We are all artists, we are all storytellers. We all have to live by art, it’s our daily bread… And we should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world…. and tell us a little bit of truth.”
— Iris Murdoch [i]
In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles ….
All these things
Are there before us, there before we look
Or fail to look.
— Richard Wilbur, “Lying” [ii]
My friend and sometime colleague Mark Harris has been an Episcopal priest for half a century. Now in his seventies, with his days of institutional church employment behind him, he devotes much of his time to making art. One of his friends recently designated him as “the artist formerly known as priest.”[iii]
The Prince reference made me laugh, but I also resisted the concept. Priest and artist are not contradictory vocations. Both draw back the veil between seen and unseen; both bear witness to a depth, a meaning, a beauty, or a Presence which is ever before us whether we “look or fail to look.”
Of course the priest is committed to a particular story about the world, and is accountable to some form of ecclesiastical authority, while the artist has no such constraints. In fact, it has been a commonplace of modernity to depict religion as antithetical to artistic freedom.
After a “shameful and distressing” conversation about the subject with T.S. Eliot in 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister: “He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. . . I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”[iv]
Similarly, a collective manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religion:
“We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you. that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, our of our own feelings.”[v]
The modern narrative of art history, at least in western civilization, describes the messy divorce between art and religion. Art drifted away from sacred stories and theological themes to focus on the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life. Then it stripped away all manner of content until its only subject was art itself, the pleasure of pure form and color unburdened by any external meaning.
In her persuasively argued book, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art, Charlene Spretnak refutes this narrative, documenting the deeply spiritual perspectives expressed by many of the iconic figures in modern art. For example, Van Gogh understood his revolutionary style as reinterpretation rather than rejection of a religious worldview: “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[vi]
Writing “On the Meaning of Painting” in 1939, Joan Miró insisted that the artist’s vocation was to “endeavor to discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things,” rather than “merely add to the sources of stupefaction.” Recalling his first drawing class as a youth, he said, “That class was like a religious ceremony for me; I washed my hands carefully before touching the paper and pencils. The implements were like sacred objects, and I worked as though I were performing a religious rite.”[vii]
Spretnak cites many more such examples. But the rich and complicated relationship between art and religion is too vast for a single post, so for now let me return to my original argument. Priest and artist, for all their differences, share some essential common tasks:
To make visible what might otherwise not be seen.
To integrate life’s incompatible elements within a harmonizing vision.
To facilitate our encounter with a life-changing Presence.
To perform ritual interventions for the creation of community.
I am aware that many would define priesthood more narrowly, or art less religiously. Nevertheless, I am proud of the company I keep in this matter.
Seventeenth-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert grounded his poems in a word or an image, morphing it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings. As one critic has put it, “he breaks the host of language” as the one becomes the many. This was more than clever wordplay. It was a worldview: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. Or a poet becoming a priest.
Contemporary Catholic poet Les Murray makes a similar connection between his verse and the Eucharist. Both involve “the absolute transformation of ordinary elements into the divine.”[viii]
The Orthodox composer John Tavener (d. 2013) described his music as “liquid metaphysics.” Acknowledging that his call was not to prove God’s existence but only to witness to his own experience of Presence, he said, “I cannot clearly demand belief in what I believe in, but I can ask for an openness, or certainly an acceptance that another level of reality exists beyond this commonplace one.”[ix]
Whether ordained or not, such artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to attend to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”[x] Or as I once heard arts innovator Peter Sellars put it, “The purpose of art is to wake people up who are sleepwalking, to grab them and say, ‘You cannot pass this by. This is your life!’”[xi]
Daniel A. Siedell, who has focused his critical attention on art and religion, makes an eloquent case for the priest/artist connection:
“There is a sacramental and liturgical presence in contemporary art, in which artists explore the potential of banal materials and gestures, in defined spaces, to embody and serve as a vehicle for profound meaning and experience. The liturgical dimension of contemporary artistic practice, which incorporates and re-performs the power of sacred space, ritualized gestures, and sacramental objects that testify to what philosopher William Desmond calls ‘the porosity of being,’ requires more expansive and richly-nuanced notions of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’ than those offered by modernist critics.”[xii]
Chiharu Shiota is a Japanese artist living in Berlin. Her haunting installations are inspired by religious sites and rituals which evoke “strong emotional reactions. I think those reactions are sacred, but not necessarily the objects. It is similar with my art work. It’s the emotions that are sacred.”
