Sunday, September 21, 2008

Transforming Culture Symposium #4: THE ARTIST

Transforming Culture: The Artist
Plenary #4: Barbara Nicolosi

The Question:
What is an artist and how do we shepherd these strange creatures?
What is the anatomy of an artist? What is their peculiar nature? What do artists need to be healthy, mature persons? What do artists need but don't immediately realize they need? How can we provide spiritual formation as well as community and opportunities for expression for the artists in our care?

The Goal:
Our desire here is to help pastors understand the way God has created artists. Artists don't need to be idolized or marginalized -- often the two primary ways our culture treats them -- they need to be loved with understanding, appreciated for the often non-useful, non-marketable but gory-bearing work they create, and invited into the gracious lordship of Christ and the protective, generous care of His Body, the Church

The Speaker:
Barbara Nicolosi (screenwriter, columnist, executive director, Act One, Inc., Hollywood); blogs at Church of the Masses

The Talk: (in summary)
I am not a theologian. I am not an Evangelical. I could consider myself as a Catholic Evangelical, I suppose, but I don't usually swim in these circles.

What I am is an artist. I am a writer, a screenwriter, and someone who has produced theatre. I work with artists. I've spent the last ten years working with a program called Act One in Hollywood to train Christians who want to work in the mainstream culture. And just as anyone else who works with artists, I've learned that at any given time I am Mentor, Friend, Psychologist, Mother, Policeman, sometime CSI Investigator, Pastor, Teacher. But hopefully always alter christus in the sense of being an other Christ who intercedes for them to the Father.

I love artists. I love creative people. They make me crazy, but they are never boring. And I get bored very easily. I have the sense when I am with artists that I am with people who are living life to the fullest. Even in their despair, it's gritty and real and passionate.
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who are artists and people who are supposed to support them. So, figure out which you are and do it with vigor.
In a study I've done on artists geniuses, I've learned that when God sends a gift of genius He usually sends at least one person who gets that genius. It's like Theo with Van Gogh and Susan Gilbert with Emily Dickenson. You can see this over and over. Somebody was given this gift to save this artist for the rest of us. That might be you. I encourage you then to take that vocation seriously.

I think the subtext for this symposium has been that right now in the Church it’s real hip to support the arts. Everybody is pretty much on board with that. The problem is that we aren’t really sure, though, who is an artist in the sense of those we want to support for the general edification of the Body of Christ in the world.

There are some we want to support in that they are artists for their own catharsis. The art that they are doing is for them to be healed. In that sense we are all supposed to be artists. There's a book called Only the Lover Sings by a philosopher named Josef Pieper. The book makes the case that the modern world is so intrusive that we are losing the ability to see. There's so much coming at us that we're losing the ability to see the presence of God in the details. So we have to become artists because art makes us focus on the details. So whether that's gardening or cooking or whatever it is that we do, everyone has to bring forth beauty somehow. Everyone needs to exercise that creative facility to keep their life vibrant.

But tonight I'm talking about the other sense of artist. I'm talking about the person who's been called to be prophet and priest for the masses of us. Those who have been given powerful talent from God to edify the Church.

It seems to me that we need help to figure out who's who, because every pastor is now freaked out that anyone could come up to them and announce, I'm an Artist. Give me money. Fill in the blank -- money, time, microphone, whatever it is. How do we know how we're supposed to respond to that? Before doing that, though, I'm going to lay out a few ideas about the beautiful. This is the terrain of artists -- the beautiful. And one way to recognize them is that they dwell in this terrain.
The Polish philosopher, artist, poet and actor who had another name, Pope John Paul II, spoke about the call of some of us to pursue on behalf of the rest what he called new epiphanies of beauty. Epiphany means revelations of the beautiful. Aristotle’s definition of the elements of the beautiful are wholeness, harmony, and radiance.

Wholeness means nothing’s missing; that all of the parts are present and there is a sense of completeness. No one looks at The Pieta and says, Yeah, you know, she needs just a little more fringe around her veil. Oh, well. They don't listen to Mozart's Ave verum and say, Hmmmm, it needs another G. There's something about these works that suggest completeness. [This reflects the truth that] we are made for the One. We are made to cleave to the One. When we experience completeness we have the sense of being at home. The sense that we can rest.

Aristotle's second element of beauty is harmony. Harmony means that all of the parts relate to each other in complementary, not domination. So every part brings out the best of the other parts. They perfectly complement each other. Harmony brings us a sense of joy because we are called to be in community. We are made by a triune God who lives in community and we were called to community. This is our destiny to be in perfect community. We get a sense of joy when we are reminded that we can dwell together as one without being crushed.
So the beautiful makes you feel rest and it makes you feel joy.

And, finally, the third element of beauty is radiance. Radiance means that something profound and, often, beyond language is communicated. Think about a sunset. When you see a sunset you experience it calling to you personally. When you experience some pieces of artwork, it's like you're standing in front of it and suddenly it's personal -- like you, yourself, are being called personally. And you think about the artist and you want to meet the artist because he or she said something to you personally. Radiance says I know something and I’m sharing it with you. It fulfills in us the desire to learn. We are made to learn, and so radiance gives us a sense of fulfillment in our nature.

