The Power of Art

Art speaks. Art loud and quiet, in your face and under the radar, beautiful and ugly, obvious and enigmatic, and art is subversive.  Art is powerful. Art can support, art can bring down, art can evoke and provoke, and it is dangerous.  And if our So-Called President doesn’t understand art and its power, their are people in his administration who do.

The Administration is proposing cutting the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the 2018 budget.  They are proposing this as a cost-saving measure, but at $148M, this represents a mere 0.003% of the federal budget.  To put that in perspective, the cost to U.S. taxpayers for the S0-Called President to travel to his personal Florida retreat for nearly every weekend since his inauguration has been $10M so far. For one month (CBS News).  It’s not about money.  It’s about an attempt to silence artists.

Just last week, I visited the Women Now exhibit at the Lorton Workhouse in Lorton, VA.  Lorton was a workhouse and a prison, and is now an arts center.  This exhibit highlights the struggle of women one hundred years on from the suffragists who were imprisoned at the workhouse.  This exhibit is political.  It speaks to the workhouse that exhibits it. It speaks to the struggle of women. It speaks to persistence.  It speaks.

There are interactive elements of the exhibit that invite us to be participants, not only in the moment, but in the creation of the art from a deep place. Interaction invites us to consider our own struggle, our own commitment, our own persistence, or perhaps our own  complicity.

Art is like water. It can seep in where more direct communication often cannot.  And we can understand.  When Sen. Joseph McCarthy was engaging in metaphorical communist witch hunts through the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations, the playwrite Arthur Miller wrote the play “The Crucible,” which appeared to be about a literal witch-hunt, based on the transcripts of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93.  The play was produced in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, and Miller’s statement was clear.  Except that it was about something that happened in Massachusetts in the 17th century.  So Sen. McCarthy couldn’t come out and say that it was about him, without acknowledging that he was, indeed, conducting a witch hunt.  Art is ingenious.

Artist Shephard Fairey created a series of posters called “We The People” in response to the inauguration and dramatic increase in hate crimes since the election.  The posters depict all sorts of Americans who are diverse in all sorts of ways.  They are powerful statements.  Recently, the Carroll County Schools in Maryland insisted that teachers remove these posters from classrooms, because some people perceive the posters as “anti-Trump.” (read more here).  The posters say things such as “We the people protect each other” or “We the people are greater than fear” or “We the people defend dignity.”  Think about that for a moment.  This is what is perceived as being “anti-Trump.”  Art is provocative.  This means that the So-Called President and his supporters are claiming that it is against him to be greater than fear, or to defend dignity.  Art is important.  You can see  the posters and download them for free here, by the way.

Since the time that the prophet Nathan told King David a story about a rich man who stole a sheep from a poor man to provoke David to do the right thing, people have been using art as tool for justice.  Use art. Go and see art. Support it. Make art.

Art is dangerous. It’s subversive. And it’s important.  What will you subvert today?

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.



Sacred Art Makes Sacred Space

A while back, I wrote about why I think it’s important to have original artwork – to be able to experience art.  Recently, a reader suggested that I post pictures of my sacred art collection (which I’d mentioned in Real Art For Real People) so that maybe others could get an idea of how to start.  So here goes!

These are photos of the sacred art that I have in my office.  I have more artwork in my home, but I thought this would be a good representation.  In my office, the art helps to create a sacred space.

IMG_2112This icon of St. Sophia and her three daughters was the first piece in my office collection.  An icon is functional – it’s meant to be used for prayer – but function can be a work of art.  St. Sophia is all about wisdom and her daughters are Faith, Hope, and Charity.  There are magnificent antique icons available at high-end galleries, but I thought this was quite lovely, and even though I know it was produced with tourists in mind, it’s beauty isn’t diminished.  So she sits on my desk.

IMG_2113And while I’m on the subject of functionality, even pieces that have been created expressly for function, such as this singing bowl, have artistic value.  This bowl has been crafted with care, inside and out.  It’s beautiful to listen to, to hold, and to view.  It sits on my desk along with the smaller singing bowl that you can just view in the upper left corner.

FullSizeRender-1This prayer wheel also sits on my desk, and again, it’s both functional and beautiful.  When you pick it up and spin it, it magnifies your prayers.  People who come into my office often try it out.  I love when we can interact with art.

IMG_2108Art needn’t be expensive, nor created by established artists.  The flaming chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism.  This flaming chalice art in a mosaic style (marker on paper) was created by a first-grade Sunday School class. I bought it at the church auction where I served as a ministerial intern.  I love this piece.  The kids put their hearts into it, and they all did a different bit and then put it together to make the whole. And I got into a bit of a bidding war for it!

IMG_2107 This is another piece from another church artist (from yet another church).  This piece was on exhibit at my home congregation.  The entire exhibit featured the golden mean as represented in the nautilus shape.  This particular piece is made of paper tags, each with an individual design based on the nautilus spiral, all coming together to make a larger spiral.  This really spoke to me. I think Phi is the most beautiful number – I think God is present in this number.  And the Phi is represented in the nautilus spiral and has other theological implications. So it hangs behind my desk.

IMG_2106This is a Buddhist mandala that is hand-painted on silk.  It happens that there’s a Himalayan store near the church that I serve, and they carry these.  Each is a little different.  They’re meditation pieces, and quite beautiful.  So when I saw them, I decided to save up for one, and then spent some time in the store looking for the one that spoke to me the most.  I’ve chosen to drape the cover a bit.

IMG_2109This is Icon VI by the Canadian artist Paul Roorda.  I first encountered his work at an exhibit in the Dadian Gallery at Wesley Theological Seminary, and when this piece came back for a gallery retrospective, I decided that it would make a lovely graduation present to myself.  The photo doesn’t really do it justice.  These are the gilt edges of Bible pages and some of the leather bindings.  I think it’s just stunning and a bit mesmerizing.  And I think it speaks, pardon the pun, volumes.  It looks different in every different light, and that’s part of the beauty.  And it hangs right next to the first-grader’s flaming chalice art.

IMG_2110 And finally, there is Fred.  Twenty-Two-Year-Old named him Fred.  He’s actually called Tuning To Prayer.  Fred was part of an exhibit called “Amen – A Prayer for the World,” which showcased 48 Egyptian and western artists, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, all of whom created works of art around the theme of prayer from fiberglass forms in one of four prayer poses.  Fred is the creation of artist Amy E. Gray, who considered the ways in which prayer is similar to playing the harp (think about the need for refining and tuning).  And I’m delighted to call Amy a friend.

I love Fred. He sits right across from me as I work. He’s pretty much the centerpiece of my office.  He’s a great conversation starter – with three-year-olds and seventy-three-year-olds and everyone in between.

I have a few other things hanging in my office – but not what I would put in the category of sacred art.  Still, they’re all things that I want in there.  All things that I want to look at on my walls and on my desk. Or – in Fred’s case – sitting across from me.

Some of my pieces have been gifts.  One or two have been truly extravagant purchases.  The bulk of my collection are pieces that I like that have been well within what I could afford to pay.  Art doesn’t have to break the bank. Art can be a mosaic flaming chalice made by a bunch of first-graders. If you like it, if it speaks to you – hang it on your wall!

Do you have some art? I’d love to see it here.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

Real Art for Real People

When I was younger, I got the idea that it wasn’t real art unless it was created by a famous (preferably dead) artist and it was hanging in a museum. Or at least, most of the artist’s work should be in a museum, and maybe the rest of was owned by a few very rich people. And the rest of us could buy reproductions of these very famous works of art. This probably had a lot to do with growing up in a house where most of the art was reproductions of famous paintings.

Mind you – I have nothing against famous paintings. If I were independently wealthy, I suppose I might want to have a Dali or a van Gogh on my walls. But there’s so much wonderful contemporary art, so much wonderful art by as-yet-unknown and barely known artists, not to mention the wonderful works of children and grandchildren, that I just don’t want to give up wall space to reproductions.

And so I seem to have been collecting art over the last few years. Art that I like. Lately a fair bit of sacred art. Some of it’s hanging in my house, and some of it’s in my office. I love all of it. The pieces I have at home speak to me on a more personal level. The pieces I have in my office, while they do speak to me personally, also offer opportunities for conversation. I’ve considered that in placing them.

So recently, when some friends suggested that my artwork was too valuable to display in my office and I ought to just hang it at home instead, I was dismayed. I think they are missing the point of art. But then, this can happen if we are only exposed to art in museums and then we just hang reproductions on our walls.

Art is not made for hanging in museums. I love museums. They allow all of us to have access to art that most of us couldn’t afford – so that’s a wonderful thing. Art is made to move us – to be in real places. Sometimes art is functional, sometimes just beautiful. Some art is temporal – there are installations that only last for a short time and when they’re gone, that’s it. They’re done. Some pieces are interactive. But temporal or permanent, interactive or static, art engages us. And in order to engage us, we must be able to experience it.

So I have artwork in my office. Yes, there is some risk. I suppose someone could come into my office and toss a cup of coffee onto some of my artwork. Or the ceiling could fall in. Although I have an awful lot of grandchildren, and, frankly, that could just as easily happen in my house. So I could treat my artwork as an investment. I could keep it safe by wrapping it all up in bubble wrap and storing it in a vault somewhere. It would be safe. It would e safe, but why would I bother to have it then?

In my office, my parishioners are able to experience it when they come to see me. They ask me questions about it. We have conversations about it. I get to see it every day. It enriches my life. If the ceiling collapses on my artwork, well, that would be a sad thing. But then, life is risk, isn’t it? Didn’t God take a risk when God allowed Adam and Eve to become fully human? If God has that kind of risk tolerance, then I think I can have some, too. And isn’t God an artist, after all? The psalmist says,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

If God is the master creator, then I want to have a reflection of some of that beauty in my office. I’ll risk it.  And if you happen by the church, stop in. I’ll show you my artwork.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.