Why place? Why art? These are the two central questions that Jennifer Allen Craft explores in her aptly titled book Placemaking and the Arts. In this book Jennifer skillfully draws together insights from theology, philosophy, ecology, and the visual arts to help us recognize that any “theology of the arts” is (or should be) a “placed theology of the arts.”
The central argument of this book is that art is a form of placemaking. Works of the arts—understood here very broadly to include “high art” as well as craft—locate us in time, space, and social relations. The arts call us to pay attention to the world around us so that we can engage our places through ethically responsible practices. This argument is significant because the arts help us live locally and challenge us to reflect on what it means to be embodied, emplaced creatures living in Christian communities called to service, mission, and worship. Arts cultivate the theological imagination, and as such, may contribute to how we practice the presence of Christ and the kingdom of God in our places.
The central chapters of this book offer a broad overview of the “places” in which humans are imbedded. After further defining the concept of place and what it means to have a “sense of place,” Jennifer turns to art that cultivates our attention to the natural world, the arts of homemaking and hospitality in the domestic sphere, arts within the church and Christian worship, and, finally, arts in a society of displacement and detachment.
This book is a welcome addition to the theology and place conversation, as well as the theology and the arts conversation. Few books thus far have thoroughly explored this overlap between human placemaking and human art making, though many have noted the resonances. Jennifer’s focus on contemporary visual art and her inclusion of non-Christian artists strengthen her overall presentation, and introduce a subtle critique of Christian didacticism: visual images do not need to be narrative or moralistic in order to be worthy of Christian reflection or to transform our imaginations.
I am also very pleased to offer five responses to the book, each admiring and critiquing it from distinctive perspectives. First, Lisa Beyeler-Yvarra questions the unintended implications of Craft’s explicitly positive account of the formative nature of placemaking. Concerned to highlight the way racial and spatial discrimination has been perpetuated under the guise of artistic placemaking, she urges Craft to consider how her account of God’s kenotic outpouring of love to and in creation can offer a standard from which to critique various efforts of human placemaking.
In the second essay, Jordan Rowan Fannin probes the relationship between beauty and moral action, specifically in the context of current US immigration policies. Describing examples where aesthetic appreciation did not lead to ethical action, she challenges Craft to be more explicit about how beauty can be understood as both catalyst and context for imaginative formation. How can we be sure, and ensure, that art and beauty lean toward justice?
In the third essay, W. David O. Taylor considers Craft’s claim that art engages worshippers by inviting them to participate more intentionally in the embodied and corporate nature of worship, by helping to creating a sense of place, by enabling hospitable and responsive contexts for mission, and by anticipating the new creation. Additionally, he offers four critiques that would strengthen her thesis: broadening scriptural exegesis on the theme of temple, engaging the work of liturgical theologians, more clearly defining beauty, and focusing on the particular ways in which particular artistic mediums work to form a person in worship.
In our penultimate essay, Katie Kresser approaches Craft’s book from an art historical angle. Drawing on a Trinitarian framework to identify and classify different sorts of arts-focused projects, she understands Craft’s approach as “Paracletial.” If Father-type approaches to art are rooted in aesthetic judgments and Son-type approaches look for ethical models to follow and emulate, Spirit-type approaches highlight art that “wraps and supports” and “affirms and welcomes.” This third type is the sort of art Craft considers; it is art hospitable to the diversity and particularity of people and places.
Finally, Murray Rae concludes our symposium by considering the relationship between divine and human action through the related themes of Spirit and sacrament, extending Craft’s use of the incarnation as the central interpretative category. If art is somehow understood as redemptive or sharing in the redemptive actions of God, art must be pneumatological in both its creation and its reception; it is the Spirit who engenders a theological disclosure through works of art. Additionally, Rae suggests that it is possible to posit an analogy between the materiality of the sacraments and the materiality of art works, particular objects that are transformed and transforming.