Friday, 18 May 2012

Art for Art's Sake

I remember as a fifteen year old, on a trip to relatives in Holland, coming across the music of Tom Paxton. I felt like I had stumbled into heaven. Soon the likes of Tom’s successors - Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Paul Simon and James Taylor – were giving me guitar lessons. Not that they knew it, of course: I simply played their LP’s on my merciless record player until they were irretrievably scratchy - but at least I could play some of the most difficult passages. My education was supplemented by weekly trips to the White Horse in Reading where I joined bearded guitar-wielding hippies and other fresh-faced lads like myself nursing under-age pints (which we made last the whole evening) as we worshipped the guitar. I could soon finger-pick with the best of them and blew all my savings on a wonderful instrument which cost me seven pounds and bore the label ‘Hi Spot, Foreign’. This was, of course, a marked contrast to Sundays where hymns and dreadful ‘choruses’ made me cringe with embarrassment. (Whoever penned the immortal lines ‘We’re in the great race to put rockets in space, but the needs of our souls we’re refusing to face’ should, in my humble opinion, be made to eat their own toenails. Some of the ‘choruses’ I’ve heard recently are little better.) There was no way I could take my White Horse friends to church. And so my life developed in two parallel universes whose paths never intersected.


Then, as now, there is little understanding within some branches of Christianity about the arts. Beautiful pictures normally carry a suitable caption – ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ or some other suitably edifying text – as if God’s creation was mute and unable to speak for itself. The Reformation distrust of image, as Iain McGilchrist has reminded us (The Master and His Emissary: the divided brain and the making of the Western world) meant that ‘the flesh became word and dwelt among us’. As a musician, a ‘Christian musician’, I was therefore given two utilitarian options: to use my gift in evangelism or lead worship. Not wanting to accompany ‘we’re in the great race to put rockets in space’ I opted for the former, and within a few years was touring Europe with a ‘Christian band’, finding myself on one occasion, for example, doing a gig for bemused Frenchmen from the top (I mean, on top of the roof) of a London double-decker bus somewhere in the south of France. (Health and safety hadn't been invented yet. I remember carrying a Fender Twin Reverb up a ladder, for goodness sake!)

In that country, at some time early in the 19th century, someone coined the term l’art pour art as a cry for the emancipation of art from utilitarian slavery – a slavery that, at least in part, has it roots – at least in Western culture -  in the Reformation’s mistrust of all things sensual (and especially visual) resulting in a legacy of aesthetic poverty in great swathes of modern Christianity, especially evangelicalism. It would be naïve to speak of ‘evangelicalism’ or ‘Western culture’ in any kind of monolithic sense, nevertheless I believe that this fault line – this antagonism between art and faith – remains deep seated in the Christian psyche.

Of course we know this, and in recent years there have been attempts (often successful attempts) to redress the balance. Theologically it is a renewed emphasis on creativity as being very much part of the imago Dei, and a recognition that art and aesthetic perception are not peripheral decorations on the fringe of faith, but central to spiritual perception. I believe McGilchrist is right to point out that the iconoclastic zeal of the Reformers for spiritual reality resulted in them destroying the very means that would mediate that reality – art. Art is a precious gift which, because of its gratuitousness – its subversion of the consumerist ethic – mediates grace.

Just recently I heard that one of my guitar heroes of the seventies folk revival – a phenomenal player who became a believer – regretted his decision to become a ‘Christian musician’, having felt forced, as a trophy of evangelicals, to become an evangelist. It is a common story and reveals the ambiguity of a church that happily appropriates gifts that have been forged and perfected in the fires of ‘the world’, and yet sees itself as judge of that world.

Perhaps we need to rediscover art for art’s sake?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read some details about the way of life of my cousin John, the son of my uncle Jan and aunt Joan.
    It would be nice to meet you sometime somewhere. Perhaps at the family reunion in Workum, the birthplace of your father, on May 25, 2013.
    Kind regards,
    Arie de Jong, the son of Taeke, the eldest son of Jan de Jong and Maaike de Vries.

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