Aesthetics and Justice essay

Friends: here is an essay that was occasioned by an invitation by Messiah College, Philadelphia campus, to speak with some students about the interaction between aesthetics and justice:

Aesthetics and Justice: How do they coexist?
P. Timothy Gierschick II
February 17, 2005

Micah 6:8 – “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7 – “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’"

There are no places in the Bible that directly address the consideration of the aesthetic life and the just life, and how they should interact. It seems to have not been a concern in any of the Scripture’s contexts. However, the preceding passages may be an appropriate framework for our contemporary consideration, since it has become important for us to address. (To clarify, the term “aesthetics” in this discussion will include all general interaction with artistic concerns, and “art” will denote specifically the making of art works.) Let’s begin by asking, what balance – since balance is prescribed for the follower of Christ – can we discover between devotions to the artistic and aesthetic life, and the devotion to all types of justice?
The historic argument against art making, and to a lesser extent, art appreciation, based on the assumption that art is superfluous, has largely been dismissed. Psalm 84:8 reminds us that “no good thing does [God] withhold from those whose walk is blameless” (NIV). I think art making and appreciation are included in these “good things.” Society – and most followers of Christ – would now agree, if not fully assert, that art and aesthetics are an intrinsic and essential part of every human’s experience. Art is something we cannot be separated from; it is simply part of being alive. In Artists, Citizens and Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City, Duane Friesen uses the preceding Jeremiah passage to emphasize our responsibility as both Christ-followers and citizens to engage, through culture, in the life of our environs and thereby seek the welfare – or the “peace” – of our city (1).
Likewise, justice cannot be separated from the life of an earnest follower of Christ. Concern and action in matters of social and economic justice are another prescription for us. What is more, they should pour from us through a connection to the Holy Spirit, as an expected fruit. It may be helpful to remember that by no means does socioeconomic difficulty divorce one from an aesthetic connection or artistic creation. Where there is material, there is possibility. Consider for a minute the thousands of small wire and junk sculptures found by someone years ago, in an abandoned lot here in Philadelphia (2). No doubt these were made by someone who had no access to traditional art materials, and was not necessarily concerned with aesthetic integrity, or the possible futility of human creation. They were responding to a normal human impulse to express through manipulation of material. Possible economic inequality and social status did not slow this artist down.
But what should our response be, as both blessed and dangerously comfortable people; a people with an overriding purpose and spiritual drive? Where should we find the balance between these two seemingly disparate elements – aesthetic concerns, and socioeconomic justice? We’ve established legitimacy, even requirement or unavoidability for both. So where do they come together, without canceling each other out? Friesen comments, rather than “make monolithic responses ‘against’ culture or in ‘agreement’ with culture,” we must “develop a theology and ethic that will enable us to ‘discern what is the will of God – what is good, acceptable and perfect’” (3).
First of all, whence the conflict? One reason may be that professional artistic endeavor, or the life of the aesthetic devotee, is often connected to – and aimed at – economic affluence, or certain social stations. These elements are two benchmarks of discrimination, in both an historical and present-day sense. In addition, association with this world often means espousing the accouterments of wealth, and certain status symbols. And too, as any practicing artist can tell you, making art is time-consuming, and occasionally all-consuming. It tends towards isolation, individualism, and selfishness. (Think of the term, “self-expression.”) A legitimate question at this point might be, where is our time and consideration for the less-fortunate members of our society? The homeless who would be quickly escorted away from gallery openings; the lower-class family who can't afford private schools with architecture and art instruction; the minority who would be followed in certain expensive designer stores: what about these people? In a way, it seems wasteful to indulge in the frequently self-aggrandizing world of aesthetics. All the fete and ordeal: and for what? Do we merely receive, in our privileged state, a deeper connection to our own human element; or as artists do we merely provide small inspiration and diversion to the viewer, before we both move on to the next titillation? Is this wasteful? Is this just? These questions need to be viewed through Micah’s imploring for the acting of justice and the love of mercy: for they are the Lord’s requirement. Again, we cannot avoid the implications of both actions being legitimate. There is a place for both. We should certainly not return to the old hierarchical notion of eschewing artistic and aesthetic practice for more “spiritual,” lofty concerns. And we should not neglect the doing of justice at any point. But should the doing of justice override as default any other concern?
I’ll now share a few of the small ways that I try to infuse the crux of the Micah passage into my art making and living. Then, I will posit a few points about how we all might act out this integration of art and justice. An example of a more passive, but still effective, possibility of justice that I integrate into my own artwork, is utilizing found objects whenever I can. This can involve various elements that may help us think about practical applications of justice to art making and other aesthetic concerns:

1) One may identify with, or at least be reminded of persons who everyday dig through trash for their survival and/or livelihood. In fact, in Taking it to the Streets: using the arts to transform your community, the authors suggest that acknowledgment is a sincere form of justice. When you take time to look around, and take account of street-level expressions such as often-ignored graffiti or street art, or new music, you in a sense bring it into being – to knowledge – by your looking, and subsequent knowing (4).

