I am thrilled to announce that the manuscript for Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology, which I’ve been editing with Rod Pattenden, is now in the hands of the publishers. Updated details here.
Creatives leading the way at the Koala Funeral March, which took place earlier today at Catani Gardens in St Kilda, Narrm/Melbourne. The event was a wonderful collaboration between Extinction Rebellion and designer Ian Bracegirdle (and his Motherworks workshop).
The sprogs and I hit some canvases yesterday in our homeschool art class.
The task: paint COVID-19.
What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?
Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?
Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.
In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:
After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.
Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.
Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.
In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:
Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,
My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.
That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –
Why is this the time to get creative?
Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.
As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.
Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.
Love, Nick x
Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.
But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought.
Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.
That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.
Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.
[Reposted from Art/s and Theology Australia]
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, a South African-based open-access journal, has just published a little piece that I wrote:
‘“A Pretty Decent Sort of Bloke”: Towards the Quest for an Australian Jesus’. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 75, no. 4 (2019), e1–e10. (HTML| EPUB | PDF)
From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely antiJesus’ (Stuart Piggin). But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.
The article can be accessed here.
All photos taken by me, on 11 October 2019.
This four-day event will provide a unique conversation space for artists, performers, creatives, academics, and activists, to consider the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – social, cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc.
It will also invite conversation around further questions: What kinds of change? What are the grounds and manner of hope, transformation, and resilience? What might the arts and theology have to contribute to such discourse and action, if anything? How do we attend to the margins of this discussion, and speak and act more holistically as communities of change?
More details here.
- save the date
- help spread the word
- get in touch if you would like to offer an academic paper or creative presentation
Among the National Gallery of Victoria’s newest acquisitions is this small and intricate okimono, carved out of ivory and finished with ink. It comes from the Meiji Period (1868–1912) in Japan, and is titled ‘The Demon and Attendants in Hell’. I stand to be corrected about this, but it appears to be a Shinto rather than a Buddhist vision of hell, for whereas Buddhist hells (see here and here) give Dante a run for his money, Shinto hells are not very hellish at all. This one reminds me of a children’s playground.
‘There are a few ways you can lose your religion – in a slow drift where the time between mass attendance and sacraments like confession gets longer and longer, until you can’t in good faith claim to be a member of the flock any more. And then there’s the frank event, where something happens and you realise you cannot continue supporting the institution that has inflicted so much pain’.
– Brigid Delaney, ‘Losing my religion: after the Pell verdict, the conflict for Catholics’, The Guardian, 30 August, 2019.
In February 2019, I will be coordinating and teaching an intensive class on Theology and the Arts at Whitley College. The class is an introductory-level doorway into a range of other related subjects, including those on film, on imagination, on poetry, and on creativity and spirituality. It is aimed at practising artists, theologians, curators, pastoral workers, and anybody else with interests in the arts and/or Christian theology.
This year, I am delighted to announce that a number of wonderful people will also be contributing: Peter Blackwood, Anne Mallaby, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Safina Stewart, Christina Rowntree, Rod Pattenden, Joel McKerrow, and Libby Byrne.
For more information about the class, or to apply, visit here.
Recently, a wee menagerie of art lovers and theologians met to imagine some ways that we might together provoke theological reflection, and to promote research and networking, on the conversations that occur between the arts (broadly conceived) and Christian theology/spirituality.
This led to a commitment to pursue some modest experiments – joint publications, organise some conferences, offer some courses, and develop a new website, Art/s and Theology Australia.
We are now looking for writers, poets, composers, academics, artists, theologians, and other creatives and endangered species who might be willing to share their work and to help build this network and public depository. If you’re interested to be involved, check out the website and get in touch.
You can also subscribe to posts via email, and/or follow the site via Twitter.
‘Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned. The revolt of individualism came because the tradition had become degraded, or rather because a spurious copy had been accepted in its stead’.
– William Butler Yeats
… and a poem – ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ – from The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989):
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.
I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:
- Damion Searls on how psychiatrists used Rorschach tests to examine Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.
- George Monbiot’s piece on being ‘Screened Out’.
- Julian Cribb on why ‘coal will kill more people than WWII’.
- Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne, and John Menadue reckon that ‘we can stop the boats and also act decently, fairly and transparently’.
- The announcement about the National Gallery of Australia’s ‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ coming up later this year!
