Dear Refraction Readers:
For the upcoming International Arts Conference’s 15th year anniversary conference, “Artist as Reconcilers,” I am preparing the following series of essays about art called “A.R.T.: Awareness, Reconciliation and Transformation”. Here is my introduction section. The whole content of “A.R.T.” will be initially be available to IAM members only, so if you are interested please join IAM membership ($40 annual) via http://www.iamny.org (go to the conference section).
I will continue with my Refraction essays, free for all, again in March.
What is A.R.T.?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Little Gidding, The Four Quartets
About A.R.T. (Awareness, Reconciliation and Transformation)
I write this in order to encourage artists and to help facilitators of the arts understand their role in cultural stewardship. While About A.R.T. is an effort to broadly describe what Art is, it is not by any means a complete definition. I am drawing upon my own experience as an artist and what I find myself teaching to others. I do believe that these principles are helpful to understand the role of creativity in our lives, and to contextualize our creative activities in society. I am ultimately interested in a dialogue that move toward a stewardship of creative gifts, and how we may as a society see artistic roles, and creativity in general.
I also write here to begin a dialogue among church leaders and Christians who desire to understand the arts. While this dialogue is not directed only to a Christian audience, I do speak and write as one, with all of the worldview assumptions attached to that pre-supposition. I make this premise because in all of the recent effort to define the importance of the arts, and critique of art and arts education, I have noticed writers such as John Carey (“What Good Are the Arts?") and James Elkins (“A Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art”) specifically describing their worldview as strictly secular. I find their discussions helpful, although I find that presupposition often breaks down in their own turfs as their ideas evolve, and they may not be as consistent in their worldviews as I am trying to be for mine. Nevertheless, I do think it is important to start out with a premise. I am not a secularist, so I have certain presuppositions that frame my discussions. I do believe that creativity is a gift of the Creator. And because of my theological framework, I believe that such a view of the arts will produce more diversity, more content and more color to all of the arts, Christian or not. We are created to be creative: and we have stewardship responsibilities that come with that gift. The more we find fittingness in the God given responsibility, the more freedom we will find in our expression.
It has been noted that we have entered the Creative Age. The Information Age, for us Americans and other non third-world countries, is over. India and China, and other countries have taken over the role of dispersing technology and executing productions: the only resource that we have that cannot be outsourced is our creativity. Thus, we are at a crucial moment in history in which we are witnessing a paradigm shift in culture, a shift that may be as significant as Gutenburg’s invention of printing. Just as the invention of prints caused many shifts in cultural values, the Creative Age, with her accompanying technologies, will usher in principles that formerly were considered unimportant for the everyday needs of the society. Some have called this time “post-Human” as our boundaries of creativity begins to have serious ethical and moral boundaries. Before Modernism, artists depicted flowers as flowers, asking “How do you depict a flower?” Modernism asked “What is a flower?” and Post Modernism followed with “Is there a flower at all?” And in post-Human time we ask, “Can humans combine their DNA with a flower?” In other words, we are at a point in which what we create and what we imagine will not merely be virtual, but are actualized into reality, and quite possibly, into our DNA.
If Gutenburg brought books to us, this age brings CG technology, virtual realities, and DNA manipulation. So do we study the sciences to find answers and guide our path? The sciences cannot reach into the supernatural, nor into the mysteries of our realities, because they are bound by natural, measurable data. Art on the other hand should and can reach into the very heart of existential mysteries sciences cannot tackle. But we need to have a clear understanding of how art functions, in order to begin to understand this role. Art of the past, it seems to me, is a great place to calibrate our place in history, and press our existential marker into the shifting tide of culture.
Some have moved away from the study of the classical and traditional in favor of erasing boundaries of the past. But we have found ourselves anchorless, without any agreed upon boundaries at all, ever so fearful of the future as a result. I believe that what we can learn from Rembrandts and Shakespeares of the world is even more significant today because they give us hope in turmoil, and therefore give us a picture of mediation to this age, in the power of technology today. The sciences and technology need this trans-historical dialogue on the arts, because arts determine our cultural values, and determine what the culture sees as beautiful and true.
Recently I spent some time visiting friends who work as insiders in Hollywood. There is a significant effort, I found, among the industry experts to create a more principled way to develop creative content, movies and the new media. After the success of Lord of the Rings, and now Narnia, we desire for more Lewises and Tolkiens to come out. These creative resources are not birthed out of a vacuum, but over generations of commitment to nurture and value creativity. The church has been mostly reluctant to take the lead in cultural production, fearful that those who enter Babylon will come out tainted by her, unable to speak for her values. And since there is still a vacuum in culture that the church abdicated to general culture, even if we desire more Tolkiens and Lewis, the church, in her present status, will be the first to reject them as misfits.
In order to have meaningful dialogue in this condition, we Christians must reevaluate our definition of creativity and art. On one hand, Biblical literalists and separatists (such as the Left Behind authors) may insist on that all of what is discussed in art must be literal interpretation of Christian stories, an approach which forbids certain art to exist at all. On the other we have secular purists who desire art to be left alone to the “good” desires of our hearts, self reliant and (in most cases) necessarily alienated from society. My approach in A.R.T. is neither of these routes. In order to lead, and teach our children to lead, Twenty First Century with creativity, we must speak in to our culture to value art and steward her with proper boundaries, and lead with a sense of responsibility. At the same time, we must realize that art is neither a mere tool to be used for ours or other ideologies. A.R.T. must ask deeper questions: what I have began to call “a five hundred year questions.” What we create matters: all art products cast their vision of what the artist consciously or unconsciously desire for the world to become. We are, and will become, what we imagine: and if we do not understand both the power and the danger of our imaginative powers, we will not begin to birth meaningful, and hopeful works of inspiration.
Next chapter, “Awareness,” will be released after the conference for members only.