October 28, 2002

Artfulness is next to Godliness

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:21 pm

A few weeks ago, I was a visitor at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Orinda when a member of the congregation, Mel Ahlborn, got up to make an announcement about an Artists’ Dinner the church was hosting that night. Her introductory statement gave me goosebumps:

“When we think of those moments when we have had an intimate experience of the holy, art has likely played a part.”

I am not a religious person, but I am deeply spiritual and in one sentence Ahlborn had summed up why the arts are so important to me in my life. An intersection between our day-to-day lives and the arts, whether it be in a church, at the theater , or staring at a photograph in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, can instantly touch us in an extremely personal, moving and yes, holy, way.

I later contacted Ahlborn to find out what the Artists’ Dinner was all about. She explained that about three years ago, an organization called the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts (www.ecva.org) was formed to encourage visual artists to use their creative gifts for the glory of God, encourage churches to incorporate visual arts into their programs, and to encourage individuals to explore the opportunities visual arts offer in their spiritual journeys. In September, St. Stephen’s hosted only the second gathering ever of artists who share the same faith to give them the chance to present their art and explain how their spirituality fuels their work.

Ahlborn refreshed my memory about the relationship between art and the Protestant church. As reformed views of Christianity started to take hold in Europe, the idea of adorning a church with the Catholic-associated iconography, a.k.a. art, was cast out in favor of a simple, austere place of worship. The idea particularly caught hold in Calvinist Northern Europe. As Ahlborn explained, before the reformation, “the church was a visual church — people saw an image and what they were holding and they knew who they were and what the image meant.” The Protestant church became more and more text based, and as Ahlborn queried, “We don’t have a visual church now, but we do have a visual society. So what do we do about that?”

Creating the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts is one way some artists and theologians are trying to answer that question. Ahlborn pointed out that theologians and artists are asking the same questions about life, the universe and everything through their work, but rarely do the two seemingly disparate groups get together and talk about their probing. She said the St. Stephen’s Artists’ Dinner was invigorating because creative minds working in every medium from iconography to oil paint landscapes, textiles to illumination — Ahlborn’s own expression of spirituality through calligraphy and illustration of sacred and non-sacred text — all shared how their faith was a part of their artistic process and product.

This is all very cool. I think their emphasis on the spiritual significance of art can be expanded to argue for the importance of more widespread and deliberate use of the arts in the public schools; for more government, corporate and individual arts funding for arts groups and organizations; and for emphasizing the crucial inclusion of art in our lives, and especially the lives of our children. This is particularly essential to keep in mind while we subsist in a bad economy. Participation in the arts is often an easy thing to cut from our tight budgets and we need to remember that the arts are not about something as earthly as money, but rather they feed the soul.

“Inspiration” is a word we overuse in arts writing, but I always have to remember that it is a derivative of the word “spirit,” and in English, “inspiration” most closely and succinctly links the essence of an artist’s heart, soul and mind to their work. I recall that when the touring production of “Man of La Mancha” with Raoul Julia came to San Francisco, the reviewer commented that the opening night audience acted as if they had “come to church,” in the intense and reverent way the obviously ardent fans of the show soaked in a dose of their kind of spirituality. I have had similar experiences in the theater with certain shows so I know exactly what the reviewer meant. Others say that listening to Mozart’s music is to hear “the voice of God.”

A church is a handy place to see or hear God, and I love that the Episcopal Church is making the spirituality of art more obvious to those of us who have been acculturated to think of the arts in a secular way. We need to remember that the voice or paintbrush of God, if you will, can be seen anywhere or anytime through our interactions with art.

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