Menu

Essay

We played the flute for you and you did not dance….
——————————————–—Matthew 11:17

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to a collection of medieval Welsh tales, the late John Updike describes his reaction: we feel in reading these stories, he says, “as if we are dancing with a partner who hears a distinctly different music.” The Charis exhibit—an encounter between Christian artists in Asia and the West—has given many of us an opportunity to hear some different music, and, like Updike, we are puzzled, pleased, sometimes dismayed by what we hear. But always, we are surprised by the differences even as we are reassured by what we share.

And this is as it should be. Difference is an increasingly common experience in this internet-driven, jet-lagged generation. More and more people of faith are exposed to the great variety of gifts that make up the body of Christ—a difference that Paul assures us in Corinthians 12 is edifying. The question we face is how we can listen appropriately, so that we can not only hear new melodies, but eventually—please God—dance with these new partners.

As the Charis exhibit shows, encountering others is not easy; misunderstandings are possible as well as growth. And in this globalized world, we cannot be sanguine about the effects of artistic difference. In recent years we have seen too many riots and fatwas responding to stories and images felt to be offensive. For some, different music sounds like outright blasphemy. As I reflected on the Charis exhibit I was struck by both the promise and complications of encounters like this—the similarities, differences, and resonances.

My first reaction, as a western observer, was how accessible I felt the Asian Christian work to be. Perhaps this should not have surprised me. For one thing, as Christians we work with a common store of stories and images: the humble birth of our Apollo; a final meal in which bread and wine are transformed into cosmic symbols before clueless apostles; a plain-speaking Thomas who refuses to believe in miracles that he cannot touch. These stories have awakened artists’ imaginations for millennia, and no Christian—artist or not—will find faith nourished without them.

There are other, more ordinary reasons for the similarities we see in the Charis exhibit. All artists face common struggles: with materials, with recalcitrant form, with light and space. In this respect artists from every context speak a common language that needs no translator. As one participant pointed out, the common language was not English (which almost all of them spoke well); it was painting. But I was struck with another similarity that I did not expect. Within a certain range, all these artists seem to work in a common idiom that we might call “modern.” Perhaps I was expecting to see more influence of Chinese landscapes or, in Indonesia, of Wayang Kulit. But I did not. When we look at a painting by a contemporary Chinese or Indonesian artist, the chances are good that she knows as much about Monet as about the masters of Ming Dynasty or the Wayang Kulit shadow plays. After all, even if she did not go to art school in Boston or New York, she studied the western masters. I was interested to learn that a major influence (both artistically and spiritually) on He Qi, the Chinese Christian artist who has become so popular in the West, was the art of Raphael and major modern artists. This led him to study in the West and prompted a commentator to describe his work as “Chagall meets Matisse meets Picasso meets the East.” Wisnu Sasongko of Indonesia shows (and acknowledges) the influence of Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. And so on.

Influences of this kind reflect the impact of globalization on the art world, but they also reveal the permeability of cultures. This leads me to wonder: what role do cultural contexts play in contemporary art? Don’t artists necessarily express a cultural perspective? Or do artists everywhere now express a personal vision, with perhaps a cultural style? These questions are particularly pressing in Africa, an area not represented in the Charis exhibit, where western-style art schools have developed alongside traditional workshops. There practitioners—the category of “artist” itself is a foreign one—are often torn between the desire to develop traditional styles and the call of their (sometimes foreign) teachers to be original. This sometimes puts them in a difficult spot. Briton Frank McEwen, after study in Paris, came to Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), in 1956 to become the first director of the new National Gallery there. McEwen famously urged his students to avoid tourist art and look “deep within themselves to a collective Shona mythology” (Shona being their tribal background). Subsequent writers criticize McEwen’s attempt to turn his students away from traditional models toward an inner vision—perhaps, one observer noted, the supposed Shona essence reflected more the influence of Jung, Moreau, and Focillon than anything genuinely African. Maybe this kind of cultural mixing is inevitable. As Kathryn Tanner has noted, today “cultures are not tightly bounded entities, essentially unaffected by relations with one another….” Perhaps, she implies, artists discover who they are “in and through processes of exchange with one another.” I think all participants in the Charis exhibit would testify to this kind of mutual influence.

Still, the worry of participant David Hooker is instructive. In his reflections on the exhibit he voices a concern that others probably felt. In his striking video piece he tries to express the tension of visiting a foreign country: “What do we bring with us,” he asks provocatively, “and what do we leave behind?” In an installation he explores the difficulties of exploring another culture, interrogating, as he says, “Not only what one recognizes as differences, but what one finds that appears similar, but actually is not.” He wonders: “How careful are we when we encounter a foreign place?” This is a salutary warning: perhaps the similarities that artists display—their common artistic dilemmas, their (apparently) modern idiom—hide different harmonies to which we need to be attuned.

As we westerners stand quietly in a museum or gallery before a work of art we may be tempted to think everyone experiences art like we do. But such assumptions would be mistaken. Western traditions of aesthetics, with their Greek roots, developed during the eighteenth century in a very particular way, as emphasis changed from imitation and making to expression and contemplation. Since then we have learned to stand passively—disinterestedly, as we say—before a work of art. Art for us, Nicholas Wolterstorff says, is valued primarily as an arena of “perceptual contemplation,” carefully isolated from the rest of life. Elsewhere people have a vastly different experience. Take the case of what we call “African art.” Christopher Steiner notes that in Africa, art objects are valued for their function as well as their beauty. Strangely, when these artifacts are brought into western museums, they achieve the status of art (in our sense), by “denying their former utility or use value—baskets and calabashes are displayed on pedestals not balanced on the head, face masks are suspended without motion from mounts on the wall, not danced in the open space.” In other words, their value for us consists exactly in proportion to our denial of the value they had in their original setting. Confusing, isn’t it?

