‘When we awaken to beauty, we become aware of new ways of being in the world.’
By beauty I do not mean the pretty, the pleasing, the easy to understand, the mindless and naive, but beauty, I believe is the nature of God, that can be found, discovered, and even surprise us in the midst of our everyday lives, even in the most difficult and harshest of situations.
Beauty is the divine breath of love and grace that touches our hearts with a thread of gold.
It brings hope, life, aspiration, joy, gentleness, peace and goodness.
It brings a taste and a touch of our creators heart so that when we encounter beauty, be that in music, art, poetry, nature, science, the embrace of friends or family, or in the kindness of a stranger in a moment of terror and devastation, we encounter God.
Beauty becomes liminal space. It points beyond itself to the eternal, like a finger pointing to the moon. It is often named in the arts as the sublime – a threshold to the divine loving embrace of God. It is a moment when we, in our mundane everyday lives, catch a glimpse of the eternal realm, overlapping with the present moment.
Beauty is the product of honest attention to the particular, the universal, the human and the divine. It is the naked simplicity of the essence of life when we take the time to discard all the superfluous distractions that call us to look away from the very heart of creation and life.
Simone Weil in ‘Waiting on God’ writes, “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. He is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe. It is like a sacrament.”
In the visual arts this beauty is portrayed in a multitude of ways as it is in music, theatre, dance and poetry etc.
Turner’s stunning paintings of light appearing on the horizon, displaying an aura of glory and beauty that is difficult to explain.
The exquisite icons painted in gesso and gold leaf from the middle ages that invite us to ponder on the love, grace and holiness of God.
Rothko’s canvases of red’s and blacks layered repeatedly one on another beckoning us towards a deeper existence, drawing us inwards away from the busyness of our everyday existence. He said of his work “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions. And the fact that some people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate these basic human emotions.”
The mystical storytelling paintings by Chagall, who combines biblical imagery with the everyday occurrences throughout his long life, from his loving marriages to Bella and … to the honest portrayals of the horrors of the holocaust. His ceiling at the Paris opera house. Mush of his work was around theatre and music, the heart of everyday folk life in Russia.
Are not painting and colour inspired by Love? Is not painting only the reflection of our inner self, and so is not mastery of the brush surpassed?It has nothing to do with it. Colour and its lines contain your character and your message. If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with our colours of love and hope. For me, perfection in art and in life comes from this Biblical source.”
Rouault whose images are often said to be full of ugliness, sought to portray humanity in its rich and rawness, a mothers love, brotherly concern, the prostitute or the circus player, seeing beauty and divinity in everyplace he looked. He simply recorded the warmth of human values in the lives of those he met and to look and represent the divine presence in those places. He wrote that, “Anyone can revolt. It is more difficult to silently obey your own inner promptings, and to spend our lives finding sincere and fitting means of expression for our temperament and our gifts.
When we make art, be that paintings, sculpture, music, poetry, prose, dance etc it is our calling not just to see things as they are, but to see things as we are.. Through the eyes of Christ. What does He see when he looks upon a vulnerable and broken soul, we need to put on the mind of Christ and see His reality, His truth and not view life only through the eyes and ears of fear and anxiety.
To live in this way, is for me the call of all artists, in fact all people for I believe each and everyone of us is creative as we were made in the image of a creator God, but for those of us who have discovered and practised our creativity. It is our duty not to live life dualistically, separating the spiritual from the material world, but we are to create beauty, to create liminal spaces, places where others are encouraged to pause, to think, reflect, question life safely, to make their journey from the head to the heart and to encounter the God who dwells within them as well as without.
We are to use our eyes to not just look quickly at the world around us but to really see, to take time to notice where the eternal is present and at work in the everyday. We should then draw others attention to the minutiae of life, things that others wouldn’t notice because they are always in a rush and don’t have the time or the inclination to look and see the truth that is hidden within our lives. When we begin to see life in this way, it not only enlarges our vision of the world but it encourages others to step out of our small mindedness, and to look towards a greater vision, an eternal vision. It offers, hope, transformation, healing, restoration. All those words that we read in the bible but so often find it hard to see in the present. As creatives we are to be like the Israelite spies in the desert, bringing back fruit from the promised land to be tasted in advance. We are to tell the story of the promised land that is hidden amongst us so that people can taste it, hear it, see it, and want it, even while we acknowledge the reality of the desert in which we presently live.