- Chris Green’s Ash Wednesday reflection – Christ’s Death Lives in Us.
- Steve Wright’s Ash Wednesday reflection – To dust.
- Mary Beard is simply awesome: check out her piece on Seneca and her lecture on women in power, delivered at the BM.
- For those within cooee of Melbourne, this looks good – Thomas Crow, Anne Dunlop, and Charles Green talking about theological originality in art.
- Matthew Sharpe on Montaigne’s Essays.
- Jane Hutcheon talks to Reg Mombassa.
- Michael Hobbes on the epidemic of gay loneliness.
- Jonathan Sacks on the architecture of holiness.
- Rick Floyd has been looking for light in the shadow of death.
- Jason Guriel on Christian Wiman and ‘kind of faith that a poet had better not lose’.
- Queensland, a part of the country where most locals seem to espouse the philosophy that two wongs don’t make a white and which is not especially well known for a radical brand of Christianity, sees some religious fanatics charged for beating swords into garden hoes.
- A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius, plus his good little introduction to Christianity.
- Raimond Gaita on Donald Trump’s America.
- John Milbank on the problem of populism and the promise of a Christian politics.
- Scott Jackson asks, ‘Was Niebuhr a “Real” Theologian?’
- The University of Divinity is seeking a Director for its Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP).
- Swee Ann Koh asks, ‘Is there racism in the church?’
- Paul Collier reviews a couple of recent efforts to understand the logic and opportunities of, and challenges to, capitalism. Along the way, he has some insightful things to say about nationalism, ‘nationhood’, multiculturalism, and global citizenship too. (However, given the reality of religion, for example, it would be very difficult to defend the claim that ‘nationhood is the only force that has proved to be sufficiently powerful to bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity’.)
- Why students hate peer review, and how to make it work better for them.
- Watching Umberto Eco and his books and books and books and paintings and books and books and ladders means that I will tolerate no more complaints on this subject, from anyone.
- Speaking of no complaints, Doug Gay’s third public lecture on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism is now available here.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing this past couple of weeks is taking photos of some work by local artists. The artists are all professional insofar as they literally do it for a living, but unpaid and very often under-appreciated. So I thought I’d share some of these shots with others in the hope of bringing some attention to their wonderful work. I’ve even created a dedicated page here on this blog for this purpose. Enjoy.
I’ve previously mentioned that next month Richard Kidd, Anne Mallaby, and myself will be teaching an intensive unit on theology and the arts. I’m really looking forward to being part of what is shaping up to be a great week of learning. (Spaces are still available for anyone keen to be involved.)
In addition, Richard Kidd will be exhibiting some of his work at Chapel on Station Gallery, in Box Hill. The exhibition will be accompanied by three related events:
Thursday 8 September, 1830–2000: Official Opening and Book Launch (with drinks, nibbles, and poetry).
Sunday 11 September, 1630–1830: Conversation and Cake. Richard Kidd and Anne Mallaby invite you to explore art and theology … and cake.
All events are free and will take place at Chapel on Station Gallery, cnr Station St & Ellingworth Pde, Box Hill.
A guest post by Libby Byrne
For many years now as I have been making art, I have been aware of the desire to do something – with string. This began almost fifteen years ago when I was trying find a way to express my experience of living as a woman who was thirty-something. String was a helpful metaphor in bringing this image to birth. String is almost universally available though it is distinctly variable in quality and quantity. String binds things together and, when tied with purpose and skill, will enable us to batten down the hatches in a storm. It does the work it was intended for. It wears over time, and ultimately breaks down. However you like to think about it, string comes to the rescue in both a metaphorical and literal sense.
It was in the printmaking studio that I was able to really make some marks that expressed this boldly and clearly. The printing press and the wet paper working together to record an image evocative of a simple yet satisfying string vest, which later formed the basis for a drawing in which the vest transformed into an elegant gown.
Several years later I was feeling somewhat trapped in the calling to work as an artist. With so much invested already I was aware that the work actually still required me to dig in, spend time, and wait for the next thing to emerge. As I searched for a metaphor, I was reminded of the thing I did with string. Inspired Anselm Kiefer, I wrapped the work with string and included other found objects from around the studio. I hoped that the work would speak of time spent in the service of the image.
