September 2008


            Australian artist Stelarc (born Stelios Arcadiou) is currently serving as Chair in Performance Art, School of Arts, Brunel University West London and as the Senior Research Fellow and Visiting Artist in the MARCS Labs at the University of Western Sydney, Australia after sustaining a career as an internationally respected artist since the late 1960’s. His creations and performance art have changed over the years, yet have retained repeated themes on embodiment, incarnationalism, identity in virtual bodies, and thinned lines between humans, their artifacts, and what might be considered ‘nature’.
            Sterlac draws attention to the most core of our existence: embodiment. However much hygiene-related-paranoia driven religious tradition influences our contemporary period, we remain dealing with the fallout of the Cartesian res extensa, as a body-seen as not really ‘us’. We live in what he calls absent bodies, which is exposed in the language of  “having a body, not being a body.” Our bodies can often fall into neglect, a way of being in the world that is only brought to our attention when we stub our toes sufficiently enough.
            Our created tools and cultures, says Stelarc, have evidenced a pattern of distancing and remoteness that can be overcome, perhaps counter intuitively, not by resisting technologies, but integrating them with our corporeal selves to the larger array of the creaturely/created world with intention and engagement. Over the years, he has developed cyborg applications extending him bodily and acting in a harmony that breaks down the subject/object distinctions that many cannot imagine their world without. Yet, his art is only a celebration and furtherance of what is happening in many digital cultures already. The mouse and tethered devices (iPod, Blackberry, Bluetooth) that accompany so many are already pushing the limits of cyborg hybridity but are overlooked for their mainstream acceptability. The transformation and alteration of our bodies being shattered over the information saturated landscape will likely continue in this way, uncritically and without reflection as long as our comfort is streamlined. As long as our bodies are absent, we may passively allow technologies to be laid on us and seen as antagonistic to our existence. However, by embracing our bodies and the products of our highest imagination, aesthetic, and innovation, we can come to find that we have always been at once ‘zombies and cyborgs’ and in turn celebrate our fully relational selves incorporated into the world around us.
            Stelarc performed his Suspension series from 1976-88, which consisted of the driving of large hooks through his flesh in such a way that he could hang naked without further harnessing. Using himself to hang in space gave a mystical floating appearance and is reminiscent of some ascetic practices of self denial in search of transcendental achievement. However, Stelarc is emphatic that there is no transcendental connotation. The body is present, immanent, and tangible; the aesthetic appraisal of the performance can stay engaged with the body without having to invoke a spiritualized interpretation let alone an otherworldly denial of the flesh. Stelarc allows his body to be another sculpture in a world of sculptural beauty-sometimes rocks amidst crashing waves, other times alongside gargoyles of the urban cityscape. The body becomes beautiful in itself, its own foundation stone and pyramid.
            Stelarc’s works, sometimes met with skepticism to revulsion, bring the body to the fore and open avenues for others to accept, reside in, and control the destiny of their bodies. It is easy to see the destruction of the flesh all about us in our cultures: dietary choices equivalent to poison, unnecessary world hunger and disease propelled by greed, drug abuse, domestic violence, all of which often receive less dismay or opposition than Stelarc’s work when encountered. The body and its unique place in the universe as a thinking, feeling, dancing, and loving event is too easily forgotten. Some religious traditions calling the human body the ‘pinnacle of creation’ have left little room for its discussion aside from its need for punishment, asexuality, judgment, and denial. Stelarc takes seriously the possibilities of our existence as embodied selves and celebrates them, without moralizing or fear.
            The body is obsolete, says Stelarc. He claims that our technologies can replace redundant organs, microscopic robots be tasked with aiding our overtaxed immune systems, our skin designed to absorb more nutrients from its immediate environment. This is not playing god-or at least anymore so than we regularly do on a daily basis. The corn, wheat, chicken’s eggs, and apples that we eat have been crafted; the highways carving scars along our land have made many landscapes unrecognizable from their former selves. We are always acting as artisans, innovators, creators. Stelarc gives the opportunity for owning up to our actions, seeing the possibility inherent in our bodies as beautiful and celebrated and acting as co-creators in a universe where what is profane and holy is decided by each of us.

