Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Sensuality and Spirituality - Geoff Hall

Sensuality and Spirituality: unholy alliance or creational remembrance?

The Art of Deborah Keiller
by Geoff Hall
Introduction: There is little left, only traces of a Christian spirituality free from institutional control. The institution has occluded a radical community for the development of a spirituality which embraces the arts as both culturally formative and sensually evocative.
Figure 1, Deborah Keiller 'Pink and Blue: Reclining Nude' Lino Cut, 2010. Used with Permission of the Artist
When I visit the institution I’m always reminded of my sinful condition, always in need of repentance, always unclean. We are seldom it seems, encouraged to see the ‘new creation’ of our rebirth; newly regenerate and clean! Often we are told of a pure spiritual characteristic to our human creation, juxtaposed against an unclean physical aspect. The rumour has been passed down to us, namely that the Original Sin was sexual in nature; Eve was seduced by the Serpent. The artist Lucas Cranach, at work in the 16th Century in the Courts of Saxony, painted a scene of the Fall. The usual dualistic view of Adam and Eve is underpinned by a composition wherein, the attributes of Eve are personified by animals of lust, vanity and pride (wild horse, roe-buck, lion). Adam on the other hand, is given the attributes of fidelity (stag and deer) and purity (sheep). Check the link to view this work.
Art in the past has reinforced institutional notions of control, both of aesthetics and the human condition. The artist has seldom been left to participate in the free expression of creativity, but this is not just a ‘Christian’ problem, it also is at the heart of secularized art colleges, with its control of medium and the deprogramming of artists and the prohibition of utilizing their drawing and painting skills. Many have succumbed to the pressure to conform to institutional control, which in England is reinforced by the Arts Council. With ‘Christian’ artistry, many assume the theological control of art is a natural extension of their faith commitments. When we look back at the dubious value and nature of landscape painting, usually permitted if the view contained holy characters or angels – in other words the imposition of a holy narrative – it as an attempt to sanctify such naturalistic (sensual) revelry! What stems from the Reformation is the free composition of landscape painting; the joy of Creation freed from justification by holy narrative.
An aside – A note to the lazy art historian
I come across, actually quite often these days, those who write about the Reformation as an anti-art movement. My response to this ‘insight’ swings from mild irritation to passionate annoyance. Anyone who undertakes such critique is either knowingly stupid or has been taking lessons at being so! Generally, they perceive ‘Christian Art’ as church or liturgical art; an art in the service of theology. Interestingly, this concurs with their vision of art for the future. They, as Protestants, seek to roll back time to the Renaissance, as if this movement was somehow more Christian than the Reformation! The Iconoclastic Disorders of the 16th century, when the churches were cleared of the ‘cult of images’, may appear to suggest an anti-art theology or worldview. Well, that’s if you close one eye and squint with the other. What those who don’t believe in ‘free art’ achieve is cultural blindness, an inability to see that out of the Reformation came artists like Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Jan van Goyen, Esaias van de Velde, Salomon van Ruisdael and Pieter de Hooch.
What then do we make of Deborah Keiller’s artwork?
Her linocuts (sometimes called block prints) exude sensuality and I can confirm that there is no attempt on the artist’s part to justify the portrayal of naked models, by cunningly placed halos, crosses or chalices. I talked to her recently at a local exhibition, (Larkhall, Bath UK). I asked Deborah about her work.
‘I am fascinated by the landscape of the human body & soul and often use my charcoal & pencil life drawings as a starting point for my art. I work in a number of mediums ranging from paint, inks, printmaking and more recently 3D, both figuratively & abstractly. I am often perplexed by people’s need to define the human body as ‘natural’ and the soul as ‘spiritual’ as if somehow due to its fleshy, bloody, tangible nature the body ranks lower than its invisible counterpart! I see no distinction and guess in some way I seek to challenge the ‘secular’ vs. ‘sacred’ myth that seems to pervade our Christian culture!’
Deborah is aware of this tension between her work and that of other artists, who are Christian. She talked to me of an art which is message heavy, not leaving any doubt as to where the artist was coming from. This is art without imagination. Aesthetically this falls badly into the category of propaganda, but many seem unaware that in doing so they simply fall into the trap of turning faith into ideology. This is either naïveté or a denial that art encumbered by programme or agenda isn’t really art.
Such artists are still under the misconception that art needs justification, or that sanctification is possible through symbolism; adding code to aesthetic media. This assumes that ‘matter’ and the sensual appeal of art is fallen, corrupted at its origin. Language of this kind evinces a dualism in their thinking; of spirit and matter, spirit = good, matter = evil; that somehow God created matter which was permeated by sin, by corruption. Instead of talking about Original Sin, we ought to be talking about Original Goodness, for during each phase of Creation we hear that God saw it was ‘good’. In fact when we get to the two gardeners, it becomes ‘very good’!! God didn’t blush, but in fact they did, after a few diabolical whispers.
In Figure One we see a naked figure, the outlines of pink set against the purple/blue background. The outlines flow diagonally from top left to bottom right. It imbues the image with energy as our eye flows across the surface of the image. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, not with boring orthogonal lines, but replete with interesting contours. The reclining figure for me is not enforcing passivity, but creates energy, casting our mind back to Creation and Eve’s ‘birth’.
But still we are fearful of this alluding to the sensual, we are reserved in our judgements about such things, because our sensitivities are influenced by conservative moralisers, the new ‘Judaizers’ of this present age. We find it difficult to break free from such prudish persuasion.
