Continuing from my last blog entry about an art workshop in Orleans, Massachusetts at the Community Of Jesus, I asked a question to the guest lecturer Msgr. Timothy Verdon. Having had time to re-read his response and reflect on my own art practice, his answer brings comfort and clarity to my artistic journey that is often times riddled with uncertainty. I hope Msgr. Verdon’s generous response will help you as much as it does for me.
A question was asked of Msgr Verdon: “What is the role of the contemporary artist today who happens to be a Christian?”
Msgr. Verdon: “ I don’t think anyone just happens to be a Christian. Being a Christian is an important choice whether we are artists or not. We have to reaffirm this choice everyday and many times everyday. So the artist, the creative person, desires to create a piece of sculpture, a painting, a piece of music, a dance form or whatever the person desires to create. In doing so, this communicates one of the many ways he or she expresses the primary reality in their life, which is being Christian. These things are not casually related. These activities we carry forward in life. If we are Christians, we carry them forward as expressions of Christianity. If they involve particular gifts we have received, and this is the case with artists, even artists with no faith at all know they have received gifts that others do not receive. But if we do have faith, the works we make are one of the ways of giving back to God and others, what God has given us. It is clear to a creative person that the gift was given for a purpose and that is why the artists have to use their gifts. Artists suffer terribly if they don’t use their gifts or are prevented from using them…”
“The Christian who is an artist has to allow his personality as a Christian to come through. The term persona (person, personality) was first invented to describe the Christian theatre mask. The large mask they used in ancient theatre, had a small megaphone near the mouth, which allowed the actors to project their voice more effectively. And the word in Latin of this sound that came through the megaphone, or the act of projecting the sound through the megaphone is sonare, meaning, to sound through. That is what every Christian does, every Christian artist does. Behind the mask, which is the individual historic person that we are, we are all born in a place and time, we all assume certain characteristics. Yet, by an adult age we realize that there is more to us than what the world sees. There is more to us than the historical dimension which circumstances have given us. We have more important things to say than that which appears when someone seemingly logically deduces one’s persona, simply by knowing the historic facts of that person’s life. There is something more in me that has to come out. For the Christian, that is something very similar to what St Paul meant when he said, “I live but not I, it is Christ who lives in me.” The Christian artist is someone who is truly alive, he is that person or she is that person from that place, in that time, with that style and with those limits he or she has. The Christian artist knows that within his or her life is the life of Christ. So the Christian artist wants to allow that larger dimension, that which is more than a simple biographical sketch would lead you to believe, to come through.”
Mons. Verdon puts forth a challenge to artists: to be truly honest. A challenge, which perhaps applies to all of us; as created beings we are each gifted with a spark of creativity. “The Christian artist has to fight with himself or herself to allow that which is “more”, in order to allow the Lord who is in us, to express Himself. Artists will do so through the gift of creativity, the “more” God has given them. It is not as though God erases us and does it all by Himself. He does it through us and with us. We, the artists, are really doing it. “I live and yet it is not I alone who lives but Christ who lives through me.” So the artist’s creativity becomes His creativity. If He has given you artistic talent, He wants beauty of a kind you can create. But you need to let Him guide you. This in simplest terms means that you remain in a good dialogical relationship with Him, remaining in what used to be called a state of grace. In this way, you are in harmony with the possible with the Lord. And in more contemporary existential terms, it means really searching everyday to figure out what He is guiding you to express on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that you should be only choosing to do Madonna paintings or the Crucifixion. It could mean doing the opposite. It could mean fabricating images that have nothing explicitly in connection with religious tradition. John Paul II in his letter to artists said that even works of art which seem very far from the Christian tradition can tell us something, if the artist is being truly honest.”
Letting Him guide me in my art practice.
Msgr. Timothy Verdon, an art historian with a PhD from Yale University, directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, and the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore) in Florence. A Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Msgr. currently teaches in the Florence Program of Stanford University. He writes regularly for the cultural page of the Osservatore Romano and in 2010 curated the exhibit Jesus: His Body and His Face in Art at the Riggia di Venaria Reale at Turin. Msgr. Verdon is also the Director of the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence and the Academic Director of Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art & Spirituality. He lives in Florence, where he is a Canon of the Cathedral.
Thank you Lillian Miao for stringing together Msgr. Verdon’s response!