Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: "Portrait of the Artist as a Servant" by Bruce Herman

I found this article to be an interesting artistic testimonial in that it supports an idea I'd long since come to holdregarding modern art. I've really come to believe that one of the worst things to happen to visual art – but it seems to be true for many other arts as well, such as literature – has been this turn to the biographical or autobiographical, or perhaps you could call it a "psychological" turn in art. That is, art became about the artist. In particular, with the rise of Existentialism, art became about the "inner life" or state of the artist. The fixation on artist as "genius" is part of this. While having its own insights, the move was ultimately a dead-end. In absolutizing the artist, it really left art with very little place to go, or anything to do except to support the cult of the artist.

So art expressing the inner state of the artist has very little appeal anymore, unless perhaps I'm interested in the artist personally. On the other hand, I've found that the techniques and methods of modern art have a tremendous life of their own when broken out of this trap of the "personal" and applied to some other theme or grand narrative, like the faith. And I don't mean incorporated into an ideology: that's another trap, perhaps the same one, but on a collective level. Erik was telling me the other night, as an example of this, of Bob Dylan, in the first volume of his autobiography, relating his anger at the attempts to claim him and his music for every group under the sun, even at such commonly-accepted labels for him as "protest singer." So, anyway, that's the context for me copying this small article into the journal.

Portrait of the Artist as a Servant
by Bruce Herman

As a young man growing up in the 1960s, I was involved in everything that is stereotypically "'60s"—psychedelics, rock, communes, free love, and that anarchical spirit that viewed tradition as dead and stultifying. I was also deeply involved in Eastern mysticism and even followed a guru in India, seeking esoteric knowledge that Western culture and Christianity seemed powerless to give. In college I slept through lectures on 15th-century Italian painters, steeped as they all were in Christendom and its aims and stories.

I slept through those lectures partly because I viewed most of art history as irrelevant—at best a dusty memento that held little gravitas either for me or for my generation. My fellow art students and I wanted to make images that carried emotional weight, and for the most part we were all expressionists—that is, we were less interested in art for the sake of any particular community of shared ideas or values, and more concerned with evoking the personal angst of our existential predicament. I saw my art as a means of deepening my own personal spiritual quest—a path that lay largely outside the precincts of settled religion.

At that time my graduate advisor Philip Guston, a prominent New York painter, gave an intimate lecture to nine of us painters holed up in our warren of art studios in an old car warehouse in Boston. He told us a story from his life that helped galvanize my own sense of purpose as a painter. While on a tour of Italy, Guston had visited the masterpiece of his hero Piero della Francesca—a mural cycle called The Legend of the True Cross in the Cappella de San Francesco in Arezzo. Guston had looked up at the magnificent and complex set of images surrounding the little chapel and wept. When a friend had asked him what was wrong, he had replied, "We don't have a story. These Christians … they had a story." Guston said to us, "So go and paint from your hearts. Be like those early Christians who went underground and were willing to stake everything on what they believed." Of course, he wasn't advocating that we actually become Christians.

What he didn't know, however, was that I was already beginning to read the Bible and consider converting to Christianity. Later that year, I received a grant from Boston University to live and travel in Italy for a year like my mentor had done. That time in Italy was pivotal for both my faith and my life as an artist. My visits to the Monastery San Marco in Florence that housed the famous frescoes of Fra Angelico became an island of sanity for me in a tumultuous inner life of spiritual conflict. The quiet, unassuming style of the master, combined with his luminous color palette and contemplative imagery, moved me beyond what words can say.

History and tradition suddenly began to seem like a refuge from the meaninglessness and angst of the 20th century.

Ten years later, after my conversion, I found myself again in Italy with a small group of Christian artists on a grant-funded art trip. Providentially, our studio was a block away from Monastery San Marco, and several of us visited Fra Angelico's lovely murals nearly every day. In one memorable conversation, Tanja Butler (one of the artists in the group) pointed out that Fra Angelico's servant heart and deep personal faith in Christ had prompted him to acquire his skills as an artist and to serve his community of fellow monks by painting the famous murals. The thought of an artist being given an opportunity to use his gift to build up a body of believers struck me like a lightning bolt.

That conversation and that month with fellow Christian artists in Italy changed my life and continues to nourish me artistically and spiritually as I attempt to do literally what Philip Guston had meant only metaphorically—to paint from the heart and "go underground" in an art world that largely ignores sincere sacred imagery in this age of shock tactics and mere novelty. I am still looking for those opportunities to serve as my hero Fra Angelico did so long ago, but many more come my way every day.

Thanks be to God.

Bruce Herman is an artist living in Glouchester, Massachusetts and is the Lothlorien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College. To see more of his work, go to From Christian History, Summer 2006.
Tags: art, cultural, ethical, historical, philosophical, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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