February 2, 2023
A well-known director and theatre professor of mine told our class one day that he saw the arts as a bridge between the world and God. (He was not a Christian to my knowledge). According to him, the world is here, and God is there, and the arts are an amorphous link in between. Theatre he went on to explain, was the greatest of the arts because it involved all the other mediums (painting, music, dance, etc.)
Using spiritual language to describe art is something I encounter with artists all the time. In theatre especially there are so many parallels and shared origins. Both ritual and drama at their best do not see themselves as ends, but rather a bridge, pointing to something greater.
“All religions assert that the invisible is visible all the time. But here’s the crunch. Religious teaching…asserts that this visible-invisible can only be seen given certain conditions. The conditions can relate to certain states or to a certain understanding. In any event, to comprehend the visibility of the invisible is a life’s work. Holy Art is an aid to this, and so we arrive at a definition of holy theatre. A holy theatre not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions that make its perception possible.”Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, and Immediate.
Holy Art. Not Sacred Art.
Here is something to consider as Christians making art. Perhaps “holy art” is not the same as “sacred art.” Or more specifically, not necessarily isolated to liturgical and devotional purposes only. Not something “set apart” from daily life. Perhaps there is a design for “holy art” in the everyday world – necessarily.
We could think about a category of “holy art” as Brook describes it; an aid to all people at all times to help them in their “life’s work” to “comprehend the visibility of the invisible.” Then, being a Christian artist could have less to do with the physical manifestation of what we create or even what we hope to achieve through it and more to do with the way we make. An intentionality around the creative process that invites the “invisible”, ineffable presence of God to move through us, “creating the conditions that make perception of God’s presence possible?”
The physical manifestation – the painting, film, book, music, etc. is the visible vehicle, inextricably tied to the thing itself, and yet it isn’t the whole. The soul of the piece is what fills it, surrounds it, animates it. Perhaps it is in the way we prepare ourselves to work, the way we go about our soul craft that seeps into the work of our hands. It’s mysterious and certainly not something defined. But if we can say that pornography or “good art” is something undefinable, but we know it when we see it; perhaps we could give practitioners of “holy art” the same latitude. Perhaps we can give ourselves as artists the same freedom. Freedom to create what comes out of a deeply filled inner space.
I wonder what Christians involved in the arts in the 21st Century might have to contribute to Peter Brook’s meditation on the idea of “Holy Art.”
Rev. Lisa Smith is the Artistic Director and Pastor of Convergence in Alexandria, VA. Lisa received her BFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA and worked as a professional actor for many years before attending seminary and seeking a way to merge her calling as an artist and a person of faith.