Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Art and the oppressed

On another blog, I waxed eloquent about art. In particular, I said this:
One aspect of a Christian approach to the arts needs to be a dignifying of the "common"....Of course, the "overlooked" and "common" include people. The world overlooks the weak and powerless as being meaningless. However, as the hands of God, we cannot afford to pass over those who are neglected. Dignifying the common includes pointing to the image of God in the common and overlooked people around us. Another task of the Christian artist is to speak for those who would speak but are unable. Doesn't this include being a voice for the voiceless and a protector for the oppressed?
Adiel requested some elaboration of this point. So, here goes. Hang on to your hats; this is a weird tour through my mind. Ready? One of the turning points for my understanding of aesthetics was a lecture given by Michael Card at the 2003 Evangelical Press Association convention. One of his points was the necessity for artists to live in community. Not with other artists, mind you. With "normal people". As a result, then, the artist works on addressing the artistic needs of his community. For example, one facet of this, according to Card, is to voice the feelings of others for them. This was noted in the context of laments, for instance. I put this together with a lecture from George Grant on the infamous Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
In this lecture, he discussed each word in that verse. Along the way, he talked about how Christianity ennobles the common, that Biblical values bring nobility and worth to that which is otherwise overlooked. Things like motherhood or hard work. I take all of this and put it together with my developing understanding of the role of the Church in society. I see a portion of the prophetic voice to be the voice from outside the world system that critiques the assumptions and claims of power by those who are mighty. An extended quote from David Dark fits here:
Apocalyptic, correctly understood, reminds us that the language of "the kingdom of God" isn't referring to some politically irrelevant eternity of otherworldly existence. To say that it is "at hand" or "hear" is a directive to "repent" and enter into a new way of life that aligns itself with the purposes of shalom. If we miss the political significance of the Lord's Prayer, for instance, we entirely miss its meaning as a call for apocalypse now that acknowledges, invites, and pledges allegiance to the age to come while forcefully renouuncing the legitimacy of whatever lesser gods compete for our adoration. ("Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory"). We're assisted in our understanding of what's at stake in these matters when we note John Milbank's description of the crucifixation and, we might add, the persecution of the early church as "the rejection by the political-economic order of a completely new sort of social imagination." Apocalyptic was and is the only language adequate to describe this new beginning while maintaining its practice as one of constant exodus. It keeps religion strange and ready to question the given "reality" of the day. Without apocalyptic, no questioning occurs and the biblical voice is easily edited (or censored) to the point that it appears to support whatever sentimental sap or suburban self-improvement program it's pasted upon. What should have been, for starters, good news for the poor and down-trodden is neatly packaged (and quoted out of context) to look good beside a basket full of puppies on a greeting card. A political-economic order has nothing to fear from a sentimental, fully "spiritualized" faith."
(Everyday Apocalypse, p. 14-15. Bolded emphasis mine.) Or, to quote from Psalm 146, "Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in Yahweh his God...who executes justice for the oppressed." (Psalm 146:5,7a) Add to this the comments of Peter Leithart, when discussing the political ramifications of the Lord's Supper. We welcome all believers to the Lord's Table, be they rich or poor, strong or weak, young or old, white or black, healthly or sick, whole or crippled. By doing so, we acknowledge that all these belong with us. The apostle Paul writes, "On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another." (1 Corinthians 12:22-25) The world finds no value in the weak, the sick, or the crippled. Yet it is precisely these people that God gathers together into His Church. So, as Christians striving to be artists, we must consider this aspect of God's nature. So, how do we do this? I have several thoughts. Obviously, there is the depiction of the oppressed to the oppressor. This is a fairly common use of art, if you think about it, although it frequently becomes merely propaganda. There's also providing the tools of expression to the oppressed. Just consider the anonymous authors of the Negro spirituals. They wrote songs for their oppressed people, which gave them to words to sing of heaven. You can also create works that embody the valuing of the weak and oppressed. Consider The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien understood that God uses the weak to shame the strong, which is why he wrote about hobbits. Finally, you can create works which encourage a certain way of thinking. A great example of this is the game Go. I have said that I enjoy playing Go because the thought processes that are required to play Go are the same that lead to good living. The experience of the game leads to congruent thought patterns elsewhere. So, in some sense, I do think that playing Go has made me a better person. Now, let's go back to haiku. I completely agree that part of haiku is pointing attention at the overlooked. Haiku can therefore be used to call attention to overlooked people. The haiku poet Issa is particularly well-known for this. Some of his haiku carry with them such a powerful rage against suffering and oppression that it's almost painful to read. Here's are a couple of examples: This stupid world-- skinny mosquitoes, skinny fleas skinny children The fat priest-- edging out while he reads the last prayer Feel the rage? Also, haiku places certain demands on the reader. The moment depicted is boiled down to its essential points; the rest must be filled in by the reader. This is characteristic of the Zen aesthetic, which tends to erode the creator/audience division. As a result, haiku cannot merely be read; they must be contemplated. I might even say that they need to be meditated upon. This attitude of contemplation or meditation carries over into the rest of life. Suddenly, you find yourself watching leaves blowing along the road or cream swirling in your coffee and realize that these things matter. And then, perhaps, you look at the unnoticed people around you, the ones that are mere details in your life, and you realize that they also matter. Like the cashier at the grocery store, the one that everyone treats as though she were merely the biological wetware of the point of sale system. Maybe even she has started to believe it. But you know better, don't you? Because there is immeasurable worth in the commonplace. As Tolkien wrote, "All that is gold does not glitter." All that from haiku? Absolutely. One of the battles of our day is the battle for the arts. Many of you who are reading this desire to pursue the fine arts as a calling or career. Remember that your calling is high. The arts are merely another avenue for ministry, and you must do your part. Michael Card points as Jesus' washing the disciples' feet and says, "If your art isn't washing someone else's feet, then what good is it?" Whose feet are you washing with your art? Is your art really any good? Or are you just lusting after the limelight? Something to contemplate, eh?


Blogger Eric said...

i love what you wrote about haiku. there's a lot here to reflect on . . . and i've quoted & linked you in my haiku blog. if you disapprove, i'll delete it. have a great day.

1/26/2006 07:30:00 AM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

No, Eric, that's great. Thanks for reading!

1/26/2006 10:28:00 AM  

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