            In 2001, New York comedian and Upright Citizen’s Brigade improvisational performer, Charlie Todd formed Improv Everywhere. The public performances organized and created by the team have spawned such national and global phenomena as “No Pants Day”, celebrated annually in Austin, Boise, San Francisco, and San Antonio, and the now international spontaneous art events inspired by “Frozen Grand Central” where crowds stood still as living statues. Charlie Todd draws from Web enabled ‘smart’ or ‘flash mob’ events that grew out of the juncture of public performance art and social activism. The art events of Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere have the distinction over some other ‘spontaneous’ public hijnks (think Jackass, Punk’d) in that they are never geared to belittle or frighten the public but instead as stated in their website, ‘cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places’.[1]

            Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote, “Of all secular institutions, the theater is the only remaining one of any power and universal validity that links our love of festival, our joy in spectacle and laughter, the pleasure that we take in being touched, excited…”[2] Whether one believes that Hofmannsthal’s statement is injected with hyperbole, it is clear that theatre’s ability to incite joy is palpable and universal. Todd’s intention to make space for the human potential for joy through art should be taken seriously before discarding it along with some whose efforts reach no higher than ‘gotcha’ scares and prankster practical jokes.

            Charlie Todd and the I.E. art collective reveals the playful art and community that is available in our everyday lives. In many ways, their public, participatory, collaborative theatre model characterizes what Hans Georg Gadamer describes in TheRelevance of The Beautiful. Todd helps orchestrate what might be called a celebration or festival, of which Gadamer writes, “Celebrating is an art…If we ask ourselves what the real nature of this art is, then obviously we must reply that it consists in an experience of community.”[3] Art as festival dissolves individualism and expands by deleting walls of exclusion and spills over in liberality and elation.

            Todd and I.E.’s artwork Food Court Musical or Can I Get A Napkin Please? as it is commonly known as, exemplifies the festive celebratory character. In the piece, a local mall’s food court is transformed from mundane venue for unpalatable faire into a singing, dancing fair of a musical revue. A woman jumps up from a spill and asks for a napkin and soon sixteen performers are spiraling about in the sun filled atrium. Community is more than the physical closeness our urbanized spaces offer increasingly. Community needs also intention “that unites us and prevents us as individuals from falling into private conversations and private, subjective experiences.”[4] The tragedy of a hurricane or flood, the hardships of poverty, the round of beer, or the sports competition can draw out the availability of community in unsuspected and astounding ways, and festive public theatre is no different. Food Court Musical drew private subjective experiences together into not only an audience, but a community of interpreters, interacting and participating freely in art as one.

            The experience of community changes us. It creates a new way of seeing the world and being in it. One way that Gadamer explains it is through distinguishing ‘empty time’ and ‘fulfilled time’. In empty time, normalcy reigns and is epitomized in the experience of boredom which is related to the angst of existence. Another character of empty time is the hurriedness of errands, the frantic dash of calculated agendas that never are given space to the moment, but are projected into deadlines before us. In contrast, fulfilled time puts aside management and calculation aside and time is brought to stand in what Gadamer calls an artistic ‘organic unity’. Improv Everywhere’s art includes openly and without distinction to interact with and participate in the work-to be co-creators. As interpreter/participants the joy of art is also met with what Gadamer calls the temporality of art. The temporal of fleeting of theatre is similarly experienced in the other public art surrounding us, the architecture, icons, and religions. This is coupled with the experience of an actor/creator: “We recognize ourselves as the plaything of the mighty, suprapersonal forces that condition our being.”[5] Accompanying the joy of art is also the unsettling of new horizons, which Todd calls ‘chaos’.

            The shaking off of one’s blinders to see the possibilities and joy gracefully availed us can be difficult and chaotic, but unlike the angst of empty time, it is a positive breeching into newness. Charlie Todd gives opportunity to lift ourselves from the easy expectations into a novel platform of inspection. In his Frozen Grand Central participants come to a complete stop all at once for a period of time in the bustle of the New York train station. Here, those human faces and people that had existed in the background of the day suddenly pop forward to exist in their own right. Like Heidegger’s transition of what is taken for granted (Zuhanden) to that which is present at hand (Vorhanden) the inhabitants of the city become more than just obstacles, they stand unmoving but startling present. It can create a chaotic spike of dissonance in one who encounters such a performance; having been presented with humanity where only passive moving objects had been before, but it opens one up all the more to the human experience.

            The correlations between religious gatherings and improvisational street art are clear. Both find greater and deeper humanity in all of its joy and chaos. Both rise into a different way of living and being in time. However, as art can operate freely from theology, the nonjudgmental inclusivity of Improv Everywhere sets a higher standard for our religious institutions to emulate. While our religious expressions set aside time and place for the celebration of values, improvisational street theatre takes the highest value of human life and gives that time and space back to the public sphere.

