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Contemplation vs. Action: Art and a Social Conscience

Art is capable of soaring beyond contemplative piety to transform the world creativity that addresses important humanitarian and social issues in a world gone awry.

It will be obvious to anyone who has even minimal acquaintance with the Christian tradition that spiritual life has found expression in both withdrawal and engagement with the world around us. There has been much debate over the generations as to which is the better way. Are we best to withdraw from the world and give ourselves to cultivating a life of contemplation or to opt for the practice of engagement where we are actively involved in seeking to make the world a better place? Each has its appeal. And we may be wise to say that it need not be a case of one or the other.

I am wondering about what is often referred to as the prophetic role of the arts.

Many have written about the creative tension present in these two forces in human life. In a little book called The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring—author Parker J. Palmer speaks of his own struggle to sort out which of these to be devoted to. After a long journey and much effort to cultivate the contemplative side of life, he concluded he was an activist at heart. Though recognizing the value of each, he adopted a model of contemplation-in-action.

It could be said that this is a life or death matter. What I mean is that either of these options can serve to enliven us or can draw life from us. One needs only to note the frenzied pace of contemporary urban living and how it destroys our relationships and shrivels our inner life while on the other hand activism for the sake of others can bring great satisfaction and meaning into our lives. Or observe how the turn inward to contemplation can either nurture and refresh the spirit or render us disconnected on matters of justice and the challenge of making our world a better place. It should be clear that they may be life-giving or life-denying depending on how we exercise these options.

When we hear talk of Christian piety we are more likely to think in terms of a turn inward than a turn outward—though piety can be found in both forms in the Christian tradition. I am following this line of thought as a way into some reflection on how we look at art. I want to suggest that there are some forms of aesthetic piety present in our culture? The term "piety" here is to be taken in a more positive than negative way.

Those of a more modern turn will exercise their aesthetic piety in terms of contemplation. The work we find in museums, galleries, theatres and concert halls is there for us to contemplate. We are to be moved by the beauty of what we see or hear. We are to be affirmed in our humanity and reminded again of how much we are capable of as human beings. It is a piety that cultivates a strong sense of the resourcefulness of our human community. A postmodern aesthetic piety is likely to find us rejoicing in self-expression more interested in novelty than in beauty or harmony, history or tradition. It is a piety that venerates uniqueness and is prone to disconnect with the past while it champions individual expression.

Now it seems to me there is a third way, an aesthetic sensibility which attends to the value of art as a resource for transforming the world: art with a social conscience, creativity that addresses important humanitarian and social issues in a world gone awry. Believing that art is capable of helping us see more clearly and understand more fully, we can also say that art has the power to move us to act more humanly. I think we can. One of the ways people are invited to give to tsunami relief efforts is through special artistic events, concerts, visual art auctions, drama performances and so on.

Much of Christian piety has been of the other worldly sort, taking us away from the challenging and difficult realities of the circumstances in which we live. Art done by Christians has commonly followed that spiritual model and been disconnected from the gritty reality of ordinary life. The social malaise that confronts us at every turn has been ignored while the "faithful" cultivate their inner life all the time marching with the masses to the tune of a consumerist culture.

I have no quarrel with the idea that art is something to be contemplated nor do I want to say that self-expression is always a problem. However I wonder how artistry might move us down a path of social concern. I am asking how the creative gift expressed in drama, dance, poetry, visual art or music might turn us to some of the deep concerns of our troubled world in such a way that we are moved to make a difference. Let me be clear, I have no wish to set an agenda for artists—to say what they should or must do. I am only asking about what art may be capable of doing. Matters of social concern are not to be mere appendages stuck on to artistic expression, nor ought they to be issues imposed on the artist from outside. Art communicates, and artists have something to say. I am wondering about what is often referred to as the prophetic role of the arts. I don't see much of that and I wonder why.

John Franklin is the executive director of Imago, He can be reached at

Originally published in the Imago Newsletter, Summer 2004.




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