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    Art Sunday: Seven from Sister Wendy Beckett

    Pia Stern, The Room of Longing (2008). “I saw the spirituality of her images right from the start,” said Sister Wendy of Ms. Stern’s work. Wendy’s enthusiasm for Ms. Stern made me curious, and today I’m a fan. See more of her work here. Used by permission of the artist. Click on image for a high-resolution version

    It’s really funny, what ends up shaping one’s thoughts and beliefs. At the time you may not be aware of it, but your entire world is changing. Such was the case for me when I read an interview with Sister Wendy Beckett in Image a few years ago. Sister Wendy is a British art expert and contemplative. She has been a member of the order of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur since 1946 and has lived for years as a hermit, but her name became well-known in the 1990’s after she became involved in a series of art documentaries for PBS. Today I count her as a significant influence on my life.

    When I read the interview I began waking up to my own understandings of art and the spiritual life and how the two relate. But the thing is, I didn’t know it at the time; it was only after returning to the piece just a few days ago that I recognized my own perspective in Wendy’s words, and it dawned on me that it was Wendy who had influenced me. I had fancied the ideas all mine, but no. There’s a lesson here somewhere.

    Forthwith, seven of my favorite excerpts from the Image interview.

    1. What the artist intends is futile. It’s what the artist has done that matters.

    2. I just wish people would realize that if you’re going to enjoy a book you’ve got to set aside time to read that book. The same [with a painting]. You must not expect that you can take a fleeting glance and reach a conclusion, any more than you can just look at a book’s dust cover. It’s that giving time, looking at art peacefully, that matters.

    3. I think that very few people have the good fortune to know what Jesus means by Father. And those that have would only have that fortune deepened by an experience of art. And those that haven’t, they’ll get somewhere. They’ll see that reality is something very beautiful and strong. Something that takes suffering on board and is never sunk by it. Underneath all sorrow is joy. And you can see that, because an artist can tackle the most horrific things and still make a work of art out of it. Joy and creativity shine through.

    4. On teaching others about art: When I look at art I do not say, “Oh, this and this and this.” I just look. Nothing comes into my mind whatever. But if I’m asked a question I know exactly what I’m thinking. Or if I have to speak about it, then I think about my response. And then I know. And then, let’s say I will realize that to help people understand it there are six things I ought to say about this, then I think about what is the order that will give the best light. Then I think that through and then I will sit down to my manual typewriter and type it, or stand in front of a camera and say it, and the words come. I don’t have to think about it at that point. They will fly into my hands like birds, if I’ve got through all those preliminaries, thinking and looking, but not thinking in the sense of working things out. Thinking in the sense of praying, being empty before it.

    5. Religion is a means to an end, it’s a springboard. And most people need that springboard, but some seem to have sprung pretty high without it. [Art] is a means to the same end. Obviously, I think that the faith, Christianity, is in theory the directest of means. The sacraments take you straight there. But that’s in theory, because those means can be so unconsciously abused and used instead to build up a sense of the self as a spiritual person or a religious person, which is fatal, because the whole point of religion is to make you aware of God, to let him take over. But for those who haven’t got any religion, or even for those who do, art can take you further into God. It can reflect your faith, or be a substitute [if you do not have faith]. I think art brings you to an encounter with truth and beauty — these are names for God. But they’re not synonymous with God. I could never say that you could do just as well with art [as with Christianity]. I think that would be a foolish thing to say. But art can take you towards a God whose name you do not know.

    6. Beauty isn’t a pretty word, but it’s a strong word.

    7. I don’t think an artist can choose their subject. It’s very painful for an artist to be true, but unless an artist paints from what is deepest in him, it’s never going to work.

    For a little more information on Sister Wendy, here she is on atheism and the religious right; here she is on Andres Serrano‘s notorious Piss Christ and the importance of giving art the time and attention it deserves. There is a PBS interview with her here.

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    There are 1 Comments to "Art Sunday: Seven from Sister Wendy Beckett"

    • Todd says:

      I would agree with Sister Wendy that religion is a means to an end, and I’m willing to concede that art could be a means to the same end (I don’t have enough experience with art to really feel I can judge that). Could science also be a means to the same end? It is certainly possible to lose oneself in science, in a way that seems to resonate with what Sister Wendy is saying. You can cease to think about yourself as a scientist, of about what you could do with science, or about what science might gain for you in honor, wealth, etc, and instead just lose yourself in the beauty of scientific ideas, or of science as a process, or the amazing physical universe that is the subject matter of science.

      I would also like to claim that science SHOULD be an encounter with truth and beauty. Most folks forget about the beauty, but when you look at the history you find that the people who seemed to have profound insight into what we now choose to call truth (although in a grand sense it is probably not that) were really chasing beauty.

      The big difference seems to be that the subject matter or art comes from within while the subject matter of science comes from without. It’s hard to classify the subject matter of religion in these terms (especially from the viewpoint of negative theology!). But if all are means to an end, maybe the differences in subject matter aren’t crucial.



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