Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Art & Spirituality: “The Promise of Inner Wholeness”


So far this month we have had a variety of art and artists leading us into deeper reflection on spirituality. But today I’d like to delve more deeply into the way in which art can be therapeutic for both the artist and the spectator.
I was moved to consider this angle by a quote from Thomas Kelly, who has been called a Quaker mystic. But his was no comfortable contemplative life; he sought academic respectability in the early 1930s but had a crushing failure when he suffered an anxiety attack while defending his PhD dissertation at Harvard. He was denied another chance and sank to a low, almost suicidal level before having a spiritual experience. His reflections on the mindset of trying to ‘have it all’ still apply to us in the 21st century:
Kelly compares the voices within that pull us in multiple directions to a variety of selves that simultaneously reside within us. As Kelly describes it, "There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self." (Strained, Breathless, and Hurried: Learning from the Life of Thomas R. Kelly. Chad Thralls May 1, 2011 http://www.friendsjournal.org/3011052/ )

And what is worse, is that these different voices never cooperate and so we are pushed to exhaustion by trying to reconcile the various demands of our voices:

We are not integrated. We are distraught. We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center!” (Thomas Kelly, Source: A Testament of Devotion)
Creating joy in our lives – as in the meditation words we heard a few minutes ago – can help us to find a richer, deeper life. And many artists do just that, they listen to that whisper, that faint call…and for many of them, this is a leap of faith. As Grace Paley observed about the art of writing, “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.”

And I suppose that goes along with the quote from the artist Terry Lee Getz: “I will risk plumbing unknown depths that release and fulfill my spirit, and I’ve arrived at a point in my life, creative or otherwise, where the ‘unknown’ is my preferred orientation.” (“Embracing the Unknown” in Siminaitis, Kaleidoscope, 2007, 126)

One definition of spirituality is “when we open ourselves up to the goodness of the universe and respond to it with awe and wonder and love.”

And Veronica Brady also uses that term ‘open’ when she says that  Genuine spirituality, like art, is open and dynamic...both are the hope of a world so badly in need of transformation” (http://www.ru.org/81brady.html).

I’ve quoted artists about how they make themselves vulnerable and open, but of course there are two sides to any piece of art, the one who creates it and the one who beholds it. It can be transformative for both artist and spectator.

Oscar Wilde affirms the place of openness for both when he says, 
“The temperament to which Art appeals … is the temperament of receptivity. That is all. If [one] approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, [they] approach it in such a spirit that [they] cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. And the more completely [they] can suppress [their] own silly views, [their] own foolish prejudices, [their] own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely [they are] to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.” (https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/27/oscar-wilde-on-art/)

I was searching for a few examples of artists through whose work we could explore receptivity today, and I have found three very different ones who come from our own faith tradition. In many ways, perhaps incidentally or deliberately, our fourth principle – a free and responsible search for truth and meaning – and our seventh principle – our part in the interdependent web of all existence – play significant roles in their creative genius.

Nathaniel Currier
First, the very successful work in the 1830s of a lithographer whose name is usually linked with another – Unitarian Nathaniel Currier, who along with James Merritt Ives produced the kinds of pictures that come to mind in the song “Sleigh Bells”, where the lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you is like a picture print of Currier and Ives.

But what made Currier so popular across the nation was not bucolic winter scenes, but disaster pictures! His prints depicting dramatic and newsworthy incidents resonated with American’s growing middle class of the 1830s and both fed and reflected the anxieties and sensibilities of that time…as scholar Genoa Shepley says, “in a way that attended to the expectations, hopes, and fears of a newly minted audience of consumers of visual culture.”

