George Orwell and Joan Didion both published books with the title, Why I Write. Yale University Press has published a three-volume series with the same name, featuring essays by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Pattie Smith, and Eileen Myles. Elisa Gabbert presumably followed the writerly advice of Strunk and White to “omit needless words” when she titled her own take on the genre simply, “Why Write?” Zadie Smith, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Lamont, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, and Annie Dillard have all written books or essays about writing. And these are just the ones I know. You might be forgiven for wondering if writers write about anything else, like troubled lovers talking more about their relationship than living it. But in this I don’t find writers unusual. Linger long enough at the edge of any meaningful conversation among artists and you’ll hear the talk drift inevitably toward the question of why? Why write, why paint, why act, why dance, why sculpt? Why?
On the surface, it is a strange situation. “As long as there have been humans,” John Dennison reminds us, “we have made art.” Art might not be a necessity the way food, drink, and shelter are necessities, but if we define necessity as something we can’t live without, then art has as good a claim to this word as any human endeavour. And yet the place of art in our lives and the particular vocation of the artist seem uniquely troubled by questions. We don’t ask, Why eat?; but we do ask, Why art? And to this question we can add many others: To whom are we responsible as artists? How does art mean? What is it we express in our art? How can we justify making art when people suffer? Don’t misunderstand me: I think this questioning can be a good thing. Like any meaningful human activity, art is worth doing well, with care, thought, and considered purpose. And that means questions. Moreover, art nourishes parts of us that are not merely physical, and therefore opens us to dimensions of human and creaturely reality that elude easy formulation, which give rise to questions.
This edition of Common Ground is our second dedicated to the arts, and in it we take these questions seriously. In our lead article, “Email to a Young Artist”, John Dennison weaves together themes of delight, praise, prayer, and art as good nourishment, to remind us that our art-making is best understood “within the larger and profound setting of God’s purposes.” This is an essay to read, and to read again. Philosopher Adrienne Dengerink-Chaplin provides a good companion piece. In “What Does Art Do?”, an excerpt from her podcast interview with Sam Bloore, Adrienne shares her wise and learned reflections, again reminding us of the particular gifts art offers human life.
The themes of prayer and praise are echoed in artist Mary Spacapan’s reflection on her beautiful, Advent-inspired painting: “There is a Remembering [On Believing].” Mary places us with her before the blank canvas, and gives us insight into her art-making process. For those of us not at ease with the visual arts, Mark Edgecombe plays the perplexed observer in his humorous and insightful piece, “On the Canvas”, featuring Hotere lithographs and second-hand Cortinas. With Mark, we encourage you to lean in and learn.
We’re delighted in this edition to feature artists reflecting on their growth and practice. In a fascinating condensed interview, singer/songwriter YAHYAH muses on God’s leading, and singing in te reo Māori. Dancer and Spiritual Director Rachel Kitchens reflects on her formation in “Dance, and the Ageing Body’s Gift.” Featuring stunning photography by Charlotte Ennor, this intimate and grounded piece asks: What does faith have to do with the body—both its glory, and its limits? The conversation is rounded out by Field Notes: I talk with Shakespearian actors and Anglican ordinands Eddie Bijl and Ripeka Templeton Bijl about acting, directing, Shakespeare, and how the corpse of King Henry VI brought them together as a couple.
We trust you will enjoy this edition. It is a full meal! But then, it is a season for full meals!
Blessings to you this Advent and Christmas.
Ngā mihi nui,
Guest Editor, Common Ground.