Adrienne Dengerink-Chaplin is a philosopher, teacher, and writer who has spent much of her career thinking well about what art is and how it conveys meaning, and what this means for the artist’s vocation and the communities they serve. In these excerpts from a recent podcast interview with Sam Bloore, she reflects on the way art is a distinct outworking of the human vocation—it can, as she puts it, be “honest labour.” – Ed.
Early on in this wide-ranging conversation, Sam asks Adrienne about her early life and the beginning of her interest in the philosophy of art.
I grew up in Amsterdam and lived there until my late 20s, and always had an interest in the arts. I’m not quite sure where that came from because I didn’t come from a particularly artistic family, but I was just fascinated by, especially, contemporary art. And, of course, I was surrounded, in Amsterdam, by lots of arts, and I grew up in the 60s and 70s there so lots of opportunities to see art. I was, I realise, always interested in the philosophical questions about art as well. In the gallery of contemporary art in Amsterdam—the Stedelijk Museum—I still clearly remember seeing a heap of coal in one of the rooms and really starting to think about this question of found art: what makes the heap of coal in the room different from if I had encountered it outside? And why am I paying it all this attention now? So that was one typical question.
I also studied music—violin. I did a couple of years at the Sweelinck Conservatory there, and, again, it was all the philosophical questions I was interested in! The violin bow has horsehair, and the strings are often made of animal gut. The very idea that you have these two elements—horsehair stroking over animal gut, something as physical as that—how could that create such a moving sound which all of a sudden transported you in a whole different world of feeling? Because with a violin stroke, even with one tone, you can do so much: you can scratch, you can convey warmth, you do lots of vibrato. You’re all of a sudden transformed into this other reality. So how does art convey meaning? That really has been my abiding question throughout.
Sam begins the second part of his conversation with Adrienne by asking her: What’s the arts’ particular contribution to human flourishing?
Right. That’s of course a difficult question. I think in the history of Christian thinking about it, there has been kind of an oscillation between denigrating or marginalising art—saying it’s not important and then, after a bit of rediscovery, also some Romanticism, all of a sudden saying, “Oh, it’s very unique and more privileged than the mundane things like medicine or science or accountancy.” And so, I think my project is to put art in its proper place—to see it as one human practice: an honest labour and an honest job, alongside others. But then we still have to address the question: how is it different from others?
One of the starting points for me is that it’s one way of making sense of the world—one way, amongst others. It’s not the best way but one way of making sense. So, science makes sense of the world; medicine makes sense of the world. There are many ways of making sense of the world, and art does it in a particular way. The particular way that it makes sense of the world, I would say, is that it looks at the world as it is experienced—in our lived experience as it is felt or sensed. And that often is something which you cannot express in words. So, whereas science looks at the structures of the world and then tries to quantify it or put it into laws or verbal descriptions, what art looks at—that kind of elusive transient lived experience—you can often not put it into discursive language. That is why we need shapes and forms and lines and colours, and all of these other things—different materials and different media—to try to capture something of that experience.
This conversation about art as making sense of lived experience leads to the question of self-expression.
I tend to be a little bit hesitant with calling art self-expression in the sense of venting emotions. It is, again, about a more subtle level of experience. It may not even have had to be the artist’s own lived experience—I mean, when you’re an art student, you haven’t actually lived all that much. […] So you don’t have to make grand statements about the conditions of human life or existential questions. I think a lot of young artists think they have to […] but the start of that is really shapes and forms. So, what captures your attention? … I think artists do that naturally. They know—they see things in reality, but then they pick on things, even walking in the street, and they will be struck by a particular building or a billboard or something that other people wouldn’t. If you just stick with those experiences, that’s not necessarily self-expression, but it’s still expressive of your experiences, and that may just be on the perceptual level.
Here, Sam mentions an example from Adrienne’s book, Art and Soul, an etching of people leaving a crowded subway exit.
Exactly. Exactly. That would be a good example. That’s one of my favourite printmakers, Peter Smith. What comes through in that is the love for the people, and the way it comes through is by his attention for the detail of the textures of the coats. That sounds funny, but every coat—weathered or rain-sodden—he has captured with such loving detail. I think there’s a Christian kind of message there. These people are at the end of a busy day, and the last thing they want to do is get on the tube—it is horrible in London because they’re all kind of old and dirty. But he [Peter Smith] just said, “You matter.” You would never look at these people if you were actually there because you’re so occupied with making your way—you don’t look. Yet, he captured with such loving attention all these details of the clothes and the facial expressions.
On a favourite piece of art …
I’ve been very impressed by the work of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist. There’s one particular work that is called Straight, which was made after the earthquake in Sichuan. It consists of rebar—iron rods—which are retrieved from the earthquake site. They have been meticulously straightened again and put in an abstract installation, which is kind of wave-like, echoing the [waves of the] earthquake. But, in addition to that, it has a very critical social aspect because … the buildings which were all falling apart were the schools. They were not only built on fault lines but often with corrupt building regulations. Five thousand children died, and the state wanted to cover it up. So, Ai Weiwei did a whole investigation, a citizen’s investigation, to get all the names of the children. He was repeatedly rebuffed and even imprisoned for it, but he persisted. Eventually, he did his installation, and all the names of the children are hanging on the wall. So, it’s a piece in the gallery, but it’s also commemorative, and it has a very socially engaging aspect. I find it a very rich piece: Straight.
On feeding her love of art …
I love meeting artists and hearing them talk about their work—being in studios and just listening to artists themselves. That, I find, yeah, a real eye opener, always.
In the full interview with Sam Bloore, Adrienne considers the place of faith and spirituality in contemporary art and the place of the arts in contemporary Christianity. If you’re interested to hear more—Adrienne’s reflections on the artist and church communities or on the challenge of making a living from one’s art—head to the episode page at Venn Presents.