(By Which Melancholy Occurrence: The Disaster Prints of Nathaniel Currier, 1835–1840

Shepley observes that 
Nathaniel Currier lived in tumultuous times. His own life trajectory…arced across one of the most economically, socially, and politically volatile periods in American history—one marked by financial downturns, military conflicts, and massive physical and class dislocations as the tottering republic found its balance and matured into a modern industrial society. Currier’s seventy-five years on this earth also witnessed the advent of technological marvels—steam-powered ships and railroads—that remodeled the topography of the country and radically altered the flow of people within it. Such transformations brought with them the possibility of catastrophic conflict and sudden, grisly death on a grand scale.”
And so one of his first pictures which drew the American people’s attention to life in an urban environment – as people flocked to fast-growing cities – is “Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange N.Y. after the Destructive Conflagration of Decbr. 16 & 17, 1835." This lithograph was issued initially in black and white and later in a hand-colored version—and appeared within days of the fire, selling thousands of copies”. Shepley says that one message to which the spectator of this image might be receptive is one of self-discipline, in the depiction of sober, proper behavior by onlookers and workers in the face of crisis.  Many young people in particular, who were noew to city life, would see this picture and understand and internalize the norms of reaction to such disasters.
“Five years later Nathaniel Currier’s lithographic print Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington in Long Island Sound on Monday Eveg, Jany 13th 1840, by which Melancholy Occurrence, over 100 Persons Perished," "appeared in record time after the disaster and was delivered through the uncommon distribution mode of a news extra.” Its appeal to the spectator is one we all can identify with, the desire to see a sensational event safely from a distance. It puts the spectator farther away from the ship and closer to the desperate passengers who are in the water.

Shepley explains that attraction to sensationalism of spectators at the time was "due to Victorian attitudes toward death and dying. Americans were preoccupied with their bodies and their souls in this period, as shown by many songs, poems, sermons, and novels about death and how to deal with it" that flooded the consumer market.

Maybe rising mortality rates help to explain this preoccupation; but "an awareness of the consequences of pandemics, natural disasters, and large-scale accidents resulting from new transportation technologies may have dominated the public mind: the density of city life made large-scale death from a common source, like fires, trainwrecks, or ship sinkings, more possible.”

And so Currier’s picture of the wreck of the Lexington , and that of an earlier shipwreck, "The Dreadful Wreck of the Mexico on Hempstead Beach. Jany. 2nd 1837," may have served as an image for "remembering not only the life and death of its victims, but the life and death of the viewer." The nation was changing at such a rapid rate that the insecurities Americans faced were stoked by these images.

However, Shepley says that “These same Americans evinced a stubborn faith in progress and oft-professed determination to overcome adversity”, and the images from his lithographs gave voice to their “fears, ideals, and even secret pleasures.” This statement made me think about those voices that Thomas Kelly described as competing for our attention…the receptivity of those Americans who viewed those disaster scenes with curiosity, fear, horror, who were living in times they’d never imagined, where change came fast and furious – kind of like ours in the 21st century. And this example made me wonder about what we now use art for and I think we have the same need as those people moving into cities and trying to comprehend this new landscape; when we use – and create - social media images, the new art on Instagram and the photos we post, where we color in or insert our faces into another background, or post yet another video of cats – are we not in some way trying to make sense of our lives? Somewhat in awe of how amazing life is and trying to keep up and learn to adapt.  Not so different from Currier’s devoted spectators.
N.C. Wyeth
And now on to the patriarch of an amazing family of artists, the Wyeths. N.C. Wyeth described himself as ‘unconventional, democratic, free and careless of formalities, contemptuous of restraint, and with a wayward enthusiasm.’ His many illustrations and beautifully detailed oil paintings made him one of the best-known artists of the 20th century. The family were members of the First Unitarian Society of Wilmington Delaware. (Thoreau and Wyeth: Born Under the Same Sign http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/thoreau-wyeth-born-sign/)

His son Andrew Wyeth was born exactly 100 years to the day after the birth of Henry David Thoreau, who N.C. Wyeth considered his hero. It’s said that his wife Carolyn caused him to reassess Thoreau, who he initially described as just another ‘amateur naturalist’.

"His long-held wish to publish an anthology of Thoreau’s writings finally came true in 1936 as the illustrated Men of Concord and Some Others, as Portrayed in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Francis H. Allen."

