I’m writing next to a stack of books, atop which is one of the most contrarian and prescient volumes on art published in the United States in the last fifty years. The author was not a scholar based in New York or one of the art world's other metropolitan hubs, nor was the book issued by Yale University Press, say, or the University of Chicago Press. It came rather from the upper Midwest, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, home base of the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and also the locale of Calvin College, where, in 1980—when Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic was published—Nicholas Wolterstorff was a professor of philosophy.
Quoting an anthropologist on the universality of art in human history and culture, Wolterstorff asks, “What then is art for? What purpose underlies this human universal?” It is necessary to quote his answer at length:
One of my fundamental theses is that this question, so often posed, must be rejected rather than answered. The question assumes that there is such a thing as the purpose of art. That assumption is false. There is no purpose which art serves, nor any which it is intended to serve. Art plays and is meant to play an enormous diversity of roles in human life. Works of art are instruments by which we perform such diverse actions as praising our great men and expressing our grief, evoking emotion and communicating knowledge. Works of art are objects of such actions as contemplation for the sake of delight. Works of art are accompaniments for such actions as hoeing cotton and rocking infants. Works of art are background for such actions as eating meals and walking through airports.
If Wolterstorff had said there is no “single purpose” which art serves, his meaning would have been clearer, though that is what he already did say, more or less, a couple of sentences earlier. Part of the book's appeal lies in the way that it’s built from incongruous elements: This shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Art in Action is the work of a man trained in a certain style of analytic philosophy (early on there are some diagrams that seem calculated to drive away all but a handful of readers). There are many sentences like this one: “I shall divide my answer into two main parts.” But it also includes many superbly pithy sentences like the ones quoted above: “Works of art are accompaniment for such actions as hoeing cotton and rocking infants.” And note the witty observation behind “and walking through airports.” It is also, beneath the surface, a seething but controlled rant, magnificent in its denunciation of the false gods of high art and their worshippers—including all too many Christians.
Wolterstorff repeatedly emphasizes the imperative of “responsibility,” to God, to neighbor, to nature, to one’s self—a theme starkly at odds with most high-art discourse. (“Responsibility” sounds so dreadfully bourgeois, doesn’t it?) It’s true that, having criticized at length the “institution of high art” that limits art to a narrow sphere of activity centering on “aesthetic contemplation,” and then having enumerated the benefits of “liberation” (a word used repeatedly here) from the “thralldom of that institution,” he suggests that it is still possible for Christians to participate—as visual artists, musicians, writers, curators, gallery-goers and concertgoers, scholars and critics, and so on—in a chastened way. But that discussion, near the end the book, is perfunctory.
In his 2015 book Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art, Wolterstorff—then Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and senior research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia—returned to the subject of Art in Action; today, the two books should be read side by side. Art Rethought, Wolterstorff writes, “deepens and expands the line of thought that I began there, fills in some lacunae, and here and there corrects what I said.” He notes the massive changes in the art world between 1980 and 2015; particularly noteworthy is the title of his last chapter: “The Pursuit of Justice and the Social Practices of Art.”
An insistent emphasis on art and social justice (often taking the form of a critique of this or that injustice—often, alas, in a tedious, shallow, and self-flattering manner) has been perhaps the most striking change in the art world between 1980 and 2018. There have been many others. On a more modest scale, recent decades have been marked by a sharp increase in theological engagement with the arts, taking many different forms (paralleled by a vogue for “theological” or quasi-theological tropes in art writing that is avowedly secular). In orthodox Protestant circles, the work of first-rate theologians (here Jeremy Begbie stands foremost), artists (Makoto Fujimura, for instance), and countless kindred spirits has come to fruition. A recent series from InterVarsity Press, Studies in Theology and the Arts, is a good example; see for instance the 2017 volume Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley and based on the 2015 conference of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts). This includes an excellent symposium led by Wolterstorff.
It may seem, then, that Wolterstorff’s project, while useful for historical purposes, isn’t of pressing relevance. I don’t think that’s true. While what he calls “the grand narrative concerning art in the modern world” has lost some of its authority, the old idols remain potent. And at the same time, new narratives are running parallel to the old, new idols of the reconfigured art world: Beyoncé alongside Picasso.
One chapter of Art Rethought, under the heading “Art That Enhances,” is devoted to the unfashionable subject of work songs. In both Art in Action and Art Rethought, Wolterstorff is pushing back against a grandiose rhetoric present both in mid-20th-century art criticism and in the latest effusions of today’s post-postmodern, postcolonial, posthuman savants.
