“Art and the Churches” Lent 2014

Lenten Reflection 2014 by Roberta Morris

“Art and the Churches”

Just before Lent, Steve Price at Holy Spirit Silver Lake sent out a link to an article by Philip G Ryken, “How to discourage artists in the church” (The Gospel Coalition, May 23, 2013).  This article spoke to me – it’s an excellent article – and I did with it what artists do; I turned the ideas around and upside down, deciding, as my Lenten reflection, to take some of Ryken’s claims and consider how the church can better encourage and respect artists and artists’ work.


Week One – Ash Wednesday and The First Week of Lent

There are ways some churches already vitally engage in art.  On Ash Wednesday Holy Spirit Silver Lake participates in what might be considered street theater as well as a religious practice.  With “Ashes to Go” some clergy get in costume, stand at a busy intersection (Holy Spirit folks chose Sunset Junction) and offer ashes, making a sign of the cross on people’s forehead.  Sunset Junction is the heart of an artists’ community and what becomes clear each year as people come forward and ask for ashes is that many artists have a deep faith.  Their work might be shocking rather than decorative, but then faith is shocking.  God is shocking.

Ryken explains how to discourage artists:  Treat the arts as a window dressing for the truth rather than a window into reality. See the arts as merely decorative or entertaining, not serious and life-changing. “‘Humor’ artists by ‘allowing’ them to put work up in the hallways, or some forgotten, unused corner with terrible lighting, where it can be ‘decoration,’” David Hooker told me.

Art is not mere decoration; it might be tragic, ugly, ironic or even sarcastic.  We can see the divine in Edvard Munch’s horrifying painting “The Scream” as well as in Michelangelo’s sublime paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  We know Jesus experienced something of a scream in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Horror is part of our faith experience, so shocking works can be placed front and center in a church, as well as in the hall for a moment’s reflection on the way to the coffee and donuts.  The cross, of course, is always shocking.

It isn’t just about what we put in the church buildings, though.  The church is in our homes and artists’ homes, in public places and our work places.  Where was the church during Van Gogh’s yellow period?  In the person of his brother, Theo, of course.  Today, when a street artist with no access to a studio, let alone a gallery where they can show their work, paints on the side of a garage, can we be there with her in her poverty as she turns a blank wall into a glorious yellow and green and black mural?

Street art might be the hard case – it’s complex and controversial – but it comes to mind because of how street artists sometimes create experiences of horror and often resurrection.  Recently I was working with a community group, ArtCyle, who had been given city funds for this year’s event with the provision that we focus it on improving an alleyway.  We’d already chosen the alley, a particularly dreary, even frightening alley, when the main organizer waved me into her car. She had to show me something: this transformed alley.  Before we’d even started our work some artists, without knowledge of our plan, and without the help of our grant money and city council approval, had transformed the entire alley into a gallery of wonderful murals.

Can churches welcome such a group of artists, give them the side of their church to express whatever the spirit is saying to God’s people?  Actually, Holy Spirit Silver Lake did, the huge bright mural by Livio Stabile now shines in the entryway, and now on a blank wall near the street some anonymous artist has stenciled a figure of Traven Martin in a black hoodie with angel wings.  Amen.

Lent – WEEK 2

Art speaks for itself – or is silent and leads us into silence.  In silence we can confront our worst demons and encounter the divine.  Many artists live in a deep silence and would like to remain silent about their work, especially when they’re working, of course, but even and most especially when they are done with it.  If an artist puts a piece of work out there somewhere, in a church or somewhere else in the world, almost certainly the artist feels as if it’s finished.

That is why an artist might find it a little insulting when asked what they meant by their work.  Having made this aesthetic statement as best they could, in the work itself; if they could have put it better, certainly they would have in the work itself.  Hopefully, having finished this piece, the artist has already gone on to something else, leaving you to interpret it.   Yet everyone seems to want more, wants the artists to explain their work in order to sell the work, and indeed, to sell themselves.  One publicist put it to me quite baldly when I resisted engaging fully in the publicity campaign she was putting together for the release of one of my novels:  “We can’t sell books; we can only sell authors.”

Ryken’s suggestion of how the churches can discourage artists points to something even more offensive, in a sense.  People don’t merely want to artist to explain the work; they want the work to explain them.  Something so complex, full of ambiguity and if it’s really excellent art, full of openings, opening up to what is devastating and divine, can’t be reduced to a proposition, a definitive statement or even perhaps any statement.  So if you want to discourage an artist, Ryken suggest:

Demand artists to give answers in their work, not raise questions. Mark Lewis says, “Make certain that your piece (or artifact or performance) makes incisive theological or moral points, and doesn’t stray into territory about which you are unresolved or in any way unclear. (Clear answers are of course more valuable than questions).” Do not allow for ambiguity, or for varied responses to art. Demand art to communicate in the same way to everyone.

