They're Richer Down There

Over the past year, I have been on a journey not so much of self-discovery, but of trying to find the path. I know who I am, what I want to do, and what God has gifted me for in this life, but the where and the how are the larger issues.

Bowl of Tea
As a writer and artist, I know those two elements of my life are constants. To not write, to not create are paramount to a jail sentence. I can go a few days from both, but a longer hiatus begins to wear on me in ways I cannot ascertain.

Location has become the biggest obstacle in my mind - where I am located seems to be less conducive to my particular branch of art, so I started looking for other locations. One such place was New Orleans. I like jazz, good food, and warmth. I speak a little French (yes, I realize that Cajun and Parisian French aren't the same dialect). I could do without the hurricanes and humidity, but I could always return home for summer breaks. Right? So I applied for a few jobs down that way ... and had nothing.

While I was in the waiting portion of the job search, I mentioned my newest idea to someone at my church, with part of the explanation: "They have a great arts culture down there, so I could probably do well selling my woven goods."

Her response: "Probably; they're richer down there so it would be better for you."

Money Doesn't Matter

Rich = art lovers and poor = art whatevers is probably one of my biggest frustrations within the conservative church. It's not just limited to conservatives, and it can vary from church to church. Generally speaking, however, I think few in conservative churches understand the need for art. That being said, it can also be a regional difference as well.

I grew up in around Lancaster PA. If you're not from the area, the first word to come to mind is Amish. Mine is home. The quad-state area of the PA, NJ, DE and MD tend to be culturally more inclined to support the arts. Some of this has to do with its location to wealthy patrons in major cities; some of it has to do with values from the communities.

On the flip side of this concept, places like Appalachia have a strong artisan culture, once again, partly because of money, but also because of tradition and culture. In all honesty, wealth has little if anything to do with art appreciation and support. It's a nice benefit, of course, but isn't necessary.
What does matter is the culture. Does the surrounding community appreciate and support the arts? If the community values arts and artists, then the arts will flourish. If it doesn't, the arts will fade.

At it's very basic element, art is the result of two elements (1) the expression of emotion and (2) the desire to create beauty. The second comes from the desire to capture a scene. It is the, "I wish I could paint so I could capture that sunset," type of desire. The first comes from wanting to capture or express a feeling.

Taking it one step further, art is the result of communication. One person trying to describe a concept or message to another person. Art does speak to us, and in the communication teaches us something both about ourselves and our world.

But, for many, it's a expensive hobby, not something we need.

Religious Arts

For a long time in human history, the arts were supported by the church, sometimes playing a large part of worship. We don't always do that anymore, and it is a sad loss. We think of paintings like the Sistine Chapel as a prime example of church sponsored art, but if you look at the buildings, you see another form of art: architecture.

Art never was limited to paintings. Art included all the varied fields it includes today with the obvious exceptions of digital or film. Sculpture, tapestries, books, dishes and other elements were a part of the art. Were all considered art? No. Art was often emphasized for religious reasons. Architectural wonders such as Stonehenge, Notre Dame and the Pyramids were a part of a religious setting. The paintings on the walls of the tombs, stained glass windows, or calligraphy are also part of religious expressions. At the very basic level, textiles within a building became part of the religious ceremony whether it was part of the religious leader's garments, elements serving the Eucharist or hangings on the walls. Even the communion sets, and other plates, bowls or glasses used for worship are artwork.

Not all cultures use living examples for their religious arts. Islam prefers not to have humans or animals depicted, therefore its religious art tends to be abstract. Floral motifs leave understood flowers and turn quickly into abstract shapes. Calligraphy plays an important part as well.

Not Pretty

In the world of conservative Christianity where I grew up, art wasn't often discussed. In some cases it was seen as a means to an end: get people saved. Beyond that practical application, art was nice for school and life, but leave it at the church doors.

