Abstract Art, Avant-garde Performance and Artists of Faith

I have been a performing artist since I was barely thirteen years old. Eight, if you count the time I arranged every chair in my parent’s house as a concert hall and sold tickets for the family to watch me perform original compositions on an air organ and makeshift percussion. I guess you could say I’ve been an abstract artist from the start. I’ve always been drawn to avant-garde or non-linear expressions in art and in life.  

This led my musical explorations to the indigenous sounds of West African, Middle-Eastern and other forms of non-Western musical traditions. In poetry, this love of the abstract brought me the surrealists, Andre’ Breton, Guilaume Apollinaire, and in earlier years, the Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison.

I had a short fling in college as an Art and English major where I made several of what Marcel Duchamp coined as “Readymades” though it would be years before I knew to call them as such. I took the muffler that had fallen off of my eight hundred dollar Toyota Tercel and mounted it on a stand, wrapped in chains with my signature at the bottom. Another of my Readymades involved two folding chairs which I broke apart and twisted back together like pretzels. This piece, I titled Intimacy.

Like many of Duchamp’s own Readymades, neither of these works still exist. They were tossed into a dumpster at some point along the way but the love for non-linear explorations in art still fuels my creative interest present day. 

As a follower of Jesus, my artistic attractions have led to deep, theological considerations, particularly those on the role of art within communities of faith. What glorifies God and what serves the benefit of our neighbors? More personally stated, how does the music and art of my life contribute to the body of believers and lead to encounter with God?

Historically, abstract art has not been met with widespread understanding within church settings. Sacred art and much of our worship music involve direct, utilitarian methods of connecting the believer with God. But does this goal of divine connection exclude abstract, non-linear forms of modern art? Can abstract art, music and poetry carry the spirit and presence of God the same as would a realistic work? Or is our encounter with him dependent upon a particular form? I think most of you reading this would say, of course, encounter with God is not limited to a particular style or form. But this is not the narrative we have inherited from those who have gone before us. Even during the Renaissance, which may be one of most prolific periods of Christian art in history, the styles were steeped in realism and the most subtle departure from this was met with great criticism.

Art scholar, Hans Rookmaaker, whom I admire deeply on many points, held the view that abstract art was severely limited in its communicative power by its lack of particulars. His colleague and friend Francis Schaeffer holds a similar view. He points out in his book “Art and the Bible” how the color of pomegranates on the priest’s garments were to include the color blue, a divergence from their natural color. He uses this example to allow a particular freedom for the artist to create outside the realm of direct realism. However, later in the book, Schaeffer states that “Totally abstract art stands in an undefined relationship with the viewer, for the viewer is completely alienated from the painter.” He says, “There is a distinct limitation to totally abstract art.” This view tends to be the unspoken norm of many faith communities who favor a more direct experience of realism and lyrical ease.

On this point, I have to diverge from the views of my respected mentors. Abstract art may be limited by its lack of particulars, but its ability to communicate and even foster spiritual encounter is in no way hindered by the form. An audience is “alienated” from the artist only so much as he or she remains at a distance. Art calls out for the participation of the audience. What we encounter in art is largely dependent on how we have learned to approach the work.

Art and specifically abstract art is often more about the experience given to an audience than conveying a specific message or telling the audience what to believe. Abstract work tends to raise more questions than it provides answers. This, of course, is not meant as a blanket statement but my point is that abstract art is not utilitarian.  Thomas Merton, speaking of poetry, says,

“...poems have a meaning – although the poet has no obligation to make his meaning clear to anyone who does not want to make an effort to discover it. But to say that poems have meaning is not to say that they must necessarily convey practical information or an explicit message. In poetry, words are charged with meaning in a far different way than are the words in a piece of scientific prose... The poet uses words not merely to make declarations, statements of fact. That is usually the last thing that concerns him. He seeks above all to put words together in such a way that they exercise a mysterious and vital reactivity among themselves, and so release their secret content of associations to produce in the reader an experience that enriches the depth of his spirit in a manner quite unique.”  

Art gives to its audience that which the audience is willing to receive. The limitations of abstract, or any other forms of art are not barriers to deeper meaning or spiritual encounter. The barrier, if there is one, lies within our own understanding of how to approach the work. There is no art form, which isn’t born of limitation. Art is defined by its self-imposed limitations that creates the borders we work within.

Jesus himself appeared to his disciples “in a different form.” Paul’s handkerchief carried a healing presence. Peter’s vision on the rooftop defied everything he knew of God but it was from God. We cannot judge whether a work or a genre or a style carries a theological value based on prior experience.

I have a friend, Scotty Irving, whom I interviewed on the Makers & Mystics podcast. He performs under the name “Clang Quartet.” His performances involve an array of disturbing and unorthodox sounds and images. He makes his own instruments and costumes, one of which is an electrified crutch he beats into a frenzy of feedback while wearing a ski mask dangling with percussive jingles. Does this sound like Christian art? Before you judge, know that Scotty’s entire performance, ski mask and all, follows the narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I like to tell the story of how once, I went to see him perform in the parking lot of a dingy, little nightclub with a gathering of about twenty-five Goth kids standing around him. He threw all of his clanging handmade toys out into the circle where we was to perform and then clasped his hands together in prayer. I will never forget this moment because as he called upon the God of the universe to bless his creative work, I felt a tangible sense of God’s presence no different than standing on a Sunday morning. 

If this is strange to you, remember, God himself employed the use of avant-garde street performance when he gave Ezekiel and Isaiah their recipe for strange, public displays of prophetic art. Isaiah walked naked for three years while Ezekiel made a model of Jerusalem and laid beside it as a prophetic act. Ezekiel went even further to cook his food over manure and cut off his beard, burning it in the fire. I’m sure the shock of these theatrics were hard to swallow by those who first witnessed them. I’m sure the emotional response was not one of warm, fuzzy feelings. But did that mean it wasn’t from God? And are warm, fuzzy feelings always the aim of Christian art or even our worship?

As Southern author, Flannery O Connor tells us, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

The validity of these strange acts lies within the heart intent of the artist. This must be our gauge for approaching any art. What is the heart? What is this piece showing me?

Another of my guests on the podcast, Marie Teilhard gives the distinction between shock value and risk value. Shock value, she says, asks “What can I get away with?” or “How far can I go?” Whereas risk value in art asks, “How can I add a new dimension to the conversation?” “What have we missed?” or “How can I give a voice to the voiceless?” Risk value is not for its own sake. It gives an invitation. Perhaps, it wakes us up or shows us reality through a new lens.

In our episode, Marie talks about one of her self-portrait photographs titled, “True North.” The image is her wearing a gas mask while holding a compass up to the viewer. At first glance, the image could be seen as shocking or even frightful. It may not provoke you to lift your hands in praise but the meaning is steeped in a deep, Christian worldview.  She says, the image represents “the toxicity of relativism” where “everything is subjective; your truth is not my truth... and all of these different influences are suffocating.”  Hence, the gas mask. She holds up the compass to say, there is a true north and you can go south, east or west all you want, but there is a true north.   

Ezekiel and Isaiah had definitive, spiritual underpinnings in their acts though their methods were extreme, shocking and even repulsive. The gauge or the compass if you will, lies within the heart intent of the artist. This may or may not be apparent through a work, but my point is to show the more abstract forms of art very much have a depth of experience to offer our communities of faith.