In the picture above, Thoreau is the youngster in the bowler and Emerson the middle-aged man in the top hat. The preface of the book says: “Wyeth was a lifelong admirer of Thoreau, whose spirit has become a part of him. His work for this book, therefore, is a tribute from an intellectual disciple to an author who has had an important formative influence on his character and work.”

“NC taught Andrew to love Thoreau’s writings, and his own work displays his love of nature." You can hear this particularly in his written description of what he saw looking out of a window: “My imagination is suddenly whipped into an almost exalted appreciation of the magnificence of the little isolated and unrelated scene before me, and I am astounded at its vast beauty and its sublime importance, and am made to realize, in one poignant spasm, that before my eyes exists the profoundest beauty, the greatest glamour and magnificence possible for human sight and spiritual pleasure. “
(Thoreau and Wyeth: Born Under the Same Sign http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/thoreau-wyeth-born-sign/)

Wyeth's admiration for Thoreau is most visible in this painting from 1933, "Walden Pond revisited," so unlike his other lifelike illustrations. Its details include Thoreau’s beanfield, the pond, the railroad, the Unitarian Church steeple, and the town of Concord.

Anyone who grew up looking at wonderful illustrations from The Deerslayer, Kidnapped or Robinson Crusoe will no doubt remember the awe those pictures inspired, and how they helped to imprint the images of those stories in our memories.
Dr. Seuss
And finally we come to another illustrator of children’s books who is much beloved in the memories of adults, and who, like Wyeth, cares about the natural world and also what we humans do to it: Theodore Geisel (DR Seuss).

This congregation has benefitted from the sermons of Dr Greg Brock about Dr Seuss, and the messages of his art and stories which resonate with the Unitarian Universalist imagination and reflect its values. His art is concerned with human behavior but through the weirdest non-human characters!

The Sneetches, which we saw earlier, tells us that “race and ethnicity need not be dividing lines in our society, and that we can coexist peacefully, regardless of our external differences.” (www. seussville.com) It was published in 1961 and its message is still as needed as ever.

One of the favorite stories is The Lorax, which Dr Seuss called a cautionary tale, about the interconnectedness of the things that live in an ecosystem. We can pretty much sum up its moral in this warning from the Lorax himself: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."         

Geisel never claimed to know what inspired him in the creation of his stories and characters – just like the quote earlier, he plumbed the unknown depths of his imagination – but he did base 2 of his characters on himself: the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch. And it is his explanation of the origin of How the Grinch Stole Christmas that I’d like to share with you.

In December 1957, just after How the Grinch Stole Christmas! appeared, Seuss explained the origins of the story to Redbook magazine:

“I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noted a very Grinchish countenance in the mirror. It was Seuss! Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realized, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”
This article was accompanied by the self-portrait you see here, of “Geisel looking into his bathroom mirror and the Grinch looking back. Seuss told many variations on this story, but he always mentions his identification with the Grinch, once describing him as a “nasty anti-Christmas character that was really myself.” http://www.seussville.com/?section=home&isbn=&catalogID=&eventID=#/author
Dr Seuss once wrote, “Children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock-bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on earth.” (www.seussville.com)

The writer and broadcaster John Berger: “every image embodies a way of seeing…the more imaginative the work, the more profoundly it allows us to share the artist’s experience of the visible.” (Ways of Seeing, 1972, 10)
We can see in these examples today how the mysteries of the human condition, both good and bad, inspire artists in their work, and give us greater insight into what it means to be human and what we can learn from being human.

In doing this as Erna Cooper says, "Art is an equalizer of the high and low in society, a medium through which all of us may share the same subjective sphere, linking what was formerly the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ and erasing the boundaries between us."        

The philosopher Alain de Boton writes: 
“Art can teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavor to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of middle age, our frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved spouses. Art can do the opposite of glamorizing the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it. In art…base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine. We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean... “

A final quote from Veronica Brady: "Art reminds us that life is stranger, more beautiful, demanding, joyous and painful than common sense knows."  

In a world that so badly needs transformation, needs the freedom to search for truth and meaning, needs to embrace the interconnectedness of all existence,  I believe that “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.”

 Gaye W. Ortiz