Monday, March 10, 2014

On Beauty and Saving the World

Matthew Adelberg, Rosary, 2013, oil on panel, 9" x 12"
I have noticed that several people have understood my chapter on beauty in Sanctifying Art to mean that I do not believe in beauty. On the contrary, I believe very much in beauty. I believe in beauty as an experience that is so deep and moving that it changes peoples lives. Experiences of transcendent beauty feel like being in the presence of God. Indeed, in my deepest heart I believe with Dostoevsky that beauty can save the world.

Where I part company with so many who write about beauty is, first, in the easy conflation of beauty and art; and, second, in the assumption that certain works of art are intrinsically, undeniably, beautiful while others are simply not. In my book, I wrote extensively about the difference between personal taste and objective judgment, noting that we can like or dislike works of art while simultaneously noting that this does not necessarily correlate with whether those same works of art are well or poorly designed and executed. I also pointed out that, since works of art that one person declares beautiful another person might describe as ugly, it is not possible to say that any given artwork is definitively more beautiful than another.

I do believe that is is possible to say that some works of art are more harmonious than others, that some point more directly than others to transcendence, even that some invite us more intentionally into contemplation of the divine. Such works are more likely to be called beautiful by more people than those, for instance, that reveal human brutality or suffering. Artworks that are disquieting are less likely to be called beautiful even when they reveal important truths, perhaps precisely because the artist has rejected the qualities of harmony, balance, and unity that classically have been associated with beauty, or because they depict situations or persons that society calls ugly,

So can I call any artwork beautiful? Yes, of course I can. This morning, I was reading Makoto Fujimura's blog post, Tears for Fragile Emanations, and saw an image of his astonishing painting, "Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)", from his Four Holy Gospels Project. My first thought was, Oh, it's so beautiful! Without being at all literal, Fujimura's painting evokes sky and water, fragile flowering bushes and rocky cliffs so stalwart that they seem eternal. The thin, transparent layers of paint invite me to look ever more deeply, to wonder what is hidden as well as what is revealed.

Similarly, a small painting that now graces my office, "Rosary" by Matthew Adelberg, is so beautiful to me that I can hardly stand it. The two hands, clasped tightly together around a rosary, suggest both hope and despair, the dirty fingernails and carefully-observed folds of skin at knuckle and joint contrasting with the smooth purity of the beads, the tightness of the grasping fingers held lightly against an infinite field of gold. At once iconic and illusionistic, this painting asks me to consider the palpable reality of both heaven and earth in one, single, gasping breath.

Partly, these two paintings evoke the experience of beauty in me because they exhibit exactly those qualities of harmony, balance, unity and technical skill that the classical aesthetic theorists described as essential elements for a beautiful artwork. Likewise, each of these paintings suggest both ecstasy and pathos, exhibiting the kind of beauty that encompasses the truth of both human suffering and divine transcendence, as suggested by many of those who write about aesthetics theologically.

Finally, however, I experience beauty in these two, very different, paintings because each of them resonates with something in my own experience of life, with my own deep yearnings and memories. I acknowledge that someone else with different taste and life experience might find Fujimura's abstraction utterly meaningless and opaque despite the title that points to Christ. Alternatively, some other person might find Adelberg's finely rendered, rosary-clutching hands trite and sentimental rather than evocative of deeper realities. Indeed, as beautiful as I find both of them, and as much as I would like to believe it, neither of these paintings is likely to save the world.

But Dostoevsky said that beauty would save the world, not art. And this I do believe. To say that something is beautiful is to love it, to cherish it, to feel a thrill in its presence, maybe even, as in the story that Fujimura tells, to give one's life for it. An experience of beauty is an experience of love, of joy, perhaps even of eternity. Just as Holy Communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, an experience of beauty is a moment of beatific vision, in which we not only experience the immediate, immanent presence of God but also see the thing we call "beautiful" through God's eyes of love. I'm not entirely sure about the world, but I do know that the experiences of God's love have the power to save me from despair over all that is broken in the world around me. And that is beautiful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ushering In

The liturgical dance class at Wesley Seminary this semester is embracing wonderful conversations on the forms dance can take within the context of Christian worship.  We discuss, we practice, we question, we explore; the experience of being with these students is enriching my life and thought.

I am methodically taking the class through an overview of liturgical dance, drawing from my own experiences but enhanced and deepened by our wonderful, primary resource: Introducing Dance in Christian Worship.  Gagne, Kane and VerEecke lay out the forms liturgical dance can take in as clear a way as I have come across and, what I find so compelling, emphasize that any dance done as part of worship must be tied to the ritual structure of which it is a part (see especially, pp 99-111).  I have found this to be true for every piece I have danced in worship over the last 20 years.  Most of my dances have been tied to a particular service.  Some are tied to a season within the church year (Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) but most have a fairly narrow application. Context!

