The Fiercest Intellectuals: A Digital Roundtable on Finding Common Ground Between Art, Authenticity and Religion
A conversation with Zach Kleyn, Corrie Siegel, Amanda Leigh Evans, Gregory Michael Hernandez, and Geoff Tuck.
I remember our conversation Zach, and I appreciated then that you sparked off a fascinating hour. On the subject of religion and intellectuals, I find, looking back through history, that very often the fiercest intellectuals were also most dedicated to religion, to God. The Puritans and all their crazy, disparate, arguing friends come to mind in 17th century America, the American Transcendental movement, even up to the last century with Teilhard de Chardin and Corita Kent. Sometime after those two, the intellectual crowd grew to disdain religion. An important exception to this rule is on the right, where (for example) Richard (Father) John Neuhaus exemplifies a right wing intellectual movement, centered around the journal he founded, First Things. I do not know a similar example on the left. Indeed, I think the left has abandoned religious thought and conversation to either the homespun vacuity of Branson level thinking, or outright to Fundamentalist Christianity, with its disavowal of tolerance of difference.
I will say that I find a certain intelligence in an acknowledgement of a higher power. I like the idea of God.
I think you have a history within the Fundamentalist world, where I do not. Will you tell me about how that experience has influenced your current work?
What did you hope for your film A Very, Very Distant Fire? Maybe too, what did you feel watching the original with your family?
I too find the idea of God compelling. I think it can be a helpful ‘tool,’ regardless of whether it is attached to the ‘truth’ of reality or not.
When you talk about how the intellectual left has given up religion to “Fundamentalist Christianity, with its disavowal of tolerance of difference,” I agree. It is so frustrating to watch the richness of a complex religious tradition be so flippantly ignored, and yet I get why that response would happen: How else to address the rigid conformity and lack of tolerance? The problem occurs when the intellectual left begins to take on the same characteristics of the right – a kind of post-god, intellectual fundamentalism that says that anyone who has any belief in a higher power whatsoever can be outright dismissed. A 4-year-old once told me, “I asked my mother why we don’t believe in God, and she said because we aren’t stupid.” This blew me away! Dogma and fundamentalism exist within secular environments also, and what makes this especially insidious and dangerous is that it doesn’t appear as fundamentalism at all – the people who categorize anyone who believes in God as stupid KNOW they are correct, just as religious fundamentalists KNOW that homosexuality is wrong or that Jesus is the only way to access God. My job as an artist, and perhaps as a mystic, is to exist in a kind of limbo territory which is just as threatening to my liberal art audience as it is to Christians – because it is only here, in a shifting and uncertain and very human paradigm that continually turns over on itself, that any kind of transformational growth can occur. I am asking everyone who interacts with my work to perpetually rethink and reinvent who they are and the world they inhabit, and this is just straight-up uncomfortable.
I am relatively convinced that eventually, if an artist is doing exactly what they are supposed to do (work which comes from his or her heart, we could say, or at least work that is truly authentic), the practicalities and details of getting paid for this work will fall in place. Is this naive? Possibly. It is related to, and patterned from my religious background, a sort of protestant work ethic combined with a secular version of ‘pre-destination.’ Maybe it is my odd way of continuing to believe in God.
I’ve found that because of my particular interests, the content of my work and the forms of representation that I use as an artist, I have to occupy some kind of transient, in-between, interstitial no-man’s land. I don’t have a comfortable home either in the realm of Christianity or within the contemporary art world. Mike [Hernandez] makes good use of the term “exile” in his art practice. I really like this term also, because as a signifier it contains so much: the connotations of the Old Testament and the story of the Jews being exiled in Egypt; the current various geo-political issues of having to leave one’s country; a return to an ancient form of human existence – nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribal relations.
But I want to answer your question, “What did you hope for A Very, Very, Distant Thunder? Maybe too, what did you feel watching the original with your family?”
My hope for A Very, Very, Distant Thunder, just as is true for all of my current artistic work, is that the viewer witness another human being struggling with coming to terms around who he is in relationship to the larger cultural forces that make an imprint upon all of us. I want the work to be an example of how any human creature can wrestle and respond authentically to the feeling (and the reality) of being trapped within a certain set of cultural restraints. The restraints never leave, they just shift over time. They evolve along with culture, just as humans are biologically evolving. Maybe an artist’s job is to be willing to risk exposure, exile and punishment by pushing the boundaries of cultural restraints – reaching for that which exists just outside of language and ‘acceptable behavior’ with the belief that what they do will move human nature into (and here I am tempted to use an idyllic or modernist term of hope, but I won’t) the realm of the new and the uncertain.
When I saw the original A Distant Thunder, it was in Sunday School as a 10-year-old. Because of the context, the film was presented as unequivocally true – it couldn’t be brushed off as just a made-up “horror film.” The original film rocked me to the core, and what I felt was a deep fear that stretched into my twenties. But I learned something very valuable about the power of context and how certain environments drastically change the ways content is digested. This is something that marketing researchers and branding experts have known for a long time, and it is why there currently exists a kind of capitalist hyper-control that is capable of manipulating the smallest details of human environment. Christians have been using the power of environment and context to make persuasive arguments for centuries – why not learn from this and turn a critically-curious laser beam onto the ways that pop-culture has learned and appropriated from Christianity? Norman Klein writes about the coercive nature of theatrical environments in many of his books.
I wonder what would happen if I did the same treatment (a complete audio re-make) to a film consumed and adored by left-leaning intellectuals. Would there be the same amount of heckling and laughing from an art audience if I were to fuck with a film that most liberal art people considered ‘sacred’ to their ‘fully logical’ and impenetrable worldview?
Is it something about the certainty of people that feels wrong? I mean on both sides, the religious AND the secular intellectual? What I recall from reading when I was a child is that religious figures always seemed to be wracked with doubt, the ancient figures describe a struggle to believe. Yet, in contemporary times, as when a youth Jesus movement swept around me as a child in the suburbs, it was all about certainty and judgment. Secularists, with science at their backs, are equally certain of all they know.
I think I am not so in love with faith as I am with doubt, with questioning.
In this conversation, I risk speaking only in generalities. I am not so good at big picture conversations – I become lost. I think this is why I write about art and not about art history and art theory. I can observe and question what is in front of me, and learn from the exchange; in talking and debating about ideas my tendency is to fall back on what I know – when I think about it, really I measure ideas against what I have learned and already believe.
I think that it is possible for a ‘person of faith’ to have as much skepticism, doubt and questioning as a secular individual. But the problem, as we’ve already pointed out, is that healthy doubt is so rare on either side of the divide. Or, the fact that there is a divide in the first place. I find it more intriguing to frame discussions around why it is that human beings demand certainty, whether religious or secular, rather than a discussion of which side is “right” or “wrong.” The second option doesn’t get us anywhere.
I am an individual who delights with speaking in generalities and “big pictures,” so I will try and bring that to our discussion, keeping in mind that we will might need to do some ‘translating’ between your tangible details and my abstract concepts.
Gregory Michael Hernandez:
I don’t think of myself as a fierce intellectual at all- but I do think I am fiercely trying to be intellectual in my viewpoints (as are most people), so I will accept the label as that!
Like Zach Kleyn, I had a strong religious upbringing. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church. At seven years old I asked Jesus to come into my heart and forgive me of my sins. I was baptized, and therefore assured that I would go to heaven instead of hell. In my senior year of high school, I decided to pursue my talent in visual art for the “glory of God”. In other words, I wanted to be an evangelist through art. I attended Biola University (a Christian College in La Mirada, CA) for four years, praying and training the whole time that I could convert people to Christianity after college.
It is very common for students at Biola University to get married while still in college or immediately after school. That is largely because they are taught to save sex for marriage. Likewise, I got married at the end of my junior year. In my senior year I began asking harder questions, and that led to where I am today. The primary inquiry was based on the realization that if I grew up in a Mormon family, I would probably be Mormon. If I grew up atheist, I would probably be atheist. I concluded that I must be willing to suspend my belief (temporarily set aside what I think I know to be true) in order to think critically about all worldviews. Only through that process would I be justified entering the secular world telling people to reject their false worldviews and follow Jesus. It only took 2 years after college for this personal challenge to start deconstructing my entire life, leading to the slow dissolution of my marriage and what I refer to as my “dark twenties”. I entered a state of spiritual and intellectual exile. I didn’t speak to my parents, brothers, or most of my extended family for a couple of years because they heavily condemned what I was doing and thinking.
Zach Kleyn and I didn’t know each other in college. We both went to Biola University so I very distinctly connect to his story and artistic goals. While his Christian background is more directly embedded within the form and content of his work, my Christian background provided the foundation for the issues I still explore today. I think there are three types of people in the world: those who become what they were taught, those who rebel and completely reject what they were taught, and those who absorb and filter what they were taught to become a hybrid or something other. Obviously that’s a neat generalization, but the point is that Zach and I are not the first or second type.
I think this dialogue about “Art, Authenticity and Religion” is timely and necessary because I think our culture requires it. This conversation is already happening in unique ways all around us. If someone asks me if I still believe in God, I may shrug my shoulders and reply, “Sure, I guess, probably”, and that is because I am not very interested in God as a divine being in the sky. However, I am very interested in God as a construct. I actively think about and am compelled by “the idea of God”. The idea of God doesn’t depend on whether or not there is a God. The idea of God has always been a driving force behind human nature, desire, identity, politics, community, and so on. We may live in the 21st century and an age of vast scientific knowledge and discovery, but we aren’t done with the idea of God by a long shot- and the idea of God is not done with us (providing philosophical infrastructure to our ideas and beliefs).
I almost quit bothering with the idea of God completely, until I realized that it is way too important and complex to leave to the fundamentalists. They do not own God, and if there is a God I wonder how it feels about being “owned” in thousands of competing religions. If religions didn’t compete, that would be more conducive to the fabric of global community. But most religions evolve toward ultimate authority and competition. I do not mean to discount religion completely when I say this, but I think many religions develop structures that become idols in competition with the “God” they aim to serve. For Evangelical Christians (what I used to be), their idol is the Bible. In my estimation, they have made it so “God” can’t speak or move outside of anything that is forever sealed inside that book.
