Deep calls to deep
All your waves and billows have gone over me. Psalm 42
The first thing I noticed were the shining eyes.
My wife Jill and I had just entered a shipping container which had been converted into a sewing school for Syrian refugees camped in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. It was our first visit. We were awkwardly aware of appearing like compassion tourists, but our misgivings are soon allayed by a warm welcome.
The woman with the shining eyes had fled with her family from her now-destroyed home town in Syria, joining one and a half million refugees who try to eke out a living in shanties and tents scattered across the farmlands. She was 26, with 5 children. Behind her eyes there was great pain from past atrocities and menacing fears for the future. For she, and the younger girls in the sewing school, are non-citizens in their country of refuge, excluded from education and from the economy. And yet there is hope.
Our friend Izdihar, who had invited us to visit the sewing school, started up a volunteer organization called Together for the Family (TFF) at two refugee camps in her home city of Zahle. Izdihar was moved by the seemingly hopeless predicament of the Syrian refugees and established vocational training classes, early childhood education for children with disabilities, and teenage trauma counselling in response.
Having no skills in Arabic or in needlecraft, I could only watch on as the young women gather to show us their handiwork. I was amazed by their warmth, their surprising sense of hope, and their resilience in the face of great turmoil. Finding an old envelope and pen, I suggested to our shining eyes friend that I draw her portrait. This is met with enthusiastic approval, and soon I found myself drawing and giving away rough sketches of these lovely students. They were also happy for Jill to take their photos for further portrait studies back in Australia.
To draw on the spot just seemed the obvious and intuitive thing to do; a silent affirmation that here before me are people of great dignity and courage.
In following days, I met more of the young refugee boys and girls, and led a few drawing workshops with them. We had a ball.
Meanwhile, outside the camps, Lebanon was in free fall. Already racked by a long civil war (which ended in 1990), now the economy and the banks were failing, and government corruption had become so entrenched that a people’s street protest movement (the October 17 revolution) had begun. The next devastating blows, Covid 19 and the Beirut port explosion, were yet to come.
Upon returning to Australia, I could not stop thinking about these extraordinary young people. So I embarked upon a series of portraits (using the reference photographs) of those whom I had met. The term that kept repeating in my head was a compulsion to honour them, and their incredible resilience.
From the outset, I was determined to not portray these young refugees just as victims. Or to sentimentalize their predicament, or to place them on a pedestal. I had learnt much from them, not least being their strong spirit amidst great danger and uncertainty.
The challenge therefore was to capture something of their inner life with honesty and sensitivity.
The first group of portraits made focussed on each student’s character and their engagement with needlework or with drawing. However, when the Beirut port erupted (in the third largest man-made explosion in history), I realized the pressing need to give voice to the danger and menace that these young people face on a daily basis. Hence fractures appear in the portraits, referencing in some ways ancient wall frescoes. I realized that painting these portraits could only tell a small part of these amazing young people’s stories, but it was a project that I was compelled in my heart to make.
What, then, did I learn through the process?
The big takeaway is that I have so much to learn from the strength of spirit and the fragile beauty of these young refugees. While on the one hand they are like kids everywhere, very few have had to face the trauma and the present danger that these young ones live with.
Meeting and painting them cast a new and challenging light on my comfortable lifestyle in a rich country. The kindness shown by Izdihar’s team and many other Lebanese folk stands in stark contrast to Australia’s scandalous abuse, neglect and demonization of refugees.
I am reminded that art can play a vital role in drawing together and learning what is precious in humanity. The art critic Robert Hughes once observed:
“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, … and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.” (The Shock of the New).
Art provides a space where some of the unsaid yearnings of being human can get air. To quote Ben Quilty:
“For me, that’s the core role of art in our society — of music and film and theatre and the visual arts – to remind each other about humanity.”
Portrait painting is largely about paying close attention to the eyes.
Even in the short time with the young refugees of Zahle, I saw in their eyes something compelling: a fragile beauty amid chaos, a beauty that makes a call upon us. It seems to me that the call is to a higher view of what it means to be human, and a higher way of being humane to each other. Above demeaning the ‘other’, above politics, above platitudes and above cynicism.
