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Finding the Heart of Art's Spiritual Quest

Artists, theologians pose the religious questions of art. ARTS COMMENTARY

THE group of listeners gathered on an outdoor deck, passed the walnut brownies, and pulled their lawn chairs closer together. There was a sense of expectancy, and the air vibrated with more than the hum of crickets.It's a cliche that the two things that should never be mentioned at a party are religion and politics. These days the topic of art could be added, because of the increasing political and religious baggage attached to art. But this group, gathered on a late-August evening, headed straight into the thorny issue of theology and art. Part revival meeting, part arts festival, part encounter weekend, the program organized by the Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts gave participants an opportunity to hear and talk about issues they might shy away from raising with neighbors and colleagues. About two dozen artists, musicians, theology teachers, members of clergy, and others met in Stockbridge, Mass., to discuss the points where art and religious imagination intersect. The group on the deck needed little beyond a brief introduction to get them going. Max Stackhouse, who organized the weekend, opened up the discussion with a brief but pointed commentary on the 1911 book, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. From this intellectual and highly personal record of Kandinsky's journey toward abstract art, people began to speak up about what his words meant to them. They talked of the fundamental questions and perceptions that artists and theologians have wrestled with for centuries: Is an artist necessarily elitist because she looks past what people ordinarily see? Does an individual have to give up his sense of physical reality in order to experience spiritual awakening, or do the two exist side by side? Is abstract painting - which rejects recognizable forms and functions - closer to the artist's inner thought than objective art? Can an artwork symbolize the indi vidual's desire to enter a new sphere of life? Is there a standard to apply to a piece of art or music that qualifies it as being "spiritual"? Heavy stuff. It's hard to imagine a TV evangelist who would go near questions like those. A woman spoke up, in quite strong tones, about her discomfort with Kandinsky's stipulation that an artist must break through the boundaries of the physical world to get to some ultimate reality. Another defended the purpose of Kandinsky's book, saying that he wasn't as good at putting into words the kind of transcendence that he could capture on canvas. Kandinsky's slim book had ignited a small fire. New ideas were tried on for the fit, and not a few people became eloquent in their musings. And, unlike at most parties, there was no sense that the things people said were irrelevant or unimportant. The group seemed to realize that here they were among people of equally inquisitive minds. Mr. Stackhouse, a professor at Andover-Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass., and his wife Jean, who is on the piano faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, came up with the idea of an institute devoted to theology and the arts. They signed up Yo-Yo Ma of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and popular vocalist Bobby McFerrin for their board of directors, and inaugurated the institute last July with a music festival of Bach and seminars exploring the composer's deep religious roots. The Stackhouses intend for the institute to be ecumenical, but at the Spirituality in the Arts conference most of the participants came from Christian backgrounds. Frank Burch Brown and Carol Burch-Brown gave a multimedia slide show called "Artistic Expression and the Experience of God" that demonstrated both the intellectual rigor and inspired search they bring toward delineating the types of worship within Christianity (and without). The couple, who work at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, brought a rich store of images (some of Carol's own artwork that hinted at infinity) and music (Frank's compositions for their church in Virginia). They showed the painter Caspar David Friedrich's "Monk by the Sea" to demonstrate a sense of holy "absence," of waiting for God. A slide of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" brought home the Calvinist concept of God as austere, remote, cold, and to be feared. That concept is one in which God is seen to be so great that he is the one who draws near us; we dare not approach. Photos that Carol Burch-Brown had taken of poverty-stricken but still dignified West Virginia families added a poignant note to the hope of God coming to humanity in its need. Art, the Burch-Browns explained, can also announce God among us, as in the Rembrandt painting of "The Prodigal Son," and the Eastern Orthodox notion that icons and rituals can bring believers closer to beauty and thus to divinity. They showed work by Nicaraguan painters that depicted Biblical stories with a current, Central and South American twist. These were examples of "liberation theology a belief that church leaders should play an activist role to help create a paradise in this world. (One story that the Burch-Browns related describes a Nicaraguan painter's take on the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. The painter didn't think the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was a miracle. To him, the miracle was that the owners of the bread agreed to share....) Another highlight of the weekend was a piano performance with commentary by Veronica Jochum, also on the faculty of the New England Conservatory and daughter of the internationally known German conductor Eugen Jochum. Ms. Jochum took listeners on a guided tour of modern music's beginnings, showing how composers tried to break the mold of conventional chord progression, just as Kandinsky tried to explode into a new self-expression in paint. Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ferruccio Busoni were after some means of conveying a new world taking shape - a world of machines, of religious schism, of the horrors of war. Jochum's playing of Busoni particularly contained a rare combination of meditation, anger, frustration, and return to equilibrium. Her understanding of the piece symbolized great religious faith that is tested and remains to inspire others. When the intensity of the weekend's events threatened to swamp everyone, a side trip to the nearby Hancock Shaker Village was a welcome reminder that religious art doesn't have to be complicated. Several "spirit drawings" done by members of the Shaker community revealed a charming lack of artistic ego: The Shaker who penned a drawing was acting as scribe to another Shaker's interpretation of a dream or message from a departed elder. How's that for modesty?

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