 

 

“Our agents returned to whatever they were doing before the song broke out, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.” –Charlie Todd on the Food Court Musical performers.   (www.improveverywhere.com)


[2] Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “Komodie” Prosa, IV, ed. by Herbert Steiner (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1955), 95.

[3] Hans Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of The Beautiful and Other Essays  (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1977), 40.

[4] Hans Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of The Beautiful and Other Essays  (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1977), 40.

[5] Hans Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of The Beautiful and Other Essays  (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1977), 64.

Dearest Senator Obama:
Good morning, my friend.
I hope that you are well this morning.
Thanks for emailing me those ‘liver cleanse’ recipes.
Man! That stuff really works. I’m drinking nothing BUT olive oil now.
Let’s turn to the economy for a second.
I’ve been told its bad.
Because the economy is bad, I hereby frickin’ DARE you to stop your campaign like me.
Just stop it. In fact, if you don’t pack up your bumper stickers and catchy websites (that I’ve been
told are accessible on The Interweb) it just shows how little you care for this country.
I care so much about this election I’ve dedicated myself to removing myself from it.
Now to the debate scheduled for tomorrow: Let’s call it a tie.
P.S. Did you see that David Blaine stunt? That guys crazy!
P.P.S. Let’s call off the VP debates too. Sarah…has a headache….I mean, tapeworm.
Yup. Them’s the breaks. Got a tapeworm. And….she’ll be hard at work on the economy.
And checking her stool regularly for evidence of a tapeworms. Which she does have.
P.P.P.S. Why don’t you ever return my Facebook pokes?

Yours truly,
American Hero John McCain

EPA won’t limit rocket fuel in U.S. drinking water

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency has decided there’s no need to rid drinking water of a toxic rocket fuel ingredient that has fouled public water supplies around the country.

EPA reached the conclusion in a draft regulatory document not yet made public but reviewed Monday by The Associated Press.

The ingredient, perchlorate, has been found in at least 395 sites in 35 states at levels high enough to interfere with thyroid function and pose developmental health risks, particularly for babies and fetuses, according to some scientists.

The EPA document says that mandating a clean-up level for perchlorate would not result in a “meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public-water systems.”

Link to the full story

Junko Chodos Metamorphosis: The Transformative Vision of Junko Chodos

In Metamorphosis, Chodos exhibits art of various media; pencil sketch, abstract oil paintings, collages of photograph, and mixed media amalgam collages using at times paint and photograph. Her work typically is large generally being many feet square. Its size would welcome a sense of enrapture, and its abstractness allows for a dazzling myriad of possibilities as one’s eye tries to find a recognized object. In her collage, she uses such small strips that it often is difficult to parse what images they may have been originally. A closer look will reveal what seems to be a scatological assortment of often ephemeral objects; entrails, parts of crabs, roots, are mixed in with slivers of machinery, statues of humans in pained expressions. The whole is greater than its parts, but the strips of counter-intuitive components invites the interpreter to reflect on existence in all its haphazard harmony.

Chodos was born in 1939 in Tokyo, Japan in the heat of the Second World War. She studied philosophy of art and Eastern and Western mystical traditions. In the background of her studies was Martin Buber, and her thesis work was titled Spirituality in Line: Interrelationship of Art and Theology. From her life’s war-torn beginning, the formative education of Buber’s relational dialectic, and questing into art for semblances of the transcendent, she later moved to the United States and as an artist has created works that daringly explore the sacred.

Chodos states that art does not become religious or spiritual by its use of religious image, and implies conversely that art with explicitly religious themes is not necessarily ‘religious art’. The theme or subject of the artwork plays less a role in its transcendence and spirituality than the process of the artwork’s life. Its birth in the artist, expression, and its dialectic life in the interpreter ignite what she calls the ‘centripetal force of art’. This force is what acts against the shattering forces of nihilism, isolation, and meaninglessness. Drawing from Buber, Chodos calls revelation the act of drawing forth the art from the fragments of the self into the center of the artist’s psyche and then centripetally draws artist, art, and interpreter together. The artist and interpreter in a mystical way enter into a co-creation. Thus all that is required for any artwork to be transcendent, or ‘religious art’ is for a free and honest process of an artist to meet an open interpreter who both conjoin in participation, responsibility, and commitment.[1]

