Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #6

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Samuel Smartt (Calvin College)

What is missing, it seems to me, is theological engagement with secular work in the arts, broadly construed.  

Early in his presentations, John introduced the notion of liturgy as the primary lens through which to think about the both the functionality of late-medieval art and the means by which communities participated in that art.  Implied was that the loss of a liturgical approach accounts for, in large measure, both the separation between artist and community we find in the Romantic-modernist paradigm and the birth of a distinction between “art for art’s sake” and craft. For me, this was quite provocative – it was the inciting incident, introducing the major conflict in the narrative of the seminar, and prompting the central dramatic question that would give shape to the rest of my experience:  must the work of Christian artists today be liturgical?

Later in the first week, John started us out with the question, “Why is it that we as a culture are so allergic to didactic art?”  This prompted fascinating discussions about the relationship between sophistication, formation (a word we opted for over didacticism) and functionality in artwork.  Our conversations on liturgy continued with the visit of guest speaker Bill Dyrness, but now with an eye towards the “new aesthetics” that emerged from the Reformation – specifically the birth of the intellectual and emotional “cold gaze.”  In various ways we problematized “disinterested contemplation” as the dominant mode of engaging with art in our time, as well as the notion of artist as individual genius primarily concerned with self-expression. 

The second week brought a significant shift in our line of inquiry:  we started teasing out the disciplinary and institutional divisions that animate our various stations and exploring their historical contexts. The framework for this conversation came from Lisa’s observation that theological differences cannot exclusively account for the variety (or lack of variety) of ways that churches of various traditions employ art, and that a social anthropological approach is needed to compliment the theological approach.  I found this refreshing because it moved us outside the walls of the church – indeed, one my few disappointments from the seminar was that, despite a nominal commitment to art outside sacred spaces, our conversations tended to always come back to the church proper.  Perhaps this is one reason why I found myself feeling constrained by the idea of liturgy; even though we attempted to expand our notion of the word, I never got a sense that those broader construals were a priority in the discussion.  

It is somewhat ironic, then, that the day devoted to discussing Environment and Art in Catholic Worship provided the climax of the seminar for me.  The document provided a launching point for us to discuss the idea of the “appropriateness” of artwork as determined by the liturgy.  For John, the conditions of‘answerability’ or ‘accountability’ were very important here.  He suggested the need to “cultivate an artistic environment where artists in all churches submit their artistic work to the church community’s liturgical work.”  He acknowledged that artists operating in the individualist mode may feel constrained by this, and that in response he felt the church needed to open up the “liturgical relevance of other spaces.”  This provided an opportunity for me to express that, as an artist, the sense of being constrained by the liturgy is not grounded in a resistance to functionality (or in the defense of my individual creative expression, for that matter), but rather in a desire to embrace functionality more broadly than the liturgy.  Brent and I both articulated our desire to create work that is formative, sophisticated, and faith informed, even if it is not necessarily appropriate for a sacred space or specific liturgical purpose.  

The idea of endowing work outside the church with spiritual significance is powerful to me, and maps clearly onto our discussions about Christian involvement in the arts. (In fact, this seems like the most promising area of future work for me that could come from this seminar.)  I teach media production to students who will go on to a wide variety of careers.  The individualistic fixation on self-expression is indeed counterproductive – very few of them will go on to earn a living as independent filmmakers.  But equally restrictive, I think, is the notion that their work should be limited to the church or para-church organizations.  And this is a binary they are faced with.  What is missing, it seems to me, is theological engagement with secular work in the arts, broadly construed.  I want to emphasize that I do see liturgy as a helpful lens through which to observe our present situation, and that I need to continue to think more about its broader implications.  For the moment, however, as I struggle to understand it beyond the walls of the church, it feels like a retreat – like a cloistering of our creative abilities.  

And hence, for me, the importance of Leah’s presentations on community art.  Leah described community art as extremely pragmatic – an interesting notion to me because I had always thought of it as being rather idealistic.  For Leah though, arts are the “most actual.”  You get people to actually DO something together.  In one sense it is “a rehearsal for society-making.”  I was reminded of Charles Taylor’s distinction between language as descriptive vs. language as constitutive.  Throughout the entire seminar I had been very much in a descriptive mode, trying to analyze, make distinctions, solve problems.  But for the last two days of the seminar I was forced to depart from that mode.  I was reminded that, as a process – regardless of the result – art-making is necessary part of our existence as humans, as spiritual beings. 

Such a brief reflection on these three weeks seems wholly inadequate. In true Protestant form I have focused on the arguments that proceeded from our conversations rather than the experiences we enjoyed together.  I have also forefronted conflict, which, while critical for conveying the arc of events, was not the defining characteristic of the Summer Seminar.  Our excursions to cathedrals and monasteries, the many side conversations, often over meals or on walks in the countryside, and the delightful experiences marking our time together, the friendships formed with like-minded colleagues at other institutions: these things I will treasure, and hope to continue for many years into the future.  Indeed, for me the dialogue across the Protestant-Catholic divide was one of the richest and most fruitful aspects of the seminar.