In Image and Spirit, author and artist Karen Stone recounts comments she overheard in a modern art museum one November day:
"I don't get it."
"My 3-year-old niece could do that."
"Is this a joke?"
Many readers can probably relate. Bewilderment and scorn in the face of art—the chaos splashed onto canvas by Jackson Pollock and his imitators, the single glass of water balanced on a high shelf in a Brooklyn gallery, alongside a placard reading "This is a tree"—is as much an American institution as the artworks themselves. Most of us have taken a required art history class or two, but, really, who can recall anything except the snickers whenever a nude appeared on the slide projector screen?
Confronting and (gulp) understanding visual art seems even more intimidating to most Christians, says Stone, an instructor at the University of Texas at Arlington. The long-standing Protestant tradition that favors practical function (or the lewd sentimentality of the occasional honey-blonde Jesus painting) over aesthetic form means that many believers dismiss the importance of art in general and its application to their spiritual journeys in particular.
Stone, on the other hand, argues that "everyone is an art critic," and she urges novices to explore "the embodiment of Word in paint, plaster, glass, textiles, stone, and steel." Geared toward nonspecialists, Image and Spirit provides extensive aesthetic and theological grounding for taking the creative process as a road into the transcendent. Art is not a sacrament in and of itself, Stone explains (though at times her singular enthrallment with the medium suggests otherwise), but it is sacramental, and she wants to help Christians learn how to view it as such. "I have a passion to help those who want to be less confused by the art they see," Stone says, "to find meaning in art and even...to discern in it the Spirit's voice."
IMAGE AND SPIRIT is an apt and comprehensive aid in navigating artistic terra incognita. The slim volume contains all the basics—a section of full-color illustrations (complete with color wheel), at-a-glance guidelines for formal analysis, and a glossary of terms. Stone's accessible prose guides readers gently through the twists and turns of academic art theory and theological approaches, but shines when it comes to personal application. Stone encourages readers in a "disorderly" participation with art, emphasizing that we become "co-creators" with artists as we allow our own thoughts, background, and intentions to mingle with traditional methods of interpretation.
Most compelling is the book's exploration of the communal aspect of art. Stone recognizes art as "a prophetic voice that challenges, mobilizes, and sensitizes us," as well as a pastoral tool. Stone advocates group discussion of the book and gives plenty of helpful hints about visiting museums and making your church an art-friendly zone. This seems to be the setting in which the message of Image and Spirit functions best—demonstrating that images can serve worship, enriching the spiritual and aesthetic journey of a formerly bewildered community of faith.
Kate Bowman is news/Internet assistant at Sojourners.