Izdihar and her volunteers, following one from Nazareth who was once a refugee himself, see every day the shining eyes and the heavy hearts.
And yet there is hope. For in each refugee’s eyes they can still see the image of God.
Ian McGilvray Autumn 2021
Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards.
(Song of Songs 2:15)
I hate a man covering his wife with violence
as with a garment, says the Lord, the God of Israel. (Malachi 2:16)
White linen at midnight
my mother wrapped in it
as the light
thrown down from stars.
(Coral Hull, White Linen at Midnight)
Poetry moves consciousness towards empathy.
(Jane Hirsh eld)
I am currently engaged in a painting series in response to the tragic prevalence of domestic violence against women in our community. I do not hold myself out in any way to have expertise or special insights into domestic violence. And, as a male, I cannot pretend to grasp the pain and su ering that this brings to many women. However, it is something that matters deeply to me. It is, as a singer-songwriter friend said recently, ‘a deep scar in all of us’. Do I just read the statistics and the harrowing personal accounts in newspapers and online articles and simply shrug it all o as too hard? You cannot live to middle age without knowing personally many women friends or acquaintances who have su ered domestic violence. I follow the way of Jesus, but how does this shape my response?
Having recently started my journey of painting a series in response, I have been helped enormously by many others – my wife Jill, and friends who are visual artists, poets, songwriters and counsellors. I am indebted and humbled by the courageous women who have shared with Jill and with me something of what it is like to live in the maelstrom. My focus has been on violence against women (without seeking to diminish other instances where men and children are the victims). This article re ects my thinking and work in progress.
Why paint a series on domestic violence against women? For me there are three main drivers:
Firstly, violence against a woman is deeply wrong and needs to be condemned. It is an abominable affront to God and a betrayal of His profound purposes for goodness and justice.
Secondly, in its place I want to a rm what I consider the best way there is to be truly human – the way of Jesus. In His kingdom, male-female relationships are renewed in goodness, truth and beauty. Our God is the bringer of shalom, of wholeness and ourishing. Every woman (as every man) has the high calling and ultimate dignity of bearing the image of God himself. And how that works out in practice in contemporary Australia is of enormous signi cance to us all.
Thirdly, I want to be part of a wider Christian community that brings hope: hope that transformation of how women are perceived, valued and honoured by men is possible even in the darkest places. And I want to enact that hope, as salt and light, in the midst of a cynical and world-weary contemporary Australia (and one that is extremely wary of Christians as a result of the Australian Government’s recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, amongst other things).
What does the prevalence of violence against women in Australia in 2018 say about us? About our humanity? It seems to me that something very fundamental in our collective human condition is broken when domestic violence prevails. There is a betrayal of not just the rights of the person involved, but also of our collective humanity. A fault-line opens up between one of the deepest truths about us (as image-bearers of God) and how we behave towards one another.
An article by columnist Bettina Arndt (The Weekend Australian, 20/8/16) made my blood boil. Arndt lambasted domestic violence support groups for building ‘an industry on skewed gures’ that allegedly exaggerate the prevalence of domestic violence. She argued that attempts to address domestic violence by eradicating sexism will always fail ‘because violence is not and never has been a gender issue’, and that ‘the worldwide domestic violence industry’ oversimplied a complex issue by refusing to acknowledge women- initiated violence against men. However, this argument is countered by columnists such as Anne Summers who point out the dangers of covering over real human tragedies with terminology such as ‘the grievance industry’. ‘How despicable’, she writes, ‘and un-Australian – for politicians and journalists to so cruelly mock those who su er racism or violence with the ugly inference that they are just fodder for an “industry”’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 3/9/16).
Senator Cory Bernardi made a similar snipe to Arndt’s on The 7.30 Report on ABC TV: ‘we need to nip what I call the grievance industry in the bud because they are doing a disservice to so many Australians’. And throughout 2017 there have been erce ongoing debates in the traditional and social media regarding domestic violence, gender ‘roles’ and sexual abuse in the workplace.
