The Content of Art
~James McCullough and Wes Vander Lugt
Defining art is an elusive task. In some ways, seeking to understand art is analogous to understanding God. In What Good are the Arts?, a book we are exploring next week on Transpositions, John Carey surmises that all definitions of art—like definitions of religion or God—founder on the shoals of careful examination. In response, Carey concludes that art is whatever one determines art to be. But can we say something more?
In our research, teaching and ministry, we are seeking to make the arts more meaningful, accessible, and theologically significant to the Christians we serve. Recognizing the complexity of the topic is right and commendable, but we are attempting to advance a way of encountering and engaging art that gets beyond reductive emotional and moral analyses. Wordsworth rightly warned that we can “murder to dissect” the “beauteous forms of things,” but our goal is to discover and dialogue with art to bring it alive for people rather than leaving it dead on the examination table.
In two previous posts, including a post on the craft of art, we have proposed that art represents a unique form of communication constituted by three interwoven strands:
The content strand is the meaning-full element of art. Many analyses of art make the familiar distinction between form and content. We recognize the validity of this analysis, while insisting that form and content are woven together in an inseparable whole. With this in mind, we propose the content element of this dynamic whole is best understood as a “story.”
Art tells stories. By this we do not mean plots, but a certain perspective or vision of life and the world. The very choice of subject matter signals what for the artist (or patron) is significant within their perspective on life. Of course, artists may not have a clear idea of the story they are telling, but their art still tells a story. And sometimes, people encountering a work of art will identify a story the artist never intended. Nevertheless, art communicates a story or vision of reality, which we are identifying as the content of art.
Consider a Beethoven symphony. The drive from tension to resolution inherited from the Western harmonic tradition carries within it a certain kind of teleology, a sense of moving forward in time toward an end. Beethoven takes this, and the dramatic possibilities latent in forms like the sonata, and creates an even greater sense of momentum, from conflict and hardship toward resolution and victory. Beethoven’s “story” is culturally Christian but deeply marked by Enlightenment humanism. His story is the victory of the human spirit over all obstacles. This latent vision, this story, informs all of his music. As is often observed of preachers, Beethoven has his basic sermon, preached with remarkable vitality, variety, industry, and inventiveness.
By identifying story as the basic feature of artistic content, we affirm that art is both emotionally evocative and intellectually informative. Like any story, art engages the whole person, sometimes even eliciting a physical and moral response. To engage attentively to a Beethoven symphony, for example, may not only move someone emotionally, but may inspire this person toward heroic human achievement in spite of adversity. Christians may find this particular “story” a form of humanism we cannot endorse without qualification, but Beethoven’s work at least makes this vision of reality profoundly plausible.
To engage with art is to discern a story. The story we identify will reflect the situation of the artist as well as the situations of those receiving and responding to the work of art. We will explore this dimension of art—its context—in our next post, and look forward in the meantime to a helpful discussion on the content of art.