She writes of the irony found at the core of religion, using the deaths of both Jesus and Buddha as examples. It is the irony of finding victory, peace, and life in the moments of these two figures’ deaths that she compares to the irony of ‘great art’ conveying beauty by means that may conceal beauty. Irony and impossibility are bound to Chodos’ concept of transcendence also. She relates the metaphor of a mole living underground who believes there is a better world above ground-when the mole does at last break through the earth, it instead finds “flaming fire, and the thundering sound of wind around him. His body is burnt by the sunbeams and in the light of the day he becomes blind and deaf.”[2] Due to the very nature of transcendence, it must remain for the mole to perceive it in darkness, in ugliness. The glimpses that the mole may inadvertently catch through cracks in the earth only instill a deep anxiety, an impending feeling of doom, an ‘experience of thanatos’.

It is the artist who grasps this abyss, this fear, this awe, and finds that reason cannot aid them in resolving their situation. Only through the leap of ironic creation, can one face their human situation. Religion and its theologies are one expression of this and art another. If they are neglected or aborted in reliance on reason alone, it will result in what Chodos says is ‘insanity’. While these two ironic endeavors are both forms of relief keeping alive transcendence’s tension, they differ in that religion’s theologies and narratives become authoritative by degrees of sanctification and narrowed repetition. Art on the other hand dispels authority, invites consideration and devotion only through the power of experience instead of culturally approved hierarchies. Art acts against one’s will. Its transformative power lies in the unseen and unplanned routes it will draw one on their centripetal journey towards relation with the work, artist, and themselves.

Chodos’ work is an expression of possibility for new relationships between art and theology. She speaks of the grace that brings new light to their interaction which will allow them both new outcomes that subvert our expectations. One way she suggests that this can occur is to reexamine the usual assumed cause and effect relationship between art and theology. She states that Western culture too often sees only narratives and theologies as inspiring artists. Instead, she suggests that art be given equal consideration as forming our theologies. For example she suggests inquiring into how Van Gogh’s paintings of shoes have influences modern theologies. Following this, it might be possible to also ask how depictions of dying gods influenced early Christian theologies.

Recalling her mole analogy, Chodos’ Roots series of sketches and mixed collages speak to the transcendent in the forgotten, the unseemly, and the ordinary. In the series, she explores levels of abstraction where Root Series Number 2 falls on the end of greater abstraction, and Root Series Number 10, The Fasting Buddha lies on the other with its titular image more accessible. The tangled array of roots are created with other organic components, lending themselves as metaphors of the unseen or underappreciated life sustaining web that supports humanity. The series is useful as a meditation on the somewhat arbitrary cultural definitions of sacred and secular. Like the mole among roots who would be consumed by the light of the sun, our daily goings-on are the fruit of the transcendent in its graceful and ironic self-giving and are the source of our divine seeking imagination.

Roots Series Number 17 Garan (Cathedral) is a great example of the culmination of these themes. While at first glance appearing to be only a teasing and erratic mix of color comprised again of unrelated images, it begins to pull into a three dimensional place of worship. The eye carries to the lower center which is darker, alluding to a holy of holies, or door to mysteries. The jagged forms of the collage may be the expressionist architecture similar to Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the stalactites of a primordial cavern, or the fronds of a dense jungle forming an apse. We partake of Cathedral, we cannot merely passively consume it. One enters in via the path laid in detritus of the collage’s bottom and as all cathedrals, one makes it holy by their presence, not vice versa.

I am drawn to Chodos by her great trust in her art’s interpreters. She weaves the machined products of technology seamlessly together with organic threads (Interplanetary Icon series) in a natural way that is honest with our world’s surroundings without judgment or pandering. She stylistically and abstractly reinvents icons, our selves, our notions of the holy in a way that seems unmanufactured and doesn’t lead its interpreter’s by the hand. Her Relic, a mixed media collage inspiring the interpretation of a human ribcage dances where reason cannot venture, where our biology, experience, and sense of the divine are at once located in ourselves and the art.


[1] Junko Chodos, Spirituality and the Process of Creating Art (Lecture. Graduate Theological Union, October 9th 2003)

[2] Junko Chodos, Spirituality and the Process of Creating Art (Lecture. Graduate Theological Union, October 9th 2003)

            The life and community of faith could not exist without the arts. Art exudes from each pious endeavor, every religious expression. While our cultures’ greatest spiritual aspirations have always included art, their interaction with and understanding of art have been in continual flux. Christianity’s relationship to art has historically and contemporarily revealed feelings of neglect, opposition, celebration, and mutuality with art and its theological endeavors, no matter the context, have rarely been able to remain absolute in their stance for long. Our world and cultures are constantly in flux and have been made all the more dynamic with recent technological developments and globalization. The conversation between art and theology has reached a point of great importance, in part because of crises of ethos and ethics within and without the Christian faith.

