Reforming Culture Through Art
Re-imagining is the way forward.
Art lives in the intersection between culture and spirituality.
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This has been my revelation for the last while. It’s actually been a breakthrough for me as it’s helped give some direction to the second half of my life and has led to an exciting book project. It’s also helped me to start answer some of the hard questions about the cultures I see around me, and the direction of those cultures.
By “Art” I mean the visual arts, music, literature, poetry, dance, filmmaking, photography, etc. —and all the related fields to these things. All of these forms of art have to do with Story—the story we tell ourselves, the stories we live in, the stories that others live in and want us to know about, and the Grand Story of it all.
“Story” has become a popular concept in the last few decades, and I’m sure many people are tired of hearing about it. PR agencies and marketing gurus and change management specialists and a lot of internet armchair philosophers (which, I suppose I am one) have picked it up and, in many cases, commodified it. This commodification is, however, a story of its own, one that is the working out of the Secular Story of our world today—the pragmatic story of how even Art and beauty must serve a practical, flat, commodified purpose.
In other words, secularism turned Art utilitarian.
It’s easy to see this if you look at our buildings. But even though post-modern artists will balk at being called “utilitarian”, when an effort is made to get away from function, what often replaces it is minimalist art designed to get you ‘in touch with yourself’ or 'to inspire you to think more deeply’.
Think about what, though? Much of art doesn’t provide the necessary imagination to do much more than to think the thoughts you already thought.
But look at our music. How much of what we compose these days is to satisfy the market (the economics)? As a writer, I am frequently told that success is found if you "write to market”. Find your niche, find your audience, develop your template, and cut and paste.
It’s saddest when economics and pragmaticism rules the Christian art world, and, to be quite honest, that’s where it seems to rule it most. Why is so much of Christian music bland and repetitive? Because that’s what the market wants! Radio stations won’t play music from outside the “big labels”, and big labels play it safe. (The reason for radio’s demise, at least in America, has to do with economics around the Telecommunications Act of 1996).
This even spills over to how we view our bodies. So long as utilitarian ethics dominate (as they do) and so long as Art continues to allow pragmaticism to dictate its purpose and direction, so we will fail to see the beauty of the human body (as it was originally born) and will continue to think that it can or should be change to serve any purpose we think is best for it to fulfil for the moment. I touched on this in my piece on “the Transhuman Story”. We’re seeing it play out in the ongoing transgender debate. The way that is framed is that it’s about ‘human rights’. I think some people sure think it is. But what is fueling it is a lack of a sense of beauty, or transcendence and / or the “Sublime” in the lives of many people. People don’t know how to look at their bodies and see Beauty, they only see utility. That’s the end result of the sexual revolution, regardless of all its talk of love and what-not.
Re-imagining the future is the way forward
I compare my city with cities where Christianity flourished in the distant past and I see something very different. It makes me come to the conclusion that when we try and ‘deconstruct’ art and faith, we’re left with a blandness that only moves into the direction of bleakness.
In his post on the Christian thinker Tim Keller, Samuel D. James asks a simple question: “How does the absolute certainty of resurrection and the life of the world to come make us different kind of culture warriors?” He asks this in light of Christian eschatology, or how we view the end point of history. This is the right question to ask. It’s only when we can have sufficient imagination for the future, and when we learn to express that outside of the narrow, political squabbling and tribalism, that any discussion about culture can happen at all.
The birth of Christianity was a religious breakthrough—a complete change in thinking about God and creation and where humanity is going. The Reformation was another breakthrough that re-ignited the imagination of Western society. Yes, it coincided with the Renaissance and that is a longer story, but it’s true that for almost 1900 years the religious breakthrough of Christianity inspired the Art world—and the Art world inspired the imagination of people. And that imagination is what formed worldviews.
Art is subversive. It captures the imagination and, by doing so, has the ability to shock a worldview in a way that clever arguments, activism, politics and legislation simply can’t. From a Church point of view, most pastors and churches don’t know what to really do with Art, except co-opt some of it (usually music) for its own (often sanitized) purposes. Meanwhile, the Arts world has some bright stars, but on the whole it looks like Modernism has come to a story of dead end.
A 21st century reformation will come, in my opinion, with the renewal of Art. And that’s all I have to say about that today.
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