Play Time - Betty Spackman
I have often been asked to talk about the relationship between my faith and my art and have spent a great deal of time attempting to make sense of that relationship to myself, my students and the public, through my work, my teaching and my writing. However, I have come to realize that the question itself tends to perpetuate the rift many of us as are artists of faith are trying to heal. Presupposing faith and art-making are separate, though albeit somehow related, the question tends to set up a binary dialectic with which we are asked to explain ourselves, and our work. The language of the conversation therefore seldom shifts from an endless struggle to bring these things together, or, depending on one's motives, to keep them apart.
In academic circles the expectation is similar. One is asked to explain one's work through formal theory and art historic paradigms - either ignoring or denying a relationship between product and personal process, or at least between intellectual process and any spiritual journey. Both of these approaches reflect the general philosophical rift in the West since the Enlightenment, between mind and body, intellect and spirit. Of course there are exceptions in both the church and academia where belief systems and practice are engaged from a more holistic position but generally the rift remains. Many of us have lived in the resulting gap between them most of our lives and have spent far too much energy trying to hold the supposedly contradictory activities together.
Christians who would otherwise acknowledge incarnation as a quintessential part of their faith, tend to deny the possibilities of the incarnate when it comes to the arts. The main task for many artists who are Christians has therefore been proving to the church or the academy or ourselves that both 'sides' (art and faith) can coexist. Unaccepted as artists in the church and Christians in the academy, we have, out of necessity, defined ourselves as residents in a 'no man's land' resulting in many homeless 'casualties' who also felt it to be a place where there was 'no God'. Somehow our lives 'happened' but few of us really enjoyed living them. The "abundant", "joyfilled" life scripture invited us to participate in was not what we were living or expressing. Of course pain is an expected part of any faith walk but instead of transformative redemption there was often just bitterness, discouragement or an escapist religious sentimentality - all of which showed up in our attitudes and our images.
I recently gave an overview of my work to a group of artists in a small collective gallery to which I belong. I determined not to do an academic presentation but instead try to weave my life story and my art work as a whole, though somewhat tattered, tapestry. It was a good exercise for me. It made life choices apparent, made me responsible for my actions and my art and made it apparent, at least to me, that whatever was 'living' in my work was because of God's grace, not my cleverness. I would not always want to air my personal laundry in this way, as I do believe a work of art needs to be somehow autonomous - but I really wanted to talk about how my move from one country to another, the death of a loved one or my financial position was connected to and reflected in the work. I'm not sure anyone saw it as more than just a slide show about Betty but I became more aware of how I have so often bought into the separation between public practice and private life, attempting to define my work apart from my living in obedience (or not) to Christ.
So where am I going with this? Well, I am hoping at this stage of my journey, that I can make a genuine shift in how I think and speak about 'faith and art'. I am also hoping that other
Christians in the arts disappointed by post reformation iconoclasm will stop licking their wounds, justifying their art and/or faith and just get on with living and loving as any person of faith from any profession is called to do. This will mean starting our conversations with the assumption that artmaking and faith are inseparable. From this place of integration I believe our dialogue will be different (and perhaps much less as well), as we put our energy into making better work and loving our neighbor, loving our neighbor by making better work.
My recent book, A Profound Weakness. Christians and Kitsch, Piquant, UK 2005, examines the clichés, and watered down expressions of faith used for evangelical propaganda in popular culture. Many of the stories are about my own feeble attempts to join faith and art. One story is of my experience in a small theatre company when I was about 20 years old. We were attempting to adapt the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of 'Thumbelina' into a parable about Christ in which the butterfly loses his life in rescuing the small girl.
“… at rehearsals we found we were very good at portraying the evil crows and the lusty frog but very bad at portraying the innocence and beauty of the child and the butterfly. It all came across as unbelievable, stupid and sentimental-a kind of shallow 'feel good' fable that was neither good theatre nor a true representation of Christianity."
A Profound Weakness. Christians and Kitsch, Piquant, UK 2005, p.120
One solution would have been to forget trying to make an already enchanting story into an evangelical message in the first place and instead to have worked at imbuing the original story with authenticity and the magic spark of real life and true joy. However, to share joy, one must possess it and what we did have we did not know how to express except through clichés.
How much time have we wasted trying to make 'bigger and better' or slicker and sweeter messages instead of just being the messengers? Whether one is an artist or not I think as Christians we are all implicated in the horrendous deficiency of imagination, the visual illiteracy, the dispassionate celebrations of 'the joy of our salvation', the uncaring lamentations of our sorrow for the oppressed and wounded, our lack of protest for the destruction of our eco system and the consumerist kitsch that is the predominant expression of faith in most of the Christian community. But knowing this, we have to then be motivated to enter into the potential of an alternative, creative lifestyle. We need to give up our excuses and arguments and justifications and become children who are free to imagine and explore and experience life fully.
At this point in my life, whether or not I am motivated in this direction because of a sincere desire for righteousness, or whether it is just a part of a midlife crisis and being tired of institutional arrogance, I am now wanting to be a child more than ever. A child doesn't often tell you that they are joyful, they just show it. Perhaps the world will start to believe us if we start to show the life in us instead of just talking about it. (" ... joy unspeakable and full of glory" 1 Peter 1:8). Perhaps when we play we will find new things to talk about and new ways to talk about them. Perhaps our Father will be also be delighted to see that we are finally enjoying the gifts that He gave us!.
For me this has meant a step of faith at this time away from 15 years of formal teaching. I am back in the studio full time - to play. It is not that one cannot play within the domains of the academy - but it is a much more difficult task there - for teachers and students alike. However, I realize I am not entering a naive playtime of carelessness. (Needing to pay the rent keeps reality in check.) No, this new step is with a more mature knowledge of God's love being such a tender brutality. It is a love that demands everything from me and gives me more than my everything in return. It is a love that requires from me an intelligent humility and the laying down of my life for my friends. After 35 years of being a Christian and attempting to be an artist, I feel as though I am only now ready to begin to play and I know it will be hard work indeed!
By the way, I will be looking for some playmates!
Published in Creative Spirit, the (former) journal of StoneWorks, www.stoneworks-arts.org