Monday, December 13, 2010

Visual Art

I found it hard to love art (especially modern art) and dwell within American Evangelical Culture. As previously stated, I had originally intended to go to art school. In high school, I had an art teacher that really focused on the intent of art. Students needed to have a purpose in what they were doing. They couldn't just sketch cute little things and call them art in his class. He required each student to have a written, clearly defined objective for each piece. I thrived in this type of environment. That approach helped me to see the impact a well crafted work could have on its audience.

When I ultimately decided to attend Conservative Christian College, I didn't just let go of that love. While touring CCC, I asked if I could see their art gallery. My first red flag should have been how surprised my student tour guide was by that request. She led us up to this small gallery nestled above the auditorium where student work was currently on display. My heart fell. It was all so cliche and contrived. Images of Jesus on the cross, lions and lambs, etc. At that point, I knew I could never pursue an art major there. If the work of these students reflected the approach of the staff, it wasn't what I was looking for in an art education. I had no interest in a path that seemed to lead only to shallow paintings that would be used as sermon illustrations or designing a set of Bethlehem for the church every winter. That's how I made up my mind to pursue a youth ministry degree. (As a side note, I would like to give a warning to all those making college decisions. Never, never, NEVER choose your field of study by default. You'll tell yourself it isn't exactly what  you want, but you'll tweak it to apply to the environments you'd prefer to work in. I'd be willing to estimate that 9 out of 10 times that doesn't happen and you're forced to choose between working jobs in your field that you don't really enjoy or paying off a degree that you now have no intention of using. I'm currently engaged in the latter.)

So what type of art does the AEC enjoy?

1. Thomas Kinkade

Odds are if you've ever been to an AEC organization or the house of one of their members, you've seen at least one Thomas Kinkade painting. He has dubbed himself the "Painter of Light" and composes paintings of pastoral scenes of cottages and houses with a warm glow coming from the windows. A glow so vivid that were it to exist in reality it would be indicative of the fact that the place is burning down. (Honestly, look at the above picture again and tell me it doesn't look like the houses are on fire.) He expresses his mission as "creating a glimpse of a world that is tranquil, peaceful and full of the beauty of God's creation." I would argue that he paints a world that never was. If you look at any number of Kinkade paintings, there is no shifting intent or struggle with larger personal/spiritual/global issues. They all have the same purpose: to make people feel warm and cozy. I can't help but wonder if and how his recent DUI, bankruptcy filing, alleged fraudulent practices, and partnering with big companies such as Disney will affect his standing in the American Evangelical World. Odds are they'll feel too warm and cozy to care.

2. Anything that portrays a Bible story or character (unless it's a Renaissance painting that includes nudity)

3. Anything that shows Jesus intervening in a modern situation

4. Anything that depicts a dove, lion, and/or lamb

5. Anything that combines Christianity and our Founding Fathers

6. Anything that looks good as the background to a Bible verse

In contrast, what types of art do I relate to the most on a spiritual level??

1. The works of Anselm Kiefer

The size and scope of his pieces alone are enough to make you ponder a world much bigger than your own. Many contain lead, a material ancient alchemists thought they could turn into precious gold, paralleling the religious concepts of turning humanity into divinity. His work flows directly from his own spiritual questions. He has been quoted as saying, "I follow the ancient tradition of going up and down. The palaces of heaven are still a mystery...I am making my own investigation." Viewing his art is a direct invitation to investigate along with him.

2. Works that Manipulate our Perception of Reality

Monochromatic Hallway at "Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson"
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
The above picture is from an Olafur Eliasson exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 2009. This piece was a hallway with monochromatic yellow lighting. The effect was that when you were in the hallway, everything appeared to be in black and white (with the exception of that girl's bright red hat). You knew that what you were looking at was still color in reality, but you could no longer perceive that. Eliasson's work creates these environments in which you have to question how you perceive things, because you realize the extent to which your perception can be manipulated. You begin to view the world with a fresh set of eyes and a mind full of new questions after exploring his work.

James Turrell's "Sky Pesher"
Walker Art Museum  Minneapolis, MN

James Turrell creates spaces in which you perceive reality more vividly and see things that you weren't previously aware of. When you sit in the "Sky Pesher" (pictured above), the night sky which had looked to be a dull dingy black while you walked underneath it is revealed to be a shockingly rich shade of deep blue. The lighting of the installation also creates the illusion of the absense of architecture. You cannot percieve the corners of the opening in the ceiling, so it looks as if the sky has descended to hover directly above you. He also had an amazingly extensive walk-in piece known as "The Wolfsburg Project"  that created a sense of a never ending interior. It provided visitors with a sense of eternity, for once inside it didn't seem like there was anything beyond what they were experiencing. There was no identifiable beginning or end.

3. Modern Art, especially Abstract Expressionism

"Red, Orange, Tan and Purple" - Mark Rothko 1954
 This was my greatest point of contention with the most fundamentalist in Evangelical culture. While working at a fundamentalist owned business primarily employing the same, I was cornered in my cubicle by a co-worker while she lectured me on why modern art wasn't art, Christians should have nothing to do with it, and it has no redemptive value whatsoever after hearing that I had recently gone to the local modern art museum. You could almost see the steam come out of her ears when I calmly responded, "I like it."

The reason that I find modern art so complimentary to faith is that it requires you to interact with it and ask questions in order to understand it. You'll get out of it what you're willing to put into it. It isn't about trying to show reality exactly how you already see it in every day life or provide a comfortable experience for people, but rather create this relationship with its viewers that invites them to reevaluate their understanding of reality. Isn't that essentially what faith should be? A place where you are invited to ask questions and examine things more closely in order to gain a better understanding of the true nature of things?

I truly believe it would be beneficial to people's faith if their churches encouraged interaction with these types of works rather than simply clinging to that which is easily identifiable as Christian.

What about you? What works most inspire your own spiritual contemplation?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I've always wondered why I feel subtly bothered by Christian "non-art". I'll have to visit the art gallery for the first time in years ...