The idea for this seminar had its genesis in a conversation that J. Vincent and I started on Facebook. The topic of this conversation was a quote from Madeline L'Engle's book Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art in which she quotes Bishop KALLISTOS Ware from an undated issues of Sobornost magazine:
"...an abstract composition by Kandinsky or Van Gogh’s landscape of the cornfield with birds… is a real instance of divine transfiguration, in which we see matter rendered spiritual and entering into the 'glorious liberty of the children of God.' This remains true, even when the artist does not personally believe in God. Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is “something divine” about his work. We may rest confident that at the last judgment the angels will produce his works of art as testimony on his behalf." - p. 30L'Engle further develops this concept of being a servant to a greater truth:
If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, "Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolsoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."J. Vincent, in our original conversation, had taken exception to the audacious notion that the talent of an artist, regardless of belief, was supposed to be co-opted for a purpose he might not support. For my part, I read Bp. KALLISTOS' commentary as incredibly generous in its orthodoxy. Since we all know that a contentious argument is perfect to draw interest, we figured this would be the place to start
To feed the lake is to serve, to be a servant. Servant is another unpopular word, a word we have derided by denigrating servants and service. To serve should be a privilege, and it is to our shame that we tend to think of it as a burden, something to do if you're not fit for anything better or higher.
I have never served a work as it ought to be served; my little trickle adds hardly a drop of water to the lake, and yet it doesn't matter; there is no trickle too small. Over the years I have come to recognize that the work often know more than I do. And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully. The great artists, the rivers and tributaries, collaborate with the work, but for most of us, it is our privilege to be its servant. ---
When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt's brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.
We asked the students in our seminar to consider the following questions: can good art provide a transcendent experience? What agency (if any) does the artist have in expressing something transcendent?
We spent time in our early discussions laying the groundwork for exploring these concepts by asking the students to come up with a working definition of transcendence to inform future discussions. We engaged the idea of transcendence from the perspective of several different faith backgrounds, as well as a perspective of non-belief, and the students came up with the following:
Transcendence - The subjective experience of moving beyond one’s current state. - Fall 2010
Transcendence - the convergence between universal truth and human experiences. - Spring 2011J. Vincent provided the students with instruction in the seven basic elements of art (line, shape, color, value, texture, perspective and composition), and then we turned them loose in his studio. Their mission: to produce an a work of art at the end of the semester that expressed their concept of Transcendence.
We had the good fortune to have a show for the students' artwork this past May at the Village Cafe in Downtown Bryan. It was truly rewarding to see the students take pride in their work and share it with their peers.
They had this to say about their experience:
This course was designed to allow us, through discussion and actual painting, to discover our interpretation of Transcendence and really understand the different motivations behind art. We also studied different types of art and postulated about some of the different motivations and goals of the artist. Overall, this was a very enriching experience of how the other side lives. - Fall 2010
As social animals, humans seek to share experiences. However, humans are to some extent handicapped by languages like English or Mandarin that lack universality. The elements of art, as they are not situated in any one culture, may instead serve as the grammar of a universal language. This semester, we have sought to understand how artists have employed this universal truth system to express diverse human experiences (transcending communicative limitations) and ultimately, how we too may employ this universal language to share our own experiences. - Spring 2011One student went even further and wrote his own essay summarizing the experience. He has continued to process the ideas from our seminar and turned his essay into a blog post about the experience here.
This is my summary of the experience:
I’ve realized that education is providing access to new technologies, machines—yes—but also processes, theories, literatures, all of which have idiosyncratic languages. At our best, educators demonstrate that these technologies exist, introduce their use, and perhaps even engage discussion about whether they should be used.
When we are really successful, our students are aware that technologies might exist to solve questions they have not yet asked, how to find those technologies, and begin critically evaluating the ethics of those technologies. None of this would be possible without pushing the students to explore an uncomfortable subject or situation in the relatively safe setting of a classroom to give confidence so that they can do more of that exploration on their own.