With these teachings as a backdrop, our class recently explored dance as Procession and I found myself wanting to reflect on this form as we lean into the season of Lent.

Liturgical Danced Procession:  To take oneself and others on a journey from point A to point B.  To be a vehicle for a holy shift – helping to shift the internal landscape of the human heart or the external environment of the physical space.  To usher in.  To make ready.  To lead out into the world.  To ritualize.  A function of transformation.  And the prayer is, always, that the Holy Spirit accompanies the liturgical Procession.  It is my understanding that liturgical dancers have the anointing to usher God’s Spirit into a space.

Processions are happening all around us, all the time. Procession – through dance or walk (or any locomotor movement) – can be a powerful metaphor for how we administer the beginnings and endings in our lives.

I am drawn to the idea of Procession as a way to enter the season of Lent (lining up to receive the imposition of ashes); as a way to walk with Jesus during these 6 weeks (taking on a discipline, letting go of what holds one back); as a way to dance into new life (the promise of Easter).  Lent can be a dark time for the soul.  The yearly journey we take with Jesus is a kind of stripping away of what does not serve our relationship with God.  Though difficult, we are invited to Process with Jesus into Jerusalem, to walk beside Him on the way to Calvary and, ultimately, to let Him be lost so that we might be found.

During Holy Week this year, the Wesley community’s Tuesday chapel will include embodied prayer and also a danced Procession.  This beautiful group of students will dance Were You There? (...when they crucified my Lord) at the end of the service, propelling the community forward into the remainder of the week.  As I create and teach this dance, my prayer is for all the beginnings and endings in our lives; for the courage to move through them; for the grace to dance in Love.  May it be so and Amen.

by Kathryn Sparks, with thanks to my students in Liturgical Dance, spring 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Matthew Adelberg: Lineage

This afternoon, Matthew Adelberg spoke to a group of about 25 rapt listeners about his show, Lineage, currently in the Dadian Gallery. At just 21 years of age, and still a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Adelberg's works show a depth and maturity that many older artists would envy. In person, he is modest, quiet, and grateful for the attention that his work is bringing him. Nervous at first, his voice became more confident as Trudi asked him about the sources for these powerful paintings.

Adelberg said that many of his works are autobiographical, a way for him to process his troubled childhood. One of the smaller paintings that is exhibited in the President's office, rather than the gallery proper, depicts a woman lying on what looks like a table with a young man standing over her threateningly. When asked about it, Adelberg said is about the his own fear of becoming violent. As a child, he saw his father beat up his mother many times, and this painting is a way to externalize his fear that he will become like his hated father. For this reason, he titled the painting “Nightmare.” In painting this nightmarish vision of fear and memory, it became for him a talisman of hope for a better future.

The Letter
While many of his paintings depict disturbing stories, to my eyes they are ultimately about redemption. The artist says that the black paint with which he begins each painting is a symbol of the chaos of the broken world, out of which he carves out places of light. As each layer of paint is lighter than the one before, he believes that he is bringing in the light of God, illuminating the image of the world as it is with the divine presence.

When someone asked Adelberg how he decided that an artwork is beautiful, he answered, “When it is true.” These skillful, well-balanced, carefully composed images tell the truth about life from the perspective of someone who wants to be good, and fears the evil impulses that live inside of him. This is a reality that is at once deeply personal and completely universal. That kind of truth is so beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Gift of Chagall Windows in a Country Church

All Saints Tudeley 
We were visiting my daugher's inlaws in Tunbridge Wells, about an hour outside of London, and after lunch the first day the talk turned (not surprisingly) to art in churches. Did you know, said someone, that there is a little country church with a full set of Chagall windows just a few minutes from here? No, we said, much surprised, we had no idea! So, after breakfast the next morning, four of us piled into the car and soon, just as advertised, we were standing outside of a tiny, 14th century church surrounded by a graveyard with ancient headstones and soggy, wet fields for miles around.

Interior showing two of the windows
The church is called All Saints Tudeley, and is said to be the only church in the world to have all its twelve windows designed by Marc Chagall. You can read about it at but there is no substitute for coming in out of the cold, damp wind into this tiny, neat, church that probably seats no more than forty or fifty people. Its footings were laid before the Norman conquest, and in the nearly one thousand years since, it has been changed and restored many times. As their website says
"A list of incumbents hanging in the church begins in 1251, but most of the structure that can be seen today is from the 18th century. The brick tower dates from around 1765, as does the delicately marbled ceiling; the North aisle was added in 1871." 
The church was remodeled again in the 1960s when a prominent family commissioned the windows in memory of their daughter, who had died in a boating accident at the age of 22. 