I don’t know whether Paul Willis has read Art in Action, but he and Wolterstorff are on the same page. Willis, a longtime professor of English at Westmont College and former poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California, is a poet, essayist, and novelist who has spent a lot of time on mountains and in the woods, most recently as artist-in-residence for several months in North Cascades National Park. His collection To Build a Trail: Essays on Curiosity, Love & Wonder includes an essay entitled “What’s a Laureate to Do?” Willis recounts a dinner with the poet Jane Hirshfield, during which she wondered what he was asked to do as a local poet laureate:
“Well,” I said, “I organize readings and workshops, read poems for civic occasions, and, when asked, write poems on assignment for special events.”
That’s when she got animated. “They make you do that?” she said. “You let them make you do that? You let them treat you like—like some sort of short-order cook?
“Well, sure, it’s part of the job,” I said. . . .
“I would never do that,” she said.
I reminded her then that I had seen a poem or two from her very own hand that was actually written for a wedding, but she didn’t give much ground. For her, the writing of an occasional poem was a violation of the muse.
Willis goes on to say that he greatly admires Hirshfield. But her response is a good reminder that the “institution of high art,” however embattled nowadays, is still entrenched (both for good and for ill). And the remainder of the essay, in which Willis describes the circumstances that occasioned two poems written for the community, is grounded in the more expansive understanding of the artist’s role that Wolterstorff advocates. Willis’s “toughest assignment,” he tells us,
came when a local nun asked me to write a poem for the 225th anniversary of the founding of the Spanish mission in Santa Barbara. The mission . . . comes with a long history of dedicated faith and service. But its history also includes the subjugation and displacement of the Chumash Indians and, closer to the present, the sexual abuse of generations of schoolboys at the attached seminary. How was I to balance all this?
You can find out by reading the poem, which is included in the essay.
Nowhere is his affinity with Wolterstorff clearer than in the title essay, “To Build a Trail,” where Willis describes how he made a trail “up a little canyon above our house on land that belonged to the college”—Westmont, that is. It was a job requiring prodigious labor, cutting dead branches in the woods, clearing shrubbery (and poison oak, with its “thick, continuous root systems”), then “shovel work, digging up the more stubborn roots and shaping the trail to the terrain. . . . Boulders had to be rolled out of the way in places, then rolled back to shore up narrow sections of loose trail. There was also garbage to put in the wheelbarrow, and plenty of it: cans, bottles, tires, chairs, batteries, buckets, baseballs, condoms—even a rusty bedspring and mattress. My favorite find was an ancient flask of cinnamon schnapps, distilled in St. Paul, Minnesota.”
Building a trail, Willis realizes as he works, is like writing, “conceiving a long narrative line. . . . And, as in the writing of a novel, whole chapters sometimes have to be scrapped.” This particular trail was also a memorial to Willis’s mother, who had died a couple of months before he began work on it. And it was a gift to others who lived in the same faculty-housing neighborhood where Willis and his wife had their home.
I should mention that four of the more than two dozen pieces gathered here first appeared in Books & Culture, the magazine I edited from 1995 to the end of 2016, and that I wrote an endorsement for the collection. What I didn’t say in the endorsement was that if I encountered (“in the wild,” so to speak) a book subtitled “Essays on Curiosity, Love & Wonder,” I wouldn’t be likely to investigate further. It sounds a bit too twee, though in fact it’s not entirely misleading. There is curiosity, love, and wonder (all much to be desired) in these pages, but there is also a strong sense of irony, a sly and sometimes cutting wit, and a tough-mindedness that coexists, surprisingly enough, with unembarrassed piety and tenderness. A rare combination.
A last word on Art in Action. I once had a copy of the Eerdmans edition, but I gave it to a young art student more than twenty years ago. After a while I acquired a used copy of a reprint from the U.K., published in 1997 by Solway. On the back cover of the paperback, there’s a description of the book, which begins like this: “Disagreeing with the pervasive Western idea that the arts exist essentially for the purpose of atheistic contemplation, Nicholas Wolterstorff proposes instead what he sees as an authentically Christian perspective: that art has a legitimate, even necessary, place in everyday life.”
Typos are a terrible distraction—as an editor, I had many nightmares that featured such blunders—but at times they seem almost inspired. Yes, Wolterstorff wrote about the way in which “works of art become surrogate gods, taking the place of God the Creator; aesthetic contemplation takes the place of religious adoration; and the artist becomes one who in agony of creation brings forth objects in absorbed contemplation of which we experience what is of ultimate significance in human life.” So “atheistic contemplation” is not a bad description of what the “institution of high art” (low art, too) even today nudges us toward.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.