I can remember as a child being told to “pay attention.” I don’t know about the rest of you but for most children it was not the easiest thing to do. And now, as an adult, I still believe that it is not the easiest thing to do. I would offer that paying attention or attentiveness is quite difficult to grasp especially with all the distractions and noise in our culture today.
In the Huffington Post’s Arts and Culture section, James Elkins, art critic and historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote an article entitled, “How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?” He shares the following:
“There have been a number of surveys of how visitors interact with paintings in museums. One found that an average viewer goes up to a painting, looks at it for less than two seconds, reads the wall text for another 10 seconds, glances at the painting to verify something in the text, and moves on. Another survey concluded people looked for a median time of 17 seconds. The Louvre found that people looked at the Mona Lisa an average of 15 seconds, which makes you wonder how long they spend on the other 35,000 works in the collection. A survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art supposedly found that people look at artworks for an average of 32.5 seconds each, but they must not have counted the ones people glance at… All this goes to show that our encounters are usually brief encounters or non-encounters.”
I wish I could say that I was surprised when I read this article, but I’m not. Often times, I too have been guilty of going to the museum or an art show and simply glancing and ready to move on to the next one in order to have time to see all of the paintings, and go about the rest of the day. Why is it that we don’t’ stop long enough to look, stare, gaze and experience some of the beautiful and insightful artwork that have been provided by countless artists?
In Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue, William Dyrness argues that today most people do not focus their attention on “great works of art and architecture.” Their attention is primarily on popular culture, “especially that which focuses on movies, television, MTV, and now the Internet.” Laurie Frendrich, a professor of art, states that “before modernism, painting was the noise in the culture, because it attracted attention…now the culture is the noise, and painting attracts little attention.”
Although some of the influences of popular culture are not a bad thing, we must use wisdom in how we use or express the arts in our worship and our spiritual lives. We need to ask ourselves if they represent a knowledgeable and theological understanding of the Christian worldview. Are we moving forward in seeking the genuine transformation of culture, or are we standing still and allowing culture to transform us?
Dyrness, admits that it is his conviction that the practice of worship provides the most appropriate setting for a fresh appraisal and even a renewal in the arts. He believes that making beautiful forms is theologically connected to our call both to listen and respond to God in prayer praise and sacrament. Simone Weil has argued that there are three ways that people are drawn to God: through affliction, religious practices, and by the experience of beauty. So, could it be that art may be an excellent way of catching our attention to draw us to God? It caught my attention.
I have a friend who is an artist. No, not a rock star, or a fashion designer, or an eyewear designer. She is a painter—”an artist of the soul!” She painted the picture below entitled, Miriam’s Song. It is a painting about my life—an inner portrait. This painting hangs on the wall in my office where I can see it every day. Why?…because this painting is a reminder of God’s faithfulness throughout my life. When artists capture something of the way God does things…we are challenged to see the world, and even God’s presence there, in ways that we have
not seen it before.
The angel represents the times that I was delivered from harm and the times of pain and grief where I was held and strengthen. The various “windows” represent the insights that God has given me along the journey. She was in conversation with her paintbrush, paint tube and with God as listened to my soul and painted. She captured the moments of joy in my life (sisters, music, etc…) and the moments of sorrows (death of my beloved). And she captured the future (God walking with me and leading me through a door of opportunities and life).
Whether in the church or in the larger culture, we must learn to treasure the gifts of artistic imagination for we are desperately in need of the “visions” of artist to help us prepare for that grand worship around the throne of God in heaven…we all need a deeper education in the visual arts, but even more we need a liberated imagination…a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit, who continues Christ’s work of moving creatures to praise the Father.”
 Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-elkins/how-long-does-it-take-to-_b_779946.html (Accessed September 4, 2014).
 William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2001), 15.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 97.
 Ibid., 156-157.