The Chagall windows are startling in such an otherwise traditional setting. Nearly all of them are at eye level, so close that parishioners can lose themselves in the details during a long sermon or an extended period of silence. The bright blues and yellows sing, especially when contrasted with the grey, cloudy sky outdoors and the heavy stonework that surrounds them. The shapes and gestures that are familiar from Chagall's other work come alive in a new way in the living intimacy of this worship space. Unlike his windows in the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, which I saw many years ago, these windows are for a very specific congregation that worships together week after week. 

It was a privilege to see these windows, especially today, on Christmas Eve. Like Christmas itself, they proclaim that the love of God extends even beyond death. I give thanks for this unexpected gift of art, and for the chance to sing "Joy to the World" tonight at midnight, although I am thousands of miles away from my home. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks for a Life in Art

Memories of Coatlaxope (Guadalupe), 1993,
acrylic and copper on wood, 24" x 24"

Twenty years ago, I was in a deep depression. I had left the school where it was clear that I would never get tenure, and had no vision of where to go or what to do next. I felt that I was in a very, very dark place. Then, one day, it seemed to me that God had shone a small spotlight in front of me, illuminating one step that I could take towards an unknown future. That next step was to remember that I was an artist.

I gathered what little energy I had, went to the hardware store, bought some 2' x 2' squares of plywood, covered them with black gesso, and began to paint. Little by little, the image of the Virgin of Guadelupe emerged from the darkness, hidden among tree branches and surrounded by the barest beginnings of flowers. Over the course of the next few days, I completed two paintings that were unlike anything I had ever made before.

As I was completing those works, God lit up another step-stone on my path: the Center for the Arts and Religion invited me to be an Artist-in-Residence at Wesley Theological Seminary. When I accepted the invitation, I had no idea that I would be the director of the Center twenty years later! All I knew then was that someone valued me as an artist when I wasn't even sure that I really was one.

She is a Tree of Life to All Who Cling to Her
(also known as Queen of the Angels of Small Portion)
1993, acrylic and copper on wood, 24" x 24"
Today, I give thanks for everyone who has encouraged me on this strange and wonderful journey, and made it possible for me to spend my life learning, teaching, talking, and writing about art as well as making images that other people value. I am especially grateful to the people who bought those first, two dark paintings that set the themes and images that continue to appear in my work all these years later.

Unfortunately, the only record I have of the paintings are fuzzy, low resolution photographs. So if anyone knows where they are now, please let me know. And, if you can, please take a good, high resolution photo, and send it to me. I will be eternally grateful!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wild Art

Today at the American Academy of Religion, I attended a session on Outsider Art. Because the session was presented by the Psychology, Culture, and Religion group, and not art historians, much of what was said about the relationship between what in France had been called "art brut" and the early Modernists was very familiar to me. As they ran over the early 20th century territory in which artists like Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, and others became fascinated with the drawings and paintings of psychiatric patients, children, and other naifs, I began to think I was wasting my time. 
Things got more interesting, though, when the discussion turned to the question of whether there might be a better term than outsider to describe these works. The usual words were mentioned, like naive, primitive, or visionary. But then one of the presenters said that Roger Cardinal, the art critic whose work made the term famous, never liked outsider art. Rather, it was his publisher who insisted on it as a translation for art brut, which more properly means something like raw or rough art. Or, as the presenter put it, wild art

It is, of course, this wildness that appealed to the early avant garde, as they sought to throw off the constraints of an academy that dictated which were acceptable subjects and exactly how to depict them. Since then, several generations of wild, rebellious, young artists have become teachers themselves. Ironically, these new arbiters of the academy have tried to institutionalize the wildness that so entranced them in the artworks of the untutored, even as they drill their students in color theory and the elements and principles of design. As the wildness becomes tamed, though, it too often degenerates into an attempt to shock, a desire to do something original, rather than the truthful exploration of the inner landscape that is the hallmark of the untutored artist. 

Like the avant garde artists of the early 20th century, and, indeed, my own teachers, I am drawn to the idea of wild art, of art that cannot be confined to academies or genres or movements, of art that flourishes outside the boundaries of galleries and museums and art-critical theories. And yet, like my own teachers, I believe in teachable skills, in the transmission of values and techniques from one generation to the next, and in the responsibility of artists to speak into and for the communities that support them. I guess what I want to believe is that art is both the thoughtful, intentional, skillful product of patience and practice; and also the incarnate imagination of the Holy Spirit, which blows wherever it wills, bringing life to whatever it touches. Wild art, indeed.