How the Christian story helps us understand modern art
The lyrics fall and lift, peeking under and setting down emotions layered within me. The soft-eyed young man sings with a pure sound as he plays his guitar. Afterwards a second songwriter gathers his textured voice into a rock beat, summoning us, his audience, into personal and biblical stories.
“Who did you enjoy most?” I ask my friend in the car, and she tells me the final vocal artist because she loved his narrative style, and I say the first because I could feel what he was saying. It’s not that one option is better than another (my friend writes her own songs with nuanced emotions), but I wonder if we sometimes favor the narrative but neglect the expressions of fragmented emotions as too incomprehensible.
Grim sinks hang on a wall. The holes for the missing knobs are empty eyes, the basins yawning mouths. The photo of this image is featured above an article by Daniel A. Siedell, an art scholar. He writes that the artist Roger Gober creates the sinks without drains, indicating a lack of fulfilled expectations. [i] Siedell’s point is that Christians avoid contemporary art like this that’s dark and hard to understand. I get it.
A sculpture of a naked, bruised body of a woman left me dumbstruck when I attended a Kiki Smith exhibit on a date with the man who is now my husband. I haven’t sought out unfamiliar contemporary art since. But Siedell recognizes such art as a prayer to an “unknown god.” He says, “to hear this prayer, Christians need to recognize their own vulnerability and fragility rather than expecting art to affirm our piety and power.”
Can I accept art that grieves me with half-told tales of human ruin? Can I accept art that I cannot explain?
Organic and abstract, occasionally sensual, my friend’s pencil drawings are not pictorially representative except for the content their viewers project into them. In one, I could nestle in a rounded white space and nap. They make me feel without words. My art group talks about an opportunity to show them in a church setting, and excitement beats within me. We need these, I think, to look at and marvel about but not have answers to questions about their meaning.
Encounters with contemporary art could release us to acknowledge our own stratums of emotions that meld indecipherably. Words aren’t always necessary. In Scripture, people tear their clothes at terrible news. Sometimes, we wail incoherently when someone dies. Other times, it is a shred of a prayer: gasping on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” from Psalm 22.
We Christians tout our metanarrative, where in the end there is justice and reconciliation and a Savior with blinding white robes. Yet I live desperately trying to tie up my personal narrative’s frayed ends. Many people I know have lost loved ones in the last half year. Some of the deaths were senseless and unjust. If we search vainly for a divine reason, some meaning missed, we risk compartmentalization of our hearts and further despair.
Like Jesus, I can lament in fragments when the time comes and sometimes just moan with my hands turned up. And like Job, there is a time to cover my mouth and listen. When I encounter contemporary art, may I honor mute and bleak expression as fundamental to being human. May I plead with God to help me and the artists for a trust in the bigger and better Story.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.