Monday, September 12, 2016

Reflections on "Art as Ritual"


At a conference at the Detroit Institute of Art today, I joined a large group of artists, art-lovers, and a few clergy in some high-powered talk about the capacity of art to "close social distance", "make the secular sacred", and "create meaning through spatial transformation." We were given hands-on demonstrations of ways that art could transform grief, create moral community, and help cope with deep personal and communal loss. Speakers referred to an "interruptive truth" revealed when "spectator ship" moves from a passive "consumption" of museum pieces to an active participation in the creation of artistic meaning, and a corollary shift from the definition of museums as "protectors of valuable objects" to "ecstatic spaces," a process made more complex by the fact that art is more likely to be seen on the internet than in a museum or gallery.
   "Art" occurs when there is an interaction between artist, medium, and audience. We live in a disenchanted world that tries to commodify everything, but authentic "art" is subversive to commodification, shocks or tricks the audience into seeing the world through a new lens. In the film "Detroit Upright" actors are ceremoniously draped in elaborate costumes modeled (To my eye) on those worn in some traditional African tribal rituals. When a gospel choir lays down a soundtrack and the 12 foot high towers of what looks like confetti start moving around, it does feel like a transformative occasion, or at least extremely odd.
    But no more odd than Sunday Mass. The elements of choreography, exotic costume, ritual silence, and a resonant soundtrack combine in a very familiar way for me. If our congregations' collective awareness of ecstatic transformation is less common than than rote submission to pious routine, it is no more surprising than the secular piety of museum-goers going through the rituals of art-consumption. The artist's task is to provoke the "interruptive truth", and invite the audience to share in a "liminal experience" of transformation.
      In seminary I learned about fascinating research done in Africa by Victor Turner, which described (what Turner hypothesized) was a general pattern of a ritual deconstruction of the usual categories of every day life, i.e. Male/female, human/animal, God/mortal, Etc. , and then a symbolic reintegration that restored the community to "normality" but with a new level of awareness and appreciation. This has influenced my own practice of and appreciate for ritual, as has the work of Mircea Eliade, a historian of religion and, as it happened, a colleague of my father's at the University of Chicago.