It might be one advantage in dying, if you’re an artist:  People will quit asking you such questions about what you mean, and look for themselves at your work.  They might see for themselves how it can speak to them, yet art at its best leaves us speechless.

The paintings and music of St. Hildegard of Bingen always leave me speechless.  I try to talk to my students about her work every term – a character in their textbook, Sophie’s World is named after her – and every term I flounder, finally simply turning on the overhead to project some pale reproduction of her paintings, playing her music that is often performed now and released, particularly near Christmas and Easter, by both secular and sacred media outlets.  I suggest to my student, “Just look.  Just listen.”

Rothko’s luminous paintings have a similar impact on me; they always leave me speechless, even while they speak to me.  The huge blotches of luminous color confound me.  This year marks the fiftieth year since Rothko was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil to create the Rothko Chapel as it’s come to be known, in Houston Texas, and if anything can get me to go visit Texas it’s this work.

Check it out:  http://www.rothkochapel.org/index.php

There surely is some purpose to art criticism and study.  Artists themselves study hard and learn a great deal by studying art theory and criticism.  Just don’t ask for definitive answers, or ask them to be critics and theorists of their own work.  They’re done while for you, if you’ve just encountered the art or you’re encountering it again as if for the first time, your work has just begun.

Lent – WEEK 3  

How else can the church discourage artists?  Ryken points to a deep offence:  Embrace bad art. Tolerate low aesthetic standards. Only value work that is totally accessible, not difficult or challenging. One example would be digital images and photography on powerpoint as a background for praise songs. Value work that is sentimental, that doesn’t take risks, that doesn’t give offense, that people immediately “get.”

If you look at an average parish bulletin, the quality of the graphics is about as sophisticated as the average school bulletin.  In fact, it might be the same clip art.  Now there’s a related issue:  Why do we assume children have such horrible taste in art, or that their parents do?  I suspect even an infant might resent being infantilized by some of the music and visual art offered up in the nursery, and by the low aesthetic standards in churches.  So we might justifiably resent bad art.  But what defines bad art?  I suggest bad art is anything that isn’t good art.

Good art is hard “to get”, in that it is rare and also sometimes complex even in its simplicity.  The quality of modern art, and particularly post-modern art, is certainly hard to access; it’s hard on purpose.  Artists sometime even challenge with their what we call ‘art’, never mind ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’.  We embrace challenging art; we want to embrace it just as it grabs us.  If a work doesn’t challenge us, doesn’t make us stop and wonder, then please find art that does and hang that in the sanctuary, or play that music in the liturgy.

A personal favorite of mine is John Cages’ famous, 4’33”, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.  He played it in Carnegie Hall and people went nuts, but the work has held up over time. Certainly, this might be the most appropriate music for any Lenten service.  Check out this playful version of Cage’s work:

4 minutes 33 seconds performed

The master, Jesus, strikes me as a masterful performance artist, shocking nearly everyone, including those closest to him, with his parables, stories, even his table manners.  If Christ remains with us when two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, we shouldn’t settle for much less challenging art today, with two thousand years practice.

Lent – Week 4

How else can the church discourage artists?  “Demand artists to give answers in their work, not raise questions,” Ryken suggests.  So how can the church encourage artists?  Let their work speak for itself.

Last year I put out a call to artists for an exhibition that would hang over the Easter Season, from Good Friday through Pentecost, we called “Resurrection.”  I asked David Martin if he had anything to hang in this show, and he did this thing he does with his mouth when thinking seriously, then answered, “Yes, actually.  I have this large drawing of a fly.  It’s hanging in a show in San Francisco but I could have it sent down here in time.”  Okay, I agreed and soon the fly arrived, a huge drawing about 8’ x 10’ of a dead fly. I don’t know why he thought this image of a dead fly was an important piece for this show.  I asked him what he called it, and he told me to call it whatever I wanted.  I entitled it, “In need of…”

This year I’m putting out a call to artists for another show for the Easter Season called “The Body” and I know exactly what I mean in hanging this show:  The experience of Christ’s risen body affirms God’s incarnate nature more dramatically even than our Christmas experience, though they are two sides of the same coin.  God’s real presence in the flesh, living as one of us, God with us, permanently, is a radical physical presence.

