The art of being human

In my teaching I find myself, occasionally, reminding my students that they are human beings, not human doings, for surely one of the consequences of the information age is a relentless doing? In London there are those who bring sleeping bags to work, who eat gazing at handhelds, who travel talking into mobile phones, and who do their deals ‘after’ work over a pint. I remind my students that at times it is good to take one’s foot off the accelerator — to simply be, for are we or are we not human beings? It has to be said that Christians are, on the whole, equally manic: great at doing things, not least some pretty exhausting services on the ‘sabbath’. Perhaps this is why within popular (I would use the term ‘unthinking’) Christianity there is a lot of talk about the afterlife, conceived in terms of clouds, interminable hymn-singing, gazing on divine glory, and, generally, taking a well-earned rest.

It is then, perhaps, paradoxical to note that what distinguishes us as a genus from our fellow creatures is our ability to ‘do’ things. Some have characterised this in terms of our tool-making and tool-using abilities, and it is true that this is well-developed in humans, but even the humble thrush will use a stone to break a snail for his lunch. As David Jones suggested as early as 1942 (lamenting the hegemony of technology in an age when colour television was still a dream), of more interest is our ability to create ‘art’: considered, creative works that require, more than anything else, the ability to conceive reality in temporal and contextual terms. Art, above all else, expresses one thing in terms of another; it recognises the timeline of unfolding history and the place of the artist within it; it concerns the ability to conceptualise and symbolise. Some have suggested (particularly Coleridge and his successors) that it is this creative spirit, this gift of the divine, that distinguishes us uniquely as being made in the image of God.

In many societies—whether communist, capitalist, or whatever—this concept has been reduced to simply the ability to ‘manufacture’: people were made in the image of a god who valued production more than creativity; artefacts more than art; usefulness above gratuitousness, and it is perhaps this latter attribute that distinguishes the Christian God from the god of the factories. All men may well be created equal, but, as Jones remarks,

‘Men are equal in the sense they they are all equally judged to be men because all behave as artists…The more man behaves as artist and the more the artist as man determines the whole shape of his behaviour, so much the more is he Man.’ (‘Art and Democracy’ in Art and Epoch).

For art, uniquely amongst the portfolio of human output, is gratuitous: it does not have to be produced; it is not utilitarian, but speaks, ultimately, of grace. Such output, though, does have one considerable and irreplaceable role to play in human society (not lost on the communists): it creates culture — the expression of what we esteem and value: in short, it is the expression of worship in a society. Is not a society that worships only the ephemeral products of consumerism therefore in profound danger?

I need to draw the distinction here between three types of production. Marx’s utilitarian products form one group, then there are the less tangible products of consumerism and art. The latter two both claim to point beyond themselves towards a transcendent reality, but the ‘brands’ of capitalism only offer a hollow parody of something ‘beyond’. Capitalist consumerism is, to put it bluntly, founded on creating a market for goods that don’t exist. These ‘goods’ are aspirations, dreams with little more substance than the heavenly vision described earlier. Clothes, perfume, cars, mobile phones: these are seldom bought for what they do, but what the represent — the promise of fulfilment, the membership of a club — the hollow dream of a marketing manager with no more substance than a video game. And, as such ‘goods’ do not satisfy, the hapless consumer is sentenced to a lifetime of spending to support the phantom economy of dreams. To put it another way, ‘brands’ point towards a non-existent transcendent: they spawn icons without referents; they are a passport to a world that does not exist; ends in themselves. The god of this temple is never satisfied, however great the sacrifice.

In contrast, the production of art speaks of a transcendent and, in its gratuitousness, subverts consumerism. The transcendent may not be divine: it may, for example, point towards what Rowan Williams refers to as the ‘social miracle’ (Lost Icons), an awareness that individuality is only truly meaningful in the context of community. But however it speaks, art has a voice that always calls beyond itself; it is always the invitation to turn away from self towards an ‘other’. That ‘other’ may not be positive: it would be naive to suggest that all symbols, myths and metaphors are (as Paul Avis observes) ‘innocent’, however, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, both as artist or ‘consumer’, art has the potential, perhaps the mandate, to become a pathway to God.

Recognising the power of art in these terms puts us on a collision course with Marx, Adam Smith and Calvin. In the former’s case, art is emasculated, annexed, enslaved as a reluctant evangelist for the cause. For Smith it subverts the power of logic and market forces and is not to be trusted. For the latter, art is a demon to be exorcised from Christianity, a ‘teacher of lies’ leading the faithful astray, for ‘whatever men learn respecting God from images is…frivolous and false’ (Institutes, Book I, Ch.XI, 5). Without doubting Calvin’s laudable zeal for reform, the iconoclastic spirit unleashed into the church by such statements (which fail to distinguish between the medium and the message, and fail, therefore, to recognise that the imagination, with its artistic ‘voice’,  is — as Avis suggests —  the primary medium through which we encounter divine truth) has bequeathed to Christianity — and not only Protestant christianity — a bitter legacy that, in R.S. Thomas’ words, has, ‘botched our flesh and left us only the soul’s terrible impotence in a warm world’ (Song of the Year’s Turning, 1955).

So are we to be human beings or ‘human doings’? It seems to me that this is the wrong question, but rather concerns the nature of the doing. (Of course, simply ‘being’ is an ‘activity’ we should not neglect: ‘there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God’ and it would be both foolish and naive to assume that we can live our lives without this dimension.) In a world that consistently ignores the transcendent (or offers a phoney substitute), perhaps we should consider whether our ‘doing’ is ameliorating or compounding the problem. ‘Art’ does not have to be a grand master; it begins with the choice to recognise the other, and to act without the preoccupation with self or the motivation of capitalism. It is the choice to be God’s masterpiece (‘poiema’, Eph.2:10), to live gratuitously, to lay down our lives for our friends. Curiously, this posture of ‘artistic’ self-denial is the only pathway to self-fulfilment, and, in a further paradox, creates a society in which the previously alienated self can now find meaning.

If, as noted, ‘culture’ is made up of those things that a society cultivates — those things it waters and tends that they might grow — then the visible symbols, its icons, are simply the evidence of its homage and sacrifice — its worship. Two important conclusions result from this observation. The first is that even a cursory look at the icons of popular western capitalism reveals an astounding bankruptcy of depth — a trivialness that truly ‘beggars belief’. (I use the word ‘popular’ because, whilst one could argue that we are guardians and producers of some great art, very little seems to impact popular, everyday culture.) Secondly, it follows from this discussion that art must therefore play an important role, for — whether conceived in religious terms or simply as as human gift — art has the ability to lead us beyond the destructive self-obsession of technocratic postmodernity. It may even lead us back into the arms of God.

Further reading
Avis, Paul D. L. God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol, and Myth in Religion and Theology. London: Routledge, 1999.
Jones, David Michael. Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings. Edited by Grisewood Harman. London: Faber, 1959.
Williams, Rowan. Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement. London: Morehouse, 2000.