This week, Dordt College's online journal In All Things featured my article on the possibilities of Christian art.
You can read the article here.
I was given the prompt of "Christian Art" for my article. I settle pretty quickly on an outline and began my writing. As I neared the end of this article, I started thinking that this is just one of 20 different articles I could write on the subject...each with a different subject and approach. The subject is vast as are the means of approaching it. The length prohibits the nuance I would have enjoyed bringing to the discussion, but overall I am satisfied with what I have been able to say..albeit in a somewhat limited fashion.
I am thankful for the opportunity from iAT for causing me to reflect more on the curious life of an artist in the church. It also has helped me develop a bit of a new habit of rising early to read and write. It offers me a bit of time to be still, reflect, and focus my thoughts and energies before the chaos of the day ensues. I hope that this latter part will be something I am able to maintain going forward. Perhaps then this blog wont be silent for months on end.
Today is day 3 of my Maymester Intensive Digital Photo class. Since it is May and finally warm and sunny up here in the northern Dakota, I took my class downtown to shoot for their visual elements project. Its rare that I get 2 hours to go shoot in the middle of the day so I took advantage of shooting as well. I took my digital along, but enjoyed the immediacy and ease of my iPhone instead today. Below are a few fruits of my "labor".
As a photographer and viewer I am always drawn to images with strong line and pattern, minimalism and abstraction. Its no wonder that these images go that direction, especially after giving a long lecture yesterday on composition. This afternoon was a great day to shoot with strong sun and shadow which is perfect for abstraction.
The North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA) has awarded two artist fellowships in the amount of $2,500 each. The Individual Artist Fellowship recipients in Visual Arts are Guillermo Guardia of Grand Forks; and Ryan Stander of Minot. Both were recommended by a review panel and their selections were approved by the NDCA’s Board of Directors.
2015 opens as a new challenge for Guillermo as an artist. He has made the decision to become a full time studio artist. As of April 1, his focus has been on his artwork and his self-employment. During this year NDCA funds will assist with new sculptures being produced, a new body of work that will be created, and a series of stronger pieces that will take his artwork to the next level. Characters such as the Baby Devils and Puzzle Sculptures will evolve. The quality of the new sculptures will allow entering to more national and international exhibitions. These exhibits are located hundreds of miles away from Grand Forks and crates will need to be built for shipping of artwork. In October of 2015 Guillermo will have a solo exhibition at the Uptown Gallery in Fargo, ND. It will be the first time where most of this new body of work will be displayed. This year will be challenging, stimulating and productive for Guillermo, however he is determined to make it a successful story.
In the middle of Brad’s tenure at the University of North Dakota, he began experimenting with forms of alternative photographic processes. With an interest in concepts of memory and place, the antiquated printing processes seemed a natural fit. Brad began making increasingly experimental pieces, moving from the standard cotton based papers toward ephemeral Asian papers, as well as an opposite trajectory of wood panels. The former, once waxed, conveyed memory as a light and fragile thing. The latter, in contrast to today’s digital world, suggested photography’s roots of printing on substantial materials of glass and metals emphasizing its nature as a physical object. NDCA grant funds will allow him to return to these experiments, while expanding upon them and hopefully perfecting them. The grant will provide necessary funds to purchase appropriate tools needed to work with the wood and purchase the printing supplies of chemicals, films, and substrates. Since the graduate school experiments, many new digital coating polymers for printing have been developed which would need to be tested. Expanding upon these processes will greatly expand Brad’s repertoire as an artist, and extend the life of this current body of work while shifting it into a new and exciting direction. The newly created work that will emerge will be offered to North Dakota Art Gallery Association (NDAGA) for a touring exhibit, as well as Minot State University’s own Northwest Art Center in the upcoming Faculty Biennial (Spring 2016).
The Individual Artist Fellowship program recognizes practicing artists residing in North Dakota with a monetary fellowship award. This program is designed to support professional artists with outstanding talent and ability to improve their artistic skills and enhance their career opportunities. Fellowships for Music and Literature artists will be awarded in 2016.
For more information on NDCA’s grant programs please visit http://www.nd.gov/arts/grants or call 701-328-7590.
I am pleased to announce that I have been selected for one of the North Dakota Council on the Arts Artist Fellowships for 2015. NDCA sponsors the artist fellowship in three year cycles rotating among visual artists, musicians, and writing. This year, Guillermo “Memo” Guardia of Grand Forks, and I are the honored recipients.
The accompanying grant will help me revive as series of work that I set aside after my second year of graduate school for other projects. My plans are to rework the alternative photo processes on wood and other substrates as a way of transition from one body of work, into another. At the time in grad school the work had some good successes, but since then it has largely been dormant. The fellowship will allow me to pick up these experiments and expand upon them. As a requirement of the fellowship, the work will be made public through exhibits and such in multiple parts of the state in the coming years.
I am so thankful to NDCA for their commitment and generosity toward artists in general, but also to me in particular for seeing the potential of this work.
From time to time, when I have time, I try to post articles and thoughts related to religion and the arts, and specifically Christian theology and the arts.