That’s what I mean, but let’s just see what happens.  Let the art speak for itself, and again if it leaves us speechless so much the better.

“Looweez” by David Martin

Louweez by David Martin

Lent – Week 5

Ryken continues down his list of how the church can and does discourage artists until his comes to the end of a long list:  “…the last item on my list is, in general, make artists not feel fully at home in the church.”

How about, to start, we get rid of the notion of ‘religious art’?  Jesus was an artist, certainly a story teller, and the crucifixion tragedy stands as a unique turning point in the tradition of tragedy as performance art, because Jesus knew what he was doing and knew how the story of his earthly life was likely to end – in the crucifixion, yes – and he went ahead and saw it out.  He acted.

As hard as an artist’s way seems sometimes, we have it comparatively easy.  Yet we need to honor the commitment it takes artists to perform/create their work, recognizing that art is very often going for broke, just as most artists know that they, like Jesus, will probably end up broke if not broken.

Ryken asks, “How can pastors (and churches) encourage Christians with artistic gifts in their dual calling as Christian artists?”  I’m suggesting here that we recognize it’s not a dual calling.  When a preacher crafts a homily, when a cook bakes a wedding cake or a birthday cake or simply a pancake, when a painter paints a mural, when a musician leads a choir or a symphony or a street musician plays her sax on the corner, we are all trying to do what we do best even better.  I would say that even the atheist drawing a simple line of a charcoal drawing, or a line of poetry, is engaged in a sacred practice of getting at ultimate truth.  They might object to that characterization of their work, but hey, we have to share this space and each must name it what they will.

A writer living in a tradition of the word I generally feel not only at home in the church, and my home where I write is a little church for me, my desk something of an altar.  It even has a crucifix above it, just a little to the left.  As I look over Ryken’s list of how to discourage artists, I’m putting out an erotic novel, Sexual Mercy, with my writing Paul Savoie, and will arrange a launch at Spirit Studio, a gallery in Silver Lake run by Holy Spirit, an Episcopal congregation.  This novel is the story of a phone sex operator and a housekeeper who start a dominitrix service… well, you get the idea.  I write all about sex and violence and feel no shame, and no one in my church shames me.  They support my writing and always have.

Ironically, when friends and colleagues who don’t consider themselves religious find out I’m a priest they start changing toward me, and not for the better.  They sometimes trip over their tongues, watching their language, in essence losing their authentic voice and the courage to speak their authentic truths.  They are victims of this separate world theory of spirituality, where the divine is contained in a separate polite place.  Art used to happen, bitter or astonishing, but now it’s all sweetness and light, like donuts.

In these last days of Lent leading up to Holy Week can we consider whether every sacred act is artful and every artful act is sacred?  We are created in the image of God, God the original potter making us out of clay.  There this one world in which we create art, not two parallel universes of art in the world and in the church.  Maybe we need to educate both the art community and our religious communities that these concepts of secular and religious art are deeply flawed notion.  There’s just art, good and bad.  Let’s make it good.

Palm Sunday – How can the church support artists? 

I wake up at three in the morning on Palm Sunday, a priest and a novelist with 367 pages of page proofs to look over and get back to the publisher.  Those page proofs can wait.  First I want to finish this blog on how the church can be supportive of artists.  I’m thinking how I began this Lent, with the words from Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19)

On Ash Wednesday I followed the lead of the other clergy at Holy Spirit Silver Lake, with their practice “Ashes to Go”.  At Sunset Junction, the center of what Forbes Magazine recently identified as “America’s Best Hipster Neighborhood”, some priests offered ashes smeared in a sign of the cross on people’s foreheads.  The neighbors line up and express gratitude for this opportunity to recall their mortality and our universal need for repentance.

The church can encourage artists by speaking our truth simply, truthfully.  About those page proofs I need to correct? Writing represents language imperfectly; my language articulates truth imperfectly.  The Word of God is a spoken word, perfect, living, interpreted, incarnate.  The church puts my work in perspective, all work in perspective.  We are a community painting, writing, building in the shadow and protection of the Master.

The dancers, Watani and Yokoyana, in their dance with light “Pleides”, express it with their whole bodies and with light, far better than I can with mere text.  Take a look:

Enra “Pleiades” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0813gcZ1Uw8

We can support artists by witnessing to the truth, their truths, and appreciate artists and scientists for pointing out that creation is huge.  We may be made of stardust, and more proximately just common dust. That’s the beginning, not the end of the story. As we head into Holy Week the church can celebrate that we are a community of artists, some excellent, some not so good.  Wearing ashes is a form of artistic expression of something deeply true.  This is important to recall.

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