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The Most Important Production of Art?

June 29, 2010

Anna Blanch

If i were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A Beautiful House; and the thing to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful Book. To enjoy good houses and good books in self respect and decent comfort, seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle. – William Morris*

Let’s break this down.

  1. Most important production of Art and the Thing most to be longed for (descriptive): A Beautiful House.
  2. Thing to be longed for (normative): A beautiful Book.

Thinking of those things we hold most dear or use or live in most often to be the objects of beauty still blows most of our minds. It seems that the dual qualities of utility and aesthetic beauty still escape most of our homes, the objects within, and indeed the books that fill their shelves. But are Christians supposed to care about material things? Or how beautiful they are?

Very briefly: I think beauty in creation and in the creations we make with our hands (and feet) reflects that we were created in God’s image.

I’m still not sure what I think about Morris’ statement about how much we long for and how beautiful homes truly are. It may be that what I struggle with is that beauty in this day and age seems to be dictated by a set of gatekeepers that guard consumerism and set prices to match. I do know that as I write this I am sitting in the lounge-room of my cottage-by-the sea surrounded by a palette that suits my aesthetics while looking out over the north sea. I know that I value the found objects and carefully chosen things that I have around me. But i hold them loosely (they are not more important than any of the relationships in my life, for example).

I know that my home environment affects my ability to concentrate, contemplate, and create. But what this means for how I balance the amount of energies and resources I put into beautification of this space, or indeed in the books that I own, I’m not entirely sure. I feel that it would be easy to justify making my home into an object of near-worship rather than a space to create, contemplate, concentrate, rest and to show hospitality to others. But is Morris right in thinking a Beautiful House to be a production of Art? It’s certainly made me take a step back and think about how I think about my home as being an outworking of my own creativity.

Talking about beautiful books, which is where Morris ends up, is one of my favourite topics – and surprisingly isn’t where this post ended up. Next time, I will explore how we (and I) conceive of beautiful books in the 21st century.

* Quote is from “Some thoughts on the Ornamental Manuscripts of the Middle Ages,” from an essay unpublished during Morris’ lifetime.

Image: Anna M Blanch 2010
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12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2010 9:11 am

    Great post, Anna, and I think you are definitely right that “beauty in this day and age seems to be dictated by a set of gatekeepers that guard consumerism and set prices to match.”

    It seems to me that we are duped to think that a “beautiful house” is what we see in magazines, advertisements, etc. and not what reflects beauty within our means and what contributes to our mission. As a Christian, I think the beauty of my home corresponds with the extent to which it can be a place of welcome and peace to others, especially strangers (I’m glad you mention hospitality!). In this way, aesthetics is bound up with ethics.

    I definitely think that Morris is right to call a beautiful home a work of art, especially if you think about the entire design of the house and not just the decorations. When beautiful homes are filled with people living beautiful lives, it is a powerful witness to those with whom we interact of the God who is transforming all things.

    • Anna permalink
      June 29, 2010 10:11 am

      I think you take my thoughts to the next step and explain them with much more clarity. I like your definition of a beautiful home:

      “As a Christian, I think the beauty of my home corresponds with the extent to which it can be a place of welcome and peace to other, especially strangers”

      I certainly agree that aesthetics and ethics are bound in my mind too. I guess this brings implications for how we build and decorate too does it not? For me, the aim of making my cottage-by-the-sea a place where I and all who enter can contemplate, create, concentrate, and rest has really been a helpful way to consider how to invest in turning it from a place to sleep, to a place to live.

      I agree that when you consider a home in its entirety – house, decor, people – then it is most certainly possible for it to be art. Maybe the quote Jenn mentioned a couple of days ago from Wendell Berry about us all being artists “good or bad, responsible or irresponsible” is apt here too.

    • Jim permalink*
      June 29, 2010 2:50 pm

      I think it is also worth pointing out that art always has its proper function within a particular context. One reason that art can seem like a limited term is that we (sometimes) assume that the proper function for art is to serve aesthetic contemplation within the context of the museum. But I see no reason why art cannot serve hospitality within the home. And this different function and context will require a different set of criteria for judging the worth of the art.

  2. June 29, 2010 4:47 pm

    That is great point, Jim. Just a follow up question: how do you think art can serve hospitality within the home? Can you think of some examples?

