A Christian Life: what use is art? ©Christine Standing 13 September, 2016 is a revised version of an earlier piece of the same name.

I trained at the University of Oxford Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. (John Ruskin famously said, “draw what you see, not what you know”.) I then combined my love of psychology with art, first by doing a course in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy at the Oxford University Hospitals Trust, and then completed the University of Hertfordshire course in Art Psychotherapy and gained my Masters on the subject of Art and Spirituality.

I shall outline two major frustrations that happen whenever I speak with a group of people about art.  Then I shall offer an alternative set of thoughts.

Frustration #1

All too often, I find that I am trying to explain art to people whose preconceptions allow responses that are concerned with beauty and art galleries. “How nice, I wish I had chosen art!” said one theology student. I am not speaking of beauty, nor a dilettante life in the studio; I am addressing something else to do with, ‘meaning’, ‘answers’, ‘direction’; and how about ‘truthfulness’, and ‘knowledge’?  We seem to be shackled to a notion of art that is romantic and comforting whereas if we read art properly, beyond initial art school renditions, there is meaning that is not necessarily comforting, yet like the surgeon’s scalpel, can bring healing.

In attempting to trace my own epistemology on the subject with regard to validity, scope, and methods that elucidate these I have to discover the distinction between justified belief and opinion; why do I think what I think?  That is a whole story of its own. Therefore, how would I then persuade my doubting friends that art does indeed offer answers to fundamental questions?

I want to rule out of this draft any ideas of art as solely something we look at.  I am not analysing stained glass windows, paintings, or architecture in order to improve a viewers experience or to further academic discussion. I am investigating the imagery that arises out of our very souls; I am attempting to understand it.  Do I, as a Christian, get meaning out of the experience of doing art?  I am not speaking of pretty pictures with candles, sunbursts, and a beautiful heavy book. What of the gnarly sketches; the Auschwitz art; the ugly and that which doesn’t fit in? Where is the meaning in that? What experiences do they reflect?

I had a dream when I was about ten years old.  The dream imagery was terrible but it wasn’t until I returned to the painting  years later (2016) that I understood its meaning.  In other words, by externalising that inner ‘vision’ (the Hebrew for ‘dream’ and ‘vision’ are identical) that act of externalising became art.  That art had/has a use. It enabled me to speak of the ‘that thing that terrified me’ so much that I couldn’t find words for it.  It is as if there is a cornucopia within my soul, and like the cornucopia it is ever-growing, ever-producing, ever-revealing if only I had the eyes to see!

This is the painting:


Fig. 1. Floundering.  There is a drawing called Beach.Abandoned.Mauritius   on this Word Press site  I think that this drawing is related to it.

Since reviewing this in 2016 I have re-named it ‘Seer-ship’. What is the task of the lookout on board a ship – to ‘see a ship’ in danger and to warn it…to be a watchman.

Technically, this is termed, ‘Watch Standing’ and “During a ship’s entire commissioned life, it will always have Sailors on watch. There are probably more than a hundred different types of watches, depending on the ship or station.

  1. Whatever type of watch, the watch stander must devote full attention to it. The ship’s organization and the watches manned by its personnel keep the ship running smoothly 24 hours a day. Watches vary, of course, depending on both the type of ship and whether the ship is under way or in-port. Even when the ship is moored in-port and receiving hotel services (utilities, such as steam, water, and electricity) from the pier or another ship, it’s necessary to maintain a watch for communications, security, and safety” http://seabeemagazine.navylive.dodlive.mil/files/2014/02/Chapter-3.pdf

The famous sea captain, Admiral Horatio Nelson said, “Thank God I have done my duty” and this is something watchmen still do today.

I became a psychotherapist trained in the use of art.  I was especially struck by the externalising of inner emotions (doing art) to reveal hurts that were long buried.  Doing this kind of art often allows a person to be ‘more authentic’ in their artistic statements and, importantly, in their insights into those statements. There is a body of work that substantiates this statement.  (I would like to make the link between that and sanctification. See My art is my prayer.) For me, that kind of art is revealing, and what is revealed can be managed and addressed. In a sense, this is art as confessional; art as offering to God; art as prayer.  There is an enormous literature base for this work, which takes me to my second frustration when I am speaking of art in a theological context.

Frustration #2

The educational system is set up in such a way that to do a Ph.D in a subject, one must have a proven track record of ability in that area.  I cannot write a Ph.D that encompasses theology because my Masters is not in that subject.  On the other hand, theologians talk about art frequently, and publish without having qualifications to so do!  And what they write often misses what I consider to be the central points in a theology of art.  There is something missing in theological education.

Personally, I have specialised in a particular type of imagery.  We all have dreams, although some may not remember them, or the import of the dream; not many people admit to having visions.  Over the years I have identified or categorised many forms of vision. Not all of them addressed my Christian beliefs, but some did.  Can sanctification take place as a result of the experience of doing art? Yes, certainly. Does the average theologian have the language to describe such dynamics? In my experience they do not.

What use is art in my Christian life? What use is art in the life of the average theology student?  Is there really such a gulf between us that words won’t suffice? Currently, our society is literate in terms of books and words, yet it is not literate where the visual field, of imagery and metaphor.

My friend, Rev Dr John Yates notes, “If we do not see as God sees, through a pure heart, we can never see that God is seeing us. There is hope however. It is said of Moses, “he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt…for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” (Heb 11:26-27). Yet a great stumbling block remains in the way of us being freed from our idolatries, one which religious people are seldom able to see (2 Cor 6:16-7:1; 1 John 5:21).” (Email to Christine Standing, 13 Sep 2016, at 11:40 PM)  Is this where art comes in?

The Artist’s Task. It has been said by Hans Rookmaaker that “the artist’s task is to make the invisible visible so that we may perceive the things of God” and  Flannery O’Connor, at once profoundly orthodox and imaginative, suggested that her “vocation as an artist was to re-tell the gospel parables in startling and shocking ways.” … “For the blind one has to write in large figures and for the deaf, one has to shout,” she said. Her letters, recently published, have been named by Sally Fitzgerald, the editor, The Habit of Being. The word habit is used in its Catholic meaning — the discipline of life — a life focused on the being of things as primary revelation.” Put another way, “The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because of the artists, who are self-selected, for being able to journey into the Other, if the artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.” Terence McKenna.  I consider this statement to be hyperbole, yet agree that it may be one way that God reaches his people.

Clifford Denton, of Prophecy Today states that “visions and dreams along the way sometimes seem to be engulfed in strange mystery that is hard to unravel. Some aspects might be revealed for the time in which the mystery is given, with other applications becoming clear later on. Kept in balance with our daily walk with him, however, we always have enough insight to encourage us for the present, warn us about where we might slip off track, and set a vision and a hope before us for the future.” (End Times VI: Reading the Parables.  http://www.prophecytoday.uk/study/teaching-articles/item/484-end-times-vi-reading-the-parables.html downloaded 14 September, 2016)

Further, in Learning to Read End Time Scripture for Ourselves,Even through mysteries, God does not send us a puzzle to solve when he speaks to us through symbolic or visionary means. He often relates what he wants us to know with something familiar like a marriage, a fig tree, a sealed message, etc, as an anchor for his teaching. He wants us to understand – not to be confused!” (ibid)

Here, I have described two different ways of using art. For Flannery O’Connor it was to take a text and elaborate on it in art. For McKenna the artist’s task is more akin to being a seer. Clifford Denton offers how to relate to verbal descriptions of visions and dreams.

I hope that through researching this subject the interpretive remarks of Clifford Denton may be transposed to the understanding of paintings and drawings done by seers and visionaries.