04 October 2012

Sproul on Art #3

Sproul on the Arts Report #3
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

Sproul began by talking about “subjective” vs. “objective” standards for art. I've been fumbling with some ideas of subjectivity and objectivity in one of my responses, too, but in a different way. Instead of turning to “science,” as I'm trying to do, Sproul turned to “Classical” culture. First he spent some time denigrating our current culture, claiming that it denies objective truth and absolutes. Well, sure it does, but James K. A. Smith and others have written about the positive side of postmodernism, poststructuralism, relativism, and pluralism for the Church, so I don't think we should get too exercised by this anti-objectivism. But anyway, I'm supposed to be summarizing, not responding.

Sproul went on to say that obviously there are subjective responses to works of art, and personal preferences for one work or another. But, he said, the question is about NORMATIVITY vs. RELATIVITY, and that the question turns on the word “ought”: Is there an art that Christians OUGHT to appreciate?

He did not answer the question outright. Instead, he talked about the words “value” and “ethics,” saying that traditionally, we have though about the ethics of a choice, which is objective, and now we think about the value of a choice, which is subjective. That seems a bit simplistic to me—but let me proceed.

He added to this question another one about “Art Appreciation”: Should we transcend our personal preferences?

Then he reframed the question as a difference between CHAOS and COSMOS: chaos is unintelligible, disordered; a cosmos is a place with an inherent, systemic, knowable order (the kind articulated by empiricist and rationalist philosophies). Then he talked about logic and chaos theory, which both as “Is there an order?” Both presuppose a formal, rational, harmonious structure. He mentioned Plato's Academy, over the door of which was a sign reading “Let none but geometers enter here,” meaning that therein the study of Form was pursued in its mathematical relationships.

So then he introduced Aristotle's Classical “Primary Necessities for Order,” suggesting that they were thus the objective standards by which we can judge Art:


Curt Day said...

My personal opinion is that Sproul should keep his comments on the arts to private discussions. That is because the arts are not his strong suit.

The standards that Sproul forces on the arts imply a qualifying process dictating that art appreciation should be an edifying experience. Certainly, art appreciation can have constructive effects on the audience, but we should note that any destructive effects that Sprouls worries will come from bad are are nothing more than drawing out what is in the audience.

And this is the point, the arts are a window to the soul of society. From the trivial to the deep, all are shown by the arts. And if we want to know the direction of society, we can little afford to ignore the arts.

This brings us to how we should react to works of art that reveal the not so good size of society. This doesn't mean that we must indulge in all of the arts, we just need to use the trivial to the evil expressions of art to become aware of the world around us.

But let me talk out of both sides of my mouth. As a member of the audience who experiences art, the arts should act as a mirror. The arts tell me what my world is like. But as a creator in the arts, art must be subversive. It must go beyond painting sidewalk portraits to contrasting the choice between the ghost of Christmas future and the possibility of change. We should also note how many artists who believe that art must be subversive appear as Balaam's donkey to the world. All of the idiosyncrasies that artists must live through to create what they do repel those in the audience who most need to pay attention. As Simon and Garfunkle wrote that "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls."

It appears to me that Sproul misses an adequate appreciation of the arts and how we can use them to both see into the soul of society as well as use them to speak correction. In Sproul's way, the arts should be used as a high-end otc drug.

Iambic Admonit said...

Hear, hear.

jfutral said...

"the arts are a window to the soul of society"

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, whether the heart and mouth are the artist's or the viewer's.

"the arts should act as a mirror"

As i think about this, this a puzzling metaphor. A mirror of the usual kind (not talking house of mirrors that distort)shows nothing in particular, only what is placed before it. What the viewer sees is not just what the mirror reveals, it reveals only what is before it. What the viewer sees is dependent on the viewer's eye. The anorexic, for instance, will see only someone who is too fat.

I'm reminded of a Phil Keaggy song with words written by Helen McDowell:

Once I prayed, I knew not what I said.
Show me myself, oh Lord,
Alas I did not dread
The hideous sight which now
I shudder to behold,
Because I knew not self-aright.

And I was led in answer to my prayer,
As step by step to see
My wretched heart lay bare.
Then I prayed,
Stay, Lord, I cannot bear the sight.
And pityingly His hand was stayed,
His hand was stayed.

Now I pray, I know that prayer is right,
Show me Thyself, oh Lord,
Be to myself the Bright and Morning Star
To shine upon the grave of self
And lead my heart from earth afar,
From earth afar.

I say this only to ponder that a mirror only shows what the viewer is able or wiling to see. And the mirror itself does not offer the correction only possibly at best, the need for one.

And what of the possibility that the mirror itself needs subverting?


Iambic Admonit said...

Well said, Joe.