Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980. 250 pp)

Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. He has also taught at Calvin College, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Notre Dame. He has received numerous fellowships and serves on the editorial boards for Faith and Philosophy, Topics in Philosophy, and is the general editor for the Supplementary Textbook Project of the Christian College Coalition.

In Pursuit of Art

One of my most favorite classes as an undergrad explored the philosophy of art. Why do we pursue art? What constitutes a work of art compared to just work? How does the productization of art alter its form? Can an artist be professional and be an artist? What is the role of beauty in art? Does art demand contemplation?

Nicholas Wolterstorff approaches these questions theologically in Art in Action.

Wolterstorff breaks down his argument into three basic parts. He begins the process through an exploration of the overall function of art. Then, he questions the use of art within society. Finally, he journeys toward a Christian approach to aesthetic contemplation.

Ultimately, Wolsterstorff presents his thesis quickly and succinctly:

“In this essay, I want to argue, on the contrary, that works of art are objects and instruments of action. They are all inextricably embedded in the fabric of human intention. They are objects and instruments of action whereby we carry out our intentions with respect to the world, our fellows, ourselves, and our gods. Understanding art requires understanding art in man’s life” (3).

In other words, art exists as art insofar as it operates in conjunction with human community.

Defining Art

So then, what constitutes art? Wolsterstorff suggests:

“Art—so often thought of as a way of getting out of the world—is man’s way of acting in the world. Artistically man acts” (5).

The human element of art, the mimicry of creation with the result of a form for human contemplation. That defines art against mere object. Whether sculpture, paint, the written word, the notes of a melody. The action of a human being behind the creativity produces art.

Art in Society

Given such a definition of art, the role of art in society emerges as its own divine being. Wolterstorff notes,

“Much more common is the secular vision that aesthetic contemplation of works of art is itself of ultimate worth. Works of art are not windows onto a divinity beyond. They are themselves divine. ‘Art for art’s sake’s’” (49).

Under such a position, the artist becomes divorced from art. Instead of the art form as a medium for communication between artist and audience, the artist pushes her creation out of the nest as soon as it hatches, allowing it to float aimlessly in the psyche of society.

The Deeper Role of Art

But, Wolterstorff contends this position. Art represents a deeper function in the cultural life of a community.

“Over and over when surveying representational art we are confronted with the obvious fact that the artist is not merely projecting a world which has caught his private fancy, but a world true in significant respects to what his community believes to be real and important” (144).

Quite often, life presents itself in a murky gray of confusion. The daily approach to how a community functions provides confusion to active community participant. Instead of representing an escape from reality, art operates as a key to translate reality in a more meaningful way. Art shines a light on what is real and important.

From a Christian perspective, Wolterstorff suggests that art plays a critical role in bringing the Creation Mandate from Genesis 1:28 to life. Just as God, the first gardener, brings life to the world. God calls humanity to garden, to bring forth culture through creative acts. Art, then, becomes a mechanism through which shalom—the peace and flourishing of humanity—appears in the world.

A classic text, Art in Action explores a theological approach to aesthetic creation and contemplation. Art plays an active role in society. So go forth and create.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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