Some of what I want to give voice to on this topic through my art is both the disarming realism and the soaring, high view of personhood (and our total interdependence as men and women) that I nd in the Bible and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible all too often has been misconstrued on male-female relationships, though it consistently proclaims the dignity
“In many famous works of art, when a woman was portrayed in a scenario of danger or abuse, she was rarely seen with agency of her own, let alone regarded with compassion, dignity and respect.”
and equality of both men and women. As a neighbour in our street reminded me recently when discussing men’s attitudes to women, ‘well of course Christians have a lot to answer for’. The context for her remark was recent media focus on the reported experience of women who had come to priests with claims of abuse within their marriage, only to be dismissively told to abide by their husband’s authority and not to rock the boat.
What aspects of domestic violence against women should be explored?
Early in the painting process, I tossed around some key questions, including:
I did not see much point in painting acts of violence. I wanted to get beyond polemics, generalisations and the danger of voyeurism. Violence and dysfunction are subjects that have occupied the attention of visual artists in the West for centuries. With some notable exceptions, they have not been handled well.
Up until the end of the 20th century, Western art exposed an ugly underbelly of our culture: the male gaze. This term refers to the depiction of the world and women from an exclusively masculine point of view, presenting women as no more than objects of male pleasure. In many famous works of art, when a woman was portrayed in a scenario of danger or abuse, she was rarely seen with agency of her own, let alone regarded with compassion, dignity and respect.
This was particularly evident in the genres of history painting and mythological scenes. For instance, in Rubens’ Rape of the Sabine Women, the viewer seems invited into an amoral zone, to share the rapist’s callous disregard for the victim. In the various renditions of Leda and the Swan, Europa and the Bull, Bacchus and Ariadne and St George and the Dragon, we and the same story of cold indifference to a woman’s dignity.
A notable exception is the painting Susanna and the Elders by the female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, from the early 17th century. This highly accomplished work was Gentileschi’s rst (at age seventeen) and portrays sexual harassment from a female point of view, with all of the fear, menace and repulsion that is appropriate (relating a story from an apocryphal chapter of Daniel).
Other works, such as Delacroix’ The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), have portrayed the dehumanisation of the rapist through his narcissistic acts of violence.
Many contemporary artists have also expressed eloquent outrage at various forms of violence directed against women in our society. These include Louise Bourgeois, William Kentridge, Marina Abramovic, Kara Walker and, within Australia, Arthur Boyd, Tracey Mo att, Sam Harrison and Ben Quilty, to name but a few.
Upon reflection, I chose to align my paintings on two main axes: solidarity in lament for women who are abused; and nding metaphors or motifs that explore what healing, change and transformation might look like in the context of an intimate but broken relationship.
Then comes the crunch: how to paint a Christian response to domestic violence along these axes?
In my research, I was impressed by the motto of Our Watch, an organisation established ‘to drive nation-
wide change in the culture, behaviour and attitudes that underpin and create violence against women’. The motto is: ‘Change the story’. I wanted to and a visual language that would start to subvert the male narrative of control and violence. In cases of domestic violence, the humanity (the divine image) of both the woman and the man is diminished and betrayed.
While mulling this over one evening, Jill and I returned home to find a copy of a poem placed under our door. It had come from a dear friend who had heard about my quest. The poem was White Linen at Midnight by Coral Hull. That changed everything.
In the poem, Hull recalls a striking image of a mother at midnight, hanging out linen sheets on the clothesline. While longing for her mother’s caress, she ponders the next outburst from her drunken and abusive father within the house.
At last I had a motif: that of white linen, upon which to frame a series of paintings. A potent motif, grounded in the everyday grunge of life. The linen being washed or folded can serve as a canvas for the woman’s thoughts, her hopes and fears, her fragility as well as her resolute tenacity, her torment in the maelstrom. It can speak of the menace and danger of an intimate partner, but perhaps also hint at a change in the story: transformation from a failed narrative.
Within the initial and incomplete paintings executed to date, I explore a variety of themes. And it can only be an exploration, not a clever one-liner. Questions are posed rather than answers given. Hope is intuited. In most paintings the image of the woman is more objective, more present, than the man (who is held in the liminal world of either memory or contemplation). Some paintings explore the ‘wearing’ of violence, standing in the maelstrom. Others deal with dreams and hopes of a better place, a life well-loved. My attempt is to avoid a lock-down stalemate of unchanging victim and unchanging perpetrator.
From my work in progress, what have I learned so far?
