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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Bread for the World: Paying attention through art

Here is my reflection from tonight's Bread for the World Informal Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The artist Grayson Perry told this story in the last of his Reith Lectures: “Recently a friend told me that she was working on an education programme at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and at the beginning of the project she asked the children, she said, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this very precocious child, probably from sort of Muswell Hill or somewhere like that, she put her hand up and she said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” Now it was probably quite an accurate observation of many fashionable artists in East London, but I thought … you know anyway. So then after this, they spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did. And at the end of the project, she asked them again, “What now do you think an artist does?” And the same child, she said, “They notice things.” And I thought wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”

Noticing things that other people don’t notice; that thought is one area of overlap between the Arts and Christianity, because in his letter to the Philippians, St Paul encourages to look out for see those things that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise (Philippians 4. 8) and, as we know, from the latest Christmas Appeal, Simone Weil says that to pay attention is prayer.

As a result, the art historian Daniel Siedell suggests that the Arts can help us with looking and paying attention. He says, “Attending to … details, looking closely, is a useful discipline for us as Christians, who are supposed to see Christ everywhere, especially in the faces of all people. If we dismiss artwork that is strange, unfamiliar, unconventional, if we are inattentive to visual details, how can we be attentive to those around us?”

Problems come, as he notes, when we dismiss what we see or when, as Jesus said, we are people who see but do not perceive, who hear but do not listen (Matthew 13. 12 - 14). Some more stories from the Arts can help us think more about how that happens.

In 2007, the Uffizi Museum in Florence lent Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation to the Tokyo National Museum for three months. More than 10,000 visitors flocked to the museum every day to see the renaissance masterpiece. A number which, when divided by the museum's opening hours, equates to each visitor having about three seconds in front of the painting - barely long enough to say the artist's name, let alone enjoy the subtleties of his work.

By contrast, a well-known art historian observed as he entered the first room of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery went nose-to-nose with Leonardo's The Musician, and there he stayed for about 10 minutes, rocking backwards and forwards, before moving from side-to-side, and then finally stepping back four paces and eyeing up the small painting from distance. And then he repeated the exercise. Twice.

The 10,000 visitors per day visiting the Tokyo National Museum during those three months wanted to see Leonardo’s Annunciation, but did they really ‘see’ it? They certainly didn’t see it in the same way that the art critic saw Leonardo's Musician.

There are then different ways of looking and different ways of seeing and so, as Daniel Siedell suggests, the experience of looking at art can help us learn how to really see. So, what can art teach us about looking and seeing? The point of the story about the art historian was that he paid attention to the painting. To what might he have been paying attention?

An art historian or critic is likely to look at and think about an artwork in relation to four different facets. The first is the artwork itself as an artefact, in other words to look at what it is as an object in its own right. This is always the starting point and the thought to return to when looking at art. So, the first question to ask ourselves is, what is the essence of this artwork; what are the things that make it unique and differentiate it from other things? It is a question we can ask of anything or anyone that we see; what is unique about this thing or person?

Next, it is helpful to consider the ideas and influences of the artist. When God created human beings, we were said to be made in his image. As a result, something of the maker shows up in the thing which has been made. By knowing something about the artist, we may be able to see more in the artwork than we otherwise would. St Paul says the same thing about God in his letter to the Romans when he says that ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made (Romans 1. 19 -20).

Then, the art historian or critic may think about the relationship that the artwork has with its historical and art historical context. At St Stephen Walbrook we will, during Lent, be showing a digital installation by Michael Takeo Magruder called Lamentation for the Forsaken in which the artist evokes the memory of Syrians who have passed away in the present conflict by weaving their names and images into a contemporary Shroud of Turin. This installation can’t be understood without reference to the current refugee crisis. We also understand each other more by observing how we react and respond to events around us.

Finally, we might think about our own response and that of others to the artwork. With works of art, we can often read articles, books or reviews about the work and with other people we are always hearing other people’s impressions or views of those they have met or whom we know. Paying attention to those impressions or views can help us shape our own impressions.

Thinking about each of these four facets can help us genuinely pay attention to art, to people and to the things around us. Thinking about these four facets can help shape our overall response to a work of art, a person or an object; often in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise expect or realize.

As we know from the latest Christmas Appeal, Simone Weil famously said that “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” When we pay attention in this way, we are also following St Paul’s advice to look at and think about those things that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.


Gordon Gano (feat. Mary Lou Lord) - Oh, Wonder.

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