Every year, I take my daughter to ArtPrize—one of the world’s largest art competitions, right in our backyard—hoping she’ll have a different experience with art than than the one I had as a child.
Growing up, art was something I chose to endure rather than appreciate. I viewed trips to the art museum as almost a form of punishment. ArtPrize takes art out of the museum (well, mostly—our favorite piece this year happens to be in the Grand Rapids Art Museum), and in doing so, it’s helped Elizabeth cultivate an enthusiasm for art I never quite managed when I was her age.
She runs from one exhibit to another, yelling, “Let’s go see more art!”
OK, so the artistic quality varies rather widely at ArtPrize. Not everything that catches Elizabeth’s eye would be regarded as fine art by most connoisseurs and curators. Every year, there seems to be an excess of kitsch and recycled scrap metal, especially among the outdoor installations.
But ArtPrize is about inviting everyone into the process of creating and experiencing art—not just the connoisseurs and curators.
Unsurprisingly, the art Elizabeth is most drawn to—the art she talks about the most afterward—is the art she can interact with.
Like “Weave Peace” by Michele Miller-Hansen, a 30-foot dome of pole and fabric outside the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Visitors are asked to write hopeful messages on colorful strips of paper and attach them to the dome, effectively transforming it into something new—something barely resembling the original, unadorned version. It wasn’t one of my favorites until I thought about what it means for an artist to invite others to contribute to—and radically alter—their own work.
Or “Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha, inspired by the geometrical patterns of Islamic art. Her installation explores the “binaries of public and private, light and shadow, static and dynamic.” The light transforms the entire room, making it part of the exhibit. The artistic experience, in this case, would change from one space to the next. The viewer also becomes part of the exhibit—albeit temporarily—casting their shadow about the space, as Elizabeth gleefully did while dancing around the room.
Art becomes meaningful, transformative, and captivating when we’re able to participate in it—when we’re invited to contribute to it, rather than being forced to just stand back and observe in silence.
I wonder if there’s a lesson to learn from ArtPrize about how we do theology and faith formation.
When we confine theology to the “elites,” when we reduce it to merely an academic discipline, do we lose something along the way? True, there is something to be said for advanced study and expertise. (I wouldn’t want someone who hasn’t mastered Greek or Hebrew translating the Bible for me.) But in our desire to “protect” theology from amateur interference, have we deprived ourselves of the gift of illumination from unexpected sources?
There seems to be little tolerance for imagination and creativity in theology. We act as if such things have no place here, reducing theology to something that resembles scientific analysis, dissecting texts so we can extract objective meaning from them. There is a place for all this. But what about also making room for wonder, imagination, and exploration in our theology? What about welcoming the learned and the unlearned, who turn out not to be so unlearned after all; they just have a different form of knowledge—what if we welcomed them the same table, so we can “do theology” together?
What if we intentionally blurred the lines between art and theology?
What about inviting people to participate more actively in their own faith formation? To experience religion rather than just observe it? One of the things I appreciate most about our (relatively) new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, is that kids are welcomed as full participants. They are not second-class citizens. They aren’t on probationary membership. They don’t have restricted benefits. My daughter is welcome at the table each week. Worship is participatory—for everyone.
Encouraging her to participate in—and actively shape—the faith to which she belongs is no guarantee she’ll continue to embrace it when she grows up. But if she feels a sense of ownership—if she is encouraged to become a meaningful participant rather than a silent spectator—then it might just stay with her through life.