Editor’s note: Please enjoy this article written by CIVA Board member Taylor Worley, originally published (with more accompanying art) in the Fall 2017 edition of Trinity Magazine and adapted from various chapters in Contemporary Art and the Church: Conversations Between Two Worlds, W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley, eds. (IVP Academic, 2017).
Among the plentiful curiosities and quandaries addressed in Augustine’s timeless classic Confessions, we find the seasoned pastor returning to the question of aesthetic delight in the Christian life. Given the fact that he was once a darling of Roman oratory and learning, we should expect Augustine to have some strong feelings on life’s sensual pleasures and, perhaps, even newfound disdain. As he recounts the various beauties such as “the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs,” or “the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes,” he lands on this question: “But when I love you, what do I love?” Surely, he concludes, these delights are not the object of his love when he loves the Lord. And yet, he admits, “there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God . . . where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God” (Confessions, X.vi). Augustine’s words give voice to the inherent tension that many of us feel in relating our experience of the Creator with the goods we enjoy in his creation, not the least of which are the arts. Seeking to understand such experiences, it seems to me, rests at the heart of Trinity’s core value of “cultural engagement.” Not surprisingly then, to engage today’s challenging and impossibly confused culture and our place in it, we will need to bring our best resources forward. Indeed, cultural engagement for the sake of the gospel will require all the theological, pastoral, and relational resources we’ve got. So, to calibrate ourselves well for such encounters, let’s explore the three biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love in dialogue with the work of three non-traditional, perhaps atypical, Christian artists—which were highlighted along with others in the recently published book Contemporary Art and the Church (IVP Academic, 2017).
To engage contemporary art with faith means employing both a healthy awareness of our admittedly narrow perspective on time and a robust theology of providential expectation. Art speaks with multiple voices, and the artist’s vocation rightfully includes the capacity to question, challenge, and critique our fixed positions. The value of such works, however, will often not be seen at the moment of their arrival. While we might hope that our assessments of art can achieve a timeless and transcendent quality, we are often surprised by what proves most meaningful, given enough time or a fuller context. In the meantime, we must let our faith that the fuller meaning of such art works will become apparent over time guide us in the here and now. One of the artists featured in Contemporary Art and the Church illustrates well how the virtue of faith decisively determines how we engage our world through art. Steve Prince is an artist, educator, and art evangelist. A native of New Orleans, he lives in Detroit, where he serves as an assistant professor of art at Wayne State University. Despite the variety of his art projects and the diverse places they take him, Prince remains absolutely certain of two things: his calling as a Christian artist and his familial and cultural roots in New Orleans. His evangelist calling enables him to pursue a different trajectory in his career, that is to be guided by faith. At the same time, his heritage in New Orleans provides him a vocabulary of images and impressions to draw upon in his work. In particular, he has consistently drawn upon the funerary traditions of the Dirge and the Second Line. While the Dirge is the family’s initial procession of grief and lament, the Second Line provides the opportunity for the larger community to celebrate with the family their loved one’s release from suffering. Prince explains the origins of a work like 2014’s Flambeau thus:
[T]he Second Line could represent the collective communal transformation away from cycles of death and dying and the notion that we can celebrate life . . . . The name “Katrina” actually means cleansing. In this context, you begin to ask and wonder: what did it clean away? I believe that the hurricane cleared away the veil that was upon our eyes that prevented us from looking at race in America . . . . What was revealed is an opportunity to look clearly at how our bodies are being contested in that space. What is happening in New Orleans is happening across our nation. In light of this unveiling, how do we think we are interacting in our country? Why is so much of what is happening is under pressure and not dealt with in a very open fashion? Katrina pulled back the veil, and allowed us to begin to engage in a way that allows us to see very clearly what is happening in terms of the disparities between the have and the have-nots. It calls us to step up to the plate and to engage in a dialogue—ultimately, to deal with that Dirge. My pieces are also hinged upon this idea of the hope embodied in the heart of the Second Line—instead of waiting for each other to die. My work entitled Flambeau, which translates as fire carrier, displays people dancing, processing, and reveling as one communal body atop a checkered ground that symbolically represents the crossroads and the decisions we make there daily. The horsemen are present [referencing Revelation’s four horsemen of the apocalypse], because death and life are always here. They are teetering on a thin red line, one break and you could be gone tomorrow.
In the case of artists like Steve Prince, the Christian virtue of faith enables them to look back and find the traces of God’s providence all around us, even in the most unfortunate circumstances. We urgently need this witness to God’s faithfulness in today’s increasingly turbulent social landscape.