Over several years, I played with this metaphor and eventually developed some large scale work that was capable of reverberating strongly in large spaces. What began with the intimacy of play years earlier had become a conceptually-integrated metaphor capable of engaging me in the work of art. However, the work was no longer my own. The string that contained and held the image was a symbol for the conditions of my existence, and this spoke to others who were aware of the conditional nature of their own existence.
In 2007, I found myself back in the studio in search of a personal metaphor for my experience. The grief of injustice threatened the light that was my faith and I felt completely bound in that place. It seemed that there was nothing that could be done to clear the space and so once more I took up a ball of string, reclaiming this material to articulate my experience. Once again I was making small work and when it was complete I was satisfied. I did not have the words to articulate how I felt and thought about injustice and grief, but in the image I was able to really see the weight and the reality of my own experience. As I pondered the image in the years that followed, I sometimes wondered if the small gap where the light gets into this image was indeed a wound. In the absence of professional attention and support, I think that I resorted to using string to bind the wound … but it was interesting to note that I had allowed the wound to remain open as a rift in my conceptual thinking.
I carried this open-and-yet-contained wound for years, even allowing it to find its place for a time on the altar in the church where I had been a child. Having been absent from this place for the previous thirty years, I was stunned to see how well the proportions and the toning of the image worked with the altar. Indeed, the wire at the rear of the painting hung over the carved symbol IHS that decorated the front of the altar.
The invitation to hang this work in this way was an offering of incredible generosity and love. There was a risk that people may be offended. And yet, the courage to enter this risk meant that Christ was able to literally bear my grief in sacrificial offering. I would never be able to see the painting ‘Grief’ in the same way again.
Seven years later, my relationship with this grief had shifted along with my experience of injustice. Finding a voice to speak of these things had been slow and arduous but having taken one step at a time, seven years later I was in a different place. I knew in my bones that things had shifted, but I needed to see for myself if this was true. It was time to do some work with the painting I had known as ‘Grief’. It was time to do some more with string. This time I was not binding or winding. This time I took to the string with scissors, releasing that which had been bound in the hope that I would find a new metaphor. As I worked at cutting I collected the small pieces of string that had long since hardened with the varnish that had finished the oil paint on canvas. I worked over several weeks to open the space with care and attention. I even used some of the older string to tie back the threads that threatened to reach back into the centre and encroach on this newly-born place. Eventually, I tied some of the shorter pieces of string together and they reminded me of firewood carefully collected and waiting for the time when it would be most needed. The last thing that I did was to take to this older oil painting with white gouache and in doing so I quickly discovered marks that reminded me of a membrane as it opens toward the moment of birth.
I shared this new image with my psychotherapist free from any narrative and he saw the nest of an eagle, perched high on a rocky outcrop. I was intrigued and delighted to hear this. Is this is the gift of a new metaphor or the extension and natural development of a metaphor that has always been.
How long indeed, is a piece of string?
Libby Byrne is the current recipient of Whitley College’s Religious Art Prize.
Each year, the Theological School at Whitley College hosts a Religious Art Prize, each time around a different theme (this year’s theme was ‘Love and Justice’). I am absolutely delighted to learn that this year’s prize was awarded to Libby Byrne. Libby is an art therapist and theologian who is currently working on her PhD in theology. I had the privilege of serving on her PhD confirmation panel, a context through which I learnt more about her and her work, and about what is shaping up to be a very exciting and boundary-pressing piece of doctoral study. Libby also contributed a very fine chapter to the edited volume ‘Tikkun Olam’ – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, about which I wrote the following:
Libby Byrne’s essay explores the premise that the artist’s calling is to ‘live close to the wound’. Locating this contention within the nexus that seems to exist between art, theology and philosophy, she argues that we are able to consider the prevailing conditions required for the artist to work toward the task of mending that which is broken, and, drawing on theory from Matthew Del Nevo and Rowan Williams, Byrne helps us understand the importance of melancholy and vulnerability in the sacramental work of human making. She provides examples of how this theory may work in practice with particular reference to the work of Anselm Kiefer and finally with her own studio practice, reminding us that it takes courage to choose to live and work close to our wounds, and also that by so doing the artist not only opens themselves to the possibility of transformation but also offers to others gifts that reverberate within the world and that call us to healing and wholeness.
Hearty congratulations Libby!