Art as Theology: Chapter One

      1. Preface
      2. The Consort of Religion
      3. The Tower of Babel
      4. The Struggle

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"Art is the highest form of play." (Paul Tillich, 1987, Page 4)


Portions of this paper were originally delivered under the title “Ethics and Art” on June 20, 1993 to the “Special Topics” class at Houston's First Presbyterian Church where I had been a member for several years. There are several portions of this paper which cry out for refinement or enlargement, which I tackle when the spirit strikes.

While artists, in particular, are eager to disengage ‘art’ from moral and therefore religious argument, disengagement is not possible unless art stays away from subject matter which engages the debate, which artists are not willing to do, nor do I think they should. The debate over NEA funding helps to bring to the public a long running debate over the role of the arts in the modern world, the public's responsibility to the arts and art's responsibility to the public. Many artists have made a career out of stretching the limits of what is deemed acceptable. It is not surprising that they are the first to cry foul at the first sign of censorship. This raises the current pressing question: is censorship of the arts possible or desirable? Phrased another way: is the lack of censorship of public art possible or desirable?

As a child, I was a difficult Sunday school student, the kind who liked to ask the difficult questions: “Who created God?” or “Can you explain Trinity?” I became obstinately non-Christian for several years, but the whole while I voraciously sought out spiritual answers. I read the Koran, the Upanishads, The Golden Bough, collected works of Marx, Mao and other Marxists, the Bagavad Gita, not to mention reading the Bible cover to cover. All the while I was pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater. Other related topics which I have delved into deeply include psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology. So it is perhaps not surprising that I don't like to draw hard fast lines between art and religion. Several years later while pursuing a Masters of Religious Education I was being asked to rigidly classify philosophy, religion and science I confess to some stupidity on the subject. I am more comfortable with the connections than with the separations. I suppose that makes me an artist-theologian, rather than a theologian-artist.

The brief list of qualifications for Bill Wells: BFA drama, University of Montana, graduate Unification Theological Seminary, scenic and lighting designer and technical director for theater. I have worked for New York Shakespeare Festival, New York Theater Studio, Stages Repertory Theater, The Alley Theater, Houston Grand Opera and lots of off-off Broadway productions, as well as Dancing Waters and Show Fountains, water effect specialists creating theatrical water shows.

The Consort of Religion

Art has always been the consort of religion. The finest displays of the spiritual aspiration are art. Like two lovers fixed on the same vision the two are separate yet inseparable. It is often difficult to find the end of one and the beginning of the other. Modern art and religion often seem opposed to each other, but they are two angry lovers suing for divorce, which they may win on paper, but years later they will still be found eye-ball to eye-ball locked in the struggle to be the most right, the most Holy, the most visionary.

Art is not about paint or words or dance. Art is found in the meanings that we see in each image or sound or other contrived sensation. The feelings, thoughts and visions arising from the human soul begin a transformation before we are even conscious of them. Our special human talent is giving voice to the perceptions of our soul. Each new voice is shaped into a symbolic element, a word or image.

In the ways that we manipulate the voices, we are assembling a complex web of meaning and innuendo. In the methods of psychology we assimilate our inner life to our outer life and create the whole (Gestalt). If we cannot assimilate them we banish them back to the pre-conscious depths where they remain irrepressible irritants penetrating the surface world in multiple disguises. I have a slight bone to pick with this approach. Psychology, so ubiquitous now, only goes back one hundred or so years. Prior to that, the pre-conscious daemons were forced out into the open for evaluation, either to respect or rejection. The fact that they might come back did not give them legitimacy any more than a neighbors irritating dog is welcomed in because of his insistence. Religion, rejected by Freud and an academic toy for Jung, attempts to expose the daemons to the light of analysis. The great masters of art translate pre-conscious visions into something communicable, which makes them indispensable to the process. Giving the inexpressible concrete expression in the form of words, stories, music, dance or pictures empowers us to share, to re-evaluate and to change ourselves, as individual people, and as communities.

When the inner soul has a voice, that voice itself becomes a valuable cultural artifact. There is now a thing to be analyzed, to be attached to other expressions, to be condemned or honored. Those masters within the community who excelled at giving the soul this life, are the ones who make humanity human. God's first commission to Adam is to name the plants and animals (Genesis 2:19). This is the oldest truly human action. This is the soul of the artist. The artist is the one who can brush a flower with a name, a description, a motion that communicates something special, that triggers an “ah, hah” in other people.

The prophets of God are the ones who hear the Spirit of God, unheard by the rest of us. Grasping this “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). Those things which are the most pregnant with meaning to the human participants are set aside as sacred. A vision of the sacred cannot be created by one whose soul is not touched by the divine, who cannot grasp the fleeting moments of contact with divinity. The prophet and the priest direct our attention towards or away from the little voices. Somewhere in the middle, the artist and the theologian overlap.

The oldest known art are magic images designed to make a hunt successful or ensure fertility. Paleolithic hunters saw magic in everything. There was a bit of the divine in all of the plants and animals. Paleolithic rock painters, some of whose work is stunningly beautiful in any setting, are tightly woven into their world of magic. It is impossible to separate magic from Paleolithic religion. The rock painters of Lasquex are wooing the bison and the deer. They are calling out with their heart. They demonstrate a refined ability to visualize the bison and to communicate that vision in a non-verbal way. It is not possible know whether the rituals of these early artists had an aspect of worship or were simply self-centered magic. There is a clear sense of self focus. And yet an aspect of great awe seems to shine through. In any case, the Paleolithic artist is not simply doodling, but is committed to a sacred act on behalf of the whole community.