I think Geoff is right: when it comes to spiritual matters (things that can’t be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt) it seems wrong to have such certainty. Why is it that religious and secular intellectuals feel so comfortable fighting for their version of truth? Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that faith in God is the ultimate thing- that doubts will arise but they should develop into faith. Now I think of faith and doubt as two sides of the same coin, and the only thing you can buy with that coin is a small bag of dust from the land of “Who knows?”.
When I say that I think this conversation is necessary and critical for our culture, here are a few ideas I want to explore more:
1. What are the merits in promoting or thinking about the idea of God? I am not interested in asking what the values are in believing in God, because our culture has been hit over the head with those reasons already: some say there is no moral compass without God, that you can’t be a good person without God, and that there is no point to life without God. On the other hand, we have heard plenty about “The God Delusion”, and why belief in God is for the weak-minded. While those two sides continue to duke it out for superiority, is there fertile soil worth turning over in this bloody field of the idea of God?
2. The divide between left and right, religious and secular, is deepening and it is damaging. The levels of aggression, intransigence, and hostility between human beings (from street level to the intellectual spheres) are high. If there is one thing that the idea of God ought to elicit, it is humility and compassion. Humility is the opposite of certainty in this case, and it seeks common ground instead of difference and division. Compassion is the opposite of anger and hatred, and it recognizes equality and promotes transference (the ability to conceive in the mind how the divide between “us” and “them” is a construct of upbringing and perspective, not necessarily matters of right or wrong). Paul Ricour said, “People are not changed by ethical urgings, but by transformed imaginations”. The idea of God could operate at a level that stimulates the imagination and produces curiosity.
3. Perhaps authenticity is the new “edgy”. Artists and galleries are known for posturing, trying to play the right cards, gaming the system, and pumping themselves full of hot air just as much as the seediest politicians. It is hard to determine what is ‘cool’ and truly good in that kind of environment, and people may respond positively to heartfelt yet critical ideas.
4. The DNA of humans and chimpanzees are 99% the same, yet we are vastly different creatures. I think that most human beings are 99% the same in their beliefs and ideas, yet we differ on certain big ticket ideologies that make us look at each other as if we are humans and they are ape’s. Perhaps we need something “other” to evolve us forward without slaughtering each other. Perhaps we can evolve our collective skills for critical thinking and abilities to reason. It will help us get to the roots of issues faster, instead of bickering over the fruit.
5. Spiritual and religious issues are the source of much pain and inner suffering for people in our world. They also tend to be the source of intellectual blockage. There is room for healing and opening of the mind. Such weighty matters require careful handling, because the topics quickly become divisive and personal.
6. What does all this talk about the idea of God have to do with contemporary art? In the same way that I don’t think it is necessary or possible that all people can or should believe in God, I also don’t think it is necessary or possible for all art to have some deeper meaning or purpose other than for its own sake. At the same time, nourishing the idea of God can unclog certain arteries to increase the flow of creativity. It can be a slow-drip infiltration into contemporary art- both deepening the discourse and tightening the connections that network between values, cultures and identities. After all, one current criticism of art is that too many works are derivative and stale. It is increasingly difficult to find unique vision married to fresh form, yet the human capacity for translating experience is endless.
7. If the theological imagination was a driving force of the Renaissance beginning in the 14th century, perhaps the idea of God can be one catalyst for a 21st century renaissance. As artist’s, most of us are aware of the destructive tendencies of capitalism and market forces on the individual, society, and making good art. Our world is increasingly global and interconnected, and we need approaches to faith and civility that allow for the most common good. This idea of God is a very political enterprise, as it always has been.
I haven’t yet had the chance to see Zach’s “A Very, Very Distant Fire”, but I have seen clips and talked to him about it. The original film comes from a certain ideology, has a narrative that is specific to a brand of faith, and was intended as a marketing / propagandistic tool. However, Zach’s treatment of the film opens it up to operate as a case study with broader appeal and larger implications. I think similar things could be said about this discussion of Art, Authenticity and Religion.
A couple resources:
The blog of Barry Taylor, the only pastor-type person I could tolerate when I was in ‘exile’: http://superflat.typepad.com/
John Caputo, a smart guy: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9750
Religion and Art……we have some very interesting big, hairy, gorillas to contend with here. I like what Geoff said about getting lost in the big picture, because in many ways having a conversation about the relationship between art, religion, following, and questioning seems like a quixotic task, one where we are bound to get absurdly lost in search of invisible beasts. I suppose that’s where some of the interest lies for me. When we are all lost we are in neutral territory*. We can construct some sort of understanding, which can be built and re configured in many forms, I’m picturing us like talented hamsters running through an overlapping Escher maze thats dangling off the armpit of a giant.
* Though people get lost in very different ways so we may find this territory seemingly infinite… the vast 1% Michael spoke about
I’m fascinated by the way individuals and groups also can hold structures as sacred, impenetrable and unchanging. I’m not from a family or community background that is religious in the same way as Zach, Amanda or Gregory, but I do find there are times when I realize I have strong, unmovable assumptions or feelings about what I am doing, what my purpose is or what is best for me, in much the same way. I believe strongly in the transformative power humans have to connect, create, and relate to one another and themselves though navigating and reforming things and ideas.
Often, I think my self- identity as an artist often allows me to feel a kinship with very religious people. From the outside, without context we can both look rather absurd, the sacrifices we make, the way we structure our lives, the way we read the world around us for the symbolic, and the way we work to make those symbols tangible, or explore the tension between the tangible and intangible. Of course there are many kinds of religious people and many kinds of artists… and at this point I think i’m having a really fun time running though this little maze of generalities that I have created so I think its time to point to a few random ideas and tell you where I am coming from so hopefully we can build a few bridges and mazes together.
Religion fascinated me when I was growing up. My grandmother converted 2 times in her life. She left this world a very devoted Jehovah’s Witness, I respect her tenacity and belief. I was raised in a Reform Jewish background. My mom converted to Judaism initially because it was important to my dad to raise me and my brother to be Jewish. I remember once, at a high holiday service( The holiest of Jewish holidays) ,our Rabbi said he was not sure he believed in god. I was unphased by this, I grew up thinking that the most important part of being Jewish for my family was keeping a cultural identity.The part of cultural inheritance that seemed most essential was that of interpretation.. the spirit of debate that was reinforced by the clear layers of meaning within judaism’s structure. Belief and doubt were not presented as opposites. The act of faith in some ways seemed to be the embodiment of doubt. Studying religion was like reading transcripts of the most inspiring and absurd argument. This early exposure to philosophy trained me to question and delight in playing with ideas and structures. I use art as a way to engage with and describe these processes.
Corita Kent once said,
“ I see art as a search for integrity– for fulfillment as a means of integrating every act of our lives into a whole as nearly perfect and we, with the grace of God and our own constant searching and finding, can make it. Our lives must become, as Sister Magdalen Mary so aptly said, “ a constant solving of problems, for the solution of one problem always carries the germ of the next.”
I hold art as so sacred that I feel hesitant making any general statement about what role it plays for me or or how it should function, I don’t know if good art always has the kind of integrity like Corita speaks of, but I think that most art that I consider to be good has led me to search or consider what integrity is. I also enjoy the way she alludes to the act of problem solving as something that is intertwined and perhaps indistinguishable from the act of asking a question.
I had the pleasure of working at the Corita Art Center for 4 years. Corita Kent/ Sister Corita was a nun and pop artist in the 1960’s. She is most known for the pop art, text based silkscreen prints she produced, the flower child like happenings she organized, as well as her innovative teaching methods.
Corita appropriated commercial slogans and imagery to make statements about civil rights, the war on poverty and spiritual in the every day. I could go on about Corita for a long time and maybe if Geoff is down I can write a post about her sometime. Corita left her unsold prints to her former sisters when she died. The majority of this community of nuns decided to become an ecumenical religious community after pressure from the very conservative archdiocese they were under the auspices of. Long story very short I had the privilege of working closely with a community of former nuns. These women are some of the coolest, most thoughtful, highly educated, and experienced people I know. A lot of people that came to visit the center and wrote about Corita would comment on how absurd it was that such contemporary work came from a woman that wore a habit for most of her life, but to me it was not despite wearing the habit but partially because of it that Corita was able to make such innovative work. Her spirituality gave her a structure to explore, question and build upon.
It’s funny how certain attitudes or subject matter can make people uncomfortable. It’s also interesting the unspoken distinctions and layers of reverence that can exist within artistic discourse.
I have been interested in working with a lot of traditional Jewish art forms and texts lately.Part of this line of inquiry and exploration is an interest in the viewers reaction to a work or series. The specific project I am speaking of has become partially driven by an exploration of how the content and context of a specific art work or line of inquiry affects the artist and viewers relationship with the work as well as a solar system of ideas and concepts that surround it. There is an interesting relationship between cultural or religious specificity and general mechanics of faith and culture. Will it close off a dialogue if people assume what I am doing is religious or culturally specific? What is the context and audience of the work, and is part of the identity of the the work that it has a shape shifting relationship to its viewers? As a reaction to these questions I have become increasingly blatant and more specific with cultural reference points in the hope that there is a cross tension that acts as a catalyst. What I have been finding is the more specific I get the more abstracted and accessible things are seeming to become.
Art and religion can be used as a point of exile, a place unfamiliar or familiar at a distance that the viewer must get lost to find themselves again.. its that wide 1% of difference we can wander, that little bit of information we can interpret in so many ways. Religion and art and our convictions and use of both are tools that we can use to navigate the desert, or tools we can use to find new deserts and points of exile once we find how fun and beautiful this wandering can be.
