faith&foolishness

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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The Act of Naming

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 5, 2010

One of the hardest parts of art-making, at least for me, is bestowing a title on the work. Whether one is naming an infant, a city, or an art object, the act of naming has always been understood to be powerful and mysterious. With a name comes identity, definition, and belonging.

In my art-making, I like to put this off until the last possible minute, holding out in desperate hope of gaining a better understanding of this new thing I have made. Even that is not a flawless system, because many times I don’t fully understand my own artwork until I’ve watched viewers interacting with it. And so the act of naming is fraught with uncertainty and guesswork and hope.

Since I’m a real language nerd, naming also tends to involve a complex dance with the thesaurus. I am consistently attracted to unfamiliar words and phrases, and those with multiple layers of possible meanings — language that challenges viewers to stop and play with the new ideas, rather than jumping to easy conclusions. (I’m not interested in making my viewers feel stupid, though, so I always provide a definition when using unfamiliar words.)

I’d be interested in hearing from some readers, though. What do you think is the relationship between an artwork and its title? Is it possible for a poorly-chosen title to undermine the power of a work of art? How do you go about choosing a name for your own work?

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Terribilita: Making Sense of the Artistic Temperament

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 14, 2009

Terribilita. That’s what they called it in the glory of Renaissance Italy, in the days when a fiery young Michelangelo spit on Pope Julius II, and the enraged Holy Father (who had plenty of his own terribilita) threatened to hurl the artist from his own scaffold.

Our own times are quieter (or perhaps merely more anesthetized) but we still recognize that there can be something terrible about the so-called artistic temperament: the moods and misery that somehow seem deeper for creative types. Popular culture often suggests that creativity is inextricably linked to suffering, trauma, and mental illness — a belief frequently echoed by my students. But is art ultimately something that comes from pain, from depression, from our fallen and destructive tendencies? Or is it something that comes forth from the sacred creativity hidden within us; from the shards of grace that tumble from our fingertips when we least expect them?

I believe that the natural prerequisite to creating something great is not some ideal quantity of personal suffering, but the capacity to make oneself vulnerable, to feel deeply, and to empathize with the suffering of others. Human creativity is the ability to reach into the chaos and bring forth meaning and order: to touch the ugly and the broken, and transform them into something beautiful. That’s why creativity is ultimately a God-like quality.

If I’m right in this, then suffering may provide the fuel, but it is the order-making, beauty-making fire of creativity that brings forth artistic work. And we must not mistake that common fuel for the creative fire. Creativity is what allows a painter to bring forth great art out of the nightmare of chronic depression; it’s what allows the composer to weave harmonies out of terror and destruction. We will never make great things by wallowing in our own sufferings, but only by transforming them into something new.

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Nobody goes hungry in my kitchen!

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 12, 2009

“Nobody goes hungry in my kitchen!” Those are the words of my mother-in-law, who practices generosity and hospitality with something akin to religious fervor. Long before he ever considered a culinary degree, my husband understood the importance of making sure everyone had  a place and felt welcomed.

And so it has troubled him that a co-worker, a Pakistani Muslim, was unable to eat at many of the company events because none of the food was halal. For a recent holiday potluck, he decided to remedy this situation by making a dish especially for his friend. And so it was that I came home to find my blond-haired Baptist husband, armed with some internet research and a bit of advice from the manager of the halal market, up to his elbows in lamb jalfarazi.

It was a success. The co-worker was deeply touched that someone had put forth that effort to make sure he would be able to eat, and gave high compliments to my husband’s Pakistani cooking. But the gesture was confusing to many of their office mates, who found my husband’s actions strange and incomprehensible. They couldn’t understand why he would go out of his way to accommodate someone else’s eating requirements like that.

That troubles me. Hospitality is about a fundamental respect for other human beings. It’s not exactly optional.

Neither does it require that we understand or agree with everything that someone else believes, but only that we respect her enough to learn what we can do to make her feel welcome. And it doesn’t require that we get everything right on the first attempt. It isn’t our perfection that makes people feel wanted and welcomed, but the fact that we notice, and care, and try.

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Bits & Pieces

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 13, 2009

Nothing solid, just some passing thoughts — feedback is welcome.

1) Lots of really amazing artwork & ideas floating around at the Arts & Faith Conference at Asbury this week — I’ll definitely be posting more about that as I process everything over these next few days.

2) I’ve been thinking recently that living in community isn’t just about good fellowship within the church, but about an arching sisterhood and brotherhood that transcends church walls and religious creeds. Is it possible there’s something communal in our salvation? More to come.

3) One resource I’d like to add to this blog is a bibliography of materials that address issues of art/faith/culture/community — preferably complete with short descriptions or reviews. I’d love to include the well-loved classics, but what would be most helpful of all would be information about recently-published material that might not be referenced in other locations. Would you find something like this useful? Materials I shouldn’t miss?

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An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 10, 2009

In my last post, I asked about the difference between excellence and elitism, and queried whether accessibility in art must come only at the expense of quality.

It’s a common enough sentiment — well, of course it would be nice to make art that is readily accessible and could be understood by people of all backgrounds and education levels, but that would mean dumbing it down or making kitsch. The cynics don’t want for examples, either: there’s a seemingly-endless abundance of smarmy, kitschy stuff out there masquerading as artwork. But does the excess of poor art point to an actual demand for kitsch objects in our culture — or is it instead a symptom of severe neglect on the part of an increasingly elite and inaccessible art world?*

Is it genuine quality we have been seeking in our artwork, or merely a sense of our own importance — we chosen few who have been initiated into the inside joke? Because at the end of the day, our small gains are measured against a great expense to the culture in which we live and are called to serve. Our most brilliantly-expressed artistic truths are unnoticed and meaningless, and the inside joke is more pathetic than funny.

The time has come for artists to reclaim our cultural calling and to reach out to the communities we have abandoned and neglected. It is for this reason that I suggest accessibility as a central aspect of artistic excellence — not something to be avoided at all costs, but an essential quality to be carefully cultivated. After all, an uneducated viewer isn’t a stupid viewer. She isn’t seeking cloyingly simplistic kitsch, but meaningful artwork in which she can gain some foothold of understanding — in which there is an element of shared visual language between the artist and the viewer. As a gallery director, I often observed that a shy viewer who connects with the artwork on one level is then comfortable (and curious) enough to investigate more subtle levels of meaning in the work, as well. Let that happen often enough, and she will become an educated and appreciative viewer.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the divide between fine art and the culture at large. What makes a work of art meaningful to you? What is an artist’s responsibility to find common ground with less-experienced viewers?

* Bruce Herman compares this situation to a present-day Tower of Babel in his 2003 essay, Breaking/Open: Postmodernism & the Return of the Religious Element in Art.

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