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Engaging the Arts: Craft, Content, and Context

February 25, 2011

~Wesley Vander Lugt and James McCullough

One of the opportunities and challenges facing those at the intersection of theology and the arts is finding accessible and intelligible ways to understand and engage art theologically. For many, art is an elitist realm of heightened discourse, unintelligible imagery, and impractical usage. This opinion, however, is often based on a narrow conception of the arts, rather than viewing art as the result of human creativity expressed in both the fine arts and popular culture. Considered in this broader perspective, therefore, the arts are an essential mode of human expression, worthy of appreciation and enjoyment as well as philosophical and theological exploration.

In our teaching experience, we have sought ways to render the arts accessible while maintaining their rich and irreducible complexity. Art always communicates, but it mostly does so allusively, which means that the rewarding and pastorally significant endeavor of understanding and engaging with art requires great care and skill. In what follows, we hope to offer a few suggestions and tools for understanding and engaging with art theologically.

In our perspective, the arts most fundamentally involve a person seeking through some means to communicate something to someone, somewhere and at sometime. In other words, art involves a particular craft that communicates some content in a particular context.

First, the arts involve a learned and practiced craft. Whether it is poetry, prose writing, dancing, music or dramatic presentations, all art involves taught and hard-learned crafts. There are disciplines involved in the arts, and they involve the learning of a craft. Assessing the “performance” of a given art work, therefore, should proceed according to standards of the craft. In short, there is something more than mere personal preference involved in the encounter and assessment of art. Exploring art as craft also brings attention to the stylistic elements that should never be ignored when engaging with art theologically.

If craft is the way art communicates, then content is what art is communicating. Here, we find a narrative orientation toward the arts helpful. All art tells stories, and helping people “read” the stories of an artwork is a helpful way to engage the content of its communication.  By “story”, we don’t mean necessarily a plot-line, but a sense of tensions and resolutions inherent in all works of art. At the heart of art is the issue of how such tensions and resolutions are created, sustained, manipulated, deferred, referred, preferred, and presented. Of course, sometimes the content of art is easy to discern, and other times it is utterly allusive. Although determining what a work of art actually means may resist closure, it is crucial to keep exploration of content in dynamic interplay with exploration of craft and content, for without these other elements, engaging with art can easily degenerate into an exercise in dry didactics.

Finally, context involves who, when, where and for whom art is produced and received, and is perhaps the aspect of art most highlighted in recent postmodern studies. Acknowledging this dimension of art explains why a work of art might mean something at one point and something different in another. Debates persist regarding appropriate to the artist’s intention versus the reception, and to what extent the original purpose constrains the meaning of the art work. But there is consensus that context in all its facets is key in producing and fully appreciating art.

These three essential elements of producing and engaging with art can be illustrated as distinct yet intersecting spheres:

In sum, art involves a practiced craft, the communication of a narrative or certain perspective on the world, and the complex and ever-changing contexts of creators and receivers. Craft, content, and context exist in dynamic interplay in the production, reception, and engagement of art. We have only been able to address these elements in cursory fashion, but we hope to explore each in more detail in the future. For now, we would value and appreciate your insight and feedback as we seek to hone this understanding of art for our own academic pursuits, teaching, and personal engagement with the arts.

Image: Painting by René Magritte

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    February 25, 2011 7:48 pm

    Thanks for this fascinating post. I have one basic question which might requires a bit of elaboration. That is, should Christians attempt to defend and describe ‘art’ as a theological reality in a way similar to other (more obvious) theological realities like beauty? My tentative sense is that art, unlike beauty, is an ‘open concept’ which is socially constructed. So, for example, I don’t think we can necessarily insist that art is, strictly speaking, any “thing” by virtue of some theological essence. Why insist that art must necessarily be “learned” and “practiced”? What would keep us from calling a work of ‘art’ that was simply spontaneous and never similarly repeated or refined “art”? Why not say that the meaning of ‘the arts’ is simply the use of this phrase as it refers to a flexible range of human activities (painting, poetry, dance etc) within a the more or less open bounds of a certain language game? To be sure, all of these activities (painting, story writing, dance) inescapably reflect different aspect of the character of God in a variety of ways, including something about his ‘creativity’, but that does not necessarily set them apart from anything else, does it? Isn’t this reflective reality true of all human being and behaving? That said, I would suggest that we should feel differently and invest ourselves more specifically in the conceptual clarification of theological realities like beauty. The reason being that we have something on which to go on, something which is itself more clearly identified as a theological reality in Scripture. (Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure if I believe everything I’ve suggested here. But I thought I would go ahead and play the devil’s advocate for the sake of more clarification. Thanks again for a great post. – Justin Borger)

    • February 26, 2011 6:58 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Justin. In this post we were not seeking to establish art as a theological reality. Rather, we are trying to bring a little more clarify by what we mean by “the arts” when talking about “theological engagement with the arts.” In other words, understanding art as the intersection of craft, content, and context is not a particular Christian slant, but is a characteristic of all art. I do think that it is important to articulate a Christian perspective on beauty and Christian evaluations of craft, content, and context, but there is nothing particularly theological about understanding art in this way in the first place. Does that make sense?

