Jonny Mellor is a rapper, fiction writer and church leader. Together with his wife, Jemma, he leads a network of Christian artists, called Sputnik.
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: @sputnikfaithart
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
My children, Masta Ace’s 90s hip hop masterpiece Slaughterhouse, cloud formations, theology, prayer, meditation, playing Minecraft, the poetry of Christina Rossetti. You know, the usual!
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and how can we cultivate it?
Obviously, there are many things that make us wonder, through their complexity and our limited understanding of the world. However, for me, true wonder is a feeling that points outward to a reality beyond the immediate. I’d put it in the same category as awe- an itch that there may be another layer to reality that makes sense of this one.
I think that this sense is built into us as humans so that it’s not a matter of cultivating it, but simply trying not to suppress it. This involves keeping an open mind and not trying to rationalize everything. We are such tiny fragments of the universe, with such a small amount of processing power in the grand scheme of things, that to approach the world humbly, realizing that we are so fallible and fragile, must mean opening ourselves up to wonder at every turn, surely.
Does art have to be ‘wonderful’?
I don’t think art has to be ‘wonderful’ in that sense, but it has to have layers of meaning. If a piece of work is simply saying what it appears to say, and doing nothing else, it is not art.
All art has a layer of meaning under the surface, and therefore art, by its very nature, would seem to support a view of the world which states that there is a deeper meaning beyond what we can experience at first glance.
Pope John Paul II outlined this idea in his Letter to Artists in 1999. He wrote:
Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.
I find that even in work that is not open to a spiritual understanding of the world, this happens. For example, my wife and I recently watched ‘Swiss Army Man’. One of the main characters in the film is a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who spends most of the movie farting. I think the filmmakers were trying to say something about the pure physicality of human existence- that essentially we are just farting corpses waiting to happen, and we should be content with that. It certainly wasn’t intentionally reaching towards any supernatural or spiritual nature of being. However, by even approaching these issues, I felt that it reinforced the view that this is a highly deficient way of viewing the world.
Obviously, I was seeing it through the lens of my own worldview, but I would contend that materialistic naturalism, and even explicit nihilism, tend to defeat themselves when they venture into the world of art, as there is something about art (‘the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things’) that acts as an excellent apologetic for a supernatural understanding of our lives.
What is the value of art? And why is it more than just communicating a message?
Fostering a sense of wonder is certainly one reason why it is valuable. I think it is also valuable as a deep expression of what it means to be human (we are the only species who create art. And, no, a pig that paints does not create art!) In response to the second part of your question though, I don’t think we should underestimate art’s value as a unique and powerful communicative force. Art communicates to our minds and hearts, our reason and emotions, simultaneously, and this is an amazing thing.
What are some of the biggest challenges that artists face in the 21st century?
As always, paying the bills is a pretty major challenge for artists today. Another is the tightrope walk between being true to your artistic vision, but not forgetting that your art only has meaning in relation to its audience. Our culture’s increasing stress on individualism, coupled with its commodification of everything, pulls artists in both directions here and drives us either towards self-indulgent vanity projects or cold utilitarian work. This is nothing new though.
For me, the biggest challenge of the artist is the same as it’s ever been, and in many ways, is the biggest challenge that all human beings face- how do we truly and selflessly love others through what we do?
It seems to me we’re seeing a resurgence in the role of patrons. Whether that’s ongoing support schemes like Patreon, one off support like Kickstarter or Gofundme, or something on a much bigger scale. Do artists need patrons? How has that role changed over the years?
Patronage is vitally important for artists, and it’s great to see so many platforms that help get interesting projects off the ground. What I find interesting with arts patronage is the way it implicitly sets the values of the work produced. In the Middle Ages, the church were the dominant patrons of the arts, so obviously the arts were religious in nature. Nowadays, the government is the main patron of the arts, so the arts have a more secular, humanist bent.
It will be interesting to see how more individualised patronage schemes affect the diversity of the work produced, not just stylistically but in terms of the values that lie behind it.
What can the church learn from artists? And what can artists learn from the church?
The church can rediscover the deeply important theological category of mystery from artists. It can also learn about the importance of the physical world and human culture as gifts from God, rather than despiritualized, secular spaces.
On the other hand, artists can learn about the importance of commitment, of a breadth of community wider than they can get hanging out with other artists, and of the humanizing and dignifying discipline of submission.
Basically, churches and artists are a match made in heaven. Or earth. Or the place where the two places meet.
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