January 26, 2010

Introducing: Image as Insight

We are blessed to have Baya Clare offering a regular column about sacred art. In this, her first column here, she provides a framework for reading and participating. Baya is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who lives and works as a photographer, artist, and web developer in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She holds a Master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University. You can find her on Twitter as @bayathread.

I first encountered the work of Margaret R. Miles while studying theology at the turn of the millennium. While she has written many fine books on the history and practice of Christian spirituality, her best one, in my opinion, is Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture. I wrote my Master’s thesis on Miles’ work, which continues to shape my thinking and spiritual practices. It’s from that thinking and practice that much of the material for this column will flow.

One of the things Image as Insight taught me is that while it may be impossible for me, as a person born in the 20th century to fully appreciate the worldviews of ancient or medieval people, especially ordinary ones who didn’t write down their thoughts, the record is not completely barren if we know where to look. And looking is exactly what Miles proposes we do, since that’s key to recovering a valuable spiritual practice nearly lost in our media-saturated age.

But, she’s not advocating a trip to the nearest art museum. For one thing, art in museums is almost completely removed from the context in which it was originally created and viewed. For another, any piece that makes it into a collection has already passed several tests imposed by our age: that of taste and commercial value, before we ever get to see it. Those valuations influence and shape our experience of an image whether or not we’re conscious of them.

Ordinary people in earlier times did not engage with art in this way at all.

According to Miles, the only art most western Christians encountered was in the context of their worship community. There, art was a teaching tool, a guide for living, and a daily mirror of holiness for body and soul. We, in contrast, are assaulted daily by all kinds of images ordered toward things other than our sanctity. We must constantly filter things out and adjust our attention.

What if we chose one or two images to engage with over time? What if we chose them solely because they please or delight us and not because they are “great art,” or highly prized by collectors? How might these images help us grow closer to God?

That is what I propose we do in this column. Here, I'll post my musings on the subject of sustained engagement with art as spiritual practice. I'll suggest images we might like to explore. But I hope readers will also send in images that personally engage and sanctify, and that together we will learn how to walk along this path. Meanwhile, dear readers, do consider reading Image as Insight and ponder the images accompanying this post without knowing their context. . .yet.

5 comments:

Scott Stafstrom said...

Thank you for your post and for the book recommendation. I posted a link to this blog on Twitter (@catholicart).

I am looking forward to your ongoing comments on sacred art and the involvement of your readers. Your question: "How might these images help us grow closer to God?" is a great summary of what 'sacred art' means to me - art that leads us closer to God.
Thank you again. Scott Stafstrom

Meredith Gould said...

Art lessons began for me at age seven, visual arts (and music) were my primary focus through high school and into the first two years of college.

Lots of reasons why I never pursued commercial or fine arts (yet another spiritual thing)but that early invitation and training to see has stood me in good stead.

Looking forward to reading what you offer, Baya. Might even participate by sending in some of my own (sporadically done) artwork.

Sue said...

Thank you for starting this series. The Getty had an exhibition of sacred icons from the Sinai a few years ago. There was a feeling of holiness in the objects. It felt quiet, even though there were hordes of people.

LA County Museum of Art had an exhibit of a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala. Normally, they are made and immediately ceremoniously destroyed as a symbol of impermanence.

When I looked at the mandala, I thought there was something wrong with my eyes--it was blurry. But things further away like banners, were okay. I realized I was seeing an energetic distortion, like heat waves. Although there were people taking pictures like crazy, I chose not to out of deference to their idea of it being impermanent. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a digital image in the hopes of seeing what it looked like, then deleted it!

Art and the sacred do indeed go hand in hand, and not limited to our Christian traditions.

Thank you for agreeing to do a regular column.

Baya Clare, CSJ said...

Thank you so much for the welcoming comments. I agree, art and the sacred do go hand in hand, but have gotten far apart, at least in western culture and Christianity. I hope this column will be a place to converse about that. And while I would heartily agree that art and the sacred aren't limited to Christian traditions, I do not feel that I know enough about any other faith traditions to write about their experience and use of art. However, I do hope that readers who do have knowledge about those subjects will share their insights and wisdom here as well.

Raima said...

Thank you for this great post! Very much looking forward to reading your ongoing column.