This has been a busy week. An artist with whom I’ve worked closely on a number of projects spent a week at my university as a visiting presidential professor, giving public lectures and speaking to undergraduate art students about the challenges of artistic practice. In addition, my book God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art has just been released by Baker Academic and I spent a few days at Biola University in La Mirada, California, talking about the book, speaking at chapel, and spending an afternoon looking at student art work. And on Saturday morning I spoke at a local church on the implications of contemporary artistic practice for the missional church. And along the way I have been thinking about the nature of artistic and religious practice.
The last few years has witnessed an increased interest—one might even call it an obsession—on the part of Christian thinkers with things cultural and creative. From the seminar room to the pulpit, creativity and culture are becoming hot commodities in Christian discourse. This is, however, not a distinctive Christian trend. It reflects broader social movements driven in part by sociologist Richard Florida’s best-selling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Creativity, it appears, is big business. A few years ago The Wall Street Journal even published a story on how the MFA has become the new MBA.
On the whole this is a good thing, I suppose. Christians must be involved in shaping and making culture and creativity is a fundamental part of human practice and Christian discipleship, whether at home, in the office, or somewhere in between. However, my concern is that the current vogue of things cultural and creative relies on certain popular misconceptions of the nature of creativity and culture, which affirm misconceptions about high cultural practices such as painting, poetry, and music. Consequently, the creativity and culture craze has done nothing to increase the interest in these so-called “high” arts. I experienced these pressures firsthand as a museum curator as I struggled to make my museum exhibitions “appealing” to the new “creative class,” which often meant presenting exhibitions that cultivated a certain look, usually derived from contemporary graphic design, that was also perceived as accessible (i.e., didn’t require much work to understand). That is, an exhibition that could attract attention from those who fancied themselves “creative” but who really didn’t care much about art.
In addition, my ten years as a museum curator also introduced me to a certain kind of elitism that regarded high cultural pursuits, like art and music, to be useful only as accoutrements of status and class. Both approaches to creativity, one “popular” and the other “elitist,” are merely two sides of the same coin. Neither is willing to put in the work to understand artistic practice and so the “creative process” remains some kind of stereotyped mystery to be used for other purposes. Because I am “in the arts,” I am regularly invited to participate in or advise on various community arts initiatives and programs, most of them predicated on the relevance of creativity and culture for civic life—for commerce and for leisure. And my conclusion is that creativity usually gets confused with two other practices. The first is “innovation.” Creative practice becomes indistinguishable from the cultivation of a distinctive “look” or a development of a more functional or efficient “solution” to a market problem. Innovation is the end result of a financially successful solution. It is the instrumental product of corporate R & D departments. Creativity is successful, from this perspective, only if it makes money. The second is whimsy. Creativity becomes another way to describe “artsy” or “individuality,” bright colored hair, tattoos, piercings, hanging out in coffee houses. It is “thinking outside the box.” Creativity in this context means no straight lines or right angles, curvy and lopsided spaces with bright colors. In short, creativity looks like it comes from one of the dozens of design shows on television or from some brainstorming session at an advertising agency.
Culture is thus understood to be the sum total of these “creative” moves. Business leaders, bureaucrats, and administrators, eager to engage the “arts,” usually have either innovation or whimsy in mind. Art can attract certain “creative types” (architects, designers, etc.) that can raise the appeal of the community and thus the local economy. Art seems fun to them, light-hearted, and a gentle diversion from the tough realities of life. Community arts projects serve this misguided desire. This is a very long way from the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky’s observation somewhere that Russia has always taken their poets seriously—they’ve shot them. I am skeptical of notions of creative and cultural practice that so easily conform to and even strengthen fashionable beliefs and practices by decorating them.
These approaches to creativity are as far as can be from serious artistic practice, which I take to be the foundation for authentic creativity. Consider the absurdity of describing Melville’s Moby-Dick as a product of “creativity.” Critics condemned the book when it first appeared. And the book dashed any semblance he might have had of a successful career. This makes contemporary versions of “creativity” superficial at best, harmful at worst. It is harmful because they can trivialize the nature of artistic practice. I fight these battles on a weekly basis with art students who believe that making art is about cultivating “freedom” and “spontaneity,” worshipping at the altar of their own feelings and emotions as they eliminate as many barriers to their personal expression as possible. I am one of their barriers.
But that is not all. Misunderstanding and trivializing artistic practice also means that the nature of religious practice is misunderstood and trivialized. Art and religion are inextricably bound up with one another as transformational practices. Like religious practice, artistic practice is not merely the means of making some artifact, but a means for learning something about oneself and the world. If you get art wrong, you get religion wrong, too. Artistic practice is the development of disciplines. Even though he is not a religious person, my artist friend shocked my students by comparing his artistic practice to religious practice. He said that he is not a very good person but without art he would be far worse. If artistic practice does not affect everything in your life, does not permeate every decision you make, why bother? Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses daily, and follow him (Luke 9: 23). And artists must learn the same thing. Creativity is not merely what you put into something, opening the floodgates of your personal expression; it’s also what you resist putting into it or what you end up taking out. And it is the product of discipline. My artist friend told me that he used to show to his students Andrei Tarkovsky’s film on the Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. (He taught as a tenured professor at a university on the west coast.) Never in the three-hour movie is Rublev ever seen painting anything. Art is so much more than the production of “artifacts.” It is the shaping of a soul. That is what he wanted his students to learn.
Creativity, like holiness, is the product of self-denial through the cultivation of spiritual disciplines. Whatever it is, it emerges through difficult labor, through the cultivation of judgment and discernment that accounts for the right line here or the right word there. This is why the great monastics viewed the human person as a work of art that needed to be shaped and molded. Understood in this way, artistic practice shares a profound kinship to religious practice. Even artists who have no religious belief continually find themselves using religious language to interpret their artistic practice. This is one of the reasons why I wrote God in the Gallery. Superficial notions of creativity tend to affirm superficial notions of religious practice. My artist friend has told me that he is turned off by religious belief in large part because it seems to have so little relevance to the everyday life of those believers he knows. For him, religious belief seems too easy and too comfortable to be true. Bonhoeffer would agree.
But all of this talk about creativity, culture, and artistic practices is not just important for those Christians in the arts. It is just as relevant for theologians, philosophers, and pastors who are eager to learn from art or to fold in the aesthetic in their work. Rather than co-opt the popular misperceptions and distortions of pop culture “creativity” and “culture”—the “look” of creativity—theologians, philosophers, and pastors must learn from the deep asceticism of authentic artistic practices, from Melville and Dickinson to Pollock and Pärt. It is there that they will experience the profound relationship between artistic and Christian practice, between the aesthetic and the ascetic. Probe deeper. Moreover, both theological and philosophical work are themselves profoundly artistic and creative practices that can be hurt by superficial notions of art and creativity—either by appropriating them or by rejecting them in the name of a more rigorous “science.” From this perspective Evagrius’s famous statement will be revealed to speak to the relationship between the aesthetic and the ascetic, which is the nature of true creativity. “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian.”