For me as an artist, and indeed for any of us, the place to start is outrage and lament. Violence against women can never be reduced to a ‘current a air’ or a dispassionate subject for a series of newspaper articles. It involves real people. My place is to sit in the messiness and to listen, to vent outrage at the wrong and to try to feel something of the pain.
Bruised reeds and smouldering wicks
After lament comes action. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of the Servant of the Lord in his tender dealing with the downtrodden (Isaiah 42). In this poem, he uses two images to describe aspects of a person’s life when crushed by calamity: the bruised reed and the smouldering wick.
Like a bruised reed, the downtrodden person has been deeply injured by forces outside her control. She is broken.
Acting in line with the heart of God, the Servant doesn’t falter (‘I will not break o the bruised reed’) in acting to protect her. I take this to mean that I must actively be involved in improving the support, protection and care of women who are the subject of domestic violence. As a minimum this will involve lobbying for and contributing toward improved funding for State, Federal and church/community women’s refuges.
Closer to home, I must notice and give practical support to the women that I know who are exposed to domestic violence.
The Servant also responds to the internal impacts of abuse (he ‘will not snu out a smouldering wick’). In the context of domestic violence, I take this to mean the e ects of low self-image, despair and a sense of deep betrayal and abandonment brought on by violence. How can we show solidarity and give real hope for resilience and transformation?
This is where art comes in.
Art can speak subversively against the cultural narratives that deny the existence of sexism, that ‘tolerate’ male violence and promote the power games. The journalist Elizabeth Farrelly goes as far as to say that ‘art in infiltrates. It takes time, but art changes minds, and minds change worlds’ (‘Blame Andy Warhol’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3/3/17). It can also shine a light where words are inadequate. The art critic John McDonald noted that ‘art is one of the most important ways of dealing with experiences that are too traumatic, too frightening, too terrible for words’ (‘Sappers and Shrapnel’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18/1/17).
I find the highest view of personhood and intimate relationships within the pages of the Bible. I read of equal and high dignity for men and women reshaped into the new humanity ushered in by Jesus. Therefore, as an artist, I must speak up about violence against women.
But it will be like holding a candle to the wind.
Audaciously, the Song of Songs also, within the canon of the Bible, holds a candle to the wind for our times. Into our tangled, cynical and conflicted times in contemporary Australia, God proclaims that His ideal for male-female flourishing is achievable by His transforming handiwork among us. We may ask how an art form like Song of Songs could shine and reshape life, coming from all those years ago in the patriarchal Near East. It seems so unrealistic. But if we really believe in
a God who is intimately and powerfully renewing the very stu of our humanity, we will join in the Song, and confidently sing it in the darkest of all places, and sing it with our arms open wide to a needy and watching world.
This article appeared Extract from Zadok Perspectives Magazine 138, Autumn 2018.
Pas de deux (a dance for two).
This body of work explores the conversation that occurs between us and a work of art. What happens when we truly engage in the presence of art. When we become vulnerable and in some sense inhabit it?
We are told that we paint best from our obsessions. One of my oldest obsessions is the story of art, and conversations with artworks of the past. Visual art (in common with the other arts such as poetry, literature, drama, music and so on) has the capacity to lift our spirit by calling our attention back to our essential humanity. When we engage with art, we are in some real way enlarged.
Art is about ideas.
Painting is a fairly solitary job, and in the process involves a lot of thinking.
The enterprise of painting begs the questions of our ‘human condition’. What is being, what is consciousness, what are we here for, how do we know anything. And how do we steer our course in life when so much is a mystery.
Hackneyed, perhaps, but always on our minds.
To the ancient Greeks, ‘natural history’ intertwined art with poetry, music, literature, drama and dance with the big questions.
Art forms take us to a bigger place. Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” and Prospero’s “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”.
The psalmist asks his God, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them” and Ecclesiastes notes that the Creator has “set eternity in the hearts of people”.
The dance or conversation that happens between us and an artwork challenges reductionist notions of being human. Art can remind us that, for all of our deep failings, we are made for much more than what we often settle for, individually and as communities. It speaks of dignity and nobility. We glimpse that there is a bigger story, a deeper music, a grander dance. And we are drawn to learn the steps. For me, art is at its most eloquent when it bears witness to our being in the divine image.