Zach – I have a thought about your comment that “if an artist is doing exactly what they are supposed to do (work which comes from his or her heart, we could say, or at least work that is truly authentic), the practicalities and details of getting paid for this work will fall in place. “ I suspect that what you will find when you do work that comes from your heart is satisfaction and (possibly) happiness. Economics works differently – otherwise many people we both know would be millionaires! I comment on this because I think that the conflation of happiness (and success) with financial gain is indicative of the attenuated spirituality we are discussing. Not to pin a tail on you about it – it’s true that we have all internalized this expectation, to one degree or another.
In a recent conversation, a friend used a phrase that interested me and that seems pertinent to our discussion. Lindsay August Salazar and I were speaking about spirituality, as we are now, and I shared a sneering criticism of religion that I had overheard. “Well,” Lindsay said, “that person must have stopped paying attention years ago – as a culture, we discussed all this before. Everyone I know believes in something, or is able to discuss the possibility of faith without resorting to knee-jerk rejection.” (I am paraphrasing.) I like this, and I appreciate Lindsay’s openness. She really seemed surprised by my dilemma. From this conversation with Lindsay, I began to consider whether my own struggle is one of locution and perception (aside from a few experiences with narrow-minded people); and that maybe by phrasing my question in terms of “religion” I am insisting on something unnecessary and missing a point that others understand: that religion is separate from the spirit. The former is a tool for organizing society – about which we can have a conversation about of all the absurdities, the glories and the cruelties of civilization – and the latter is something that most people accept as part of their lives. Spirituality is common to humans; we all have feelings of depth beyond our selves and beyond our ability to communicate.
Plus, on a personal level, it is entirely true that I most often need to feel like I am working against a tide. I need the struggle, and to narratize my life in heroic terms. Little, tiny Geoffrey against the big, cruel world, and all that. (yeah, it’s true. I want to be a hero. so embarrassing)
I think this generalized and largely accepted spirituality speaks to things that Mike and Corrie have written here.
I like your Point No. 1, Mike, and I think we can find a way toward an open conversation by accepting that any idea of god is personal, and so is difficult to discuss – and even risky. I think that if people have difficulty discussing belief and the spiritual it is probably a good thing; it means we are close to that “authenticity” that we claim.
Do you think that as a culture, as a people, we have become unused to talking about our feelings? Our ways of communicating seem to have made us more comfortable with brief public statements where we profess a position, or that affiliate us with an established idea. I’m not only speaking of the recent Twitter, Facebook and social media constructed communication, I am including the long term influence on our culture and conversation of advertising and political speech.
In a conversation with Patricia Fernandez, about her recent installation at Commonwealth and Council, she offered this: “My father once said to me something that his mother said to him (or at least it sounds like something she would have lamented): people don’t write any more, we don’t record our thoughts and our actions (and assume responsibility for these by writing them down). He was referring to letter writing. Handwriting. “ I like this. It know that I often talk myself out of extreme language and positions when I write down what I think. And I do think that her stressing of handwriting versus keyboarding is important. My fingers tend to fly ahead of my brain, and certainly ahead of my sensitivities, when I type. I become invested in an interiority that builds walls. When keyboarding, I become fascinated by my own skills with language as a weapon, not so much as a tool. Handwriting is slow, and for me slow is good. I started a year ago writing all my posts for Notes on Looking first in cursive, in long hand (I can pinpoint the date: it was at Eileen Quinlan’s Constant Comment show at Overduin and Kite, in January 2012. I walked from my home to the gallery with a notebook and I spent two hours writing before I returned home to post my thoughts.) I think my writing has improved since then, and I also think I understand more about the work and more deeply. Laboring over a text allows me to see where my own self-regard gets in my way. Defending my ideas to myself in real time helps me refine them.
Now I wonder if communication (in general, and especially private communication) has become directed at a public, imagined or real, rather than to a self or another? Most of what we experience now is public communication of some sort, and this must influence us.
Corrie mentions Sister Corita Kent. In the early 1960’s Sister Corita appropriated the then burgeoning public language of advertisements and used the symbols of their persuasion to explore social and economic justice and equality. Kent used advertisements as texts, and she encouraged housewives and immigrants to look for and dissect the messages, and to make signs and posters of employing the symbols. Basically, Corita Kent was acquainted with semiotics and the study of linguistics and also with the work of Andy Warhol; she used what she learned to empower her audience and to challenge the structures of exploitation.
I think we can have an inclusive conversation about these subjects by offering a direction, or directions to explore and by avoiding limitations of religious and spiritual definition. My god is personal; he (I guess because I’m male) “looks” in my imagination more like the god of other people than he looks like me. Does this make sense?
And Corrie – I encourage you to write about your experiences with Sister Corita and the former sisters of her Order. Notes on Looking would be honored and thrilled to host such writing!
I’m especially fond of footnotes, or the Wikipedia link system since they seem to mirror the tangents and points of inspiration that big thoughts contain. Writing to you like this reminds me of a text I have been particularly interested in lately. I have included a picture of the Talmud below. Basically, the Talmud is like the second bible to Jewish people and it includes commentary by thousands of Rabbis over the period of many years. The central text is oral law starting from 10 BCE-200 CE and then the outside text interprets this inner text. On one page there a many voices spanning time and place from 10 BCE until 1500 CE. I like that this text is a visual manifestation of debate- external and internal, dynamic and concrete.