Here are a few articles that I've recently run into:
Lucifer, Patron of the Arts
This is an interesting article on the recent movement by the Catholic Church to venture directly into the art world. As the author implies, as a means to "lure" (my nice word choice given the title) lapsed Catholics back to the church via their interest in arts. What I found most interesting in the article was her Protestant utilitarian sentiment stating, "The archdiocese plays art patron on the downtown scene while parishes are shrinking, schools and churches closing". She takes up that old chestnut of Protestant critique against the excesses of the Catholic church suggesting that it should be used for missions etc. And perhaps it should. However, my artistic sensibilities are excited about the idea. Sure, approaching the wealthy lapsed Catholics through art patronage might be well down the slippery slope, but I still find it exciting to see the church catholic engaging the arts in a new way.
5 Ways the Church Can Make Great Art Again
Overall, this is a pretty nice little article put out by Relevant Magazine. While #1 falls prey to the typical Modern romantic notion of the artist, the rest are certainly on track to address some of the surface issues. There are deeper issues of cultural education, sacramentality, consumerism, and entertainment at work in this discussion not mentioned.
Can We Enjoy Good Art from Morally Questionable Artists?
This is another old question from my Evangelical background and obviously it is still alive and well in cultural consumption. Do we, in viewing films, art and listening to music give consent to the actions of the performers, artists, directors etc? Perhaps we do well to reduce this question to the absurd...Do you give consent to the actions of your mechanic or checker at the grocery store when you shop there? The article raises the same question about Yoder's theology (and while not mentioned you could add Paul Tillich to this list) because of his questionable actions toward women. Do these actions discount their brilliant work? Do the actions highlight the distinction between the ideal and the actual in their life? Certainly, we all, whether Christian or not, should be sensitive in their media consumption, but my fear is that we as Christians are too fricken reactionary from our perceived moral high ground. Thoughtfully engage the work...always.
What Can Artists Teach the Church?
Alyssa Wilkinson reflects on her MFA in Writing experience and offers 3 ways artists might help the church. What is interesting here is that she focuses not on the artistic product but the process. Artists are masters of failing well. We all write, paint, play failures and this process of getting back up and trying again is an important spiritual virtue for the church. She also thoughtfully explores the ideas of Practice as Formation and Bodily Knowing.
Our small group has been studying the Gospel of Luke for the past 6 months or so and we continue to return to Luke 4:16-21 as a hermeneutical lens for understanding Luke’s perspective of Jesus. The passage states, “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The scroll was open to Isaiah 61 which should be read a fuller understanding for this context but Jesus’ own words suffice as a summary. Verse 19a of the Luke passage or 2a of Isaiah 61 mention the “year of the Lord’s favor” which points to the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 where all property shall be returned to its rightful owners and debts are forgiven.
With that in the back of my mind, my recent viewing radically changed my perception of Tyler Durden. Kelton Cobb, in The Blackwell Guide to Popular Culture states that Jack apprentices Tyler’s in an “ad hoc twelve-step program that Tyler devises to free Jack from his bondage to the dominant paradigm of consumerism” (p. 11). I began to wonder, is Tyler a sort of Christ figure, albeit a very dark one?
Much of what the Lukan passage suggest and recurs throughout the Gospel is liberation from illness, oppression and the structures of society. Tyler is trying to liberate Jack and subsequently the rest of the men (and also the participational viewer) from the burden of branded identities and consumption. Tyler whispers to Jack while he is on the phone with the police, “Tell him the liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perception.”
Another telling scene is in the basement of Lou’s bar or tavern. Lou enters and proceeds to pummel Tyler. Tyler willingly accepts this beating for the sake of others. Tyler motions to Jack to stay on the sidelines because his entry would derail his purposes of obtaining this venue on behalf of the greater whole. He, like the Space Monkeys later sacrifice themselves so that fledgling community of Fight Club may go on.
Another telling scene takes place in the back of a convenience store…the epitome of unnecessary consumption. With the glow of soda machines in the background the store clerk, Raymond K. Hessel is hauled out at gunpoint and made to kneel on the ground. Tyler sifts through his wallet finding an expired community college I.D. card he asks what he studied. The clerk, fearing for his life manages to dribble out barely understandable words. At one time, he had wanted to be a veterinarian and having become overwhelmed by the work involved he left his dreams behind to work in a life-sapping environment of consumption. Tyler takes the man’s license and says that he will check in on him in 6 weeks and will kill him if he is not on the way towards becoming a veterinarian. Afterwards Tyler says, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life.” Raymond is awoken from the slumber of self in a society bent on selfish consumption and freed to pursue his dreams. In fact, his life (both metaphorically and literally) depend upon it. In a later scene, we see the back of a door covered with stolen drivers licenses signifying that this was not a random act. Rather they had encountered many attempting to liberate them from consumption towards a greater good.
Another central question that should be asked is the nature of the violence. To what end is the violence. Is there meaning in or redemption from the violence? In these particular scenes it would seem that there is. The cross, the supreme act of violence in the Christian tradition becomes the central motif for Paul and the means of our salvation. Here too the violence is the necessary method of freeing others from the oppression of social structures. Raymond K. Hessel and all the others represented by their drivers licenses have been in someway freed. The Space Monkey’s too have been freed from their miserable lives to find meaning in liberating others. And we as the viewer also are to find liberation by participation in the story.
Tyler may be thought of a sort of Christ-figure insofar as he gives sight to the blind (awakens slumbering culture to the effects of consumerism) and then heals them by giving them a new identity, and brings good news to the poor (both literally poor and of spirit), and frees them from the burden. The clincher for this Christological lens is the year of the Lord’s favor…the Year of Jubilee. Tyler, and project Mayhem are bent on bringing down the credit card industry to level the economic playing field. By destroying this harmful and oppressive banking practice Tyler initiates what to many would be the Year of Jubilee.
And yet, we must consider (as one of my students pointed out) not only what Tyler is liberating them from, but to what/where are they going? And this is where the Christ-figure lens would seem to fail. Robert Bellah points out a fantastic irony in Habits of the Heart by saying, “just where we think we are most free (we’ve cast off these oppressive structures and philosophies), we are most coerced by the dominant beliefs of our own culture. For it is a powerful cultural fiction that we not only can, but must, make up our deepest beliefs in the isolation of our private selves” (p. 65). Radical individuals fail to see that they cast off one set of traditions for another set. Thus Tyler leads them from the oppressions of one tradition (namely consumption) to another (namely violence and anarchism). If this is correct and the film finally does not endorse the violence it portrays, Tyler can simultaneously be thought of as an anti-Christ leading his followers into another form of oppression.
Last week Friday, I posted a few thoughts about our lectionary readings from the previous weekend on the earth joining in the human sufferings in this time. This was a new thought for me. I concluded my post with the question offered numerous times in the Psalms, “How long?”
I thought of this story that Calvin Grinnell shared with me last summer. Factually true or not, its implications are relevant. Calvin told us a story of a Hispanic man was out working in the oil fields and had to make a call but the spotty reception let him up to the summit of a nearby butte (this is, an already spiritual place and the action may be an exercise of native spirituality). While he was up there, an elderly native woman approached him as if from nowhere and asked him, “When will they feed us?” Confused, the man finished his call and the woman was gone. When he relayed the vision to the others, the elders took this as a sign from the earth that so much was being taken from her without feeding her a sustaining diet. They subsequently when back to the butte and made an offering.
I am not an expert in Native spirituality, and I am not sure what to do with such stories and claims. But I am ok to let them live as guides for our lives and interactions with creation. Perhaps the groaning of the earth in North Dakota is because is skin is being pulled continually scraped off or stomach growls because she is hungry from all the oil pulled from the earth each day without thanks, without blessings, without care, without concern for her well-being.
This past weekend in church, one of the readings was Romans 8.12-25. In it, I saw something new that I had never seen before even though it is a passage I have read and heard countless times during my life. It may even be one of those that I might even be able to recite part of from memory. It is curious to me how these things happen. Now Christians explain this as the Holy Spirit illuminating the scriptures. Which I do believe happens, however anyone who spends enough time with a text has the possibility to read it with “new eyes”. All those things that we encounter in our lives between the readings come into play and activate in our most recent reading to suggest the possibility of new depths of or alternate meanings. Whatever it is, I appreciate the new ideas and possibilities.
So here is the passage:
12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. 18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
I think, looking back on it now, I likely read this passage in a way was about human struggles and the hope that comes from faith in spite of current circumstances. Now, without looking, Paul is writing to encourage and teach those living in Rome dealing with a pretty crappy situation struggling under persecution. This is all pretty standard. What was new for me is how creation is bound up with humanity in this struggle.
Look at verse 19-23 again.
Creation awaits salvation too! It languishes awaiting its freedom. Again, looking back on it, that I think I conflated humanity as part of creation, which it is, but verse 23 articulates an important rhetorical distinction (23and not only the creation, but we ourselves). This distinction that Paul sets between humanity and creation is an important one. We see, that creation suffers awaiting the same freedom from bondage that humanity awaits. This was an unbelievable thought.
Over the recent years, with my interest in place and shifting theological emphases, I’ve come to think more about the relationship between humanity and the earth very differently. Often, for a variety of long held philosophical reasons firmly rooted in Protestant thought, the physical is diminished in favor of the spiritual. The logic goes that since “we” will fly away from this physical earth, it is of no real lasting significance. Tragically, the position of caretaker from Genesis becomes one of dominance and misuse rendering it a disposable reality to be mined for all its worth to fuel our economies.
As I think about this further, this action only amplifies the groaning. Perhaps what has allowed this idea to emerge is my recent time in the oil fields of North Dakota. At the beginning of this month, I spent 2 solid days, driving through some of the most beautiful landscape of North Dakota which has now become a sprawling oil field. Land is being drastically reshaped, gouged, drilled, drug, and about any other manner of soil movement you might consider. I cannot help but to see the groaning of the earth around me when I drive out there.
While the Psalms retell the laments of those who cried out, “How long?” I fear this is the cry of the earth as well?