A Recovery of Contemplation?
I’ve been particularly intrigued by the conversation that has come from Jim’s post on Monday about SPJP, especially Jim’s question in the comments about whether ‘watching and contemplation can be recovered as an act of worship’. There has been a (in my opinion) much-needed move to save art from the modernist ideas that art is intended only for aesthetic contemplation and to rediscover it as an object of action (perhaps seen most explicitly in Nicolas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action). There seems to be agreement that art exists within a multiplicity of purposes and functions – some active, some contemplative, some communal, some individual. We continue to wrestle with the appropriate ‘use’ of the arts on this blog and I want to add to the discussion and pick up on Jim’s question – can (and should) contemplation be recovered in worship?
Daniel Siedell engages with this issue in his book, God in the Gallery. Siedell argues that the Christian suspicion of modern art’s emphasis on contemplation has been misunderstood due to a lack of engagement with its philosophical and theological conditions. (22) However, Siedell does not believe that this suspicion arose at the advent of modern art but can find its roots at the Reformation, when words were elevated over images. While Luther did not reject images outright, he ‘did not allow religious images to stand alone, as visual, aesthetic artifacts for contemplation and veneration’. (135) This move away from contemplation and veneration resulted in a fundamental shift in the role of art in the church. It went ‘from a primary means of spiritual contemplation and communion to a supportive function as a tool of education and communication.’ (137) It seems that from Siedell’s perspective, art for contemplation (and probably not just the individual kind) has existed in the church before. This topic is big and rather than try and draw conclusions, I’d like to ask a few questions to get discussion going:
What do you think about Siedell’s claim – is our ‘suspicion’ of contemplation linked to the Reformation? Has a distrust of images and an elevation of words led to an overemphasis on ‘action’ in worship, leaving behind contemplation as a worshipful activity? Can contemplation of art be communal? Can it be ‘justified’ within worship without being expressed in an outward action? Wes alludes to this in his comment when he notes that: ‘I do think there is room for contemplation as an act of worship, just as long as this is not always an individual act. In other words, I think it could be very meaningful to have a time for contemplation and then have several members of the congregation share what the painting means to them, or something more communally oriented.’ It seems to me that contemplation and action need each other to serve the community for how is one to know what the other contemplated without the action of sharing. On the other hand, are there times when contemplation of images should be individual and completely justified without a communal action? Is there space for both? What could this look like?
Photo Credit: John Cairns Photography