I like the idea of appropriation and internalization you bring up Geoff, because I think it’s an ongoing theme in religion and art. I’m thinking you could parse out many artist’s and theorists works using this criteria, though of course there are infinite categories and themes.
We come from a long line of artists and thinkers who have appropriated and internalized religious themes. Most of the things I know about the New Testament I learned through art history and philosophy classes. Since I don’t come from an evangelical or particularly religious “in the god sense” background my interest in religion is mostly in the way things are said and communicated and how they are reacted to. I care about Renaissance painting even though most of it has to do with a god that I don’t believe in. I see a higher power present, I see an artist that is exploring something awesome, and trying to convey both immaterial and material.
Right now i’m thinking about Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa.. This is an artist showing mastery of form to make a statement about spirituality and what it feels like to have a body.
The artist makes a marble nun into a sensual figure and then sets it glowing through technical genius, working with natural light that runs down gilded beams and illuminates the figure. Its crazy for me to imagine an artist making a work like this today, I doubt it would be accepted by the religious establishment. I wonder what kind of art Bernini would make in 2013, would he be a light and space artist? An Andre Serrano devotee? Would such an artist give Kinkade a run for his money? Who would commission this work today?
Even though Corita’s text based work may be different in appearance from the stereotypical devotional art work that preceded her, I think what she was doing was not very different in mission from previous artists who depicted religious scenes. For the longest time religious art was the forefront of innovation, it was a way of involving the populace, establishing power, creating divinity, connecting and disconnecting with social realities. One of Corita’s missions was to use commercials as allegories, to show the sacred in the vernacular, she saw the aesthetics and power of marketing and she was using it just like Bernini used the light, as a tool to reveal and endow the idea with irresistible presence.
I’m thinking about when I first encountered Zach’s “The Gingerbread Lesson” It was the predecessor to “A Very very Distant Thunder”. The piece was screened on a loop in Actual Size, and since I gallery sat a few hours during the run of the exhibition I had the chance of watching people’s reaction to the film. I found that after a point in time I was able to eerely imitate Zach’s overdub of part of the film. If I concentrate I can still hear specific sentences from that work. It’s interesting to think that through a few gallery sits I now have this memory implanted, and I internalize this voice and religious statement that’s not my own. I was alone in that dark room with the tv and Zach’s voice, and then there was a transformation of the piece every time a new person came in, some snickering, some in rapt attention, and some very uncomfortable. I remember at one point a couple of Zach’s former classmates from Biola came by. It seemed that they were still religious, they watched the video, said something about how determined and interesting their former classmate was and left.It was fascinating to see the way the work changed, The way it meant something different to each person that encountered it, that it was a point of dialogue and also of strange wonder and amusement. Zach’s work has an appeal because of the curious and potent subject matter, but its well made, and thats what enables it to be approached in many ways.
We continue to talk about the works by artists that were commissioned to create portraits of Jesus even if we don’t worship him. The artists have a way of transfiguring the specificity of the subject matter, so that it can become a universal symbol.
Corrie, I agree with your statement “When we are all lost we are in neutral territory.” Part of the thrill of being an artist is the freedom to get lost, and I think the willingness to be lost is what (for me) most clearly separates art that takes me somewhere (or lets me lose myself somewhere) and art that does not. But I also think that being lost is difficult and uncomfortable for the majority of humans, and that many people are deluding themselves about not being lost. In order to receive the gifts of being lost, one must first admit that it is true. Embracing the lost-ness of human nature is hard for individual humans, and almost impossible for established institutions, religious or otherwise. Much of the purpose of established institutions is to help human beings cope with the fact that uncertainty exists in the world.
When I was in the midst of questioning my religious background, I kept returning to the ways in which most Fundamentalists are unable to exist within a space of uncertainty. I felt at my core that questioning, uncertainty, is essential for being not only an authentic artist, but also a quality human creature. The space of being an artist provides me with just enough structure and freedom to bravely ask the questions that I want to ask, even in the face of the unknown. And as Corrie has already pointed out, being a contemporary artist can look as absurd to an outsider as someone of an esoteric faith. My colleague and conceptual confidant Adam Feldmeth once asked me how my artistic practice had replaced my religious faith, and I had to admit that he had a point.
I like how Mike describes “humility [as] the opposite of certainty.” We usually think of the opposite of certainty as uncertainty, but if certainty doesn’t actually exist, and we always have uncertainty, then perhaps all we are left with is a way of being; in this case, humble. Humbleness is something that Christianity knows a lot about, and this is just one example why it isn’t always helpful to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Giving Christianity the finger is counter-productive. Religions of all stripes need to be looked at, poked, prodded, turned over, criticized, snuggled, and kissed.
