Anyone unable to travel to a foreign country can be transported by their imagination to those lands by means of what others who traveled there have seen, and from what they saw they have told us stories. 

The same applies in the world of beauty. The artist has a sharper eye. He sees what you do not see. He has a more fertile imagination and captures in the mirror of his imagination things that escape your notice. He sees more; he sees deeper; he sees better; he sees things in relationship to each other. He receives harmonious impressions, and he objectifies those impressions in a way that nature does not provide, but in a way that he must show in order to let you, with your weaker and coarser and less practiced eye, enjoy similar impressions.

— Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and ArtTranslated by N. Kloosterman, ed. Ballor and Grabill. Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 2011.

A few lines down from this passage, Kuyper calls the artist’s work a “priestly service” and the final artistic product “the fruit of the [artist’s] effort on behalf of the neighbor.”

Some [admittedly lengthy] reflections:

  • Kuyper portrays artists as servants who have a responsibility to perceive truth and then communicate it in thoughtful, poignant ways to those who could not do so on their own. To put it in my own words, art takes human experience of nature and life and provides words for those who struggle to process and describe that experience.
  • We would do well to cultivate a culture of a artistry-as-servanthood both personally and among the musicians and performers we rub shoulders with.
  • Kuyper is writing in the very early years of the 20th century, on the heels of the Romantic era’s fascination with composers as enlightened priests mediating transcendence to the populace. I’m not chalking up Kuyper’s remarks to mere Zeitgeist (since he is taking a clearly Christian approach in contrast to art-idolatry); only observing that his words reflected a general mindset in  society at the time he was writing.
  • Several authors in the last decade or so have lamented our society’s distrust of experts, “top-down” arrangements of authority, and so forth. The fact that Kuyper’s words first struck me as almost condescending is itself an indication that our collective mentality toward the elite has changed. His words imply that for some of us, our only hope of experiencing and enjoying art is to first accept that the artist may be perceiving and communicating ideas that we don’t immediately see in the art, and that it is worth our time to educate ourselves to the point that we can receive a message that is otherwise inaccessible. To put it bluntly, I have to walk into a museum assuming that the artist might be smarter than me. You might find such an assertion floated by art teachers on the yearly field trip, but it’s probably not as common elsewhere.
  • Nevertheless, Kuyper’s mindset endures at least partially today, even in the way we approach and experience pop music. I think we still expect musicians to perceive and communicate, or at least we want them to be perceptive people who create music that speaks to our human experience.
  • Of course, modern society may have lost some amateur musicianship due to the rise of recordings, which tends to create professional musicians who make music for us.
  • So do we really hate experts, or do we just use the charge of elitism as a tool to object to things we don’t understand?

 

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