“The creative process resonates with this sense that there is more. Art, whether what we create or what we experience, can nurture the human spirit and open us to see things in a fresh way. How is it that art helps a person find a sense of place?”
Thought vs. Feeling: It has been common practice to split the inner human world into thought and feeling. This division has not always been so. There was a time when thought was well integrated with feeling and embodiment. T.S. Eliot referred to this split as the “dissociation of sensibility” and saw its beginning in the seventeenth century. James Elkins’ book Pictures and Tears documents this division as it has manifested itself in the world of the arts, particularly by the observers. Though the popularity of conceptual art suggests that artists too make this same division. One could argue that this is mostly a western phenomenon. Artists in other parts of the world are not shy about bringing together passionate concerns with artistic endeavours. One such example is the Wole Soyinka the Nigerian author and winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature. A brilliant writer deeply discontent about his homeland. I first discovered this important writer in a book titled Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truth-telling by Alan Jacobs. The “father of lies” is shamed by the truth telling and for Jacobs Soyinka is one of the truth tellers. His writing is a strong and eloquent, if not always charitable, communication on matters about which he is passionate. Politics looms large for Soyinka, he is no stranger to outrage and he is intent on doing what he can to preserve his beloved Yoruba culture. For Soyinka there is a strong link between thought and feeling amply evident in his skillful writing.
Incarnation in Art: Dorothy L. Sayers wrote for a generation past in the mid 20th century, but her work has had a staying power and continues to get attention. I am thinking not only of her mystery books but of her theological writings as well. Perhaps best known for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, she was also a practicing lay theologian with plenty of thoughtful things to say to the community of faith. Laura K. Simmons in her book Creed without Chaos provides an iningsto be. In her recently republished book The Mind of the Maker we have Sayers’ theology of creativity where she speaks of God as divine artist and notes the importance of “incarnation” as a key notion for thinking theologically about the arts.
Art’s Humanizing Power: Recently I was asked to comment on three questions related to art and its capacity for nurturing the human spirit and moving us to deeper self awareness and I offer here a revised version of my responses. What is it about the process of creating art that allows people to open up spiritually? Creating or making is a spiritual activity, it is not mechanical and predictable, it is not reducible to cause and effect, but rather it is imaginative. It makes connections that may break normal patterns, it sees possibilities. If we compare this to how we often feel, trapped by time and circumstance and unable to escape, then we can see how the creative process enables us to transcend time and circumstance, to have if only for a short time, a sense of freedom. If we can see how art is able to offer us an encounter with newness and perhaps even an experience of hope then we can see the spiritual nature of the creative act. Spirituality says there is more, more than just the material world, more than cause and effect, more than the machine. The creative process resonates with this sense that there is more. Art, whether what we create or what we experience, can nurture the human spirit and open us to see things in a fresh way. How is it that art helps a person find a sense of place? Creating a work of art is an exercise in self discovery.
The art is often able to speak back to the artist. A work of art, whether a poem or painting or drama, is unique and it can speak to the artist of their own uniqueness. When feeling you have nothing to offer, nothing meaningful to say nothing worthwhile to give, the art work you create says that you have done something no one else has done, you have made a unique object which others can enjoy. When someone reads your poem, looks at your painting or hears your music, they are in a sense attending to you the artist, giving time and attention to what you have done and you feel you belong. You feel you have made a contribution, you are part of something bigger, that your world has expanded and that you have a place.
What is it about art creation that permits people to experience spiritual growth and healing through that process? Making a work of art is a way of bringing your own experience, whether joy or pain to expression. If wounds looms large in your life art allows you to put that wounds out there in the creative piece and so in some small but significant way bring healing to the pain you have carried. It is a letting go that is able to dissolve some of the pain. The creative process is not always a clear process, it is often fuzzy and yet once the work is created it speaks back to the artist as well as to the viewer or listener. Art calls us to attentiveness which is a spiritual quality.
What we call the spiritual has a lot in common with the aesthetic,and the aesthetic has more appeal in our postmodern culture than the rational. The aesthetic is not the same as the spiritual but they are alike and we perceive them in a similar way.