Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Beauty of Stewardship

Just finished Wendell Berry's The Way of Ignorance.
Mind blown.

I've always had a rather suspicious view of art. First, there's my own make-up. I am much more comfortable with things that are measurable and quantifiable. I much prefer things I can track or prove to things that are subjective. Facts don't need a beholder; they just are.

Second, though, is my experience with representatives from the art world. I get all squinty-eyed and suspicious when dealing with artists. And my art appreciation prof back in college essentially finished me off.

He defined art as "the manipulation of materials by a human being for aesthetic purposes." Dr. Courtney would be pleased, I suppose, that I still remember his definition, word for word, twenty-six years later. He would probably be less pleased to know that it was because I was on to him.

'By a human being.' That was the important part. Why? I'll tell you why. The great art hoax of 1964. One Pierre Brassau, who wowed the art world in Goteborg, Sweden, and prompted one art critic to write that he "paints with powerful strokes but also with clear determination. His brushstrokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer."

Modern Art is Dumb.
Exhibit A:
Brassau was really a monkey named Peter.
Not even kidding.

Yup. Journalist Ake Axelsson gave a monkey a canvas and some paints--and dumped the modern art world on its head. You know you're in trouble when a monkey can keep up with your brilliance...

Anyway, back to my class.  Dr.Courtney also insisted, when not attacking Truth with broad strokes (and I'll get to that in a moment), that art does not imitate life. Up went a slide of Eric Enstrom's Grace accompanied by a monologue peppered with disdain and a flick of the thumb and 'anyone can do that.'

Oh? 'Cause I couldn't.

No, real art shakes off the surly bonds of earth and transcends mere creation. Catch what he was saying there. The work of the Master Artist was not worth imitating. We creatures could do better. And speaking of God, who really believed all that stuff about sin and salvation anyway? His eyes surveyed the class.

Seminar class.
Over 300 students.
This was my heart-pound-in-my-chest, I-don't-have-a-choice, I-have-to-do-this moment.
I raised my hand. I was the only one.
His eyes locked on mine.
"Do you?" he asked. "And can you briefly explain what you think the Bible says to the rest of the class?"

Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.
"That we are all sinners; that Jesus had to die for us because of that; that without Him, we go to hell--

"Actually," the good doctor interrupted, "the Bible never mentions hell. Not once. But thank you for being honest."

Oh, he was a peach.

Alas, the midterm was a nightmare. I can't even remember the picture, but I remember the test. He put a slide up on the screen. We wrote an analysis in our blue books. The end. I got a 'D.' Apparently, though, so did the rest of the class. So the last half of the semester came and went, during which he continued his relentless attack on 'bad' art, which was really good art,  and praised 'good' art, which was really not art at all. Then there was that field trip to the Norton Museum of Art where he told us (I promise I am not making this up) that the best painting in there was a Jackson Pollock. No way. I could have sworn it was a drop cloth.

Modern Art is Dumb.
Exhibit B.
Jackson Pollock.
Rumor has it that Pollock set out, with his drip paintings, to prove chaos. What he did, though, was prove order. Tortured soul? Perhaps. Artist? I can't even.

But the final. That was memorable. Here was the deal. He told us that if we could ace the final, he would toss the midterm and give us an 'A' in the class.

And the slide? Oh gosh, I couldn't believe it. The slide was...
Composition III in Red, Yellow, and Blue by Piet Mondrian. (Look it up; I'll wait... ... ...) I about fell out of my chair. I didn't know whether to laugh or get really angry, throw my blue book at him, and march out of the auditorium.

Modern Art is Dumb.
Exhibit C.
Piet Mondrian.
I could paint this thing with no eyes, no hands, and the stump of my tongue. Peter the Monkey could paint this thing. And I was supposed to analyze this?

Now let me just say that I am not one to get on your prayer chain unless there is blood, fire, or exposed bone.  But I did call in the reinforcements for this day. And knowing that people I loved were praying for me, I started to write. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. Oh, this was rich. This was good. I knew it was good. And I didn't believe a word of it.

I got an 'A.' (Thank you, Lord!)
The great art hoax of 1989. Trust me.

So. Have I sufficiently defended my squinty-eyed suspicion of art?

Modern art is manipulation of materials, dappled by human arrogance and disdain for the Creator, for the purpose of self-glorification.

Enter Wendell Berry.
Start with arrogance, and end in destruction.
Start by humbly admitting our human limitations, and end with creational flourishing.

I don't just mean human flourishing. I have been very focused on human flourishing, certainly in term of what is most important to me: my marriage, my children, my friends, the Church. I mean creational flourishing. I mean taking this world we steward and treating it with greater care, greater understanding, greater awe. I mean seeing the art of the Creator everywhere.

It is Berry's fascination with the earth that has really shaken up my take on the world. And by 'earth', I don't mean 'planet' so much as 'dirt.' When I think of the beauty of the earth, I think of our planet: the magnificent mountains, the towering redwoods, and our vast oceans. I think in grand, large-scale, epic proportions. But Berry thinks of the dirt right underneath our feet, the creek running through our property, the working animals, and the diligent caretaker.

Berry loves the dirt. He loves the things that live in the dirt and on the dirt and off the dirt. He loves living forests and clean water and working farms. This agrarian topic is so far outside my areas of interest, part of me couldn't believe I was still reading. But Berry's humble, gentle love for Creation compelled me to read one essay after another. My art prof thought Creation wasn't even worth imitating; Berry leaves his reader understanding that Creation is not just worth imitating; it's worth preserving.

Art has always been the Ecclesiastes of my story: meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.

I now see art in other places. I see art in a logger and the way he loves his horses and his forests.
I see art in a rancher who turns his land from an overgrazed wasteland to a working wilderness.
I see art in man finding, not job, but vocation.

In short, I now see art in stewardship, and I'm inclined to re-write my art prof's definition of art:
Art is the use of Creation by the stewards of Creation to reflect back glory to the Creator. 

I don't think God ever intended for elbows coming out of foreheads to be art. Or nudes walking down staircases. Or green crayons on notebook paper.

But that's precisely what we get when we forget there is a Creator, and He has a purpose.
That's what we get, Denethor, when we forget we're stewards, and we think we're king.
We act like monkeys trying to make masterpieces--and it shows.

Modern 'art' today fails because of its insipid self-absorption and its disdain of creation. On the other hand, environmentalism fails because it deifies the earth and vilifies the steward. Only dominion helps us to see everything as God intended in the very good beginning.  Therefore, only dominion will bring about creational flourishing, for flora, for fauna, and for man.

It's as if the Master Artist had beauty in mind all along. Only His plan of dominion can redeem the manipulation of materials by a human being for aesthetic purposes. Veer into either the ditch of modern art or the ditch of environmentalism...
and we miss beauty completely.

We have a great capacity to hurt. That includes not just each other, but the places where we live. That's the Fall. But we have a great ability to rule and to restore. That's grace.
And that's beautiful.

That's a beauty that Pollock and Mondrian and Dr. Courtney know not of.