The arts give us an alternative language with which to share Gods love, instead of the words that have been spoken and repeated so often that society no longer listens to them. We have an opportunity to engage with the world through all of the senses, sight, sound, taste, touch, smell; languages of the heart that speak to our emotions, a universal language that crosses all cultural and age related boundaries.
And yet what is the reality in our churches today?
We have become stuck in the age of the WORD as the only Christian language.
I have talked to many christians and pastors about using the arts in their churches and most of them are fearful and unsure of how to go about it and others feel that the idea is completely irrelevant, even idolatrous.
For the past few hundred years since the Protestant Reformation, the colourful variety of creative expression that had previously been celebrated within the church across the world has been disowned and feared. It has been seen as the language of the material world, and a dualistic theology has grown up that has separated heaven from earth and told us all that we are just here on this evil earth to save as many souls as possible and then get to heaven.
The church has used hymns, and choruses and an odd bit of drama, as they all have words in them, and its the words and not the music or the acting that seem to be important. When images have been used, they tend to be used as illustrations on a powerpoint, or as advertising to promote church events, or seen as a great activity for children to do in the Sunday School.
The contemporary poet Ben Okri writes in his stunning essay Beyond Words
“But the highest things are beyond words.
That is probably why all art aspires to the condition of wordlessness. When literature works on you, it does so in silence, in your dreams, in your wordless moments. Good words enter you and become moods, become the quiet fabric of your being. Like music, like painting, literature too wants to transcend its primary condition and become something higher. Art wants to move into silence, into the emotional and spiritual conditions of the world. Statues become melodies, melodies become yearnings, yearnings become actions.
And yet too often we persist in using words as argument, to challenge and convince others that we have discovered the truth, rather than make use of the language of beauty and love hat God employs within his creation.
The human imperative to create: Ice Age exhibition – art and music 40,000 years ago. That predates any of our stories and word based narratives. Music, dance, painting and sculpture were the first forms of communication and language long before written words were developed. This exhibition shows that all cultures used creativity as language.
The Divine Imagination within humanity.
It is thought that the only thing that separates man from the animals, man from the ape is our ability to think creatively – only humans make art. Only humans have made tools to paint and carve, only humans have skillfully constructed instruments that make diverse sounds, imagined and designed costumes and headdresses to embellish and decorate our bodies and create collective and personal identities, only humans have written stories and plays and poetry that tell our stories. Only humans have invented rituals and performances that are passed down from generation to generation that unite communities and tribes, giving a sense of collectivity and belonging.
The old testament, as you will all know, is full of examples of creative acts; God asked Adam to name all the animals, a creative act. Noah built an ark, Jacob designed a beautiful coat of many colours for his beloved son Joseph, Bezalel was gifted by God with many creative talents and skills, in wood, gold and silver work, embroidery etc for the temple in Exodus 31 2-5.
Miriam danced, Moses and David composed songs and sang, we have the poetry of the Psalms and the love song in Song of Songs. etc……
I have often heard the argument that the arts are fallen, evil, idolatrous as they have too often been used sinfully throughout mankind’s history. But if we take that as an argument we can say that sex has been misused, perhaps with far more devastating consequences and so perhaps every christian should refrain from sexual relations. But we don’t, we know that it is God given and needs to be celebrated in its rightful context of a loving marriage.
The western church has suppressed creativity for far too long, and gradually a new longing is emerging in our digital and visual age. We now have Fresh Expressions and Messy Church, and lively contemporary music based youth congregations like Audacious where the pop music band play constantly for the whole service, including during the sermon. These new expressions of church have grown out of a dissatisfaction with the institution and organizational approach to most church life. And I am pleased that they are engaging with creativity in their approaches to services and outreach.