2) Connected to this, I believe the elevation of the tangibly everyday, mundane or rejected, such as a discarded board, is a diminutive reminder and image of redemption, and resurrection. Art making becomes a redemptive process. For example, my drawing series on flattened Chinese takeout boxes could be considered a physical manifestation of a psychological concept of integration – the box from which I ate, become a more permanent part of my life, rather than a mere piece of trash.

3) In every way, an integrated “web-concept” of socioeconomic justice should be considered core to this whole discussion.

To illustrate this last point, my practice as a vegetarian is largely based on this idea. You may have heard the mantra, “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” Essentially, if we consume and use less, there will be more for others, less energy burned and less pollution created – and so on. This is most effective when seen not as an ascetic practice, but simple sacrifice in the name and way of Christ. With each work I make on found surfaces, I gain an interesting surface to inform my artistic response, and materials have been saved. I’ve also redeemed a material object from waste to valued status as an object that speaks. This metaphor is in no way exhausted, and I encourage you to further these thoughts on your own. This in particular is an important action for me, but I would emphasize that we must each find our own most significant ways of acting justly as a life-practice.
Another point to make is that simplicity, as an idea and a state, is often a desirable goal in art making. Simplification, distillation and clarification – these will push practically any artwork towards betterment, and a semblance of perfection. Living and acting simply then, should be a dual goal of aesthetic practice, and of doing justice. Both have desirable effects on our lives, and the lives of those around us.
We’ve put a heavy emphasis on justice, but part of Micah’s imploring is for us to also “love mercy.” This is a Christ-virtue, found in its purest form from the Spirit, in the life of the follower of Christ. In its intended context, mercy has the power to influence all parts of a person’s life – including the concerns of justice and aesthetics. Where there is mercy, there is the impetus for ameliorative action. And humility keeps us grounded in our acting and loving.
At this point, it’s important to be reminded that all of this is not something whirled into existence by us. It should be founded in scripture and the Holy Spirit’s impetus. Only then will it be effective, in the sense that what is truly done for Christ results in the right effects. Another good point to keep in mind while considering the interaction between justice and art, is that, while disciplines such as I’ve suggested may seem small and insignificant, this doubt is indicative of a mindset which our culture has ingrained in us: that if we do good, we must have a tangible and immediate product or result. This is harmful to fostering the belief that a life of action should be more holistic, based less on product, and more on process. If our life components are in the right proportion and place, we will more readily be just, rather than merely do justice; in other words, our actions will be the natural fruit of our belief. We will focus less on an outcome we reach or accomplish. I would suggest this is true for both concerns; justice and art.
Additionally, as followers of Christ, we should not be reticent to embrace rejection and denial in various forms. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating them in their negative forms. In their mercy-loving forms, rejection and denial can mean elucidation of our lives and thinking; a clarification of our steps (5). Reject affluence, the ostentatious show that speaks separation and materialistic worship to the eye of those who are poor, and discriminated against. Deny yourself superfluous pleasures and even “rights,” or “entitlements” that our society has decided are necessities. Physically identify with the same people that Jesus spent time with – let’s not forget Micah’s third injunction to “walk humbly with [our] God.” The “right” brand of coffee, car or jacket – is following after these things accomplishing justice? Are they accomplishing aesthetics that a follower of Christ should be proud of? Let’s tip this scale, and bring it back to Christ and the way he calls us to live and practice our life (6). I encourage you to strive towards a simpler, more focused, and yes, just life and art. Make these things known through aesthetics, art; actions or words, but make them known. The more we fiddle with our fulcrum of application, the more readily we’ll find the correct balance with which to lever up and take on these two hefty, rich, equally crucial concerns of justice and aesthetics.


(1) Friesen, Duane, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture, Herald Press: Scottdale, 2000, pg. 28.

(2) Friesen, pg. 26.

(3) The Philadelphia Wireman –

(4) Corbitt, J. Nathan and Nix-Early, Vivian, Taking it to the Streets: Using the Arts to Transform Your Community, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2003, pg. 11.

(5) Romans 12:9 – “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (NIV).

(6) As a Catholic friend of mine expresses his Lenten fast, look at it as “taking up” a discipline, rather than “giving up” a practice.

(This essay is (C) copyrighted 2005, Paul Timothy Gierschick II).


Poems 3/11/2005

Here are two more recent poems for your perusal:


What is the shape of our heart?
And what is this surprising shape
that's made when all of our snowy cups
combine - a molecular communion,
rounding red rims into smooth and holy
architecture: glossy in their union;
ecstatic in their shapely spirit?
This is the pattern for outer
crusts; the plan that brick and
stone and wood must follow: the ghost
creating the house it haunts; the spirit
hewing the meeting's mold.
What is the shape of our heart;
and what is the pattern of our joining?

(c) Timothy Gierschick II

Grievous Home

I hold out hope for this
county's soul - no matter
how many shapes are
carved out and capped, the
ageless soil keeps
seething underfoot:
its spirit, penetrating
parasitically the souls of
those who pause to
admire the curvature of
the hills:
the ones who choose to be
here; breathe here; be
drawn closer in kind, and fear
of the soil, until,
content and atrophied, their
slowing pulse beats no
other place as steadily; their
eyes full-turning into an
evening dew.

(c) Timothy Gierschick II

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