To such faith, we must add hope. Of all people, we must be those who demonstrate a stronger hope, a hope that—despite the godless, irreverent descent of modern art—the grace of God can surface there nonetheless. As we cling more tightly to the Christian story that tells of our Creator God forging the world in pleasure and joy and our victorious Christ choosing a sacrificial death for the joy set before him, we too can lead with joy-filled hope. Hence, we must hold onto the promise that the kindness of God will smile through even the most fragmented and broken of artistic cultures. Consider Jay Walker, another artist from the book. Walker is a multi-disciplinary artist creating tape installations, mixed media paintings/drawings, and carved sculptures. His choice of tape, along with the site-specific nature of his work, means he also fits within the loose category of ‘street art.’ Walker explains his choice of making art for the street this way:
As for venue, I had always created my work to be placed in art-designated areas, which seemed safe. If people want to see what I was making, they could go to the gallery. But galleries are inaccessible to a lot of people. The average person has no idea how they work, so they avoid them—if they’re even aware of their existence. For most people, the idea of a gallery involves being in a big white cube with inexplicable art, awkward small talk, and fear of the unknown. So I determined to present my art where anyone could see it. What better place than on derelict buildings?
In addition to displaying his intricate tape-based compositions in public, Walker continues to exhibit in galleries as well as taking commissions for churches or worship spaces, like the setting of Tabor: Theotokos XXXVI for the Cody Center at the Laity Lodge in Leakey, Texas. Here, his long-standing interest in garments has an iconographic flavor, and the ability to work with translucent tape provides new possibilities to explore his site-specific compositions by enhancing the chapel’s depth of serenity. Thus, artists like Jay Walker demonstrate the Christian virtue of hope in their work by embodying the unlikely expectancy of grace that can enliven the mundane and everyday. They seek to bring light and life to the places and spaces where it seems most unwelcome or unexpected.
Lastly, to faith and hope, we must include the culminating virtue of love. What would our efforts at engaging art and culture be without love (1 Cor. 13)? Indeed, we can and must manifest Christian charity in a whole host of ways when seeking interaction with the art world. These surely include patience, empathy, forbearance, attentiveness, compassion, and at the very least the benefit of the doubt. Loving concern, however, includes yet more. In this instance, to love is to take seriously: to treat contemporary art’s life and death values in accord with how much life and death really matters to us. Another artist—Mandy Cano Villalobos—displays this loving sensitivity exceptionally well in her work. Cano Villalobos is an interdisciplinary artist working in installation art, performance, and object/textile based media. She has taught studio art at Calvin College and exhibited in museums and galleries as diverse as Detroit’s Museum of New Art, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and La Casa Pauly (Puerto Montt, Chile). Much of her work has to do with memory, narrative, the passage of time and ritual. For instance, Voces, or ‘Voices’ in English, addresses mass femicide in Juárez, Mexico, looking at the post-NAFTA relationships between the US and Mexico and how the societal deterioration that has resulted from that has then put a lot of lower income women laborers at risk. With the assistance of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, she was able to collaborate with local women in Grand Rapids from Mexico. For the project, they embroidered individual names into used white shirts with pink thread, where the pink represents the faded color of crosses erected at various burial sites or body dumping sites. She explains her inspiration this way: “What I’m really interested in is pointing to the individuality and uniqueness of each woman. I’m resisting this concept of ‘those people over there’ and instead pursuing the understanding that we are all part of an interconnected and complex global system. How can we love our neighbors?”
For another project called Nombre, Cano Villalobos mounted a performative installation commemorating victims of the Chilean dictatorship the desaparecidos, the “disappeared ones,” from 1973 to 1990. Here, each name is recorded with ink that has been infused with seeds of copihue. Copihue is the national flower of Chile, and according to a Romeo and Juliet myth of the indigenous people of the South, the flower derives its deep red hue from bloodshed. It seems that the flower, while it sorrowfully speaks to hatred, is also looking for the possibility of beauty, resurrection, and healing. With the ink, Cano Villalobos wrote the names of individual victims and then nailed each slip of paper to the wall of the installation. As the work progresses, the space becomes filled with names, and the floor is also covered in dirt, as a reference to both interment and resurrection. Her choice of materials and methods remains highly significant. Cano Villalobos uses everyday elements with heavily familial or domestic resonances in her work to bring loving attention and concern to the subjects her work addresses. These non-traditional approaches serve to highlight the gospel’s inverted priority with “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). While the power structures of this world will not remember these names, Christian artists like Cano Villalobos help to recalibrate a more faithful witness of God’s love in the world.
Ultimately, cultural engagement will still be difficult and replete with trial and error. Putting it into practice will be more caught than taught for most of us. In terms of the necessary tools, we already have the majority of what we need for encountering the arts, even contemporary art. We have the inestimably wonderful gifts of both our God-given curiosity and the pattern of redemption’s story itself as an interpretive lens. So, let’s go forth and engage. We can trust that our faith, hope, and love can make such encounters meaningful and life-giving for our world.
Taylor Worley serves as associate vice president for spiritual life and university ministries as well as associate professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University. He completed a Ph.D. in theological aesthetics with the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews.