Wednesday, February 20, 2008
A Name Inflames
"A name inflames peoples' ideas and expectations. It's a cultural defect" Jonathan Shahn, sculptor and son of Ben Shahn.
For a year, my family and I made and displayed our art under the pseudonym, Saint Anonymous. It was an experiment with a few key goals. I wanted to be immersed in an atmosphere that nurtured a purer form of worship. I wanted to make collaboration a priority. I wanted to save my family--but that's another blog post.
The main tenet of Saint Anonymous was pure worship. It wasn't until the Renaissance that artists began signing their work. Before then, artists who made works for the church were not interested in defacing the pieces offered to God with their signatures. Considering this, when contemporary artists make worshipful pieces, I wondered if it is indeed a pure offering if we are signing our work. It's kind of like saying, "Here God, this is the very best I have to offer to You, but HEY PEOPLE, I've made a false idol of needing your approval and affirmations, too." Aside from casting down idols, I figured that our narcissistic MySpace profile-building generation needed a dose of humble anonymity to be mystified by. You see, when we come together to worship the Lord, all eyes should be on Jesus, but we are too easily distracted by our own creativity, our fellow worshipers, brand-name preachers, and denominational awareness. So, showing my family's art, which we make as an act of worship to our Creator, seemed best done in anonymity (at least it did at the time). We wanted to draw the viewer in to sharing our worship of God, and help them to not consider us, the sub-creators, as a factor in their worship.
We had a month-long solo exhibition under the nom de couleur of Saint Anonymous. It was an uncomfortable experience. We were invited to a celebration of the show, and drove 7 hours over to Nampa, Idaho so that we could pretend to not be the artists who made the work. There were lots of questions about the pieces, with nobody to ask. It became a game for the students to find out who Saint Anonymous was. They speculated preposterous notions about the art into the air, hoping to see if there was a troubled reaction on anybody's face. I struggled with casually milling around the gallery and not engaging with their quandary. I wanted to strip away identity from ourselves in order to more purely worship God, but I was finding that the side effects of our experiment were alienation and misunderstanding from the rest of society, who seemed unable to connect with the work that had no identifiable maker.
This experiment led me to ask a key question: what is more pleasing to God? "Pure" worship that causes isolation and confusion? Or messy, communal worship that leads to reconciliation and truth? I came to the conclusion that the identity of the artist is essential for the work to build community, and as you guessed, I am certain that God desires unity far more than well-intended, but alienating praise.
The quotation at the beginning of this post is from Jonathan Shahn, a sculptor. He has some gripes with critics who can't resist comparing his work to his father's. I agree with the intent of his sentiment, but I suppose he's going to have some more gripes, because I've included his words so that I could take them out of context.
"A name inflames people's ideas and expectations."
Imagine if God came not in the form of Jesus Christ, the human, but as an unknown property of physics such as anti-gravity. We certainly would take notice when, let's say, the toilet starts flushing backwards, but then, we also would feel no relationship or emotional bond to it. We might feel fear for sure, and quite possibly the shame of soiled clothing, but it would be hard to love even if "it" might be our Creator demanding our attention. Once Adam died, humanity lost firsthand knowledge of what it is like to walk with God in the cool of the morning. We were alienated from our Creator and His art. It is hard to deny the existence of God when we are awed at the complexity and order of the macro and micro universe, or when our guts get all tingly at seeing a beautiful sunset, but this amounts to anonymous, unrelatable majesty. It is art that we cannot connect to because we don’t know the Maker. It leaves us confused and isolated. We don't know how we relate to this creation, and we feel so skeptical about people who claim that they do. We loathe those people speculating wild notions into the air about religion and God, and we detest it to the point of proposing back that there is no Artist, this gallery, and the work inside of it, came into being on their own.
I've often asked the question, "Why Jesus?". Why this scheme of an Only Son, a blood sacrifice, an all-powerful God in a helpless baby's body at the mercy of His own creation? Maybe you've come to your own conclusions about this. Here are some of mine. I think that this Creator recognized that we could not know Him unless we raised Him as our own. We had no reason to believe Him when He said that His creation was good, until He proved it, and placed Himself in the care of it. We could not appreciate and be unified by the art until the Artist ripped open the curtains of anonymity. Of course, that was 2,000 years ago that Jesus walked among us with as normal and unassuming a name as Josh might be today. But, this face in the crowd was also the face man for God the Artist, and has left a growing and indelible mark on society. His name has not faded away and it truly inflames ideas and expectations. Just like most artists, He suffers through misinterpretations and fallacies about His work, but the power and essence of His work is His name, His identity as the Son of God and the Son of Man. He is a reference point, juxtaposing humanity with their Creator. God's face is no longer unknown to us, and through our relationship with His Son, we too, should no longer feel anonymous.
Christopher Dennis heads up his family’s art blog, Dennis Family Art Collective, and is the founder of Click Patron, an organization whose goal is to provide cash assistance to emerging artists.
Image: Detail from Blue Heron Foils Snake's Plans For The Valley