The Arts and Theology: Creativity, Communication and how the Arts can save the world

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‘The arts are part of being human’, says Jude Kelly (BBC Radio 4 Loose Ends, 26.7.08), former director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, now at London’s Southbank.  And I think a great many people would agree with Kelly if they thought about the arts in their broadest sense.

Looking back on my study of theology I realise I did it because of an unstoppable urge to look into the human condition and communicate my curiosities.  University was a safe, thriving and raw environment to do this.    Likewise, I went to drama school three years later in 2006 to do the same thing (I also happen to enjoy acting).  Both subjects contain one central paradox: by studying both, I felt more anchored in the world and therefore more able to face it but at the same time, less able to comprehend it.  With drama especially, I escaped from the world by immersing myself in an imitated reality (which paradoxically often represents reality in a more honest way than reality itself) but at the same time sought to understand it (the world).

Isn’t this one of the reasons why people go to the theatre? – as an audience member you watch a play to briefly dismiss reality but by watching ‘real’ people on stage, some thing in some way will resonate with you.  David Hare in his terrific book ‘Obedience, Struggle and Revolt’ has the same thought:  “It is hard to understand why anyone would choose to go into the theatre in the first place unless they were interested in relating what they make happen on a stage to what is happening off it” (p.108).  As a violinist, I also agree with Daniel Barenboim when he says of another arts discipline: “music provides the possibility, on the one hand, to escape from life but, on the other, to understand life much better.  It is one of the best ways to learn about human nature.

Investigation into anything can be troubling, even if ultimately fulfilling.  But it is unavoidable; we do it just by being.  But why was I so interested in thinking about life via two potentially emotionally draining disciplines?  I didn’t need to choose them and moreover, I didn’t need to ask questions at all about humanity and the meaning of life.  Or did I?

During one of my Alexander Technique classes at drama school, I got talking to my tutor about this.  She reassured me I was not alone and explained that her teacher, Walter Carrington, a pupil of Alexander, had a choice to either become a Jesuit or a teacher of Alexander Technique (used by many people, not just actors and musicians).  He chose the latter because he felt he could still reach people through creative work on posture and balance; a less explicit way of bringing people to their centre, and yes, allowing them to be present – a desire I would say all people want for themselves whether people of faith, actors, a combination of these or nothing to do with art or belief at all.  We all search, some less obviously than others.

Alexander Technique in action

Joseph Rowntree (we’ve all had his sweets), another pupil of Alexander, said we all desire the Unknown and that the Unknown is approached via creativity.  The Known on the other hand is simply ‘habit’.  The latter is unfortunately the category we fall into because of the pressures of daily life.  If we wish to have mortgages and bread on the table, we succumb to patterns to earn our wage and ‘stay safe’.  We have routines that are often un-enjoyable – we knock ourselves out in order to live (funny irony that) and we call this being alive.

'The Commuters' sculpture at Nasher Sculpture Centre in Dallas, Texas USA

Alexander Technique is employed for this reason with actors, to release them from habit and find neutrality and honesty with which they can approach their craft.  Another paradox: the stage is the home of pretence, yet there exists no more of a genuine, unrehearsed place to be, and where any element of routine in fact results in the worst acting.  Every moment is new as if for the first time, and cherished.  Life is not a rehearsal and the stage and film set is the forum for ‘stuff’ that goes on in life.

Most people assume my main interest has to be religious drama but this would be too much of an easy link.  I am interested in anything artistic that challenges us to think how we treat the world and its contents, and if in the process we ask “Is there a God?” or “Is there something rather than nothing?” then fine.   There is an argument as to whether or not Beckett’s plays are symbolic or not.  Sir Peter Hall says Waiting for Godot is, and when he directed a production of it during the Cold War, it carried with it overtones of this period (much like Miller’s The Crucible during 1950s America).  Other commentators say that Beckett is not symbolic but is about actualities and possibilities. In Godot, he literally writes about the human ‘state’: what is it to wait?  What are we really waiting for?  What is it to wait – when there is the possibility of nothing happening?  And in Godot, nothing does.  Is it a play about nothingness where we see characters in a state of anxiety and despair?  It is absurd, tragic and at times funny.  So is this not something?  This is not nothing.  There is stuff happening here and if we were not living as hectic lives as we possibly could (yes sorry folks, routine), are Estragon, Lucky and Vladimir not us?  Take away our routine and we would be searching and waiting for something to happen (and I’m talking about ‘social life’ routine as well as work – take away the pub and the office, and anarchy would reign).