The Tower of Babel

One of those rich and mysterious stories of the Book of Genesis is that of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). According to the Genesis account, all the inhabitants of the earth used a single language, until they built their first city of fired brick and stone. In the center the inhabitants built a tower to heaven, to “make for ourselves a name: lest we be scattered abroad” (Genesis 11:4, NAS). In the time between Adam's naming the animals and the building of the tower, humankind had been set apart from God by disobedience and rebellion. Seeking to be like God (Genesis 3:1-6), Adam and Eve are sent out from the garden. Notice that in the passage above that the inhabitants are building the tower to make a name for themselves and to strengthen their personal solidarity. This tower to heaven has a sacred purpose, but not for God, it is for us.

The connection here to art would seem tenuous, but I believe it is ultimately instructive. The Tower of Babel could be seen as the first great monumental art project. It is sacred, reaching up to heaven and so seemingly Godward. Yet it is ultimately completely human and entirely for human purposes. As a corporate art project, it is a corporate expression of humanity reaching to heaven. The tower is an expression from the human core, a solidarity of souls, “lest we be scattered”.

The appearance of turning to heaven does not hide its purpose: the creation of a personal holiness. God is concerned: “they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6, NAS). So God causes many languages to come about.Each man turns to the other, but understanding ceases. The people stop building the city and scatter abroad. At odds with God, their desire to stay as one people is thwarted.

This first municipal art project is displeasing to God. Does this mean that all art, be it sacred or secular, is filled with an hubris that ultimately sets it against God? Certainly the hype around modern art would lend no other conclusion. The short answer is that most art, either sacred or profane, is reflective of human culture, human desire, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34, Luke 6:45). There are those whose religion rejects all art completely. But there is also a long and honored tradition of sacred music, dance, and visual art, which cannot be denied. And it is respected in the Bible. My current interest is less with the substance and more with the process.

The Struggle

The introduction of “civilization”, which brings specialization and classifications to emerging societies, creates a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Historically, the artist, while producing religious images, was not included in the priestly (sacred) class. In current stone-age societies, the artist and magician/priest are one. Applying this to historical stone-age societies, the artist apparently fell from the position of magician and shaman to that of a crafts worker. The artist-crafts worker served the purposes of the religious and political leaders and could become an honored member of the court, but the artist ceased to rank on the level of the priests or warriors until the industrial age, which stripped the clergy of importance in elite circles in favor of the naive (in the sense of simple) spirituality of the arts. The general disinterest in religious authority has spread, as has the elevation of artists, particularly artists in popular art forms such as television and movies or music. I intend to largely ignore popular entertainers, as they appear to represent a different phenomenon, the viscera of fantasy life.

The current super-star status of today's elite artists is indicative of the increasing spiritual value being placed on the arts. Religion and priests took on an immediate position of high status in early civilization, but, outside of limited circles, have lost much of their elevation, particularly since the industrial revolution. The loss of status of the clergy has been accompanied by a rise in the status of the elite artist to a sort of pseudo-spirituality. The arts have risen in status by attempting to take over some of the activities of religion: seeking visions, defining or redefining what is morally right, and providing a form of pseudo worship in hushed and dimly lit museums. Much of modern art is attempting to replace or at least eliminate religion.

Recently religious and political leaders have stepped up attacks on the arts. The arts have been functioning in a murky and ill-defined region without social standards. Many artists, museums and critics have assumed a “revolutionary” role which is without rules or boundaries. It is fair to say that not all revolutions have been for the good. It would appear that the religious community only dimly recognizes the significant role that the arts have played in transforming western culture. Liberal and leftist forces have long used art effectively. Recent attacks on the arts by conservatives are simply a clumsy attempt to eliminate this influence. Modern artists, reflecting the general theme of the industrial age, see themselves as a revolutionary. Poorly conceived attacks on the arts are more likely to help these artists rather than hurt them. The pseudo-spiritual and anti-social forces within the arts thrive when pushed to the background, where they are forced to fight their way to visibility. Like prophets in the wilderness, pseudo-spiritual artists are strengthened by isolation. Artists today are generally treated with too much deference. The arts field today is glutted with artists. Large amounts of public and private money go into museums, theater centers, cultural festivals and art for corporate offices, bank lobbies, or shopping centers and airports. Attacking the arts or removing funding will decrease the volume of mundane art, but increase revolutionary artistic energy. Ultimately, however, this debate is old news. Post-modern art is drowning in a sea of anarchy. The cacophony of voices caused by too much freedom is causing a general malaise in the arts community. With no consistent voice the arts are loosing social significance. Having shed all spiritual underpinnings, Post-Modern Art is absorbed endless retrospection, experimentation and fascination with technical tricks.

While large corporations are proud to donate to the opera, or to arts education, no large corporation is likely to donate significant amounts of money to religious institutions. Those whose moral agenda brings them face to face with the arts had better begin to understand and use the arts. By understanding the arts, religious leaders could better influence the arts, in a positive way. Better understanding between art and religion will facilitate cooperation between the two. It can only be hoped that through understanding, the arts will better police itself, bringing spiritual accountability to what is now an anarchic field. Art could be a positive force to revitalize the spirit of all nations or a peckish contributor to continued moral decline and ultimate social disintegration.

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Copyright © 2001-2003 Wm W Wells. All rights reserved.