A few years ago, when I was getting a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, I took an Art course…this was not an art history course or a course in which we students learned to create art, as that would be waaayy beyond my ability, but one where we studied the work and import of art.
I remember the first question our professor posed for us, simply: What is Art?
At first I thought, well that’s silly, art is stuff painters and actors do, musicians and sculptors. But quickly I realized my own silliness in dismissing his question.
We began our course exploring everything we could think of…in performing arts, we assessed the value of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and what the NYT called the worst the Broadway show ever made, Dance of the Vampires; musically, we appraised Mozart, Madonna, & Eminem.
In the area of visual arts we looked at the earliest cave drawings and the work of Monet and Van Gogh.
Heck, we evaluated magnificent eagles created by Chainsaw ice sculptors and intricate drawings of the Madonna made solely on a typewriter.
What is Art—or more to the point, what qualifies as art? Is it only Orchestral music or can we count Country music too? Is art a matter of individual taste? Who gets to say—is art decided by majority rule?
The question stays out there, ripe for argument and debate. Add to this question, another facet of Art, that is the way in which we’ve extended the use of the word “Art” to almost every human endeavor…there’s the Art of listening, Art of Conversation, Art of War, Art of Shaving.
The course I took had us examine origins of art and the sociological implications of art—We listened, and we viewed, and we discussed our own interpretations. We learned how very involved humankind’s relationship is with art.
I found all this seriously interesting, such as the way in which music evolves as cultures intersect—it’s fascinating; but what I really learned in this course, now that I look back on it, is the answer to this question: What is Art for? What is Art for?
There are a hundred answers to this question; no one answer will ever suffice. That’s because Art is all about our experience with it. Art cultivates in us the ability to envision—something beyond, to imagine—some other way, to contemplate beyond our own limited view of the world. “Art,” Thomas Merton once wrote, “enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
This is the Art of being human—allowing ourselves to see and feel the line between us and the divine grow ever so thin.
In the annunciation to Mary, we have a perfect illustration. Our favorite gospel writer, Luke, the patron saint of artists, paints the story of the Annunciation with words so lovely, so endearing, that they lay etched in our memories. “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”
The young girl Mary is invited into an intimate relationship with God. Mary stands as the interface between humanity and God. More accurately, Mary is the conduit for God. The fine line is barely visible. And if we read closely, we see that she is not afraid, despite the angel’s worries. Mary is perplexed; she ponders what sort of greeting this may be. Perhaps it is her youth that gives her courage, perhaps it is her innocence. Mary knows she is not special, she has no remarkable power or trait, she is not even married. “How can this be?” she asks so simply. And Gabriel tells her how, “for nothing is impossible with God.”
If you’ve been around St. Luke’s lately, physically or online, you know we’ve taken on an Art venture this Advent. St. Luke’s Advent Journey is a time of reflection with the gracious work of several artists illustrating for us all the Nativity of our Lord. I invite you to go online, not now, wait until the sermon is over at least; on our website you can enter into the journey. Our hopes in this endeavor are that even though we are unable to gather in our usual ways of worship this season, we can at least offer a spiritual avenue for contemplating God’s incarnation.
Through the work of these artists, we don’t just hear this well-known story again, one more time, we experience it. We sense Mary’s bewilderment as she faces Gabriel. We hear Mary’s “yes,” remembering the courage and excitement of our own youth. We encounter the difficult and powerful words of the Magnificat, knowing God’s faithfulness to the oppressed. In the end, as Mary holds her baby on the doorstep of the world, we empathize with the new mother, Mary, as she wonders, what will this life hold for my baby boy?
Artists give us the ability to consider an unexpected view of the world, one that we might not have dreamed ourselves. This is such a gift to us as people of faith. So many of us pine for a more spiritual life—and forget that all this means is being open to experiencing the world, the ordinary everyday world, as God’s world.
The key to the Art of being God’s beloved—letting the line between us and the divine disappear, answering as Mary did, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”