Whereas religion as a cultural expression is aptly conceived of as an art, the endeavor of theology proper should not be conflated with art. “The ordinances of religion and the power of law are efficacious as they are clothed with pomp, a dignity and majesty that are the work of imagination.”[1] Religious ritual, community cohesiveness, expression through vestments, chalice, and iconography are all properly art, but the task of theology as a reasoned discourse and study of the Divine is not the same as the artworks that can be related to it. While “art and theology share common artistic elements, such as the use of imagination and intuition, mythic language and evocative symbols, metaphor, image, and narrative,”[2] it is misleading to conflate the two. Just as Graham Howes writes the aesthetic must not be confused with the religious, art and theology must remain contrasted although in conversation.  

The clearest examples of art and theology’s contrast lay in their character and consequences. Art’s character is to remain hanging over mystery while attempting to relate truths of the human situation and human relationships. Theology’s character lies in the attempt to explain, systematize, or concretize the meaning of a religion or religions. As theology has adopted new language and approaches such as apophatic theologies and even the objectivist atheology of atheists, it remains intent on drawing boundaries of thought and legitimizing narrow constructions of interpretation within those boundaries. The character of art is to overflow with meaning so that its challenge is never consummated and its meaning is multiplied through participation with it.

The consequences are contrasted, but not opposed. Art implies freedom, mystery, and brings a radical responsibility to be fully engaged in all of one’s humanity. The interpreter, or participant, is posed with the awe-full task of self-creation, relating in a new and intentional way with their world, and humbly finding truth that is infinitely unfolding. Theology’s consequences act as an inadequate description via verbal or written expression and grant some measure of respite from the dance of dense relation.

Theology in its reliance on the word has been critiqued for its limitations, but modern innovations to correct this have not escaped similar trappings. Karl Rahner questioned the privileging of verbal arts and feared that by doing so it may “unjustifiably limit the capacity of the arts to be used by God.”[3] As the Theopoetic movement of Amos Wilder through to John Caputo has gained strength and acceptance in academia, the clergy and laity, practices of ‘visual theology’ and diverse non-verbal theological constructions have been undertaken. However, as Mark C Taylor sets out in Disfiguring, these theoaesthetic ventures have still fallen prey to the limitations of privileging Being and presuming coherences between artworks and the Divine, and imposing cognitive and theological prejudices. His A/theoaesthetics, however helpful to the contemporary debate still reflects the continued necessary conversation between art and theology.

Taylor represents a post-structuralist/post-modernist perspective that wrestles seriously with the prospect of continued human progress in an atmosphere where God and the Divine have been largely voided of their past cultural power. George Steiner in Real Presences speaks of some modern cultural contexts as having become where God’s presence cannot be entertained in theory nor experienced, and the numinous weight afforded to art had been excised. Steiner suggests that one approach art and the world ‘as if’ in relation to a Creator and ‘as if’ transcendence was somehow attainable[4]. This Pascal-like wager is attractive in its playfulness and resignation to the human imagination, but it falls short for at least two reasons. First, it appears to pacify a need for transcendence that has already larger been increasingly deemed unpalatable in secular and religious realms. Secondly, in its ‘as if’ proposition, it necessarily narrows fields of possibility by placing a structure of imagination. The playful creation of “behave as is God is watching you” may end up straight jacketing life as much as the theologically supported “behave well because God is watching you.”   

            A middle ground for those searching a viable and honest post-modern seat at the table of art and theology’s intersections may find helpful clues for doing so in Robin Jensen’s The Substance of Things Seen. Rigidity of correspondence implied at times in theoesthetics can carry on assumptions and privileges of past theologies and has shown its limits, but the Void or Abyss spoken of in Taylor’s A/theoaesthetics can be intimidating. If Steiner’s ‘as if’ narrows or limits theological imagination, then the multivalent meanings availed in Jensen’s hermeneutics can offer a new ground for the Church and secular circles. She depicts an ever expanding horizon of possibilities where each can interact with an artwork through many different lens as they ‘live with it’. This suggests that just as we grow in ourselves, and in our relationships with those in our communities, our interaction with theologies and art will be in flux. It can be spoken of as a synthesis of the hermeneutical ‘circle’ and ‘spiral’; as we spiral in our considerations of artistic context, culture, intent, and the vibrancy of our interpersonal relationships, we also ‘circle’ or return to ourselves in greater possibilities of personal development.     

            When Matisse said that if he were paint a Virgin, “I would be forcing things. God would leave me to myself,” may reflect a wider sentiment of the modern barrenness of traditional Christian systems of symbols. This degradation of their power of evoking the divine with gravitas was explored above as a cultural reclamation and reform of power away from the Church was explored above as a cultural reclamation and reform but this coup was in part aided by phenomena among Christian faithful without the intent of disrobing their symbols of power. The phenomena referred to here are what may be called iconoclasms of well intentioned misappropriation. The most accessible of examples is the at times ironic hybridization of Christian symbol with commercial icons.

            In 1984 a local church in Elgin Illinois opened in their basement ‘God’s Gym’, a derivation of the popular ‘Gold’s Gym’. Since then, God’s Gym t-shirts and various merchandising are near ubiquitous across America. The ironic play off the mainstream icon “Gold’s Gym” and their fitness themed images (“His pain, our gain.”) at once rides the coattails of an accepted commercial image, subverts it, and becomes a form of ironic art. A pedestrian on a city sidewalk wearing a shirt that writes “Jesus Christ” in the Coca-Cola brand fond with the subversion of the company’s motto “He’s the real thing.” acts in the same way. In this hybridization, what is of most impact is the contemporary Christian acceptance, support, and continued patronage of these bastardizations of corporate advertizing triggers the same immediate brand recognition that can be criticized as symptomatic of a consumer culture and gives it a veneer of creedal Christianity.

            This thwarts the traditional use and milieu of iconography and the credal in art. The synthesizing of spiritual themes and art and commercialism can result in a neutralizing of the original perceived icon or a conflicting ambiguity towards a clear portrayal of the blurred lines between the sacred and profane. Margaret Miles of Harvard writes, “The way to discount a symbol is not to walk away from it and ignore it, but place it in a decorative rather than religious context.”[5] This phenomena is not limited to Christian symbols however. Writes Michael Heim, “Star Trek lost any sublimity it may have had when it came to occupy Kmart shelves along with electric flyswatters and noisemaker whoopee cushions.”[6] Seen as ironic art, it too begins a cycle of parody that resurrects the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” merchandise of modern Christian fashion as “Jesus Is My Babydaddy.”

The changing role of the European cathedral has been well documented and may crudely be explained in broad strokes as a shift from place of worship to a space of  historical or cultural interest like that of a museum. While the portrayal of the grand spaces of Chartres, Notre Dame, or Sistine as destinations of tourism is accurate, implying that they are merely so is reductionistic. The full ministerial life and worship schedule of Ely Cathedral[7] belie this caricature. Yet, as Martin Heidegger asserted, something changes when the context of religious art is changed. His example of displacing the Greek Temple’s art into museums points towards the real impact of an artwork’s larger context being implemental in the relation to it, and the power vested it.

More regularly than religious artifacts being secularized by crowds of vacationers or the revealing light of a museum’s curator, religious art and expression is undergoing a crisis of decontextualization that has occurred through the open forum of the internet and media. The grassroots hacker community Anonymous has opened Scientology to exponential skepticism and criticism, Magnolia Pictures’ 2006 Jesus Camp documented Pentecostal youth ministries to much mainstream concern, and videos of both Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Wasilla Bible Church have taken their turns stirring controversy and derision. The issue of how religious images have come under skeptical scrutiny must now be expanded to religious expressions including worship, liturgy, dress, and dogma. The modern church has transparent walls and the all seeing eye of the internet has finally transformed Christianity from what was a marginalized mystery cult into a subject as open to analysis as a celebrity’s fashion or sports’ highlight reel. While this will require intense reflection on art and theology’s relationship for those inside and outside of the faith, if “…religious art in an ostensibly secular setting such as the National Gallery can serve as an effective vehicle for religious meaning”[8] it is most likely that some fundamental characteristics of their relationship will remain.

 Art’s relation to theology can play a role of disclosing or causing to seen that which had remained unconsciously or uncritically adopted into one’s life. Using the examples of ecoprojects, Deborah Haynes portrays the role of art drawing into focus that which had been absorbed into cognitive backdrops. Kim Abeles says of her The Smog Collectors, “[they] materialize the reality of the air we breathe…They are reminders of our industrial decisions.”[9] Just as Abeles gave embodiment to the environment that so many can take for granted, Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion in a powerful way brings the Jewishness of Jesus again to one’s consciousness. In many modern contexts, interplay with Christian art depicting hell acts to call to the fore of Christians’ minds again a theology that otherwise may have been unconsidered or uncritically accepted.

