Monday, September 5, 2011

“Made you look!” Viewing art can help us open to a contemplative way of seeing

In his essay “Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry” Bruce G. Epperly, a church consultant with the Alban Institute, wrote “Practicing the presence of God is about mindfulness and self-awareness. It’s about seeing the holy in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary events in life.”

When I studied Quakerism, I was intrigued to learn that members of the Society of Friends tend not to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion as other Christian denominations do, believing that every moment, and everything, is potentially sacramental- infused with God’s holiness.

One aim of contemplative living is to open ourselves to the possibility that God is present, everywhere, and at all times. Epperly says, “If God is truly omnipresent—and that means present everywhere and in every encounter—then each moment provides an opportunity to receive and give God’s blessing, counsel, and wisdom. Each moment invites us not only to experience divine inspiration but share to God’s wisdom with others.”

I was thinking along these lines while in a conversation with my daughter Naomi about a sculpture we viewed together, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. “Lever”, by Carl Andre’ is an arrangement of 137 fire bricks in a straight line on the floor.

Marc Mayer refers to “Lever” in his blog entry “Art is Controversy”. Mayer, who is the director of the NGC, could have been listening in to the conversation we had about the piece. He wrote “we often hear people question whether something that purports to be art can really be called art with a straight face.”

Naomi told me she “didn’t understand” the sculpture. I don’t understand it either. It may be enough that a line of bricks on the floor encouraged me to consider that exhibit space in a different way. Mayer says that Andre’ was “genuinely searching for the essence of sculpture”, and the NGC website offers a quote as part of its introduction to the piece:

"The course of development:

Sculpture as form

Sculpture as structure

Sculpture as place."  - Carl Andre, 1966

Rather than striving for intellectual mastery of the sculpture- an answer to the question “What does it mean?” perhaps I can benefit by observing my own emotional, visceral, spiritual responses to the work. Bruce Epperly said that one of his spiritual teachers, the psychologist Gerald May described the process of awakening to God’s presence through five steps:

“pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and responding.”

Carl Andre’s line of bricks definitely made me look.