I often tell people that they can treat culture, and art in particular, either as something to be consumed, or as a conversation. Once you realise that an artist is trying to say something through their work, it moves you from the one-way attitude of the consumer to the two-way listening and speaking of a conversation.
A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used.’ When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities.
The one, to use an old-fashioned example, is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know roads we have never yet explored. The other is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides. These rides in themselves may be good, bad, or indifferent.
The ‘uses’ which the many make of the arts may or may not be intrinsically vulgar, depraved, or morbid. That’s as may be. ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.
I think this goes beyond just how we interact with art – it even has an impact on what we consider to actually be art. When we’re faced with art we don’t understand or don’t like, we’ll rejected it. I often hear people say, “that isn’t art, though, is it?!” What if what they actually mean is, “I can’t use that.” But how would that change if we think in terms of receiving rather than using art?
Surely the only option for Christians is to aim to receive art, rather than to use art? Using art is selfish – it goes no further than what I can get and what I need. Reception is a response of love – it is focussed on someone else, the artist, rather than on oneself. That doesn’t mean we give up our enjoyment of the art we engage with, but the way we enjoy it is different. Instead of satisfying our needs or experiencing our own pleasure, we step into someone else’s world and enrich our own. CS Lewis said, ‘in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself’. That’s what happens when we choose to receive art and take part in the conversation.