More thoughts on what beauty is NOT...

Ever read an essay that gets under your skin in a good way?  Over the past few weeks, the presentation Barbara Nicolosi gave at the "Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts" conference in April 2008 in Austin, TX has kept me returning to her printed words over and again.  It is rich, insightful and challenging - and it speaks to many of the concerns I wrestle with as a pastor.  On Thursday night, for example, as my clergy support group met - using Craig Barnes' The Pastor as a Minor Poet as a catalyst for conversation - we all spoke about how our tradition was much better at words than worship.

Some noted that when the United Church strives to express diversity in worship, it not only feels forced but often is also experienced as inauthentic.  Like a bunch of mostly interesting ideas were gathered from around the nation, thrown into a bag and strung together and called worship. I think of the intellectually interesting but aesthetically foolish work of William Burroughs who periodically took a pair of scissors to his manuscripts, tossed them in the air and then taped them together as a final draft for publication. Sometimes a wild combination took place, but that's more about playing the odds of math than the pursuit of art and beauty.  (My old mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to dissect some sermons that did much the same thing; he called them "Box Car" sermons because they strung together with the loosest connection imaginable 2 or 3 good ideas that weren't really related.)

Others talked about how an overarching commitment to theological ideology also crowded out the beauty of the printed or musical word.  Around the clergy supper table, we then started to call out examples:  "Nearer My God to... YOU?" (instead of Thee) - "Be NOW My Vision" (rather than Be Thou My Vision) - and the funniest was the reworking of Martin Buber's classic, I and Thou, which became: "Me and You."  The new collection of United Church contemporary hymns falls flat with songs that are not musical and forced theology that doesn't evoke awe to say nothing of open hearts or compassion.

So it was back to Nicolosi's address wherein she observed:  "Tragically, in recent years we've made the arts something else. We've lost the value of just making a sign of praise back to God and his magnificent cosmos. Instead of it just being enough that their work be beautiful, we tell artists that they have to make it do or be other things."  Three are particularly odious:  political art, egalitarian art and creations designed to merely sooth and distract us from reality.  Her summaries suggest that each of these perspectives destroys beauty and squeezes the life out of our creativity.

+ Political:  Whenever we force art to "make a statement" we need to be clear that statement making is always "manipulative, (its goal) is to coerce, to get people to vote a certain way, to propagandize, to merely change behavior."  Her example is the new statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles. "The statue is of completely uncertain gender, with a female torso, but harshly cropped hair and distinctly masculine arms and hands... but it's worse than just androgyny. The image has black lips, Asian eyes, a Latino face and other scattered Anglo features... and it is ugly. I don't know about you, " Nicolosi said to one of her students, "but if you saw that kind of freak inviting you into its house...?"

I think of some of the heavy handed hymnody - from both the Left and Right - that make a point but is rarely done with beauty.  Brian Wren, the gifted poet and musician from England, is often able to balance the prophetic challenge with the creation of art.  He is the rare exception, however, and I have experienced Nicolosi's point as all too true. "In politics, you lose wholeness because the political only tells its own side of the story. As a result, people lose a feeling of being at rest in the complete truth."

+ Egalitarian: The second way art has been corrupted in the church is by "making it a tool of a sort of egalitarianism, in which we now consider the arts as something that is about making people have better self-esteem." We've all seen this in Soviet "art," but I bump into it all the time when people with good hearts but limited ability want to share their creativity in worship.  Now, don't get me wrong, there IS a place for this sharing, but it must be selective and in the spirit of celebrating the whole Body of Christ rather than simply show-casing a questionable song, painting, dance or poem.

Nicolosi writes:  "There is an interesting ratio that goes with this egalitariansim: the increase of self-esteem in the untalented people who get to perform stand in direct proportion to the flaying of the aesthetic sensibilities of a thousand others who have to listen and/or endure them... Somebody needs to say to the pastors who are making the rest of us suffer, "There are other ways to make people feel good. And it is profoundly unfair to make them feel great but leave others sitting there suffering through bad art."  We destroy any sense of beauty as evoking inner and external harmony - let alone joy - when art in the church becomes a form of self-help in the quest for higher self-esteem.

What we offer to God must be our best.  There are times when our varying degrees of best can be honored - and I have found it important to find ways for even the lowest common denominator to be included in choirs, gospel groups, children's celebrations or festivals of the Holy Spirit - AND at the same time I have come to insist that the norm for worship must be grounded in practice and talent and high standards lest the whole of worship be mired in suffering rather than joy.

+ Soothing distraction:  This is background music - fluff - visual art that doesn't awaken the senses or connect us to what is real.  It is sentimental and often trite be it music, liturgy, visual art or demeanor.  People are uncomfortable with silence, "so we've got to fill i up with sweet noise. Put something banal on that wall - have the kids make a felt banner - just fill up that space.  But when we do this, we suppress radiance - the prophetic voice of the arts - and the work communicates nothing worth hearing."

I've learned these truths the hard way:  I've encouraged untalented people to make visual art for worship - banners and the like - only to be presented with lovingly made disasters. I've wrestled with young (and sometimes not so young) musicians who have written songs that no one else can sing but who are certain that the Lord wants the congregation to share them on Sunday.  I've opened the role of liturgist up to people who are so shy they are unable to be heard or else who are so full of themselves that they force their personality and politics onto the word of God and everything in-between.  Always - and I mean always - when folk try to make art political, egalitarian or sentimental it is a train wreck.

So these days I exercise veto authority - in cooperation with a reasonably diverse group of artistically gifted lay people - on visual art projects.  I also limit the sharing of music by those outside our two worship collectives in cooperation with my director of music (who has equally high standards.) And, from time to time each year, I find a way for others with varying degrees of ability to share their gifts with the people of God, too.  Call this elitist, as some have, but I have come to resonate with Dostoevsky when he said that "beauty will save the world." 


sandhilldiary said…
Hmm. I have to say that if the second image is the statue described in the text, then, well... it's very striking, a powerful image. Not one I would read as the Blessed Virgin, iconographically speaking, but definitely powerful. The beauty of that image, that depiction of the intersection of human and divine, is in its power and ambiguity.

Is it pretty? No. Should it be? I'm not sure. And anyway it's not my church.

I will admit that some of the "modernizations" of traditional hymn language make me wince. Especially when they don't rhyme or scan the way the traditional words go. It's poetry, people. Common Meter isn't that hard to do...

RJ said…
I agree re: the power of the image, and I think Nicolosi would make a distinction between beautiful and pretty, too. But her point was that art by committee is often unsatisfying. With that I mostly agree. There is another Mary of the People that is both unified and powerful and much more aesthetically engaging. That, too, strikes me as valuable.

And you sure got the resonaance re: poetry and modernizations of hymns. A work in progress... be well.

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