‘The Artist: What Exactly Is an Artist, and How Do We Shepherd Them?’ by Barbara Nicolosi.
In chapter 5 of For the Beauty of the Church, Barbara Nicolosi seeks to offer a look inside the mind of the artist, their concerns and troubles and to help the rest of us to identify the artists among us. Nicolosi seeks to define the artist’s end beyond themselves as ‘beauty’ and offers four signs to assist in the identification of the artists in our society. This chapter is written from the perspective of training and guiding artists in general and is not directly, predominantly or primarily to artists working within a church context. In fact, Nicolosi’s role with Act One – an organisation that trains Christians who want to work in the mainstream entertainment industry as writers, artists, or executives – attests to her commitment to the development of artists. Nicolosi contends early on that there two kinds of people: people who are artists and people who are supposed to support them (104). While this binary is somewhat problematic, it is reasonable to recognise that artists are set apart with creative gifts.
Dwelling in the terrain?
Nicolosi suggests four signs of an artist as a way of identifying them within our community: artistic talent shows up early, their work has emotional power, a “real artist’s work is going to have a freshness, a startling quality of something new”, and finally, one can identify an artist by their obsession with details of form. Moreover, the foremost manner for identifying artists is by their proximity to beauty: “Beauty is the terrain of real artists, and one way to recognise them is if they dwell in this terrain” (106). However, I remain confused as to what it means to find the artist in the terrain of the beautiful. What would it mean to live in the terrain of the Truthful — Does the theologian live there? And what of the land of the good, because I think I’d actually like to live there. That may all sound quite glib. But my point is this: I am still confused as to what the “terrain of the beautiful” is or means. I am not sure I understand it even as a metaphor. What beauty is and comprises of is an incredibly important question and must be teased out.
Especially in light of the fact that, for Nicolosi, the end of art is beauty. Nicolosi suggests beauty has three aspects – wholeness, harmony, radiance – while describing persuasively that it is not sentimentalism. While her delineation of beauty in this way is quite straightforward, Nicolosi also defines Art by what it is not: Art is not political, egalitarian, or a soothing distraction. In contrast, I would argue that art can be these things and still be art, I think the problem arises when it is only political, egalitarian, or a soothing distraction. Rather we should acknowledge that Art can also be these things but do not necessarily have to be.
According to Nicolosi, the role of art is to communicate the beautiful. But is that all art is or should be? What about art which makes us think? What about Truth? Does redefining beauty to always capture what art is and does profitable? Or are we always obscuring something? Art is about so much more than just beauty; rather than seeing truth and good as separate, should we not be aiming for both?
Nicolosi goes on to suggest that there is a special revelation open to the artist:
“When an artist pursues the beautiful, he or she opens a channel of revelation between God and humanity. It’s an extension of the revelation that occurs through the beauty of creation, about which St. Paul claimed, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Romans 1:20 NASB)” (106)
This is possibly one of the most theologically problematic sections of the chapter, and my concerns are none diminished by Nicolosi’s declaration that she is neither scholar nor theologian. Do artists really have direct access to God different in kind to others? Is this akin to the muse? Different in degree I will concede, but in kind? no. And the inference of the artist as muse is a very problematic concept especially in light of Nicolosi’s use of terms like genius and beauty in this chapter.
Nicolosi’s use of terms genius and beauty and “artist as prophet” seem distinctively born out of 19th century romantic ideas. This is a conception of the artist that must be critically examined. In that context, and it seems in Nicolosi, Genius is the artistic expression born out of an unexplainable faculty of the mind. There was an unfortunate dichotomy drawn between originality and tradition. In the 19th century, tradition was a definitive sign of a lack of genius and genius was itself representative of a disconnect from tradition. I think the truth lies somewhere in between and we must acknowledge the risk of what Baudelaire describes as the “emancipated journeyman” wherein art has been ruined and lost its power. I fear that we have failed to learn from the last 70 years and as overrated as it may be, Roland Barthes should be revisted on this point. Nicholas Wolterstorff is also particularly helpful in explaining the intellectual history of these ideas in Art in Action.
Despite offering minimal protests to the contrary, Nicolosi largely presents the artist as a crazy, obsessive individualistic person unable to function in a linear society or meet their responsibilities external to their art. While, I’m sure Nicolosi would qualify, and does to a small extent, that there is no one way to “be” as an artist, it is somewhat disconcerting that so much emphasis is placed on the behavioral traits of an artist in this chapter. This limited picture is something Joshua Banner addresses in the very next chapter, which is of some amelioration (he goes so far as to say he felt he needed to specifically reject the idea of the eccentric, quirky, anti-social artist and be himself).
This chapter is a valuable contribution to the collection as a clear expression of where Nicolosi believes the artist can be found and despite my reservations I appreciate her experience and insight. I do have three questions that arose from Nicolosi’s chapter, at least for me, with a view to moving the discussion forward: What does it mean to be a creative person (artist) and be like Christ?; and How does the church and pastorate disciple artists? How do they offer helpful critique and support?
In addition to the books Nicolosi suggests, I’d like to suggest the following: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action; Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise; and Dorothy Sayers, Mind of the Maker.