Artists in times of challenge and collapse

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Artists in times of challenge and collapse

by David Benjamin Blower

There is a slightly awkward tension that is sometimes felt when ecclesiastical institutions employ the talents of artists for one purpose or another.

Very occasionally I have found myself reminded of a scene in The Empire Strikes Back. The Imperial fleet, in its oversized slowness, finds itself unable to keep up with some rogue rebels, and so they hire a rabble of bounty hunters to try to capture them. The uniformed and decorated Imperial hierarchy are visibly unsettled by the ragtag band of rubber-faced aliens on board their spotless ship. But the bounty hunters can do what the Imperial fleet cannot. Why? Because they are masterless. They’re not hampered by the many protocols and hierarchies and rules of regulated Imperial life. Their imaginations can go anywhere.

This is not a very endearing comparison, and we will explore later why we can’t really use artists this way. But first let’s explore what is compelling in this vision – that the artists can do what the institution cannot do for itself, because they are free of the institution’s nomos (law or custom). They are not bound by its rules and norms and its particular settled way of being in the word. While most of us walk, as the media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, into the future backwards, always looking to the norms of the past, the artists live somewhat unmoored from that law when need be. They are able to feel ahead into the future and speculate about alternative ways of being that might emerge from the chemistry of the present. For this reason, the institution sometimes finds the artist an odd figure, or even a wilful annoyance. Sometimes the institution humours the artist, and on occasion values their strange soundings. But in times of challenge, change and collapse, the artists suddenly become vital for survival.

Marshall McLuhan put it like this:

In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He [or she], then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand. “The war of 1870 need never have been fought had people read my Sentimental Education,” said Gustave Flaubert.1

And he goes on:

The percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered cliches about the impracticality of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndham Lewis, “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.” Knowledge of this simple fact is now needed for human survival. The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist.2

The prophet Jeremiah was an artist. He offered symbols, performances and language to a moment of bewildering challenge. His work was thoughtfully formed to describe what was happening, why it was happening and how his peers might begin to emotionally integrate the situation. Reading the Fall of Jerusalem as history, we easily miss what was extraordinary about Jeremiah’s work. In retrospect he appears to be doing and saying the obvious thing. We rather proudly imagine that we would have grasped his meaning immediately. But there is a reason why he was almost alone in his actions: he was giving form to thoughts that were entirely outside people’s normative experience and imagination. It is very difficult to contemplate and prepare for an experience we have never had. We are biased against such vision. Jeremiah found his task of making the present comprehensible exhausting and dispiriting, to say the least.

We have said that Jeremiah is an artist because he gives form to what is happening, why it is happening and how to emotionally integrate what is happening. McLuhan describes this difficult task as “trying to predict the present”. But McLuhan also says that the artist “builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand”.3 That is to say, the artist plots possible routes into the future. Why? Because the unmoored imagination is freer to speculate about forms of life that might survive and outlast the challenges of the present. And so, Jeremiah is able to do the unimaginable thing: he tells the exiles in Babylon to settle down and call it home, and even to pray for its prosperity. This thought has no reference point among Jeremiah’s peers except as an act of treason, for which he ends up tossed down a well. Moses does the same artists’ work when, after their 400 years as Egypt’s slave class, he offers the liberated Hebrews alternative forms and norms and laws. Jesus does the same, as does Paul, in readiness for the collapse of Second Temple Judaism in 70 AD. They offer new possible forms of faithful life for people bereft of the old.

We might observe, here, two different hermeneutical energies. One looks at the forms in the text as traditions to be faithfully preserved and carried on by the faithful. And rightly so, because Jeremiah’s future is our past. Another hermeneutic looks not so much at the forms, but at the creative practice of producing them. What kind of listening posture, intuition, spirituality, values and virtues enable us to be creators of faithful new forms in times of challenge and collapse? This is the artist’s hermeneutic: one that is unmoored from the nomos of the past.

And so, it is for this unmoored, creative vision that the Imperial fleet hires the masterless bounty hunters: to do what they cannot do. But Plato knew well that you cannot really employ artists as the Empire employs the bounty hunters. You can’t rely on them to do your bidding for pay, in the service of preserving your institution as it is. There will be an unease in the room, because we know that the artists can’t be trusted with the task of producing work that maintains our institutions. They’re too fascinated with what is happening, emerging and changing. They begin picking holes in all the contradictions we’ve got used to. They may soon be dismantling things before our very eyes.

Thus Plato warns against bringing in the poet to help:

[W]e shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small – he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.4

This heady Republic would be ruined by those who think with their gut. This orderly hierarchy rooted in rigorous knowledge would soon get sloppy among these purveyors of knowing. This institution modelled on unchanging universals would be torn apart by those who give such fanciful attention to the ever-changing particular.

Plato rightly saw that artists do not come to us to serve the fixed norms of our institutions and their aims. Their extraordinary gift is their lack of allegiance to our flags and castles and their faithfulness to whatever it is that is really happening. Not to “the truth” as the philosopher king has dictated it, but to truth as something that is alive, available to all and presently occurring. Jeremiah could not have done what he did without this awkward posture, this “rebellious spirit” as it is sometimes called. Try asking him to write a rousing song to lift the troops’ morale, or to design shiny materials to promote the purposes of the Temple. The aims of the artist and the institution may align, of course. But you can’t reliably fit them like a cog into an existing machine.

American theologian Francis Schaeffer had a remarkable sort of respect for artists and gave much of his energies to understanding their work. But he ultimately saw them as conduits of systems. They were, for him, a step of communication, passing on what academic philosophy was saying, in digestible form, to the masses. He wanted to welcome back the artists, to do the same task for the church. He wanted to hire them to further and preserve the institution as it was. Either way, he saw them as people in service of power, whether of this power or that. But the artists’ prophetic capacity and their potential to frustrate is as it is because they are not bound to power. In their authenticity, artists are bound only to serve what is, as best they can intuit it.

How then can we move from these principles towards a healthier relationship between artists and institutions? If we can begin to relinquish the idea that they ought to serve an institution’s assumed structures and aims, we might then be able to make the unlikely move of accepting, or even recognising, them as part of the institution itself; they might become part of an institution’s ability to think and act beyond itself and its own categories; they might become the institution’s ability to imagine beyond its own homely images, and wander from its own well-trodden paths. The institution that can gently hold this tension has entered into a beautiful kind of self-awareness.

About the author

David Benjamin Blower is a musician, poet, theologian, writer, podcaster and pamphleteer.

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1 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New. York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 65.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid
4 Yael Goldstein, The Republic, Plato: Spark Notes Literature Guide, ed. Jesse Hawkes and Lawrence Gaccon Gladney (New York: Spark
Publications, 2002), 370 (Book X).