      Regarding your point about art and spontaneity, I think there is definitely an element of spontaneity in art, but this is usually situated within the context of a broader craft or context, although the extent to which it is consciously situated in a particular craft and context fluctuates immensely. Great questions, though, and I hope this clarifies a bit!

  2. Jim Watkins permalink*
    February 25, 2011 9:34 pm

    Thanks Wes and Jim for a great post. Let me first say that I am very sympathetic to what you are doing, and it is because I agree with much of what you have said that I will bring up some critical comments. Your post appears (to me, at least) to be an attempt to provide a philosophical framework that can help us theologians (or maybe anyone) to appreciate art better. I think that this is an important thing to do (I think that the philosophy of art is very needed in today’s ‘theology and the arts’ discourse!), so I thought I would bring up some of the challenges that I have found.

    First, I would in general echo Justin’s concern with searching for an essentialist account of the arts. Can we find that essential component that all works of art share? This is, I think, the basic challenge to the sort of framework you are proposing, and the other challenges I will mention are really subsets of this larger one.

    Second, Justin suggested that perhaps ‘learning’ and ‘practice’ are not essential to art. One could say the same thing about communication. This is a point argued by many expression theorists. For example, both EF Carrit and RG Collingwood make a distinction between art and craft arguing that the latter is a form of communication that tries to arouse a response in someone else. In other words, they associate the idea that artists take materials and use them to communicate something with craft, but not with art. A thought experiment can be used to defend this view. Imagine a person on an alien planet where there is no written language. This person, who has no hope of returning to his home planet, decides for whatever reason to write a poem. Because there is no way that this poem will ever be communicated to someone else, it would seem that communication of content is not involved in the making of the poem. Is the poem still art? This is one reason, among others, that both Carritt and Collingwood associate the making of art (expression) with something as private as a mental operation. Both Carritt and Collingwood end up going with a very nuanced version of art as communication, but I bring them up because I think they would be against your ‘crafty’ version of communication. There are others who would want to dispense with the framework of communication altogether.

    Second, Arthur Danto has suggested that the fact that something is a work of art can have nothing to do with the object itself. His famous example is Warhol’s ‘Brillo Boxes.’ If it is impossible to distinguish, in a physical sense, between a work of art and a commercial product then there must be something non-physical that is distinguishing between them. This, says Danto, is the presence of the ‘art world.’ Similarly, George Dickie has argued for an institutional theory of art that says a thing is a work of art by virtue of its position within the institution of art. These sorts of theories would seem to make context overwhelmingly important.

    Third, what about works of art that have no ‘content’? Some artists might claim to make art that is void of content (are they being disingenuous?). Do some decorative arts lack content? At least it seams that we tend not to value the decorative arts for their content.

    Fourth, how broad is your ‘broad perspective’ on the arts? Your suggestion that all art communicates something to someone etc. suggests that just about anything could be art. For example, on this view anything I say could be art. What I am writing now could be art. Such a broad view does not seem to match up with the way we normally think about art. But perhaps the way we normally think about art is flawed.

    Fifth, where does the reader’s or viewer’s response fit into your framework? I see you have placed it under context, but I wonder if it needs its own category. Given that so many today argue that the interpreter brings a great deal to a work of art (indeed, many would say that an interpreter participates imaginatively in a work of art), it might seem preferable to make ‘reader response’ its own category to avoid understanding the readers role as purely receptive. Or perhaps it is simply your notion of ‘communication’ that needs to be qualified more so that it does not imply something like a monologue.

    Sixth, I am not sure that I find your diagram helpful. I see that it shows that craft, content, and context are all essential components of works of art. But what about all of the other spaces in the diagram. What involves both craft and content, but not context? Can one have content without craft and context? etc. In other words, I think the diagram isn’t really needed to convey your main point, and I wonder if it is misleading if it encourages us to find things that fit into the other spaces (if there really are no other things to fit into those spaces).

    • February 26, 2011 7:08 pm

      Great points, Jim. I will try to address each one briefly in turn.

      First, I agree that essentialist can be a danger, but one of our main motivations for writing this post is to articulate an understanding of the arts that we have been utilizing in the church and in Christian discipleship: in other words, something relatively simple that can help people understand art, even though it might be a tad simplistic.

