Social realism

There’s a new ministerium of pastors forming in Columbus to meet monthly to think creatively about various ministry realities, organized by a couple ministers with the Episcopal diocese.  Love those Episcopalians.  Today over lunch we met at the Columbus Museum of Art and were given a tour through the Modern Dialect exhibition, displaying paintings from American artists from the 1920’s to the beginning of World War II.  The question that the presenter was asked to help us think about was “How can our faith communities support prophetic voices?” 

The presenter spoke of the shift from the Enlightenment focus on the exemplum vertutis, the virtuous and exemplary man, to the emphasis on the common man in these paintings.  “Man.”  These paintings often take the perspective of the ones in poverty, or victims of violence or natural disaster.  There is a painting of two women observing the flooded Ohio River at Portsmouth Ohio that resulted in over 300 deaths.  There is a painting of the Herrin massacre, a violent confrontation between Illinois miners on strike and the scabs working in their place.  The presenter noted that the museum made a significant purchase in 2005 of “Social Realism” paintings, something for which they received significant criticism at the time.  In the view of the presenter, the criticism was mainly that people want to look at pretty things, and that the harsh realities of everyday existence fall outside many people’s conception of what is beautiful.

Of course, this is something that gives a group of pastors plenty to talk about.  Good art helps us see in new ways, including the realities that are hard to look at.  It confronts us with an image and makes us a witness.  And, when we are a witness, it gives us a responsibility to that which we have witnessed.  It draws us in.  It gives us new eyes and, if we allow it, moves the heart.  Art can do this in ways that widens our conception of the beautiful, making even crucifixion a scene of potential resurrection. 

How can our faith communities support prophetic voices?  Maybe a first step is recognizing that prophetic voices come in many forms, including those able to use not just words, but images to help us see in new ways.  Not just as individuals, but us as a community, a congregation.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.”