Joseph Kosuth once demystified the term contemporary art as being “works made by individuals intellectually engaged with and committed to their own time.”
What are the challenges and pressing issues of living in ‘our times’? They include the broken bits. Such things as the politics of hate that gives oxygen to Donald Trump, our moral bankruptcy demonstrated in incarcerating asylum seekers, a domestic violence epidemic that kills two Australian women per week, neglect of the poor, demonization of Muslim neighbours and LGBTI folk. And so on. But there are also the great bits. Such opportunities as those afforded by the Human Genome Project, biomedical research, an exquisite natural environment, our connectivity through social media, and significantly improved debate and support for those living with mental illness.
What does art have to say into contemporary conversations?
In much of our current public discourse on life’s big issues we seek to build our own rebranded humanism, but we sometimes feel inarticulate. Art can shape the conversations with tactile metaphors that inform our human-ness, our personhood. Art can give us a language and a vocabulary for deeper things than negative gearing and the Kardashians. I am not so naïve as to think that art solves the big issues or leads inevitably to flourishing of individuals or society. But art echoes something of the image of God in the human condition and challenges us to ask the deeper questions. Then the dance really begins when we enter a pas de deux with the One, to quote the ancient Greek poet Epimenides, “in whom we live and move and have our being”.
It has been argued that we make sense of our world primarily by quantitative learning (the hard sciences) and qualitative learning (social sciences, the humanities and politics). But there is also learning or research through practice. This is where art comes in. We learn about nature, the cosmos and human society through the intuitive practice of making art. Through doing.
Finally, my aim in the Pas de Deux work is to explore a little further that which gives dignity and nobility to our personhood. It probes what we could shyly refer to as the exceptionalism of being human, the “stuff” of Shakespeare, the Psalmist, and of our “good angels”. It is not to ignore our demons. There is a time for optimism, as long as it is not cheesy or sentimental or Brian Cox cocky. Down the track I will try to paint in the difficult terrain of our dysfunction.
But the last word for now is from the wonderful American author, Marilynne Robinson. Robinson asks, in The Givenness of Things,
“After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts.”
‘Could you tell me the name of this country?’
‘Don’t you know?’ said the man. ‘It is Niggle’s
Country. It is Niggle’s Picture, or most of it; a
little of it is now Parish’s Garden.’
‘Niggle’s Picture!’ said Parish in astonishment.
‘Did you think of all this, Niggle? I never knew
you were so clever. Why didn’t you tell me?’
J.R.R Tolkein, Tree and Leaf
It is not unusual to come across thoughtful and at times profound reflections on life’s big questions in the art review columns of our newspapers and magazines. I was stung recently by the following caustic generalisations by Christopher Allen, art critic for the Weekend Australian (October 27-28, 2012) reflecting upon contrasting notions of human dignity in Homeric literature and Christianity while reviewing ‘The Four Horsemen:
Apocalypse, Death and Disaster’ exhibition at the NGV:
Christianity depreciated the value of our earthly life, emphasising instead the eternity of bliss awaiting the meek, in compensation for humiliation and suffering endured in this world, and a parallel eternity of dreadful torments for the wicked…The imperative of nobility was eclipsed by a calculus of sin.
My dismay was not in the unfashionability of judgement and the hope of resurrection life, but in the phrase ‘depreciated the value of our earthly life’. Ouch! We may want to dismiss this as another cheap shot, but it may be symptomatic of a deeper malaise among Australian evangelical Christians. The watching world sees little in our lifestyle or cultural engagement that speaks of Jesus’ resurrection life breaking into the now. Visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation art) forms an important marketplace for ideas. It is part of contemporary society’s Areopagus. Art, for many, can help us understand ‘the value of our earthly life’ and make some sense of it all. Evangelical Christians are notably absent at this Areopagus. Why?
In part, this is due to the sacred-secular divide; we have retained something of the false dichotomy between the ‘things of God’ and the ‘things of this world’.This leads quickly to a utilitarian view of using our talents and abilities: art is only useful as a handservant to ‘ministry’, evangelism or teaching. To quote Franky Schaeffer (Addicted to Mediocrity):
Everything anyone did had to measure up somehow in utilitarian terms in the church. It had to be useful to the onward march of the church. It had to help in its efforts, in its programs, its church growth emphasis…How strange for the church of Christ that claims to know the Truth (the Creator himself)…to forget and abandon creativity, a God-given gift, and more, to see it, when it is practised at all, merely as a utilitarian means to an end, part of the professional Christian machinery.
Art is regarded by many as a diversion, an indulgence. It is too worldly to be regarded as a ‘ministry’. It is more a leisure activity, a hobby, a distraction from purposeful, ‘useful’ work. For others, art (indeed any contribution to the culture of our times) is ultimately pointless if we hold a nihilistic view that creation is to be obliterated without trace at the end of history. Why bother?
Many are alienated or disenchanted with contemporary art. Modern art for some is ‘beyond the pale’; it is decadent, anarchic, amoral, and the product of a lost post-Christian culture. Their safe harbour is the art of beauty and order of past golden ages – the Renaissance, or maybe Impressionism. They hanker for uplifting art, which pre-dated contemporary art’s unsettling discord that seeks to challenge the status quo.
Few Christian communities encourage their youth to take on art as a vocation in the sense of a valuable workplace in God’s sight. Hence Christopher Allen’s comments on our disengagement. Hence also the marked paucity of Christians publically or critically counted among significant artists of our times.
This reticence of many Christians to seriously participate and engage in art runs counter to the Bible’s view of personhood and the scope of the new creation. Creativity has value firstly because it is part of the expression of God’s glory writ large in the cosmos and in the coming renewal of all creation. Secondly, we are made in the image of our Creator God. Creativity is intrinsic to our personhood. It is hardwired into our nature.
Visual literacy is arguably as important as the ability to read and write. Art is a precious God-given part of being human, it is part of our image-bearing. With it we apprehend, we ‘see’; we make sense of our world; we call out in joy or in anguish from the depths of our being.
Art matters to God; art should matter to his people who are called (both individually and communally) to be salt and light.
Jeremiah’s call to the exiles in Babylon (Jer 29:7) was to ‘Seek the peace (shalom) and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile’. Shalom encompasses health, wholeness, prosperity, growth in all dimensions (including the creative). We therefore should be asking what types of growth within the Christian community can prosper the places in which we live? How, through art, can we bring to the table truth, beauty, and order (‘whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable’)?
Rev. Michael Paget (St Barnabas, Broadway in Sydney) applies a profound ‘wellbeing’ (bene esse) framework to describe the arts: ‘The use of aesthetics (light, colour, shape, sound etc) to promote our humanity’.
Art for the Christian is perhaps best understood in its context as work. The value of work, including art, lies in both giving glory to God and in the opportunity it gives us to engage in God’s vindicated creation. All work, done for the glory of God, is glorious (1 Corinthians 10:31). Commenting on Calvin’s view of work, Alistair McGrath observes:
To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith… Work glorifies God, it serves the common good, and it is something through which human activity can express itself. (Calvin and the Christian Calling: First Things)
Moreover, God has invited us to be co-workers with him in the lasting nature of his future re-creation work. Far from depreciating the value of earthly life as Christopher Allen bemoaned, we joyfully paint and draw in eager expectation of ‘the transformation of the present universe so that it will fulfil the purpose for which God created it’ (FF Bruce, Romans).
‘The resurrection of Christ, upon which Christian ethics is founded, vindicates the created order in this double sense: it redeems it and transforms it’ (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection & Moral Order).
Art here and now matters, because even one’s modest contributions to the story of art and humankind’s cultural labours can be both relevant today and form building materials in God’s hands when he makes all things new. This deeply radical point is reinforced by Miroslav Volf:
The results of the cumulative work of human beings have intrinsic value and gain ultimate significance, for they are related to the eschatological new creation, not only indirectly through the faith and service they enable or sanctification they further, but also directly: the noble products of human ingenuity, ‘whatever is beautiful, true and good in human cultures’, will be cleansed from impurity, perfected, and transfigured to become a part of God’s new creation.’ (Volf, Work in the Spirit).
‘Art needs no justification… Art has a meaning as art because God thought it good to give art and beauty to humanity’ (H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture)
The Old and New Testaments are charged with affirmation of creative expression, from God’s equipping of Bezalel and Oholiab for tabernacle art (Exodus 35 & 36) to the high poetry of the Psalter, Wisdom books and prophets, and the electrifying parables of Jesus. Indeed, in Ephesians 2:10 the community of Christ is called God’s poiema (masterpiece, work of art) , created to do good works.
In art and creativity, we make visible to others the beauty and meaning God has first pictured, or introduced, into our imaginations.We are each, in the image of our Creator, created to create, to call others back to beauty and holiness and to the truth about God’s nature’ (Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones).
To preach the gospel, and to say that in Christ there is life, without being able to show something of the reality of that life, is to speak in a vacuum. It soon begins to sound false. (HR Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification)
My concern here is to encourage more Christians to participate in contemporary art. Admittedly, contemporary art as a phenomenon has done its cause no favours by its considerable hubris, elitism and obfuscation. If we consider the role of art more broadly, a helpful overview is that given by Robert Hughes:
The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world. (Hughes, The Shock of the New)
Contemporary art is no more and no less than the ‘story’ of art being worked afresh within the milieu of our times, be it in urban Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, Shanghai, or within rural and remote communities.
Contemporary art is not some kind of unified movement or monolithic phenomenon; it is more often chameleon-like in nature, and thrives on diversity and paradox. Like the Athenians at the Areopagus (who ‘spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’, Acts 17:21), contemporary artists and their acolytes are prone to the constant seduction of ‘the new’ and the subversive. The enfant terrible is always given the fatted calf of publicity and glowing reviews. Can we then take seriously the project of art as practised today? Should we then engage in that artistic marketplace of ideas, that new Areopagus? The answer is a resounding yes.
At its best, ‘contemporary art comprises works made by individuals who are intellectually engaged with, and committed to their own time’ (Joseph Kosuth, Guide to Contemporary Art). Thus it has always been for the past masters, from Michelangelo to Matisse, who were authentically connected to their own times. ‘Art, then, may be a means, indeed one of the only means, that will catch the attention of this generation’ (William Dyrness, Visual Faith).
What are the concerns of contemporary visual artists in 2013? At one level, everything (the human condition and the cosmos)! More specifically, some artists home in on themes such as the fragility of nature, beauty and harmony, social alienation, sexual stereotyping, the journey from child to adult, immigration, human trafficking, and so on.
As we listen carefully to the conversation that is contemporary Australian art, we are compelled to take a seat to listen, listen, work and love. The conversation is multi-layered, but in a way always comes back to how we understand our humanity.
Euan Macleod, for example, has explored aspects of his inner world within the genre of figure-in-landscape works. The works confront a complex childhood relationship of Macleod with his father, and in the process, speak of Everyman, as Macleod’s personal mythology becomes a public one.
Garry Shead, another lyrical figurative artist, has employed literary motifs (such as D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo) to explore our national identity, values and contradictions with great poignancy.
Charlie Sheard, arguably Australia’s finest current abstract painter, anchors his practice in a metaphysical understanding of the work of art and the way it comes about.
Following the lead Kandinsky provides in his seminal essay ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, my understanding as a practising artist is as follows: by developing a language of purely abstract forms, the painter develops a kind of antidote to the extreme materialism of our moment. As materialists, we do not seek out the work of art, our need is for the product…
We are unable to be present to the beauty (or otherwise) of things in the world, since we have no feeling for ‘the thingness of things’; only feelings and ideas about what things mean. To dwell in culture such as this, the nature of our own being is more than just hidden, it is entirely unknown to us’ (Sheard, from the Phoenix exhibition catalogue, 2011).
The abiding passion for video artist Joan Ross is colonisation – as in both Australian European settlement and the nature of contemporary society at odds with our natural environment.
What happens when the mentality behind colonisation escapes from the bookshelf, spills out everywhere and gets dragged into the streets and into ‘nature’? Again. Where we can’t really see it anymore. (Lisa Armitage, writing of Ross’s 2010 exhibition Enter at Your Own Risk)
The art of Queensland artist William Robinson has always been a personal exploration of his connection to his surroundings and the natural world. His multiperspective depictions of sumptuous tropical landscapes reveal his connection to the landscape and his place within. His Christian faith which underpins the work of a long career has often drawn comment from usually hardbitten art critics.
The animating principle of his work in its ever changing fashion is its expression of faith. Robinson’s landscape is unquestionably a God-revealed world; what is in question is the relation of man to that universe…
He is that most deeply unfashionable thing: he is a religious artist. This is not to say that his art can be reduced to an expression of faith alone, but to ignore the faith underpinning the work is to miss its animating principle…The artist’s ambition, immodestly, is to trace God’s exuberant creativity; his subject is nothing less than the sheer genius of creation itself. (Hannah Fink, Artlink)
My own journey into the Areopagus of contemporary art has been a recent one. In 2010 I left a career of 32 years in architecture to undertake a Master of Art at COFA (College of Fine Arts) at UNSW. While I had enjoyed a fulfilling career in architecture, I had a niggling feeling that I was underutilising a talent that God had given me for the purpose of honouring Him. In the past, I regarded art as little more than a pastime for the occasional weekend and holiday. Encouraged by my wife and by the Bible’s high view of the arts and human creativity (brought into sharp focus through the L’Abri movement and poets such as Hopkins), I decided at last follow the call to ‘cast your bread upon the waters’ (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Taking this risky road met with some bemusement and dismay by fellow Christians, who regarded the world of contemporary art as a distraction from ‘real’ ministry. C’est la vie. COFA has turned out to be a real blessing, affording me the opportunity to sharpen technical skills in art making, and to develop a conceptual framework for what to say and how to say it.
I quickly came to see that, among the hype and the novelty-obsession of much modern art, there are many wonderful artists (known or unknown) who have embarked upon a difficult and lonely road to make sense of the world, their identity, and the stubborn ambiguities and contradictions of life. I have been taken well and truly outside my middle-class comfort zone by COFA teachers such as Joan Ross and Charlie Sheard. To my great delight, I have also had the privilege of learning much from the work and insights of fellow-students.
One friend has been painting portraits (from Amnesty International photos) of people who have ‘disappeared’ due to civil violence in south Asia. Another is coming to grips with sexual abuse suffered when she was a child, by depicting poignant memories of times seen in retrospect to be at once both innocent and menacing. Another focuses on train commuters, portraying their seeming quiet resignation to aloneness and wide berths of personal space. And yet another paints seagulls, for the sheer joy that they bring.
What a joy it is to paint beside such peers in contemporary art, to listen to their stories and to try to see the world through their eyes. And to work hard, striving for excellence and eloquence as we each seek to find a voice.
We paint best when we work from our passions, our obsessions: that which prepossesses us.
My own passion is the nature of personhood; what it means to at once bear the dignity and nobility of image-bearers, but to live within a world marred by our brokenness. The road I currently walk is the lyrical figurative tradition. The challenge is always to paint with integrity and contemporary relevance; to be a person of hope. That sense of hope will often mean gravitating toward beauty, order and delight in the otherness of things (Hopkins’ ‘inscape’). But the expression of hope must not be Polyanna-like, or formulaic, or sidestep things broken. To be an artist that is truly engaged with our times is to acknowledge life’s messiness, contradictions and ambiguities. We need to take seriously the times that we are given to live in, and to take seriously God’s great project of restoring wholeness/shalom through Christ. But at the same time we do well to not take ourselves too seriously as artists. Just listen, work, love.
My longing is to express hope via new ideas that are painted with freshness, skill and relevance to our times. I am inspired by Auden’s poem, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, which wonderfully captures the intersection of the momentous with the commonplace.
Contemporary art, for all its contradictions and selfaggrandisement, is an exciting marketplace of ideas for many who are trying to make sense of life. God is calling his modern-day Bezalels (men and women) to arise, go up to the Areopagus, and to engage in his name.
I am indebted to Rev. Michael Paget at St Barnabas, Broadway in Sydney, for his most helpful insights into the links between art, work, and the renewed creation.
IAN McGILVRAY is a Sydney-based painter currently studying a Master of Art course at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) at UNSW. Ian and his wife Jill are members of the St Matthew’s Anglican church family at West Pennant Hills, and have two daughters.