For her work, “Key in the Hand,” she collected 180,000 old keys from all over the world, suspending them with 250 miles of red yarn over two old boats at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The keys represent the memories and treasures we lock away until we choose to entrust their custody to others. Shiota states that keys “protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds.” [xiii] The yarn evokes blood and the interconnectedness of relationship. The boats, like an immense pair of hands, “catch” the rain of memories falling from above.[xiv]
Is Shiota’s work not sacramental, employing tangible objects to manifest hidden realities and touch our own deepest places? Does not its breathtaking beauty feel like a hint of the transcendent splendor toward which all being tends?
Six years after Hurricane Katrina, the African-American artist William Pope.L invited residents of struggling New Orleans neighborhoods to donate photos in response to two questions:
When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of?
When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?
The collected photographs were to be projected onto a rear screen attached to the back of an old ice cream truck painted entirely in black. And one night in October, 2011, this 8-ton truck, with its engine shut off, was hauled through the city by a team of strong bodies from sundown to sunrise.
The artist imagined the black truck as the weight of our “collective darkness,” all those regrets and fears and demons we drag behind us. Countering the darkness, the back of the truck was illumined by projections from the inside of all the light collected from their lives and their dreams.
“I am asking people,” he said, “to show the fragility of their bodies as a collective and then go for a walk with others who are dragging the same old dreams down the same ole corridors and to take time out to wonder about that.”[xv]
Is this not priestly work? Using common materials and ritual actions, Pope.L. was the presider/curator for a “work of the people” which employed many of the elements of Christian liturgy: narrative (the photographs as “stories,” and the journey of the truck), symbol (darkness and light), time (a night passage framed by the setting and rising of the sun), and community (facilitating connections among the photographers, performers, and the neighborhoods through which they made ritual procession).
Pope.L acknowledges a “priestly” association: “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”[xvi]
Critic and poet Donald Kuspit says that “being an artist is about being a certain kind of subject, not just about making certain kinds of objects,”[xvii] while Iranian/UK installation artist and sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary defines an artist as “someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects.”[xviii] It seems that such artists as Shiota and Pope.L have brilliantly intuited this implicit artist/priest connection.
What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?
We may have much to learn.
Note: The image at the top of this post was made for me by the wonderful calligrapher and Episcopal monk Br. Roy Parker OHC. For information on his work: http://www.holycrossmonastery.com/calligraphy
[i] Iris Murdoch, Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986, p. 62-3, q. in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar (Ed. by Oleg V. Bychkov & James Fodor, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 162
[ii] Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems: 1943-2004 (New York: Harcourt, 2006), 83
[iv] London Review of Books, 10/23/14
[v] Originally published in Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), q. in The Sublime, ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27
[vi] Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art: Art History Reconsidered: 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40
[vii] ibid., 102, 100
[viii] Missy Daniel, “Poetry is Presence: An Interview with Les Murray”, Commonweal 119, no. 10, 1992, 10), q. in Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, ed. Mary C. Reichart (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 217
[ix] John Tavener, ed. Brian Keeble, The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 163
[x] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 291
[xi] From my personal notes on a “The Arts: A Catalyst for Change,” a forum at the Stanford University Centennial Weekend, October 1991
[xii] Re-Enchantment (James Elkins, David Morgan, eds., New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 234
[xiv] Interview with Shiota: http://2015.veneziabiennale-japanpavilion.jp/en/project/
[xv] Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, eds., Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed., (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 247
[xvii] Artforum (1984), q. in Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 124
[xviii] Interview with Stella Santacatterina (1994), q. in The Sublime, 93