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The Art Of Not Knowing: Embracing Discomfort and Nuance in our Work

The tension that can sometimes exist between the ‘Christian’ world and the ‘art’ world is something which will doubtless be familiar to readers of Sputnik.

It’s no secret that the art that many Christians prefer and expect of their artists does not always correlate with the art those artists end up creating. Often, there is an expectation from Christians for work that is easy to understand and interpret. Christian art, in the minds of many Christians, should have a clear evangelistic or worshipful bent – delivering transparent messages about the goodness of God or denouncements of evil and thus reflecting reassuring truths and a sense of certainty. Behind it all, there is a genuine need to ‘know’.

Our discomfort with uncertainty

Granted, a preference for certainty is not unique within the Christian sphere. Guardian writer Jonathan Jones recently published an article decrying the selection of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon as Britain’s best-loved piece of art – the key criticism being how immediately ‘readable’ the image is, how it lacks subtlety and depth of interpretation. Jones comments:

“Banksy makes art for the media age, particularly the social media age – art you can share in a second because it gives up its entire meaning immediately. He has invented the artistic equivalent of a tweet. You see it, you get it. (…) This is what scares and depresses me about Banksy. The very lack of art in his art is what makes it popular. Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult.”

While the need for reassurance through certainty represents a barrier to engagement in complex and nuanced art generally, I have been wondering whether the issue has particular relevance within the church. Which is to say, within the protestant church tradition especially. At least, this is the view taken by Stephen Proctor of the Illuminate podcast. He argues that in the wake of the reformation “mystery was excommunicated from the church”, leaving a “purely didactic religion that fed black and white information to the mind”, a change which followed the removal of artwork from churches as they now represented a ‘distraction’ rather than a legitimate form of spiritual engagement.

The need for reassurance through certainty represents a barrier to engagement in complex and nuanced art

Although I would not describe my own protestant upbringing as “purely didactic”, I do recognise in myself a desire to have answers and ‘be right’ when it comes to spiritual matters, something which has caused internal conflict when faced with the realities of living out a religious faith.

As an example, a couple of months ago my church small group were studying the tricky Bible passage regarding Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). It was interesting to reflect upon how the passage raised difficult questions for us and that our immediate urge was to scour the text and commentaries, in the hope of gaining definite answers to these questions and therefore ease the discomfort associated with our uncertainty.

The conclusion of that evening was that perhaps the sense of unease the passage engenders within us is an important thing to ‘sit with’, rather than something to be explained away.

The implication and tension for artists

If there is some wider truth to my observations, this will no doubt pose a problem for the Christian artist. As Jonny has previously noted, artists are often the type to question everything and sometimes these questions don’t lead to clear answers. As Keats famously said, a key characteristic of an artist is their ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, something which he termed ‘Negative Capability’. The presence of such individuals and their work is no doubt going to rankle those members of the church for whom questions are useful to the extent that they provide answers, and doubt is useful to the extent that, in time, it serves as a catalyst for greater certainty.

Of course there is a balance to tread. We cannot go the whole way and embrace post-modernism. If an artist calls themselves a Christian, they are making claim to a certain number of presuppositions that they choose to believe (if not ‘know’ in the absolute sense). If we chose to believe in the existence of God, this initial belief will colour our world-view with a number of assumed absolute truths and certainties pertaining to God’s nature and character. However, we must also acknowledge that, due to our limitations as humans, our abilities to understand and engage with these truths and certainties are, for now, somewhat unsatisfactory.

Wrestling with questions, ‘being with’ uncertainty and discomfort under a lack of definitive answers are challenges the Christian artist can, and must, embrace

Philosopher Albert Camus talked about the absurdity of life – for him as an atheist, this represented the tension between our need for ultimate meaning and purpose and the inability of the Universe to provide this. Although this particular tension is more easily recoiled for a Christian, we too will have to struggle with certain ‘absurdities’ arising from our understanding of reality.

One example of this, and  perhaps the most obvious, is the problem of evil – much time and effort has been engaged in providing theological justification for the existence of suffering, but for the Christian who has both compassion and a firm belief in the benevolence of God, this is likely to be something they will have to wrestle with for the rest of their lives. And ‘wrestling’ with questions such as this, ‘being with’ uncertainty and discomfort and bearing up under lack of definitive answers are challenges which the Christian artist can, and must, embrace.

The fulfilment in not knowing

As a final point, one example of such ‘wrestling’ is found in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky uses the text to grapple with a number of questions regarding the nature of morality, religious faith and the existence of God. Furthermore, despite being an Orthodox Christian, The Brothers Karamazov contains one of literature’s greatest arguments against the traditional Christian faith, delivered via the character of Ivan, a compassionate and atheistic intellectual. One of the reasons I read the book was because I was told the rest of the text contains an ‘answer’ to Ivan’s challenge.

Yet whereas the beliefs and actions of Ivan’s brother Alyosha provide something of a counterpoint to Ivan’s challenge, nowhere in the text does he provide a logical, knock-down counter-argument to Ivan’s reasoned critique. Dostoyevsky portrays the actions and interactions of his characters and then allows the reader to draw their own conclusions without providing any definite answers. This is no doubt one of the reasons the book had become lauded by believers and atheists alike – like all great art (and unlike Girl With Balloon), the text is open to multiple and nuanced interpretations.

Yet despite the lack of clear answers, the book overall is emotionally satisfying and shows that sometimes there is a paradoxical sense of fulfilment that arises from not knowing.

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