by Pastor Doug Kings
As I said last week, on the day of the assault on Capitol Hill I visited several Santa Fe art galleries to center and rebalance myself. Santa Fe is the third largest art market in the country and has been drawing artists to the region since the 19th century. After one of my first visits, I wrote that northern New Mexico’s appeal to artists is not just its stunning beauty but also how it brings clarity to one’s vision, literally and figuratively.
It isn’t so much that the area provides lots of “pretty things” to inspire artists to draw, paint, sculpt, or photograph. There is also something about the “purity” of the desert landscape which encourages you to focus and clarify. In addition to the special light quality of the thin, dry mountain air, the lack of distractions makes individual objects stand out. Without the blur and confusion of noise, movement, shapes, and colors, you are more naturally inclined to concentrate on an individual plant, animal, mountain, or cloud. Over time you become more adept at really seeing the world around you.
Spiritual traditions universally understand that seeing honestly and clearly is as a key to health and salvation. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets often lament people’s inability to use their senses. Israel’s leaders are repeatedly accused of being deaf and blind. “You see but you don’t see; you hear but you don’t hear.” Many of Jesus’ healings enable “the blind to see and the deaf to hear,” while his criticism of religious leaders as “blind guides” make it clear he is concerned about more than physical impairments.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the primary patron of the arts was the church. The monumental architecture of the cathedral, along with its stained glass, sculpture, mosaics, frescoes, and painting, immersed worshipers in the stories of the Bible and, with the liturgy of worship, made them feel as if they were participants in its “salvation history.”
When we see such art in museums or books, we notice the cartoonishness of the figures. Yet their work served its purpose of clearly representing the characters of the Bible and church history. Without knowing what any of them looked like, you nonetheless knew you were seeing Abraham or Moses, Jesus or Mary, Peter or Paul.
But then something changed, realism became important, and the Renaissance began. Why? We’re not sure but one theory is that knowing the story of salvation gradually gave way to the desire to experience salvation. (The unending plagues likely had something to do with this.) This put the focus much more on Jesus and his suffering on the cross, which needed to be portrayed ever more realistically. Jesus, bleeding and dying, came to look more and more like a real person, thus enabling people to “feel” his suffering for them.
To pull this off, artists had to start paying much closer attention to human anatomy, to what skin and bones and muscle really looked like. But this then carried over to observing all the natural world more carefully, so that as the Renaissance progressed painted flowers and trees began looking like real flowers and trees, mountains and lakes looked like real mountains and lakes, etc.
The result—to simplify a long and complex story—was that artists caused people to see and value the world in a new way. For the first time in a long time, artists began depicting scenes of everyday life, creating landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, not for churches but for royal palaces and the homes of the nobility and newly wealthy merchants. Again, from my earlier essay:
Suddenly artists were seeing things nobody had noticed before and through their art causing everyone one else to see the world differently. With these new modern eyes, people began asking new questions about this world that was being discovered. Scientists soon followed artists in looking with a new and deep intensity (and sometimes like Leonardo da Vinci they were both artist and scientist).
Thus was “modern art” born and it remains with us today. “But I don’t understand modern art,” many say. Yet millions (literally) flock to Impressionist exhibitions of Renoir or Monet, not realizing what a scandal their art created at the time. For they had moved past “realism” (the invention of the camera took care of that) to probing the experience of perception, what we actually “see” at any given moment.
Post-war Abstract Expressionism was the “last straw” for many people. “It’s just shapes and blobs of color. I don’t get it,” they said. People were looking for story and meaning but as artists always do, they were instead opening our eyes to the world around us. For abstract “shapes and blobs of color” are all around us, in the bark of a tree, the wings of a butterfly, the eye of an insect, the gas of a distant nebula.
And there’s also this. Mark Rothko, one of the preeminent abstract expressionists, was known for his large “color field” paintings of two or three rectangles, created by layer upon layer of thin luminous paint. How simple? How meaningless? And yet it is not uncommon still today for people standing in front of his works to walk away with tears in their eyes. Somehow, at such moments, something profound and deep is being communicated.
Art has the power to open our eyes and our hearts to realities beyond our immediate perception or comprehension, to the realm of spirit, and to God.
Strolling through Santa Fe’s art galleries for the first time, I was struck by their spiritual and even religious qualities. You enter them feeling like you are walking into a shrine, a sacred place. The rooms are quiet. Inside, the art objects take central place, and you move from one to another “experiencing” them like icons. Your attitude isn’t that of worship but rather more like anticipation and sometimes awe.
The art works speak to you, open your eyes and your heart—or not. There is no guarantee. Every piece is different, every artist is different, and every viewer is different. But from time to time, there is real communication, communion even—between you and the artist and between you and the world the artist has revealed in a new way.
Artists can take things that are seemingly ordinary and help us see that they are, in fact, extraordinary, full of being and mystery and light, and therefore sacred. At such moments, their Creator can also be revealed in a new way. And for me, all this is aided by the silence of the desert and of a gallery.
Blessings in your life and ministry.