Without meaning to sound arrogant, I fear that the creativity often being used is so simplistic and childlike. People are discovering the vision of creativity at the heart of God and then just having a go, mostly with no creative training whatsoever, and this will only lead to this creative opportunity never reaching its full potential.
Christian Art today is often tame, copying previous styles and symbols, frightened of pushing the boundaries in case its misunderstood. It limits itself to predictable interpretations of biblical and theological themes. It has embraced mass reproduction – photocopies and prints of old masters such as Holman Hunts Light of the World etc
It has become benal, cheap, mass produced religious tac – crosses, bookmarks with cartoons on them, replica plaster casts of celtic crosses, mass produced communion sets, images of lions, of sunsets, eagles and doves. This is not going to engage with our culture.
So this is where those of us who have been blessed with talents and skills need to step up to the mark. Its no good us complaining any more that we have been misunderstood and excluded, for we all know that is true, but we need to dream Gods dream, and demonstrate how God uses the arts as an expression of his love and character. We need to demonstrate a professionalism and encourage churches to take the arts seriously, to value them for the amazing tool and offering that they are, and to help move this often bland English church into a new age of creativity and beauty.
We need to encourage and celebrate artists like Epiphany for stepping out and experimenting with new ways of using music as a language to this generation. We can learn much from the secular arts world who has overtaken us in the way they communicate creatively. For centuries the church was at the heart of every community, not only as a loving, safe place to dwell, but also as a centre for creative excellence, and the commissioning of new and inventive ideas. It is said that up until the mid 1700’s nearly all Western Art movements were initiated and commissioned by the church. Since the mid 1800’s every new Western Art Movement, from Cubism, Impressionism, Pop Art etc has been initiated not just outside of the church but mostly anti the church and its establishment, until the situation we are in today where the church and the art world have become almost completed divided.
I want to suggest some of my ideas for the way ahead.
As Churches can we begin to learn the lessons about place and space that contemporary society are using and instead of utilising them for consumeristic and capitalist aims lets use them for the good of community and the promotion of love.
IE Trafford Centre – Place/Non-place journey through quickly, not places to remain and belong. Marc Auge place – non place
Museums and Galleries – Access, Interactive, Participatory learning and Ownership
touchy feely displays – War Museum north. No longer traditional piece of writing on the wall or a handout, but interactive, touchy feely objects that engage with all the senses. Smells in tubes, objects in hidden boxes for you to touch, sounds and projections as presentations. My mum found the experience so realistic that she cowered and cried, this was very unlike her.
Buzz words, access, participation and ownership.
The language also of schools participative learning until Michael Gove now wants to change it all again.
We live in an age of experience, we don’t want to be talked at, but to communicate, question, experience life before committing to anything.
TV Big Brother, X Factor etc we join in and vote
Contemporary Art – Installation Art, Performance Art – its interactive – death of the author.
Anish Kapoor’s C-Curve versus a Constable landscape It surprises us, placed within the landscape, within our own context, we are a part of the landscape, the image, unlike the painting on the wall. Its out of the gallery in the market place, where we interact differently to how we might in the gallery setting. Art plays with a sense of place.
The Weather Project at Tate Modern by Olafur Eliasson (Turbine Hall in 2003)- a sunrise in the gallery, we see the sunrise outside every day, but often we dont really notice it, so the artist has placed a man made copy in the gallery setting, its unexpected and drew enormous crowds who just came to sit and be and think and admire and engage with the beauty of a fake sunrise.
Anthony Gormleys Blind Light 2007 Haywood Gallery – a fog box creates subliminal space – an interior space that mimics the environment of the top of a mountain or the bottom of the sea, where you feel a sense of aloneness, in the midst of a crowd, a space where you cant make out whats ahead, where the unexpected takes place. Viewed from the outside each figure becomes unrecognizable, almost other wordly, ghostly yet real. It poses so many questions about existence and feeling and emotions. As do his many other amazing works like Field, or Another Place on Crosby beach near us.
Bill Viola videos – moving paintings – sublimal experience – 1st video altar work at St Pauls Cathedral 2014
The Sacred Made Real 2009 Exhibition at the National Gallery 5000 visitors per day!!!
Spanish religious painting and sculpture 1600-1700
Crucifixion by Juan Martinez Montanes – created to induce worship, for Christ looks asleep until you kneel beneath the sculpture hanging on the wall at the correct height and then you notice the eyes of Christ holding your gaze in his moment of agony. You sense intensely that this act was for you personally, that his love is for you personally, that he has endured more suffering than you ever have and yet he still looks at you with eyes of love, Its very moving- a sublime space.
Seeing Salvation in 2000 – incredibly moving and sublime.
Christ embracing St Bernard as he comes down from the cross, resurrected, intimacy, still wounded, the eternal in the present moment.
Has the gallery and the museum replaced the church as places of contemplation, meaning and subliminal experience?
I want to end my talk with another quote from the poet and writer
The Dancer – Ben Okri
A flamenco dancer, lurking under a shadow, prepares of the terror of her dance. Somebody has wounded her with words, alluding to the fact that she has no fire, or ‘duende’. She knows she has to dance her way past her limitations, and that this may destroy her forever. She has to fail, or she has to die. I want to dwell for a little while on this dancer because, though a very secular example, she speaks very well for the power of human transcendence. I want you to imagine this frail woman. I want you to see her in deep shadow, and fear. When the music starts, she begins to dance, with ritual slowness. Then she stamps out the dampness from her soul. Then she stamps fire into her loins. She takes on a strange enchanted glow. With a dark tragic rage, shouting, she hurls her hungers, her doubts, her terrors, and her secular prayer for more light into the spaces around her. All fire and fate, she spins her enigma around us, and pulls into the awesome risk of her dance.
She is taking herself apart before our sceptical gaze.
She is disintegrating, shouting and stamping and dissolving the boundaries of her body. Soon, she becomes a wild unknown force, glowing in her death, dancing from her wound, dying in her dance.
And when she stops – strangely gigantic in her new fiery stature – she is like one who has survived the most dangerous journey of all. I can see her now as she stands shining in celebration of her own death. In the silence that follows, no one moves. The fact is that she has destroyed us all.
Why do I dwell on this dancer? I dwell on her because she represents for me the courage to go beyond ourselves. While she danced she became the dream of the freest and most creative people we had always wanted to be, in whatever it is we do. She was the sea we never ran away to, the spirit of wordless self-overcoming we never quite embrace. She destroyed us because we knew in our hearts that rarely do we rise to the higher challenges in our lives, or our work, or our humanity. She destroyed us because rarely do we love our tasks and our lives enough to die and thus be reborn into the divine gift of our hidden genius. We seldom try for that beautiful greatness brooding in the mystery of our blood.
You can say in her own way, and in that moment, that she too was a dancer to God.
That spirit of the leap into the unknown, that joyful giving of the self’s powers, that wisdom of going beyond in order to arrive here – that too is beyond words.
All art is a prayer for spiritual strength. If we could be pure dancers in spirit, we would never be afraid to love, and we would love with strength and wisdom. We would not be afraid of speech, and we would be serene with silence. We would learn to live beyond words, among the highest things. We wouldn’t need words. Our smile, our silences would be sufficient. Our creations and the beauty of our functions would be enough. Our giving would be our perpetual gift.”
We, as Christian creatives are this dancer, misunderstood, broken by words often spoken over us by the church.
But we need to dance.
This is our challenge. Can we dance despite our vulnerability and fears? Can we dance alongside one another and tentatively discover new ways of expressing beauty, create spaces and places that act as thresholds to the hidden realms of the promised land, the eternal realm that is already present amongst us.
Can we dare to rise up and offer a new voice, a silent voice, without words; a voice of beauty, of poetry, of music, of painting and sculpture. Can we allow the creative presence of the holy spirit to overflow through our being and into everything around us?
Its an adventure, but one that we can make together.
A talk given by Lesley Sutton to The Christian Musicians Network in 2014