    • June 29, 2010 8:11 pm

      I often think of ‘making special’ being at the heart of any art. The artist is one who lifts up materials and thoughts and brings them to life. And in this way hospitality is a work of art itself. It is a way of making the other know that they are ‘special’ and desired in a space.

      In my own life much energy is put into creating things to make my home a hospitable place for children (mine and others). Whether making a painting, a beautifully crafted toy or setting a lovely table there is a desire to make a space that is hospitable for relationship, learning, imagination and play.

      The plethora of crafty mama blogs (i.e. http://www.soulemama.com or there are lots featured on rhythemofthehome.com) are great examples of artist working to make their homes hospitable spaces by making everything from picnic blanket to paintings; meditation spots to treehouses; drumming walls to folk songs… and the list could go on.

    • Jim permalink*
      June 29, 2010 10:08 pm

      I don’t have a lot to add to what Emily has said about how art can serve hospitality within the home. Because art serves hospitality within the home, when consider art within the home we must judge its ability to serve this function. It is not that when we ignore or disregard the function of hospitality that, then, we are considering art. I think that the blog Emily mentioned is an interesting attempt to thoughtfully and lovingly craft a hospitable space. One might also look at Emily’s blog (www.watkinseveryflavorbean.blogspot.com).

      I think that hospitality is a function that art has even outside of the home because art is so often a meeting place for individuals; a focus for community. Art is, I think, an essentially relational activity (pretty much all art is meant to be presented) and hospitality is one important way of describing ethical relations between people. There are some interesting examples, among “professional” artists working in the “art world,” of art that attempts to be hospitable and develop community. There is an interesting book titled ‘Conversation Pieces’ by Grant Kestler and the important art theory text ‘Relational Aesthetics’ by Nicolas Bourriaud that explore art that is primarily about the relations between people. The work of Joseph Beuys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Suzanne Lacy, David Hammons, and Krzysztof Wodiczko immediately come to mind, and I am sure there are others.

  3. June 30, 2010 8:50 am

    I love the idea of making art hospitable to children, Emily! Thanks for explaining that a little bit more. I also like to think about the aesthetics of the dinner table that make people feel welcome and relaxed, or the aesthetic of music that you have playing that can set a certain kind of background or create conversation. There are so many examples like this, and I think it’s an important area!

    And I think you are right, Jim, that hospitality factors into art and art making in a variety of contexts, and the relational aesthetics movement that you mentioned is one good example. Another example would be any kind of interactive theatre, especially one-on-on theatre, which consists of people have personal encounters that require a hospitable openness. In whatever area of art you are talking about, I think there is a general movement toward making art hospitable.

  4. June 30, 2010 7:25 pm

    Anna, this may be an off-beat comment here, but something came to mind with your question, “[I]s Morris right in thinking a Beautiful House to be a production of Art?”

    I was helping a former boss build his house – a 5000 sq ft, three story thing on the hill. What I remember is balancing 40′ above the basement floor on 2x4s next to the carpenter as he nailed in the final truss. He took a measurement or two at the peak and looked at me beaming: “Forty feet up and less than a quarter inch from blue print perfection!”

    He would have told a bird had I not been there. He was thrilled. It struck me as I looked all the way down through the joists and studs and supports that this was indeed remarkable. The reason it comes to mind here, I think, is because I bet that guy looks at the house each time he passes with a sort of deep satisfaction, knowing that God’s gifts to him were used in this form of expression. You could argue that it was following instructions more than creating art, but that was a Beautiful House to him.

  5. Anna permalink
    June 30, 2010 7:33 pm

    Thanks Sam. What a great story-image. thankyou so much for sharing. Sam, i think that a master builder is creating art when creating a home that is an outpouring of his skill and creativity, and following a blue-print doesn’t necessarily diminish that.

    I think this discussion has gone down some productive trails. I really enjoyed Jim, Emily, and Wes’s exchange about making a home hospitable to art (and children enjoying and creating art). It’s give me alot to consider and reflect upon. I’m still digesting.

    Ps: off-beat comments are always welcome 😉

Trackbacks

  1. Are Books Beautiful Anymore? « Transpositions
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