One of the reasons that I love handwriting is that it can’t help but betray the frailty and uncertainty of the human condition. To me, even “confident-looking” handwriting has a desperate quality, as if it were perpetually unsure of itself. Whenever I read a critical text that I want to understand on a deeper level, I always print the text out and proceed to fill the margins with a myriad of half-baked possibilities, ideas, and connections.
Geoff, I admit that I employ a kind of “magical thinking” when I state that eventually an artist working from his or her heart will be paid. This world doesn’t have those kind of guarantees, another example of the lack of certainty at the core of the human experience. And yet I choose to tell myself this when I get up in the morning and face another day of art-making; this small act is just one of the many strategies that I employ in order to continue the often thankless task of creativity. It helps me continue to make things during dry spells, when inspiration is completely lacking.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg outlines a curious trait that is absolutely required by a person who is attempting to change a habit in their life (and this is well-documented in the research): This person must believe, from the beginning, that he or she is capable of change, that he or she will change. A kind of magical thinking, or faith, or trust, is required before an individual is able to go through transformation. This is also why I have the opinion that people who believe in a higher power have a leg up on people who don’t – it is a lot easier to function as a human being when you believe that you are taken care of, loved, and that your life fits within a larger master plan. It almost doesn’t matter whether this is true or not, because the belief itself is what makes the difference in a person’s life. Belief enables an individual to become a better person.
I say that it almost doesn’t matter whether it is true or not because it is also clear that certain beliefs, particularly interpretations of religious theologies, are and have been an ongoing source of unthinkably large amounts of suffering on this earth. An artist must be able to occupy the no-man’s-land between extremes, and to be adept at bringing a balance between diverse camps of thought. An artist must be a trickster, a fool, capable of flipping anything sacred on its head, including the Richard Dawkins-esque belief that all religious or spiritual thought is harmful.
Mike is right: “the human capacity for translating experience is endless.” Not only is it endless, it is necessary, because we as human creatures have a knack for developing systems of thought that eventually would destroy us (and have often gotten very close to doing so). When I was first considering whether to attend CalArts, a current student told me: “We question everything.” This still sounds to me like the ideal position of any artist – nothing is sacred, everything is an experiment, and every moment contains critical curiosity. It is in this humbling and profane space that uncertainty can finally be embraced.
Amanda Leigh Evans:
I have been thinking about humility throughout our conversation, both how the quality is valued in religious institutions and how it fits in the art world. It would seem that the opposite of extremism might also be service. In my work I have been looking for ways to “lose myself”, as Zach mentioned, and it seems that when I lose myself the work is at its best. This reminds me of something Madeline L’Engle said in Walking on Water, “The work comes to the artist and says ‘Here I am, serve me’ and the artist’s job, no matter great or small is to serve.” This resonates with me.
I spent a year working in close collaboration with people who have extreme developmental disabilities. For me this work was one of the most successful, rewarding, and difficult experiences to date and I think it was only successful because I focused on losing myself to the work. When I forced an agenda or trajectory, the work suffered. When I gave my collaborators the room and resources to express their ideas, I was able to create a platform for their thoughts, set my own ego aside, and allow the work to grow beyond myself. It was important that I lost a sense of where our work was headed so I did not force it in a certain direction. Now as I reflect on that experience, I look for ways to continue making work that is both intellectual and compassionate at the same time. I like how Shea Hembrey works by what he calls the “three Hs:” head, heart, and hands, which is essentially that in order for him to see his work as a success it should be intellectually stimulating, have passion behind it, and be well crafted. I want to know how my work can work nourish human intellect and the human spirit in a way that is both honest and conscious of its shortcomings. More importantly, I want to make work that is fed by love and not an agenda. I want my work to ask important, unanswered questions rather than force ideas.
This way of working for me somehow seems to relate to religion in the context of our conversation. My background is very similar to that of Mike and Zach (similar fundamentalist childhood, same school, similar doubts), and I’m aware that my way of thinking is forever tied to those experiences. I mention this because it I can only speak first hand of experiences from this specific strain of religion. Today it is difficult for me to accept the solid, simple answers I received to complex issues as a child and it’s clear in “A Very, Very, Distant Thunder” that legalistic fundamentalism has a dehumanizing agenda that seeks to win souls by fear. In that circumstance souls become objects. But I think that even within evangelical culture there are many today who would acknowledge that legalistic fundamentalism is misguided and ignorant (and probably those who acknowledge the ignorance are somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum we keep mentioning). This fundamentalism objectifies people, seeing their souls as trophies rather than seeing the human spirit as the most precious and mysterious thing in existence.
I think that truly valuing a person, truly regarding each person as worthy of love and belonging is a deeply religious idea and one that I want to see incorporated in my work. Additionally, I want to make work that is not sentimental but intellectual. I think Sister Corita is a great example of this type of work. Maybe social practice is also a great example, but doesn’t social practice sometimes have its own agenda? One criticism of many social practice artists is that ultimately the artist “uses” a specific group of people to build a career or success, and while I won’t mention names I can think of several artists working in social practice who seem to “use” people to feed their career. That brings me back to L’Engle’s quote and ask myself, “Does my work ultimately serve my ego or am I serving the work? Am I letting this work reach beyond myself? Am I stretching it its intellect, compassion, and craftsmanship in order to make it work I believe is interesting and honest?” Similarly I want to continually ask myself in my spiritual life, “Am I seeking to serve people or am I ‘manipulating’ souls to serve my own insecurities of how some legalist told me a ‘good’ Christian behaves?”
