Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes from a Presentation on Theological Aesthetics

Here, in Houston, there is a new, monthly gathering called the Queer Theology Discussion Group. On Tuesday, September 17, I presented some of my thinking on theological aesthetics as applied to performance/live art. These are some of the thoughts I presented. I'm really just at the beginning of trying to express some of this formally and I very much invite comments and questions.

I started with a very brief introduction to performance/live art, talking about it's difficult-to-define-ness, but how it always seems to come from the edge. There are plenty of places online to get historical overviews of the form, so I won't repeat that here. I did pass around my copies of Peformance Art: From Futurism to the Present by RoseLee Goldberg, Performance; Live Art Since the 60s, also by Goldberg, and the Artist's Body by Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones. I'd marked a few pages in each to draw attention to some of the more famous performance pieces, such as Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll (do not look this up at work or around people sensitive to nudity or sexuality), Vito Acconci's Seedbed (concept not safe for work, but most photos are), and Yoko Ono's Cut Piece.

I also introduced the concept of theological aesthetics, which can have nearly as broad a definition as performance art. Briefly, theological aesthetics might address:

1. The beauty of God/glory of God; beauty of church doctrine, of theology itself (theology as creative writing genre).

2. Theology of creation or the natural world, which reflects God's beauty.

3. Liturgy and liturgical arts.

4. An artwork, an artist's body of work, a particular movement or medium of art---all of it approaching the conventions of the art with an eye to what they may say about God.

5. Among other things.

I should go without saying, I'm about the business of #4 and performance art.

Some assumptions I bring with me to art:

From an after-performance talk by Bill T. Jones some years ago: The best way to look at modern art is to look at yourself looking at modern art.

I've interpreted this to mean that it is fruitful to investigate my own reactions. Do I think an artwork is offensive? Am I disgusted by it? Why? I may not change my reaction, but it may be an insight to myself that I'd not met without the help of the artist.

Ask questions of art. What am I seeing? What am I feeling? What is the artist/artwork telling me?

With these approaches, liking or not liking are less the issue (although, to be sure, there is work I like and work I do not like) but the dialogue it creates become the thing. Quite often, the more difficult pieces---the ones you don't like---have the most to tell you.

Theological assumptions I carry with me:

Art-making is always an act of incarnation. Ideas and words (logos) take form. (Form can sometimes give birth to ideas, of course, but the notion remains this: flesh and spirit are both necessary for what we recognize as life, including an artwork that has "life.")

Also, we humans are made in the image of God.

There is beauty in these notions, but I also hasten to add that wherever there is flesh is there is also death and decay.

A somewhat famous quote from Flannery O'Connor: "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.”

 In a chat with a friend on Facebook, we were talking about incarnation. at one point, I said, "We want incarnation to be magazine cover models who don't fart, but I'm a gassy middle aged man." The point being, there are things we think of as unpleasant associated with incarnation but we don't like to think about them. They make us very uncomfortable and queasy and so much of our society tries to avoid them. Pastor Lura Groen says one of the most controversial things she ever said in a Christmas sermon was to reference changing the Christ child's poopy diapers.

Performance art often addresses the limits and the functions of the body. Endurance of pain, bloodletting, other bodily fluids are often part of performance art. When I look at live art that uses/exposes these things, I think of the O'Connor quote above. I feel the artist is trying to tell me something, show me something. I admit, I sometimes struggle to hear.

I believe it's a tricky thing to look at non-religious and even anti-religious work with a theological eye. I sometimes feel I'm bringing to it something the artist might find offensive. Still, I confess to being who I am and I can't avoid doing this, especially as I'm drawn to this type of work.

One thing I wonder about is the sacrifice---a religious term---of the performance artists. Once you read a scroll of text that you pull out of your vagina, can you get an office job? Once you've masturbated beneath a platformed as you broadcast your sexual fantasies to the people above you, can you coach little league?

In other words, some social normalcy are made when you break social conventions in such a public fashion. As someone who often says security is a false idol, I admire their lack of concern with the security they're risking by putting their ideas and bodies so literally nakedly on display. It seems to me a performance artist, on the extreme edges of performance art, sacrifice something of an "ordinary" life when they say what they say in the way they say it.

Is this prophetic? (In our discussion afterward, Jeremiah came up.)

Is this liberation, speaking from the underneath, speaking from the fringe?

Are they telling us something about justice, speaking seldom heard truths to conventional power?

If all this piss and blood and cutting is ugly, is it a more true representation of the crucifixion than most of the pretty art pieces in our churches?

If "Christian art" has spent too much time in safe, pretty, sterile pictures of Easter, does this often non-Christian form of incarnation give us a way to enter Good Friday, the necessary passage on the way to resurrection?

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