Engaging the Arts: Craft, Content, and Context
~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