Take Lucky’s speech which goes from a “crazed jumble into one of unmissable significance.  Despite our hopes, moral pretensions, scientific advances – everything – humanity continues to ‘stink and dwindle’, ‘waste and pine’.  Even the smug, bullish Pozzo is left cramming his hat…over his ears in an effort to avoid the truth.”  (Benedict Nightingale, The Times, April 2006).  Symbolic or not, because of its absurdity and unreality, Godot and other plays less ‘real’ paradoxically become terrifyingly lifelike.  Hare calls this “artistic paradox”: “that by telling lies we reach truth” (p.73).

It is not for nothing that Plato thought music should be banned because it could bring audiences to a state of frenzy.  Barenboim again: “music teaches me that you cannot separate the heart from the head.  If they don’t go hand in hand something is wrong” (Radio Times, September 2001).  I recall the amazing Stephen Fry at one BAFTA Award Ceremony earnestly saying how films and the arts were so necessary in a world like ours; keep creating, he said, as this is humanity at its best.  Hare says: “The world is not tired.  Our reactions to the world are not tired.  What becomes tired is the deadly habitude of our descriptions of that world.  The artist exists only to externalise what we all do internally anyway.  By making the descriptions new, we do not create alternative worlds.  We remind people of the breathtaking beauty of the original” (p.86).

The artist David Hockney at his “Life, Love, Art” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006/7 remarked: “What an artist is trying to do for people, is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.”

Sharing.  Yes.  But what do humans do most?  Answer:  Conceal.  Emotionally and culturally.  And these stunt us socially.  We live in our own bubbles as individuals and as groups, but we don’t break out of those.  We don’t even think about the impact of the “way we live now” on others.  All art forms can burst bubbles.  We should let them.  Continuing the theme of sharing – what about the “bringing people together” aspect of the arts?  It does do this, as much as any church, in fact these days, more so.  Big names in all artistic fields have used their talent to do this in order to send a message.  I don’t say Bono is the Pope – but neither do I say the Pope is more important.  They are different.  But because of the urgency in their art and the way it is related to the common man, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Sting, Bono, Annie Lennox, Bob Geldof, David Hare, Harold Pinter, Al Gore, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen…have made our ears prick up at some point or another in relation to Vietnam, Africa, Iraq and so on, because of their artistic clout.

In a National Theatre Platform (9.11.2005), director Declan Donnellan talks about all of us living out our humanity positively: actors are people who automatically do this since acting is really about “being”, not pretending.  Good religion is about this too and the phrase “living out humanity positively” is certainly heard amongst theologians.

Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George is a musical about this very experience: George has lived in his art and put life on hold; I am suggesting we put neither life nor art on hold and use one to enrich the other: “an acceptance by the younger George that attachment to people in the form of love is as crucial to life as art” (Nicholas De Jongh, Evening Standard, 24.5.2006).

Life in art and Art in life in 'Sunday in the Park with George'

My conclusion is nothing surprising: neither religion or the arts can be studied or lived in a vacuum.  People are less scared of theatre.  You can go for a good night out and in the process be presented with a range of issues that you can think about, or not.  There will always be an entertainment aspect I suppose; I’m not sure you would call a sermon entertaining (although whether you would call films like Boys Don’t Cry or Saving Private Ryan more entertaining than a sermon on eternal life I doubt).  The director of the second of the two films, Stephen Spielberg, says that you can pay psychiatrists a lot of money to work things out for you, or you can pay a film director to do it instead. He has a point. But I am not slamming Ministers of Religion or Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists: the theatre is not therapy and nor is religion.  I think they are both more if appreciated properly.

These two disciplines remind us who we are and what we are not.  Going to see the film Crash may not halt your racism if you’re racist, by seeing Matt Dillon exhibiting this characteristic in front of you.  But as soon as we form an opinion about a character, we need to remember that “realistic fiction” is no oxymoron, but facts, told as story  – so the arts can make a difference.  Take this next example: without the West’s ruthless hold on those countries it knows to be at the mercy of its trade and so-called development, films such as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond would not exist; in an ideal world the hellish subject matter in the films would indeed only be fiction.  Sadly it is not – these films are nothing less than brutally real.

The Constant Gardener

I’ll leave it to two other much more eloquent and experienced people to illustrate this with Sir Richard Eyre’s quote from his Foreword to Arthur Miller’s autobiography ‘Timebends’: “he [Miller] wasn’t a political play writer, nor was he a moralist; and he was only a realist in the sense that he was concerned with the realities of the forces that affect people’s lives rather than the superficial appearance of reality…If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society and art ought to be used to change it.  Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern.”

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