Why I’m participating— an atheist’s perspective on the intersection of faith and art.
Currently ArtsVoice London is seeking to engage with artists to participate in a 3-day workshop “Way of the Streets” to create works of public art that address issues of social justice within the urban context. The opportunity to work alongside 13 other artists in freely voicing our observations and social concerns through public art is a rare and valuable chance to engage with the broader community in a fresh and exciting way. I personally believe that, as an artist, I have a responsibility to give back to my community by exercising my freedom to speak out and by doing so, to help open lines of dialogue on these important issues.
When I explain the project to my peers I have, however, found myself being greeted with a skeptical raising of eyebrows. Anyone who knows me personally understands that I am not a person of faith and that for me to be participating in a faith-inspired arts program seems contradictory— heretical even. Judging by the relatively lukewarm response to the call for participation, it would seem that this skepticism is relatively widespread, as if some artists are dismissing the opportunity to participate because they believe that the exercise is dogmatically tainted by the association with the Church. For this reason, I’d like to share my perspective on the event and my personal reasons for participating.
In our culture’s development for the past two thousand years (the relatively socialist past 50 years notwithstanding), the church in all it’s denominations, with all it’s perceived missteps in other areas, has been the primary dispenser of social justice in our society. In organizing shelter for the homeless and displaced, in providing day-care services, in raising aid for foreign and domestic relief, in speaking out against tyranny by speaking truth to power around the world, for securing access to medical care, for hospice and assisted housing for the sick and elderly and for providing education to those who most need it the church should be applauded. Whether or not you disagree with a particular faith’s stance on the issues that continue to divide us, the actions of faith-based organizations in addressing issues of social justice can hardly be denied. In the balance, I honestly believe that organizations like Bishop Cronyn are a positive influence in our society.
While the call for the “Way of the Streets” collaboration is based on the themes of the Stations of the Cross, it is not a call for artists to create works that are necessarily Christian in message or manner, but simply to use the themes of the Stations as a jumping off point to highlight secular issues that affect the City of London. As a student of literature and art I understand that the Bible— in the same fashion that a concordance acts like an index to the scripture— acts uniquely as a concordance for a vast amount of our culture’s artistic legacy. The venerated old masters in art and literature largely drew their inspiration from the Bible, and for long periods of history were commissioned via the church’s patronage to create public works of art that explored the universal themes present within the text to encourage socially-just action and greater understanding of the individual’s relationship to their community. Religion is not simply about preparing oneself for the afterlife, but also about creating a just society— a “heaven on earth”— for everyone during our short lifetimes. The themes in the scripture are universal themes; as a document it is a primary source that continues to inform our morality, legal system, social conscience and in no small part, our artistic understanding.
I myself will be exploring issues of urban renewal, and proactive approaches to urban design that create livable spaces through an examination of the concept of open and closed spaces within an urban context, and a critical reflection on the dichotomy of space as emptiness versus space as a wholeness in its own right. You might ask, “How does this relate to the Stations of the Cross?” My own creative jumping off point is the final Station— Jesus is laid in the tomb— but as you can see, the issue addressed is not a religious one, but a secular, social one. In no way have I been limited by the inspiration to narrow the focus to a religious context. As an artist, I really do have to applaud the openness of Bishop Cronyn Memorial and their willingness to embrace diversity of voice in the ArtsVoice call for participation– for a non-believer I consider it quite bold.
Ultimately, as an artist I enjoy a broad freedom of speech and thought— in reality no broader than that which we all hold sacrosanct— but perhaps perceived so simply because it is exercised in a broader public context. While at times my work may challenge dearly held beliefs, I deeply respect the freedom I have to do so, and freely enter into dialogue, critical or otherwise, of my practice. As an artist I have a role to open new avenues of communication, not close them. I welcome this opportunity to do so.
On a personal note, I have previously collaborated in similar calls with science as the primary thematic anchor. While I believe that for many issues the rational, scientific method is the most appropriate approach, I would feel that I would be intellectually dishonest if I was not open to listening and considering conflicting viewpoints. The human experience ranges broadly, and in some way is not complete if it fails, in a spirit of openness and mutual respect, to take the full measure of that experience by exploring the possibilities that lie at opposite poles of understanding.
I encourage any artist that is considering participating, or who has dismissed the opportunity out of hand for doctrinal reasons, to reconsider and join me in shining a spotlight on issues that affect all Londoners, regardless of faith. It promises to be a fun, eye-opening weekend, with a point.
Image by Donnie Claudino (Fb link)