Thursday, September 30, 2010


`To contemplate is to see: to minister is to make visible:’  Henri Nouwen
`What is art? Why is it important to the Christian life?  Is it individual or communal? ‘
These are big questions, and many have tried to answer them. I can only hope that my stories and observations throw a little bit of light on some of the issues…
During our CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association) conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2002, art makers from all over the world came together to worship, reflect  and share ideas and artwork representing  Christ centered  creativity and  communication  rooted in many different cultural traditions. One morning we viewed a slide presentation of artwork made by members of the Eastern European branch of the L’Arche community, made up, in part, of people with developmental disabilities. I had asked one of our other artists to thank the presenter at the end of the slide show. She was unable to get very far in her remarks, however, as she was too overcome with emotion in response to the artwork.
      Obviously, art can be a very powerful medium… celebrating cultural traditions and building bridges of sensitive communication. At times, as in the story above, it can reach across boundaries, tear down barriers and affect us at a deeply personal level.
At its simplest level art is all about relationships
Art makers and historians are going to talk about the relationships between the lines, colors, musical tones or words inside the artwork….or the relationship between what is on the surface of a work and the idea or emotion behind it.
Anthropologists  might talk about social values and communal traditions coded into seemingly abstract patterns and designs.
Social and economic theorists might step back further and observe the artwork in its institutional context, whether a museum wall or a body of art historical and critical writing. They might reflect on the institution in the light of the marketplace, and the role of the arts in sustaining that marketplace
Needless to say in the (much) bigger picture some of these categories overlap, and have different levels of influence in our own culture, and also the cultures of those we wish to communicate with. Accordingly some kind of cultural engagement be  it creative or analytical is critical  to our approach to understanding and communication..
Today the postmodern revolution of ideas has some church leaders drawing upon artistic and creative metaphors in order to describe the kind of community they feel they are becoming. Others see that revolution as a platform on which to mount their own critique of the collapsing `metanarrative’ of enlightenment era modernity….an era, incidentally, which birthed some of our current ideas about art, and the corresponding ideas about the creative artist.
Victorian art critic and social theorist John Ruskin also wrote about the complex relationship between spirituality, culture and the marketplace. He deplored the decline of artistic standards, the degradation of the person and the disintegration of social values in the shadow of the industrial revolution… He argued for true beauty, championed  the work of artists he believed in and  offered a sustained and  powerful critique of the economically driven social and cultural agendas of his day…..all while looking at the world around him through Biblically  informed lenses.
But what are we to make of his protégé, Lilias Trotter? This young woman tore down the barriers between art and life in ways scarcely dreamed of by avant garde figure heads such as Yoko Ono, John Cage or Joseph Beuys.  Against Ruskin's advice, she abandoned a promising career in art, and went to North Africa to pour out her life in ministry among the Algerian Muslims. She wrote a number of books on the spiritual life, and illustrated them with   drawings and watercolors based on her astute observations of the natural world. She also wrote a devotional commentary on the Gospel of John that (even) today makes   a valuable contribution to building bridges of understanding between Christians and Muslims.
However, John’s Gospel itself has even more to offer us. This transparently `intentional’ narrative explores and reveals the dynamic relationship between the `image’ and the `word of God’. We find valuable insights for Christian artists, whatever their cultural background. John’s earliest `miracle story’ takes place at a wedding in the village of Cana. Here, Jesus redeems  a potentially embarrassing social situation by taking ordinary material and cultural tradition, water stored in jars for purification purposes,  and miraculously creating new wine. This not only enriches the wedding celebration, but also transforms that celebration into a symbolic reference to the coming kingdom.  I, for one, long for the day when Christian artists can do something this relevant and creative.

Future posts will explore what `John' has to say to artists, thinkers, cultural creatives and communicators in the Globally connected Twenty First Century.