      Second, would locating a work of art within an “institution” be similar to locating a work of art within a “craft?” Is there an element of intention that factors in here as well?

      Third, I realize that some art does not communicate forthrightly, but I would argue that all art communicates something, even if it is minimalist. But most art that people engage with on a daily basis has values and articulates a certain understanding of certain aspects of the world.

      Fourth, this is great point, and we should probably include something here to gain some more specificity. Any suggestions? Does the second statement help, however, by clarifying that we are talking about a particular craft that communicates in a certain context?

      Fifth, your suggestions to include an element of conversation or dialogue in content is really good, and is taken for granted when talking about “engaging” with the arts.

      Sixth, I had the same thought about the diagram, but know it would be nice to show this visually. Maybe you could help me think of something better!

      Thanks again for these comments, and I look forward to honing this more.

  3. James McCullough permalink
    February 26, 2011 9:30 pm

    I’m very appreciative of the responses that our blog is generating. This response reflects my own thoughts about the blog Wes and I co-wrote, and my responses will of necessity have to be brief.

    Jim has given me a lot to think about but I’d like to respond to some of his comments, and will do so in order of their presentation. First, Jim expresses concern about construing an “essentialist” account or definition of art, and concludes his comments with voicing his concern for the viability of the model we present. His concerns are reasonable and merit thoughtful response. Without launching into a full-bore defense of the proposal, I would simply want to say that whatever else the interpretive model that we propose is, for my own part I see it primarily as a heuristic device of modest design that attempts to set out what I see as the constituent parts of the phenomenon that goes by the name of “art.” That there might be an essentialist implication to the model I need to give more thought to. While I am not opposed to an ontology of art, my primary aim in using the model is to provide a working analytical model of art that corrects accounts that I find either too subjective or reductive.

    Jim secondly raises the question of whether art always involves communication, and provides a thought experiment that might suggest otherwise. I simply cannot think of any real examples of art that doesn’t communicate something, and generally in an intentional manner. I emphasize this dimension of art because I also believe it provides a practical point of access to art for lay people. When someone says, as I so often hear about an encounter with a work of art, that “it really spoke to me,” I want to be able to affirm that experience and help them then think more clearly and coherently about what it was that spoke to them and what it is they “heard” in it. In this sense I believe the arts are subject to a kind of rhetorical analysis because they are, fundamentally, means of communication.

    Thirdly, Jim invokes the writings of Arthur Danto and George Dickie and their institutional theories of art. I find this interesting and need to give it more thought. But while I’d want to affirm the role of the guilds to provide the kind of “informed opinion” that our initial blog mentions, I’d hate to think that art works relay on the “art world” alone for their justification and validation.

    Jim raises the hypothetical case of art that has no content. I simply cannot think of any real case of this, including even John Cage’s celebrated works of musical silence. If there’s really no content, then it fails the test of art in my book. But I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.

    And this same position would apply to another concern that Jim raises, that if communication lies at the essence of art then whatever communicates something might constitute art, including Jim’s own response to our blog. But here is where my strong insistence on craft comes in. We live in an era where almost anything and everything is baptized as “art,” and it is a trend I actually would hope our model would work against. I do not believe that everything is art, even if “artfully” done. I wish in part to defend the status of art and help people see that it represents a unique form of communication, not just any form of communication.

    Perhaps this is sufficient to stake out how I might respond to Jim’s other concerns without belabouring them now.

    Justin also raises some interesting questions and issues for clarification, and although I was not entirely clear on what was meant by “theological realities,” it seemed that he was concerned that ours was some sort of over-determination of art along theological lines. For my own part, I’m not attempting to provide a theological definition of art but rather a way of understanding what art is on its own terms. Such an understanding might certainly lead toward and perhaps give greater scope for a theological analysis of a given artwork, or of the phenomenon of human artistry. Of the status of art being a socially construed, “open concept” however, I’m seeking a way of understanding art in concrete and perhaps more objective terms that might facilitate a more analytical as well as personally meaningful encounter with it.

    Enough for said from me for now. Thanks again for some great responses and thoughts.

  4. Jim Watkins permalink*
    February 27, 2011 9:01 pm

    Wes and Jim, thanks for taking the time to respond to so many of the points I brought up. I certainly did not expect such thoroughness! I wanted to emphasize again that I agree with much of what you have said in your post, and that I even think communication — especially if it is articulated in dialogical rather than monological terms — is a very helpful metaphor for thinking about the arts.

    Jim, you mentioned that ‘communication’ is a heuristic device for thinking about the arts. I absolutely agree with this. But sometimes I wonder if you are treating it this way, such as when you write “I simply cannot think of any real examples of art that doesn’t communicate something.” Perhaps you simply mean that you have not found a work of art for which ‘communication’ is not a helpful heuristic device.