Joy, rest and fulfillment -- this is what we get from the beautiful.

Another theologian, a German theologian, Ratsinger also having another name, Pope Benedict IVX, wrote in an essay
The beautiful makes you feel small, humble and, yet, happy.
Think of yourself viewing a beautiful vista and you say, Oh, how big and majestic is the cosmos. How small am I. Look at the beauty of it! So you feel small, but you know what -- okay with it.
Pope Benedict also says,
This actually resolves the problem of the Garden where Satan’s temptation was that we would be like gods, not creatures.
And that is the perennial temptaion for us, I want to be like God. I want no limits. Then you experience the beautiful and its like, I'm small and it's okay! He makes a further point,
As society becomes less agrarian the only place people are going to experience the beautiful is art.
There are so few places left that humans can enjoy beauty in God's unmediated creation the way our ancestors were once able. This puts a burden on us as a Church to produce works that will give people the ability to be OK with their creatureness.

So, now, I've told you what the beautiful is -- wholeness, harmony and radiance. I want to state unequivocally what the beautiful is not -- just in case you're not clear.

It’s not cute.
It’s not easy.
It’s not banal.
It’s not silly.
It’s not facile.
It’s not sweet.
It’s not non-threatening.

As an example, Precious Moments might be soothing some kind of deep-seated, psychic loss of childhood for some people whose parents weren't there for them or for whom there's a need to oversentimentalize and extend into adulthood the innocence of childhood but that just means that Precious Moments belongs in a therapist's lobby -- not in the Church. Could there be anything as horrifically unharmonious as the Precious Moments crucifix?

The Church has gotten in trouble in the twentieth century by reaching to other ends for art than the simple goal of seeking new epiphanies of beauty. When art is made as a pursuit of new epiphanies than we create as a response to the cosmos. We’re creatures who get our hearts swelling and we respond by making stuff to say, We don't know how to say Thank You. Stuff! Every generation is called forth to do this and the stuff they make is a witness to the world that God is real and good.
For example, the generation of Christians who created cathedrals in Europe. {She tells the story of taking her friend from Hollywood who had just become a Christian to tour St. Peter's.} It was 4pm and the sun's rays were shining down on the cathedral and it was stunning. I had been there several times so I was hurrying along before realizing that my friend was no longer standing next to me. When I looked back I saw my friend standing in the doorway, crying. My friend, a Hollywood screenwriter, said, I'm never going to argue with anyone else again about Christianity till they've been here. The beauty of the place was a proof for her.

In the twentieth century we have made the arts have to do something else. We've lost the value. Instead of being enough to just be beautiful, we tell artists they have to be other things. One use we demand is political. We've made the purpose of art political. I don't mean left or right, I mean statement-making. The goal in the political is not to share radiance but to manipulate, to coerce, to propegandize and to change behavior. Politics only tells one side of the story so the art loses wholeness, beauty and rest.

[The second use we demand is] egalitarianism. We consider the arts as something about making people in the Church feel good about themselves. [This use] has an interesting ratio in proportion that it makes the people who perform feel good about themselves it slays the sensibilities of the people who have to listen. What we've done is say, You know what? Doris and Stan have good hearts and they love the Lord and they wrote a song. So we let Doris and Stan sing, but they have terrible voices. But we're not doing it for the beauty of the music, it's to make Doris and Stan feel good. There are other ways to make Doris and Stan feel good without sacrificing the arts to that agenda. When we do this we lose harmony because the relationship of the parts in the piece is now not about perfection but about suppressing some parts perfection so that we can have a safe sameness.

[The third use we demand is for art to be] a soothing distraction (aka, sacred muzak). We use arts a lot in the Church to lull the people. We can’t let them have silence during the collection, they might get restless! So we've got to fill it up. Put something on that wall. We've really been about, Let’s just fill up the space. When we do this we suppress the prophetic voice in the arts. The prophetic voice in the arts is the thing that gets people riled up -- in a good way. When you really encounter the beautiful, the call of it riles you up. But if we're using the arts to lull people then we don't want them riled up, do we? We want them to be easy to manage.

Those are the three ways we kill the beautiful in the church.

[Note: the remaining points from Barbara Nicolosi's talk as well as her concluding exhortation to artists in the church will be available in the book being edited by David Taylor and published by Baker Books.]

My Thoughts:
Plenary #4 was an absolute delight. I had only barely heard of Barbara Nicolosi before April and only that much to know that she was a opinionated writer in Hollywood. I did not know her background as a former-nun-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter. I had no idea the depth she would bring to the subject. And I had no idea she would be dang hilarious!

There have been many moments since the symposium in April that I have thought back to Nicolosi's stories and statements as I work out my calling as an artist and/or one who supports artists. And as I try to identify those in my family and church as artists. I do not believe that everyone is solely defined as one or the other. Clearly Nicolosi sees herself as both. I suspect that is God's call for many of us.

What do you think about Nicolosi's talk? Do you agree or disagree with her description of art as defined by Aristotle's elements of beauty? What about her list of what beauty, and therefore art, is not? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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