In reflecting on this exhibit, I wondered to what extent my western aesthetics lead me to see similarities where I should explore differences. Students of Chinese art for example sometimes see similarities between western impressionism and Chinese landscapes, but as Titus Burkhardt points out, the differences could not be greater. Enjoyment of a painting by Monet, he says, is “as fleeting as it could be; in this case it is the ego, with its wholly passive and affective sensibility,” whereas Taoist painting seeks rather “the miracle of the instant, immobilized by a sensation of eternity, [and] unveils the primordial harmony of things.”

But this example raises an even deeper question: Why is it that painters in China could traditionally assume a depth that modern painters in the West have come to deny? M.H. Abrams thinks this is because the change we noted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transferred the emphasis from the referent to the work. He even claims this represents a theological move. “What God was, the beautiful work of art [has become].” Now, the work of art, for western artists, represents not something other or higher, but itself alone. This leads me to suggest that western Christian artists face a challenge that artists in other parts of the world know little about. They have been deeply socialized into the narrative of art Abrams describes. Even for Christian artists in the West, the work of art inevitably enjoys a kind of autonomy that, say, Chinese artists (even when trained in western styles) cannot allow. In listening to Asian Christian artists I am struck by how factors outside (and behind) the image influence their work. Though they use modern styles, they seem to have a preference for narrative and the figurative, people are central to their imagination, and they seem to have a passion to communicate that might embarrass westerners.

By the same token, western artists of faith are more likely to approach religious issues obliquely. I found the masks of Pratt-educated Rondall Reynoso deeply moving, but they certainly represent a very different approach to the medium than the African masks I referred to above. Where the one references divine power and community solidarity, the other expresses an anguished search for identity. But wait a minute: Reynoso embraces a Hispanic heritage that enriches his work—maybe I am missing a melody line here as well.

§

The apostle Paul is not expressing simply an application of the gospel but its core when he says of the variety of gifts in the body of Christ: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Behind this claim lie deep mysteries of the richness of creation, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Here I want to address directly the primary concern of this exhibit and my reflections: the relationship of art and faith. In most of the world, and for most of history, these have been deeply interconnected. But for educated folk in the West, as I have observed, these have become radically disconnected: critics acknowledge the role of religion in art only grudgingly. Rosalind Hackett has pointed out the damage this has done to our way of looking at art outside the West. Western practices of viewing, she notes, tend to limit art to optical dimensions and thus miss deeper meaning. Critics, for example, overlook the fact that the much admired “expressionism” of African art can only be fully appreciated in terms of the underlying religious beliefs. For African artists, Hackett notes, the sense of the divine commission of subjects, often communicated via dreams, is common: sculptors in Mali portray creation myths and ancestral figures, and artists in Benin must create while in a state of ritual purity because they work closely with divine powers.

Religious resonance is, if anything, more pronounced in Asia, the focus of the Charis exhibit. The underlying Sanskrit word for beauty, rasa, literally the “act of relishing,” traditionally implies an awakening of “hunger” in the viewer for union with the Brahman. Though connected with its Hindu origin, this impulse I believe is widely operative in Asian art, even among Asian Christian artists. And one can also see this heritage seasoning traditional Christian modes of discourse. Wisnu Sasongko of Indonesia reflects traditional Javanese values as well as his Christian faith when he describes his conversion: “When I opened my heart to Jesus, it changed everything! Now my paintings retell the true story of how we are to love each other…how Christian people apply love and ceremony to transform this culture.” Sawai Chinnawong of Thailand (though not in this exhibit) is typical of many who acknowledge a variety of influences. But, he notes, “all of my art is gospel-based and inspired. I believe Jesus Christ is present in every culture, and I have chosen to celebrate his presence in our lives through traditional Thai cultural forms.” He thinks the influence of his culture is natural for him. For artists like these, their work is an act of personal testimony that would resonate with many Christian artists in the West, but it also reflects deeply felt cultural values that are religious in character. What does this mean for the Christian witness of non-western artists when they are displayed in the West?

First, of course, we all want to celebrate the different music to which these Christian artists are dancing. But I don’t want my celebration to imply that I hear clearly what is being played. I must remember that I experience other peoples’ art through particular aesthetic, cultural, and even religious filters that influence the strains of music that I am able to hear. And the fact is I am simply tone deaf to certain melodies—a handicap I share with the modern traditions of scholarship, especially when it comes to the arts. As Flannery O’Connor famously remarked, “the beam in our eye is the twentieth century.” True enough, there is a growing awareness among scholars in the arts that formal, analytic methods need to change, that we need to address the broader economic, political, and social issues reflected in art. But even these changes, welcome as they are, are still limiting; they have increased our knowledge, but they haven’t yet taught us to dance.

Here is perhaps the most important contribution this exhibit can make to the art conversation. In a sense the Asian artists, in sharing their gifts, reflect the invitation of Jesus to enjoy a new life, to dance with a light heart. They are addressing the aching question raised by western art: is there anything behind what we see? Is there a community? Most of all, is there some word from God? One might propose that the western artists in this exhibit have done better at posing these questions, while their Asian colleagues have better succeeded in answering them. Together, their melodies have produced new and wonderful harmonies.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest