Art as Spirituality
Homily for Beacon Unitarian Church March 9 2014
Thank you for choosing to be in community with us. I offer thanks to the Coast Salish, Musqueam and Squamish people who share their unceded ancestral homelands with us, and to all the people whose good hearts and hard work brought us here. I dedicate this homily to the memory of Ralph Greer (who passed away on the 7th).
This morning before we begin I’d like to define both art and spirituality.
Art is the expression of a normal human desire to create to what seems missing from mere existence. Art is expressed in a form which is not required for the continuance of life, and which is appreciable to other human beings. In order to be art, it can’t stay inside you. It must be expressed, or made perceptible.
Art is held in a matrix of context, or to put it another way, a womb of proximities. Sometimes that context cripples the artist, and sometimes it is liberating and supports her. But even when art is made for the pleasure of the artist alone, never to be seen or revealed or shared, the social context of the birth of that art can’t be made to disappear, unless you are making your own pigments, and ballet shoes, and grinding your own camera lenses. Art depends on technique, and technique depends on the creativity and boldness of every artist who came before you. Art is social, no matter how we put artists on a lonely pillar of genius.
Spirituality as I define it is one facet of the normal human reaction to the unknown – the big questions which do not have easy answers. Whether it takes the form of the wordless awe of the scientist learning new questions to ask about our world, or the fervent singing of hymns on the deck of the Titanic, or the meticulous construction of sand mandalas which will be thrown into the sea upon completion, spirituality is an acknowledgement that however complete or enjoyable our lives may be at any moment, all of life is supported and enfolded in mystery and vastness, in which a single human life is like a dandelion seed borne on the wind.
Art and spirituality, as I have chosen to define them, are individual human reactions to being that little seed. Our brains are wired to attend to and be responsive to other people, and so it is no surprise that when art and spirituality are consciously connected, they will produce works which help us to be in community with each other. Hymns and stained glass and temples, for example.
Families know that when you repeat an activity three times, it’s a ritual. Humans love repetition as fiercely as we love novelty, it’s one of our long standing contradictions as a species. Great art can be watered down over time by the uses it is put to, but the wellspring it draws from never fails; the desire for repetition and the desire for novelty, woven together in a social context.
Spirituality manifesting as art is the reason that gifted actors in television crave stage acting in the off season. Acting for television is made by serving up little bits of dialogue and explosions, after which someone yells “Cut!”. It’s an amazing skill and needs an enormous and costly framework to succeed. The spirituality inherent in it is not obvious until the last music has been cued and the last scene edited – that is when we see what the team has contrived for us, and in the last ten or fifteen years, global television producers have figured out how to make good art, even great art. For the most part though, tv is still a crinkly wrapping on the worst kinds of commerce and social conditioning, political manipulation and abuse of the weak, and not much else. Newton Minow’s speech about television being a vast wasteland was given in 1961, and that landscape has only changed in how high the peaks are and how low the abyss is, not in the average result.
By contrast to television, stage acting has flow and continuity and a live audience, whose members conspire with you, in their awareness and murmurings, to go where television simply can’t go, boldly or otherwise. For when you act in television, a director who hates you can leave the worst take forever on your resume, and you can’t fix it; on the stage, you can do your best and it’s up to the audience which shares your space to interpret and support you with their attention.
Most of us pass through a period during adolescence when we see both the art and spirituality of the culture around us as empty, ugly, cruel, old, mercenary, boring, unimaginative and impossible to dance to. Each young artist brings the specific complaints and joys he has about his culture and religion and family and personal life to the art he makes. That energetic discontent and manic joy can be the leavening that makes for compelling art, whether it collapses in the desiccating gaze of posterity or not. As we look back across art history we see many contributing factors to change and ferment in art, but the most important one is new technology in the hands of young people without preconceptions as to how to employ it. New pigments make new portraits; new lenses make new effects; new fabrics make new costumes, and there’s no telling what computers and nanotechnology will bring to art in future. There is nothing new in how humans grasp new technology to deliver something beautiful into the world which they have seen, or heard, or which danced into their minds upon the breath of a half-heard conversation. We have done this forty thousand years and more, and will never stop, no, not so long as our species is alive. You can count on it.
Art as spirituality connects the technical aspects of art to the questions we ask ourselves. Some of the most perceptive art unifies the simplest of techniques with the simplest of questions; how then shall we live? What does home mean? Who is my family? Where is God, and truth, and beauty? Who has the right to cage minds and imprison bodies? These big questions, brought to our perceptions in art, acknowledge difficulty and darkness; the art born from the big questions, which reaches beyond mere depiction, inspires and revives us.
One of the ongoing discussions I have with my mother is about the difference between art and craft, and how they support one another in bringing colour and individuality into the world. Art to my mind is origination, and craft is continuation. When you pick up a wooden toy train kit to make something for your grandchild for Christmas, the artist has designed and provided specifications, the manufacturer has produced, and now the art passes through your hands to be altered to suit you. Maybe you take out the train whistle because your daughter can’t deal with high pitched noises. Maybe you paint it with tiger stripes because your grandchild’s first word was tiger. However you finish the train, you are helping the artist finish the project, because the artist isn’t done until the train is on the floor with the child on Christmas morning.
Craft is at that sweet spot of novelty and repetition.