We had Christmas and Easter plays (for salvation messages), bucolic scenes of lambs, parents praying or cottages by mountain streams, and of course, we had music. Music is the most recognizable form of art to many conservative Christians. In fact, while some Bible colleges might not offer any art class whatsoever, they will offer several types of music classes, maybe even a degree in worship arts (i.e. song leaders).

Unfortunately, you can hang pictures on the wall, show pretty photographs behind your music, have the occasional drama, but if you don't value art, it is all a sham. What constitutes art might differ from one person to the next. What one person believes to be the next big thing, might turn out to be the next person's biggest flop. Art is, and will remain, subjective. There is very little in art that can be objective.

While in college, I saw a painting of Christ. I can't remember the title or painter, but the image has stuck in my brain. The painting is fairly abstract with a bunch a red, blue and black squiggles forming the general shape of the head and crown of thorns. The eyes are the only part of the picture that looks real, and one's attention is fixed on the eyes.

In my conservative churches, this painting would never be brought in because it isn't a "painting" of Jesus. It's ugly; it's abstract; it makes no sense. It's absolutely brutal because the image captures what Jesus may have looked like on his way to the cross. It makes you think about the beating he endured even before the crucifixion.

It is by no means pretty, but it is beautiful.

The old saying of beauty is in the eye of the beholder rings true even in art. Conservative Christianity, in addition to their love of happy endings, has a penchant for pretty things. We have associated pretty with beauty. Pretty is safe; beauty is dangerous. Pretty is small; beauty is great. Pretty is expected; beauty is unexpected.

Sacrifices

We're currently in the Christian season of Lent - those forty days before Easter. This season is a time of sacrifice, a time to push aside something to focus on who Christ is, and what he did for us. It is time for reflection.

The power of art comes from its ability to reach into our hearts. We see things in art that we do not see elsewhere. Whether that depth comes from a song, a dramatic production, painting, tapestry or sculpture matters little; what does matter is if it touches something within you to make you think.

Culturally, many in conservative Christianity do not understand the power of art. It's simply decoration on church walls or hymns sung on Sunday. Many churches and individuals are unwilling to make the sacrifice for art. They are unwilling to give up a plethora of stuff for items of substance. They are unwilling to do with less so that more can be had.

We live in a culture of fast: fast food, fast fashion, fast lives. The growing slow movement wants to change the fast not away from convenience, because, honestly, having fast food is convenient, but into an appreciation of quality and tradition.

For example, we can have fast food made from highly processed elements that have little nutritional value. Or, we can have fast food made from real food, created from local artisans promoting and carrying on local traditions. Does it cost a little more to purchase artisanal foods opposed to traditional fast foods? Probably, especially in an area where the artisanal foods have little support. Are the benefits to our health and communities greater? Decidedly.

Arts are the same way: we can purchase a print of a painting from a bookstore or we can go out an look for a good painting. One takes less time and is safe; one takes more time and can be dangerous. It's always dangerous trying something new or talking to strangers.

The church was meant to be a refuge - a place where the broken, the hurting, the sick and the lost could come to find safety and support. It was a place where those who had found it could offer support and comfort. It was a place where those fighting the good fight could come to relax for a bit. It was, in all honesty, a halfway house, community center and place of worship all rolled into one.

We can choose to allow our lives to be dictated by fast, or we can step back, take a look at what's around us, and make a choice for the slow. Do I suggest you make everything yourself? Hell no, but when you do need something, find someone else who makes it. Look for local markets for your food and drink. Look for local artisans for your dishes and glasses. Go to art fairs to purchase paintings and sculptures for your churches and homes. Take the time to learn about the individuals you meet. They might attend a church or they might not. Who cares. We are to build relationships with people, and to support one another.

My challenge to the church this year is this: sacrifice the fast for the slow; the good for the great, and the anonymity for the relationship.

Change can happen. Christian artists can be models not jokes in the artistic worlds. The church can be an influence on the world, but only if people inside the church take a step and sacrifice mediocrity for the sake of greatness.

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