            Art acts as a prophetic critique interrupting our status quo of relationships. It challenges and disrupts paradigms on levels personal, such as that of John the Baptizer, the tribal/national-Jeremiah, and lastly appealing to universals as that of Amos. John Dewey recalls poet and social critic Matthew Arnold’s saying “poetry is criticism of life” to portray this fundamental aspect of art’s function. The strength of art as prophetic and correctional, writes Dewey lies in its appeal to imagination and possibility. Acting through sign, symbol, the immediate and radically relational, art implies a required moral judgment on behalf of the art’s participant. Dewey found its strength in its opening and disclosure of possibility and the nurturance of the imagination. “It is by a sense of possibilities opening before us that we become aware of constrictions that hem us in and of burdens that oppress.”[10] In other words art opens humanity to its fullest potentials of justice and compassion through the divinity that lies within humanity itself.

            The fullness of humanity’s potential has never been reached and one function of art is to call its interpreter’s to refigure the unplumbable depths of human greatness. Art as prophetic seeks to secure greater justice, inclusion, and compassion, through sometimes shocking and unsettling means but are always advocate a turning (repentance) from one way of life towards an awakening to new life. The challenge that prophetic calls housed within dogma or theology face is that they can more easily be approached as ethical impositions that come from without and “moral lessons have been experienced as indoctrination, not challenge.”[11] By giving body and expression to the prophetic through art, it confronts the interpreter and through the hermeneutic process creates an ownership of the repentance that would have been unachieved through other means. As justice is a means and process rather than a goal or end that will be reached, it is only to be found through the relationality that art affords and demands.    

            John Dewey cites the poet T.E. Hulme’s Speculations when speaking of art’s inability to be understood alone in its isolation. Instead, writes Dewey, art is encountered as a fine-tuning of humanity’s experience in the world. In our hermeneutic mood we meet the art’s creator, their culture, their religion, the spiritual and theological ethos that accompanied its forging. Through this process, while keeping all individuality and uniqueness, the universality of human experience is met; where culture was once obscured by language, novel theologies, and disorienting worldview, it is granted a medium of transcendence. In an intentional hermeneutic we open our relationality, connect to the shared humanity that stretches through all culture, and our ‘self’ is shaken from the disillusionment of isolation. The arts “effect a broadening and deepening of our own experience, rendering it less local and provincial”[12], and prevent cultures aside from our own from being patronized in a fetishistic exoticism or being dismissed out of hand.

             Thus art as universally empowering in a theological era dominated by the lost projects of Modernism, is finding its place in Post-Colonialism. The fuller actualization of all peoples is progressing and their exploitation is endangered. Domination of Empire and imperializing theologies have been severely threatened. Art and art supporting technologies play no small part in this. Post-structuralist movements and current trends supporting open-source philosophies are reaching into technological innovation as well as civic governance and point towards a greater democratic and non-hierarchical model of human organization. The empowerment of web technologies are only the latest iteration of the freedom availed in art. It is a process of greater liberation as art and theology’s relationship has been made more complex. However, the increased freedom and density of possible meanings in art, religious and not, calls for a heightened responsibility, creativity, and intentionality. Heraclitus’ aphorism in Fragment 93 stating “The Delphic god neither reveals nor conceals, but gives a sign.” is an early philosophic clue of the uneasy job of negotiating truth via sign, symbol, and icon. The task is only becoming more compounded as we become media saturated in a world exponentially encoded by sign.

            Mark C Taylor’s examination of the deep responsibility and opportunity availed through web technologies as one illustration of the contemporary situation of art. Networks, he writes, make space for a co-presence with others that is neither here nor there which acts as a constraint on influence through a critical distance that remains collaborative. As the Greeks’ physis increasingly is becoming mimesis through heads-up displays (HUDs) and street level marketing, and we are related instantly through web interaction, our hermeneutical stance often requires heightening. Although, the web structure is also inherently volatile and vulnerable and our responsibilities are expanding to include an ability to stabilize the web and the world with one’s own personal art.