Last week a friend I have been mentoring came very close to killing herself. When I met with her later that week, she told me she just wanted to understand why she felt so low and asked me to answer that question for her. While there are a lot of factors in why someone might feel the way she felt, I don’t know if a simple answer to the “why” really answers her question or give her the comfort she needs. I am not convinced there ever will be a perfect answer, or even a complete answer to many questions about life and our humanness with other humans. In my search for answers I am learning to be okay with sometimes (most-times) not having answers. I agree with Zach, “Embracing the lost-ness of human nature is hard for individual humans, and almost impossible for established institutions, religious or otherwise. Much of the purpose of established institutions is to help human beings cope with the fact that uncertainty exists in the world.” Years ago I gave up on the kind of fundamentalist evangelism/proselytization that gives easy answers to complex issues- it’s sort of like putting a band-aid on an amputated limb. However, there are core truths in Christianity that still resonate with me. I think there is an authentic spirituality as well as a way of artmaking that can somehow be comfortable with the mystery of lost-ness. My hope is that the action of asking difficult and important questions throughout my life and in my work will somehow be helpful in navigating this uncertainty and might be helpful to others. If I believe God is omniscient, then he of all beings should understand that I don’t have answers. I don’t think he expects that of me because to pretend that I have all the answers is dishonest religion.
I realize these statements make me unpopular with fundamentalists and probably some people in the art world, and that’s okay.
Gregory Michael Hernandez:
I think Corrie Siegel’s anecdote about the skeptical rabbi is fascinating. I recently heard someone say that Judaism is possibly the most atheistic religion on earth (outside of Buddhism). I don’t know if that is remotely true, but it seems that Judaism is more about historical text, meaning, and interpretation, and “God” isn’t necessarily needed to do those things. Debate and refutation, piecing together then taking apart, seem to be part of the very nature of Judaism. And of course it continues to exist in order to give form to a rich history and culture of people. I would say this is one reason why most religions won’t die: religion is a survival mechanism.
Corrie reminds me that both religion and philosophy are equally concerned with representations of truth. One difference between religion and philosophy is that religion usually has an authority (God or scriptures) while philosophy is free to roam and ask any question. However, there is a rich tradition of thinking about religion that is free of authoritative restraints, does not answer to the confessional community, and does not promote rigid doctrine. John Caputo wrote a book called “The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion”.
Geoff introduces the related terms religion and spirituality, and I do think the terms are hard to distinguish and need clarification. After deconstructing my childhood faith I became skeptical and less interested in “religion”. Yet recently I have become more skeptical about the word “spirituality”. Something about “spirituality” strikes me as too vague and easily appropriated to refer to a mishmash of personal feelings/beliefs without requiring the need to tackle more difficult questions. I think the word “religion” is more appropriately weighty, requiring a prolonged and deft philosophical handling. I think spirituality is a word people are more comfortable with, while religion is difficult to suss out.
Beyond being an institutional tool for organizing spheres of society- religion is also a personal tool for organizing one’s intellectual universe. It becomes a grid that we look through- a grid we cannot easily escape. As theologian Paul Tillich put it: “Culture is the form of religion, and religion is the substance of culture.” Sister Corita Kent bridged the gap (or perhaps showed that there is no gap) between religious thought and cultural context. Amanda Evans brings a deeply meditative and thoughtful approach to her art that attempts to wed the religious, spiritual, intellectual and psychological, all with an awareness of responsibility to the community at large.
This brings us full circle to Zach’s original instigation: fundamentalism exists on the right and the left, within and outside of religious structures. One need not be religious to have religious-like zeal, intellectual blocks, and assumptions. As artists willing to attempt authenticity and intellectual conversation, we can embrace the hard questions about religion. After all, Zach did not make a light-hearted, affirming film about spirituality- he made a biting, double-edged sword of a film about religion. “God” was famously declared dead in the 1960’s, but the “God” archetype/idol has merely been reconstituted within other, equally dogmatic, structures.
By probing religion, we may find that religious thought is underneath every sphere of culture, because theology is never done in a vacuum, and culture is nearly impossible to do without religious thought. If we try to avoid religious limitations, we may find ourselves doing the very thing that fundamentalists do, and that is create systematic ways of compartmentalizing religion in single color boxes. That would only reinforce the divisive stereotypes of “religious” vs. “secular”.
If we are having this conversation about art, religion and authenticity, we do not have to worry about whether or not it is inclusive. By simply cracking the nut I think the directions to explore have been made manifest without our having to try. If this conversation were read aloud in a crowded room, I bet most people would have quite a few comments, questions, refutations, ideas, stories, points to make, and bones to pick. In that imaginary scenario, it would be great if people walked away energized and enlightened instead of merely having their preconceptions reinforced and unshaken.