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We Work in Beauty

It's a rather bizarre question, to be sure, probably even more bizarre in a world that doesn't quite take the arts—those disciplines we might see as most concerned with beauty—seriously in terms of doing useful things like solving hunger or poverty, creating infrastructure or renewable sources of energy, or, of course, bettering the national GDP.

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Topics: Arts, Vocation
We Work in Beauty March 28, 2014  |  By Doug Sikkema
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This week I had the chance to talk about Wendell Berry in a course in International Political Economy taught by former Cardusian Robert Joustra. One aspect of the discussion that arrested my attention had to do with the relationship that the arts might have with economics. It's easy to talk a good game about the need for a liberal arts approach to education and the overlap in various disciplines, but when push comes to shove and we need to solve real problems, "How," as Joustra cheekily asked, "can beauty save the world?"

It's a rather bizarre question, to be sure, probably even more bizarre in a world that doesn't quite take the arts—those disciplines we might see as most concerned with beauty—seriously in terms of doing useful things like solving hunger or poverty, creating infrastructure or renewable sources of energy, or, of course, bettering the national GDP. The arts are nice, but frivolous.

I could make an apologetic for the usefulness of what we might call (problematically) fine arts, but I'm not going to. Rather, I think what might be more important—if not more interesting—is to look at the faulty thinking which undergirds our separation of art from science: the "useless" from the "useful." Such ideas were, perhaps ironically, summed up best in a line concluding Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "All art is quite useless." Now the aesthetic movement is long dead, but our understanding of the arts might still be indebted to such divisions. When you trace the money trail of government research grants or student enrollment numbers, it's not hard to see that the scales are tipped in favor of those disciplines which will enact useful change: science, engineering, mathematics, economics.

We like binaries: natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, art and science, practical and abstract. And while we shouldn't negate distinctions, we separate all of these at a serious risk to how we think and behave. There's a wonderful book by Nicolas Wolterstorff called Art in Action, which reacts to our modern notion that art is only for isolated aesthetic responses. Stained glass might be beautiful hung in the Louvre, but it was really intended for a purpose in the context of a religious life in the cathedral. Works of art had a function. Wolterstorff makes the convincing case that art must—as it always did—have a function, and I'd argue that our public lives must, conversely, also have an artistic function.

What does that mean? It means that a proper notion of art is not reduced to those creative enterprises like oil painting, piano playing, or breakdancing; art is essential to the work we are all called to do. Whether it's fixing drains or grammatical structure, installing solar panels or inventing the latest solar technologies, cooking appetizers or developing apps (you get it …), all good work demands a certain discipline, attention, and creativity if we are to ever do it well.

In "Two Economies," Wendell Berry argues:

In the industrial economy, the arts and the sciences are specialized "professions," each having its own language, speaking to none of the others. But the Great Economy [or the Kingdom of God, as he calls it earlier] proposes arts and sciences of membership ways of doing and ways of knowing that cannot be divided from each other.

For Berry this is not simply the art of working well, it's the art of living well. It's the ability to embody virtues in practices that are not simply charity or fidelity, but "good farming, good forestry, good carpentry, good husbandry, good weaving and sewing, good homemaking, good parenting, good neighborhood." Of course, this involves a radical reorientation of how many of us think about work and perhaps a radical rethinking of some of the "work" our world might now require.

A few weeks ago, Brian Dijkema talked about considering our ability and willingness to sacrifice as a measure of our ability to do good work. And this is the proper start of thinking "artfully" about work. Work is not simply that thing we do which gives us money, power, prestige (all good things). Work is, in other words, not simply something that serves us. It's also, like any "fine" artist might tell you, something we must serve if we are to ever do it in ways that are good, true, and even beautiful.

The oft-quoted line from Prince Myshkin, "Beauty will save the world," is arguably the words of a fool.  Myshkin is, after all, The Idiot’s titular character.  The wisdom of the fool is not something that should be so easily dismissed; especially if the world has gone mad, the upside down logic of the imbecile might just be the only thing standing right side up. And to save the world is not simply a matter of creating great works of art, it's also learning how to creatively engage in the art of great work.

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