            As a counter-point to hermeneutics stands the burgeoning field of study and art known as heuretics. Heuretics is at once an applied theory, philosophy, and art form that takes seriously the role of the interpreter in the hermeneutical task; “The perceived meaning of any piece of art depends on the experience, social location, interests, needs, and predisposition of its audience…Interpretation depends on the circumstances and character of the interpreter.”[13] As much as an art piece gives us as individuals and the world, so we also give back to it and all our relations. Simply, instead of hermeneutics’ task of relation with others through their artifacts, it creates opportunity to relate by re-creating their artifacts. Michael Jarrett of Penn State writes, “hermeneutics asks ‘what can be made of the Bible?’ Heuretics asks, ‘what can be made from the Bible?’”. In popular culture, we see this process in Terrence McNally’s theatrical depiction of a contemporary Texan and homosexual Jesus in Corpus Christi, in fanfiction resurrection the mythic adventures of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker, and the sampling mash-ups of musician Girl Talk. In technological terms, we are all hackers-decoding, recoding, thieving, pirating, and reposting in our globally available art galleries of Facebook.

Heuristics has always occurred, yet only recently has begun to receive its place in thoughtful mainstream academia. The human race is artists, whose art is piecemeal from the ashes of the past, and collaged from the relationships they share. It is the additional ‘And’ that we put forth along with our affirmation of the world. Theologically, its implication is clear. We can espouse no creed or tradition without taking full individual responsibility. It means that just as free adults take responsibility for their actions, so too when we articulate the Divine in our words and art we stand as the sole creators. In a pejorative sense this can be misconstrued as ‘buffet Spirituality’, or syncretistic and ‘watered-down’ Christianity. More appropriately, it is a restatement of the Christianity of Soren Kierkegaard. To mimic or parrot the status quo of what Kierkegaard called Christendom is to hide oneself from the true relationship with the God/Man and to avoid even achieving an authentic selfhood. A creative, authentic self cannot be negotiated within the system of Church dogma or Hegel’s speculative philosophy, but instead by remaining in the absurd. Kierkegaard’s definition of faith as ‘the relation which relates one’s self to itself and the power that constitutes it’ is as close a theological frame for the absurdity of the heuristic life.

            Robin Jensen looks into the future of the dialogue between theology and art and how those in contemporary Christian contexts may undertake portraying Christ. She suggests that the Church may be open to new depictions of Christ that are daring and challenging. She suggests renewed theological commitment towards entertaining complex and shocking religious art. While these are valid hopes, they fall short. A more full vision for the future of art and theology might also be hinted at by Jensen herself. She writes of the Baptist and Greek Orthodox experience of humanity as an image of God, and despite one’s interpretation of that theological statement, it articulates emphatically taking seriously humanity’s first responsibility to one another. Art confronts. It confronts us with our deep relationality with the past, our own and diverse cultures, the artist, our perceived enemies. Even in art’s expression of the brokenness and despair of the human condition, one experiences the unique, sublime ability to be confronted within the dialectic of relation. Without having to ascribe to humanity as being an ‘image of God’, art nonetheless reveals our existence’s tragic grandeur-a grandeur that when experienced can only be responded to by love or art; whose distinctions if any, are few.

 

 

 

“[Words] belittle the yearnings of the heart…Words, solely from personal vocabulary, speak only to a portion of the mystery and revelation of God…Both God’s and the world’s imaginative revealing may be missed.”[14]

             


[1] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Press. 1934), 326.

[2] Deborah Haynes, “The Place of Art” Arts, Theology, and the Church (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press. 2005), 164.

[3] Karl Rahner, ‘Theology and the Arts’, Thought: Fordham University Quarterly 57 (1982)

[4] Graham Howes, The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Asthetics of Art and Belief (New York: I.B. Tauris. 2007), 154.

[5] Mark C Taylor, Hiding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1997), 180.

[6] Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press. 1993), 124.

[7] Full daily worship services and humanitarian/social justice work remain accomplished to this day in the historic Norman cathedral. http://www.elycathedral.org

[8] Graham Howes, The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Asthetics of Art and Belief (New York: I.B. Tauris. 2007), 57.

[9] Kim Abeles, Encyclopedia Persona A-Z (Los Angeles: Fellows of Contemporary Art. 1993), 86.

[10] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Press. 1934), 346.

[11] Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and The Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2004), 87.

[12] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Press. 1934), 332.

[13] Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and The Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2004), 33.

[14] Sidney Fowler, “Revealings” Arts, Theology, and the Church (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press. 2005), 237.

I know this’ll sound crude but if I wasn’t at work I’d masturbate to these landscape collages by Hilary Pecis:

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