OPINION: What art can be made of this?

“SLAVE.” The word, painted in a gray scrawl under an abstract skeletal figure, confronts me every time I walk into my house. Sometimes accusing, sometimes sympathetic, the painting hanging on the wall in our entry is both beautiful and disturbing.

“SLAVE.” The word, painted in a gray scrawl under an abstract skeletal figure, confronts me every time I walk into my house. Sometimes accusing, sometimes sympathetic, the painting hanging on the wall in our entry is both beautiful and disturbing. It hangs like a mirror as I go out and come in, asking me to reflect on my state of being. It’s a compelling piece because the colors — deep blue, white and gray — are comforting, yet the figure is ghoulish.

Lisa Cole Smith
It reminds me that sometimes I feel like this ghoul — pulled in many different directions, torn apart by expectations, doubts and confusion. The painting reminds me of what that state looks like, that if I allow myself to be a slave to these masters I am living in a state directly opposite to God’s call for my life. I look at the painting and am reminded to let go of everything else and serve God alone. On my way out the door I am reminded of the choice to live in freedom and when I come in I am confronted by the reminder to check myself and realign my purposes with his. It serves as a double mirror, validating the internal struggle I so often feel and challenging me to do something about it.

It may seem strange to have such a jarring painting hanging so prominently in our home but I find it comforting. The fearfulness of it becomes grounding and it’s an example of why I love art. While beauty is powerful, art’s ability to show us our fears, our sins, our humanity is just as meaningful and important. I believe God has given us art as a gift so that we can process externally the complexity of our inner life and so that we can surprise one another by what we see and feel.

Often, reality is too difficult, too frightening to process in its immediate form and so art becomes the only release valve for such exploration. In the 1950s artists began to experiment with different media to help them come to terms with the escalating potential for destruction in the wake of the development of “The Bomb.” Artists used new technology to bring recorded images of explosions into their work in a process of asking, “What art can be made of this?” At a time when it became normal for children to hide under their desks in air raid drills and people to build fallout shelters in their backyards, artists began to use the strangeness of real life destruction in their art to hold a mirror up to the world and wonder, “What are we to do with this? Is this normal and should it be and if not, what is my complicity in it?”

The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington is currently hosting an exhibit called “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.” In it, the show offers a meditation on the reality of endings, death and our own fascination with destruction. I was challenged by my response to the show. I could appreciate the artist’s attempts, but after a while I had to leave, feeling sick inside. The confrontation was too much for me.

In everyday life, I find myself not wanting to hear about the desperate situation in the Philippines, poverty and war in other parts of the world or the savageness of shootings and cruelty on campuses. I’m overwhelmed by the destructive nature of the current culture of politics, business and media. There have been too many disasters recently, too much destruction. I want to turn my eyes away and protect myself from the pain of empathy, the helplessness and questions of God about his plan and the value of human life.

But these artists, like my painting, force me to look. Not like a rubber necking driver at the scene of an accident. Not like a passive viewer of the evening news, but as a citizen of this world and an ambassador of the next. If God created us so that we might create, we too must ask ourselves, “What are we to make of this?” “What is the appropriate human response?”

Thank God for people like these artists who will not let me turn away, who demand that I ask important theological questions. Not all art is beautiful or uplifting. Some is difficult and even disturbing, but the best of it helps us stay where we need to be in order to wrestle with the deeper, harder questions and point to hope after courageously facing the darkness.

Lisa Cole Smith (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) is pastor of Convergence: A Creative Community of Faith, in Alexandria, Va.