I have just published a blog post over at church and postmodern culture: conversation, the site that supports philosopher Jamie Smith's series for Baker Academic. (You can read it here.) In it I offer a defense of Veritas Riff, a new initiative developed by Andy Crouch and Michael Lindsay through Veritas Forum that is intended to help evangelical Christian academics reach larger and different audiences with their projects. Through my experience with Veritas Riff I reflect on the dangers of the academic bubble, in which we scholars delude ourselves into believing that the contents of our classroom lectures, seminar room discussions, and academic conferences actually have relevance in the larger and often more messy marketplace of ideas. We rarely test our ideas outside the hermetically sealed bubble of the academic world although we often assume that we are engaging, transforming, and otherwise impacting that larger culture. I urged my academic readers, most of them philosophers and theologians, to test their ideas outside the world of academia.
Well, I just returned from a test. I recently published an online essay, "Art as Ascetic Practice" that caught the attention of a few arts leaders at the Institute of Faith and Work at Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA). And while I was in New York working on some research projects last week, I was invited to attend a meeting of about twenty-five arts professionals to discuss my article. What I did not realize was that the artists, ballet dancers, movie directors, and actors in attendance would take turns reading my article out loud. There are very few exercises more humbling and uncomfortable than listening to your work being read in a voice not your own, especially if it is a voice trained at Julliard.
What was clear about my article is that it did not give concrete examples of how ascetic practices and disciplines like fasting can play a role in artistic practice. We seemed in agreement in theory, but we needed some examples. The discussions that followed focused on those specifics and so I will share some that I brought up in the course of our conversations.
Fasting is an important discipline in studio practice because it liberates the artist from self-indulgent habits that cloud her ability to make wise aesthetic decisions, enabling her to rely on habits that are comfortable and feel good, but which over time produce soft and flabby work. So, I will often ask a student to select three of his favorite colors and then make a painting that does not use them. I might also ask a student to spend an entire day in the studio not painting but simply looking at the work she is making in order to learn not simply to act on a surface but to respond to it, to listen to it, and to learn to evaluate the decisions she has made so far. I might also ask a student to scrape paint from his canvas, devoting an entire day in the studio of editing, deleting.
My evening discussion reminded me that my ideas must be tested, not merely in classrooms and art student studios or among my academic colleagues, but on the front line of artistic practice, like the twenty-five arts professionals in New York City that took time from their rigorous day to read my essay and to discuss it within the context of their own work.