Some of you may remember that I am co-sponsoring the Spark Initiative, a granting and mentoring opportunity for millennial social innovators who are paired with millennial givers. We will be meeting this weekend at the Leadership Studio at Muskoka Woods located two hours north of Toronto. As a part of this season’s work, all of us worked with a coach who guided us in the Birkman, a personality and career guidance tool. It revealed that my main interests are Literary (97%) and Artistic (91%). How do you feed these needs?” was an obvious question from my coach. I feed my Literary need by reading and writing; this course helps a lot. But what about Artistic? I had nothing to say, really, to my coach’s question. Except maybe now I just go to church.
William Dyrness in Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue Engaging Culture begins to unpeel the layers on this onion. Post-evangelicals like me have been stranded like a beached whale with a church culture that is stripped of any meaningful engagement with the arts. It’s part of what drew me into the multisensory experience of Catholicism. I’m wooed by the complexity of the multiple stories frozen in glass and wood; I’m nurtured by the tangible materiality – wet water drips from my fingers and forehead, cleansing, refreshing baptismal commitments; acrid smoke smelling of frankincense is breathed in, and out comes prayer. Art is the doorway to enriched faith.
“Art, then, is that human activity that goes beyond the useful to embody in allusive color, shape, or sound the joy or pain of being human…. [A]rt is a way of acting in the world that engages with its materiality in such a way that it illumines something about the world’s depth and reality. It is an activity that involves a way of knowing as well as doing; it shows us something we can learn in no other way.”
The distinctiveness of this sort of faith, says Dyrness, is that it moves beyond the mind and into the body. Since the Enlightenment, we’ve been conceptualizing faith, reducing it to doctrine and ideals in our heads, and living it out in our bodies less and less. I think this divorce leads to the intense disillusionment millennials sense today with the church.
Let me correct myself on not knowing how I feed my Artistic side. While I can’t (yet) call myself a painter, nor do I draw nor write fiction, I do subscribe to Image, the quarterly journal that offers a motherlode of poems, essays, stories, and images. “Art – Faith – Mystery” is the tagline. This week I picked up the latest issue at my PO Box in Maine. Karen not home, I took Issue No. 98 with me to Carmen’s Diner. Alone for dinner, and sitting beside the jukebox, I was introduced to Barbara Kruger, an artist who I also stumbled across as I read Visual Faith. Dyrness says,
“Barbara Kruger is a contemporary artist whose work is sometimes considered radical or, some would argue, anarchic. But she is very outspoken about the purpose of her work: “I’m interested in making art that displaces the powers that tell us who we can be and who we can’t be.” Her work reflects certain deep commitments to freedom from oppression and the misuse of power.”
Kruger’s work lives at the convergence of art and social commentary, of photo shoots and justice. I bet she and anthropologist Sarah Pink would be friends. Lauren Winner, in her opening editorial in Image, speaks of Kruger’s ability to tell truth using images. She offers this:
“The standard thing to say about truth and art and Barbara Kruger is that she interrupts our gaze in order to show us what consumerist graphic design is; she forces images to tell the truth about themselves…. What I like best is something she once said in an interview: ‘I always say I try to make my work about how we are to one another.’”
Kruger’s works of art are often harsh; they feel like a sucker punch to the solar plexus. For an example from Kruger’s vast oeuvre, click through for Man’s best friend. (I would reproduce it here, but I’m concerned about copywrite infringement. You need to see it, so please click through.)
Let the image sink in for a bit. When I first saw this image, I was immediately struck by the non-politically correct, non-inclusive term “Man”, especially strange for a female artist. Then, surfacing below the words was the image of a Greek-styled building. Finally, it dawned on me (not being American, it didn’t hit me immediately) – it is the Supreme Court in Washington. And surprisingly, personally, the image took me to Hong Kong, where I watched the Kavanaugh hearings with Dave and Chris one evening, all of us yelling at the TV in frustration.
Kruger created this image in 1987, decades before Kavanaugh, and yet how immediate and fresh this piece is today in 2018. How much hasn’t changed if the courts are still man’s best friend. Whether Kruger comes from a place of Christian faith or not, it is irrelevant to whether her art speaks into faith. Her works, and any and all works of artistic expression, will challenge, critique and empower faith.
How is art informing your spirituality? Let’s welcome the imagination back into our spiritual stories.
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 99.
 Ibid., 88.
 Lauren F. Winner, “Alphabetic Art”, Image No. 98 (Fall 2018): 4.