Suppose you’ve never pieced a quilt, you at least know it’s been done, and there are techniques to help you. When you’re done, and it’s hanging on the wall of a friend, because it’s ‘too nice for everyday use’ that is the point at which craft migrates into another special case of art, décor. The modern concept of a decorated house commenced in the low countries of Europe at the beginning of the Renaissance. It was perfected by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, and virtually every kind of furnishing and decoration and painting we find in our houses today has a prior example from the Dutch.
They were the first to mass produce specific pieces of art so that everyone who could afford it could have a reproduction of a great work; there were artists who knocked off a dozen sketches in a day – of a cow in a field bordered by a forest – such was the demand for pastoral pictures of that kind in the middle class households of that time.
There’s probably someone in this room with a picture like that up on the wall. Art connects us through time to people like us, who had all the concerns we do, all the important ones, anyway, and to generations yet unborn, who will ask the same questions and pause with the same recognition and joy when they watch the same Charlie Chaplin movie, or stand in front of a painting at the Louvre, or listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Art can do that. It cuts across age and gender, race and creed, class and occupation, simultaneously uniting us. The best art mocks category, laughs at genre, and ignores critics with the ease of a toddler playing at a beach.
Nowadays décor is big business, but it has a spiritual element. When I sit in a friend’s house and see a simple, solid white carved female figure, she is telling me something about her spiritual life. I suppose it’s possible that she just stuck it there because she liked it, but that was not the impression I got. When I am in the another friend’s house, the living room is festooned with musical instruments and the walls are covered with reminders of family life across many decades. My walls sustain the art and craft of my mother and both my grandmothers and my mother’s father, who carved frames for his wife’s paintings, and family photos, and reproductions of gods and goddesses and photos of writers and poets. Walk into any Unitarian household and you will likely find family portraits and landscapes and travel memorabilia; all of these are not just décor but the important and ongoing reminders of what we hold sacred, what brings us joy, what reminds us to be compassionate or loving. My memories of Lutina Santing, a former member of Beacon now sadly departed, are woven through with her extraordinary gift for making a space beautiful, which she brought so ably and lovingly to our sanctuary and her own house.
Art is not just about making something new which addresses big questions, but about consciously and intentionally bringing the art of others into the space you control, to lift your spirits and keep you company and to remind you of wonder and gratitude. Sometimes people buy or commission art to show that they have money or to pad a collection or as an investment. I find it telling that I have never walked into a Unitarian home and found that to be the case; I said earlier that it is impossible to detach art from its social matrix but it’s just as impossible to ignore the spiritual message that the art on the walls is giving you. If I learned that a Unitarian had commissioned a piece of art, I would know without asking that the reason would be, “Well, I really like the artist’s work, and I had the money.” Or, “It was a friend of my daughter’s, and the painting is of a place they used to hang out together.” The connection to the art would be personal. Your art, the art you choose as opposed to the art you make, is like a friend, who happens to live on the wall, or in your stereo, or in your dvd collection.
And in those things, you are in part building your holy shrine. If your shrine is lined with books and filled with family pictures, you are wearing your spirituality where anyone can see it. Perhaps your shrine has a dog or a cat to keep it connected to the natural world. Solid furniture and harmonious colours and mirrors to throw light and specific hues of paint on the walls; all will wordlessly speak of your spirit and what you hold sacred to any visitor. If Mozart or the Indigo Girls or Billie Holiday or techno or Algerian hip-hop is playing when I come in, I will know something of your connectedness to the world, and something of your spirit.
Spirituality demands art from all of us. Sometimes it’s hard and consuming and stern and unrelenting, and drops us on the ground when it’s done. Not all of us are artists in the original and conventional sense, and most artists are not spending their days inventing new techniques or adapting new technologies, because we’re too busy learning how to properly live, work and produce in our chosen disciplines. Most of us make art as an afterthought, or as an offshoot of craft or décor, or as pastiche or parody, or by exactly copying something previously created. Spirituality – the consciousness that we are little critters asking big questions – demands that we choose what kind of art we want to surround ourselves with, whether it’s the bold colours and entrancing curves of west coast art or the challenges of a Diane Arbus photograph or the endless succession of pieces of construction paper that comes home with our kids from school.
High art is out of my reach, because I may write songs, but I have not created a single technique or expanded the range of what’s possible for others. Nevertheless, songwriting for me is a deeply spiritual activity, because when I’m writing, I’m trying to keep a channel open to something electrifying and elemental, which connects me to every other person who had the sudden perception – “Hey! I’m way bigger on the inside than I’ll ever be able to show on the outside! What I’m doing is complex and interesting and only I can do it!” You may rarely experience that feeling, but you can honour yourself as a person who in turn honours beauty and creativity and striving for excellence.
I hope that going forward you bring a more personal and more intentional grace to the choices you make for the art and decorations that you give to others and display in your own home. If you’ve got an ugly or unsatisfactory piece of art in your life or on your walls, I hope you have the strength to pack it up and put up something that nourishes you instead. Make a conscious effort to sketch, sing, appreciate and inhabit art, either mindfully, as an adult, or playfully, as a child. And remember, it doesn’t matter if no one sees it but you. You are still connected to every other artist who ever lived, to the women who left their handprints on the walls of the caves in Chauvet, to the child who draws an unlikely giraffe in fluorescent marker on the bathroom door, to the towering geniuses of our own day, like Ai Wei Wei and Louise Bourgeois. To make art, to select it, to share it; these are activities which affirm our humanity and our connectedness, and that’s as spiritual as things get.