiner Zähren willen!           for the sake of my tears!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge       See here, before you heart and eyes
weint vor dir bitterlich.                 weep bitterly.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott.            Have mercy, my God.

The Artist’s Role

As I was working on my reading for my history seminar on the music of East-Central Europe in the 20th century, I came across the following quote in the context of the influence of Eastern Orthodox spirituality on Arvo Pärt:

It is not enough for art simply to register the horror or re-enact the details of our fall.  In our aesthetic imagination we have become like wounded beings crawling among the remains of our broken civilization–which Ezra Pound early in the [20th] century described as ‘botched’–clutching perhaps a single token of beauty, a line or two of poetry, a Bach prelude, a white canvas, which must now symbolize everything…

Like an ancient monastic order, we carry within us the seeds of renewal–the grain of hope–which we plant again and again after each fresh disaster, digging ever deeper into the past to re-establish only what is essential, that which alone can endure across time.  In such times (and therefore at all times) the role of the artist is the preservation of spiritual values, a role which demands exploration and sacrifice, quite as much as conservation. ~ Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, OUP: 1997

In the context of the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries and the sometimes debilitating individualism of ‘post-modern’ culture, such a statement seems to reflect both the potentially dangerous preoccupations of contemporary art and music as well as the potentially healing power of hope if it were expressed among the ruins of our fallen state.   Perhaps Begbie’s and Seerveld’s call to incorporate redemption into artistic expression might be a more explicitly Christian call of this sort to spiritual responsibility in the arts.  In any case, these ideas are worth pondering, and to that end, any comments are welcome.

Music as “Hard, Bodily Work”

In his book Rainbows for the Fallen World, Calvin Seerveld draws attention to the possible misappropriation of the creative nature of God as the straightforward model of our creative nature (26).  While I’m not sure I agree with him that the relationship between God as Creator and man as creative is always so misleading that it over-spiritualizes and individualizes the nature of artistic activity, he brings up the excellent point that it may lead us to “overlook[] the limited, serviceable, craftsmanship character of artistic activity” (26).  He proceeds to explain that a healthy understanding of art recognizes it as hard work that can be a legitimate vocation that must be embedded both in a community of artists and in the community of saints.

Although many of the performers around me seem to find themselves most at ease in a community of musicians, it can be tempting to consider oneself an autonomous agent, acquiring skills for one’s own, individual creativity.  I think this temptation may be strongest for composers, who are trying to create something entirely new.  But Christian performers and composers (and theorists) should not spiritualize their creative “genius” as only coming as a gift from God and needing no additional development; we all need the training and sharpening feedback of a musical community.

Musicians know that what they do is very difficult.  We are no strangers to long, late hours of practice, rife with muscular, mental, and often emotional fatigue.  But the end result at many a given performance appears effortless, almost like magic.  It is thus tempting for many to imagine music as an otherworldly field only comprehensible to and attainable by a select few.

We struggle when we feel that the body of believers around us has this attitude, or does not understand the energy and richness of what we do – i.e. if they ask us to leave off the complicated “classical” stuff and play something a little more in tune with the times, or if they assume that music is something we should just do in our spare time or should only do in church, etc.  At these moments, we find ourselves tempted to emotionally separate ourselves, or at least our musical selves, from the church, only expecting to grow musically in a community of musicians.

Certainly, the church needs to support artists; they function in a critical capacity, redeeming the culture through hard work and God-given talent, pouring out blood, sweat and tears into yet imperfect work that still hopes to acknowledge the turmoiled, sinful world around it and redirect it to the joy and hope of God’s saving work (Seerveld, 34-41… more later).  But we, as artists, cannot abandon the church either.  As difficult as it can be, we need to find ways to embed our whole selves in the church, to ground our thinking, our practice, our art in the solidity of the word of God and in the fellowship of the body of Christ.  We need to reach out and in love show our brothers and sisters more of what we do and why.  It seems to me that it is worth it to explain some of the difficulty we experience and some of the joy and beauty we encounter in our “classical” repertoire… why we think it gives glory to God in specific and unique ways.  So let us not separate any part of ourselves from Christ’s body, and let us work hard.