    I raised the question as to whether there are works of art that do not have content. It is difficult to think of an obvious example, but perhaps we could think of ‘limit examples’ or anomalies that communication as a heuristic device may have a difficult time dealing with. Some Dada works would seem to be anomalies: a work that is gibberish or randomly generated might be said to ‘lack content.’ One could, however, search for reasons why the Dadaists were making these works of art (e.g. to espouse a philosophy of nihilism, to protest fascism). Perhaps we could say that these reasons are the ‘content’ of the works of art, but why would they not be the context? It seems to me that it is difficult to distinguish content and context in the case of some Dadaist works, and this is why it might be an anomaly for the ‘communication’ heuristic device. Another anomaly could be the decorative arts. I am currently sitting on a great couch covered with a pattern of repeated spirals. What is the content of this couch pattern? Perhaps it is not art. If we are to maintain that it is art, we could say that the color, line, pattern etc. are expressive of (NOT an expression of) something and that this is the content (in this case we would not bother ourselves with the artist’s intentions). But doesn’t looking at a decorative pattern in this way actually obscure its main function, which is to set off the activity that happens in and around it? I am simply trying to point out two examples that are anomalies for the heuristic device of ‘communication,’ but this does not mean that we should do away with ‘communication’ as a heuristic device.

    You both mention that your framework for thinking about the arts is intentionally ‘simplistic’ or intended for ‘lay people.’ I am certainly all for describing things in plain language and for presenting things intelligibly, but I also think that ‘communication’ is not the only heuristic device that would allow one to do this. Another popular heuristic framework for the arts is the ‘game’ or ‘game of make-believe.’ People who have developed this framework include Hans-Georg Gadamer and Kendall Walton (by the way, Walton’s book ‘Mimesis as Make-Believe’ is incredibly accessible and I recommend it highly). Looking at art in terms of a ‘game’ tends to emphasize the way that the viewer or reader participates in the game he or she plays with the work of art. For example, saying ‘what a lovely sunset’ in front of a painting of one, or feeling fear during a zombie movie could be understood as participating in games of make-believe that we play with these works of art. This certainly does not mean that we cannot affirm the response “it really spoke to me,” for what I find most people mean by this is that the work of art helped them to think more clearly about an experience or issue, and this is exactly the sort of thing that games often help us to do as well. I think that the ‘communication’ heuristic sometimes has a difficulty accounting for what the viewer or reader brings to the work of art, and so this is why I find find the ‘game’ heuristic to be a helpful complement. But the ‘game’ heuristic does not account as well as it could for artistic intentionality. So, I am not suggesting a competing heuristic, but a complementary one.

    I know there are more points that I could address, but I thought that by restricting my comments to a couple items (communication and content) this conversation would be a bit more manageable. Thanks for your comments and for your post, they are both helping me to articulate and think through these issues. If you have the time, I would be interested to know what you think of what I have just said.

    • March 1, 2011 7:55 am

      Thanks for the follow-up comments, Jim. I would definitely support a complementary heuristic such as “the game of make-believe”, and you are the second person to recommend Walton’s book to me, so I definitely need to read it. I would still argue that communication happens within dada works and decorative art, even if it is used fused with context. Just by nature of their being decorative, for example, the decorative arts are communicating that decoration is positive, rather than leaving things undecorated. In fact, of the best examples of the dynamic interplay between context and content is one’s home, for even though the home is the context for living, the way it is arranged and what you choose to have in your home communicates volume regarding values and priorities. On the other hand, decorative arts could also be understood as a “game,” but I do find this heuristic a bit denser to describe to those not familiar with art-speak.

  5. James McCullough permalink
    March 1, 2011 9:44 am

    I continue to appreciate the dialogue taking place around our blog.

    I just wanted to contribute a brief response to the most recent post by Jim W. I fear that I might have mis-communicated if I gave the impression that I thought the claim that art is a means of communication represents for me a heuristic move. Let me be clearer. I am convinced that art is best understood primarily as a means of communication. The diagram of the over-lapping cirlces (Craft, Content, Context) is the heuristic device.

    As the dialogue continues and I gain further insight and more books I need to read, I remain impressed that the that “Three-C” model works. I still think we can distinquish content from context, even as context provides important insight for understanding what the artist was seeking to do in his or her art.

    I do recognize, however, that sometimes artists produce a work unaware or uncertain of what it is they are trying to “say” in it. Artists think with the materials of their craft first and foremost much of the time. But inevitably, I believe, if the piece or performance is doing something effectively, then its communicating something. It is a complex phenomenon we’re talking about, and all models and analogies have their limits. But I’d like to think that Wes and I are on to something, and I look forward to further responses.

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