Deborah Keiller: ‘I love to celebrate the human form in all its diversity & uniqueness and find studying it an invaluable way to improve both my observational skills and practical technique. (Much the same way a musician practises scales I guess!) I take into consideration our bodies being an indivisible part of our personalities, our heritage and history, our dreams & aspirations, our weaknesses, our strengths, our spiritual journey. In doing so I will often ‘read’ these elements and translate them as I work into something equally tangible and visible. I am aware that some Christians struggle with the concept of life-drawing, viewing it as perverse or voyeuristic. Is this a hangover from our Victorian past? In the words of someone inspirational who has gone before me, ‘I feel God’s pleasure as I (not run but) draw’! And I hope that in due course my work, in its various forms, will too bring glory to God!’
Figure 2, 'Blue Nude' by Deborah Keiller. Lino Cut, 2010. Used with permission of the artist.
Deborah responded to my question re the changes in the image (figure 2):
‘I didn’t think the image worked as just the nude alone… she looked ‘lost in space’ and very vulnerable… so I remember exploring the potential of the lino’s surface by creating something more decorative to contain her and make her look more protected and enclosed. My primary aim was to produce something eye-catching and hopefully saleable. I played about with various colour combinations and tissue-paper collages to get an effect I was happy with.’
The physical and the spiritual
If salvation is moving from the physical to the spiritual, then why did God create such a sensual paradise and populate it with naked people? If salvation is a purely spiritual matter, then why did the Word become flesh and move into our neighbourhood? Why didn’t the Word become concept and call for our inward, intellectual conviction or ‘spiritual’ obedience? In fact, within the competing stories of Origins, Creation has a much more sensual appeal than something crawling out of the sludge pool of Darwinism!
Our problem is one of an adequate response. We fear that our faith will be contaminated by such sensuality. How will we draw the line between the sensual and the erotic? Between nudity in art and pornography? Suggesting of course that there is nothing in-between, that there is only the ‘polar’ opposite? This would suggest a very immature worldview and understanding of art, an adolescent embarrassment of intimacy, replete with blushes at inappropriate moments.
Spirituality and Sensuality
There is a strong link between spirituality and sensuality. Our view of sensuality is informed by where we place the origin of our spiritual narrative; at which part of the grand narrative we find our most human essence. If we start at Creation, sensuality is not problematic, but an integral part of our story and worldview. Creation is good and our origin ‘very good’. However, if we unravel one of the threads, that of Creation and start with the Fall, then we begin with corruption and our view of the sensual will be informed by this. In fact our view of all ‘matter’ will be shaped and coloured by it. Deborah Keiller’s work has its starting point in the thread we know as Creation. If this narrative thread is unravelled, Creation picked out, then the whole story itself disintegrates and loses its coherence for life. Art then becomes a problem, because of its sensual appeal. We have difficulty seeing a purpose for it because it as has its roots in the Fall, in corruption. How on earth then, do the arts reveal something of God’s purpose for our lives? How could the artists ‘calling’ be validated? If you think this way, then your worldview is coloured by the wrong glasses, in fact you are reading a different book!
The sensual and the exotic
In the Song of Songs we read a sensual poem between a bride and her bridegroom. The bodily exuberance of intimacy was quite obvious to its earliest audiences in the court of King Solomon. However, through time, the sensual nature of its language, with its colourful sexual metaphors has been altered, censored so as not to upset a quite different audience, the court in England, of King James 1st. Subsequently we have of course been informed that it is not a poem of earthly love, but of heavenly love between Christ and His Church. We can see the disdain of earthly love and the espousal of a heavenly connection, because sensual love is earthly and devilish; whilst heavenly love is pure, untainted!
Without this Creation-thread running through our narrative, the world becomes an awful place; deplete of goodness, beauty and love. Its ugliness is a sure sign that God will dispose of it and in our final redemption we will lose this messy, fleshy substance and become ‘true’ spiritual creatures.
This unravelling affects our creativity, as we erase many ‘incompatible’ themes from our reading of scripture. Our moral vision is out of focus with a coherent scriptural vision for the spiritually and aesthetically attuned artist. [See my ‘The Plot thickens when Stirred’., which reveals how a prudish aesthetic, limits the scope of our storytelling.]
Impossible Redemption
However, if we lose this Creation element then our consummation is not possible. Cosmic redemption, whereby the whole of Creation is redeemed and renewed is impossible. Only when the whole of the tapestry is laid out, can we see the full story and the joy that is set before us. Deborah Keiller’s work reminds us of our Origins and projects the story’s resolution; our consummation. It starts with the heavenly source (in the heart of God) and points to our earthly home, the place of our current sojourn as well as its need for renewal. With this in mind, we need more artists to help with this remembering.
To forget Creation, is to lose sight of our full redemption and renewal. We are created from Love and for Love. If however, we view our physical creation as part of ‘evil matter’ then this gives credence to all sorts of problems; for ecology, human identity and worth. Humanity and creation will be deemed worthy only for our consumption, producing pollution on the one hand and demeaning one another as items for personal consumption, on the other. Human trafficking is no longer a moral problem, but one driven and informed by economics, whereby we call it a trade or industry.
It is the same for ‘Christian Art’, it is just a label, a noun and not a descriptive adjective. Let’s just call it art which expresses a Christian spirituality. It is not the content which denotes it as Christian, but the spirit which informs the aesthetic which does so. Filling a canvas or film-frame, stanza or page with ‘Christian’ symbols does not make the work Christian!
In a wider cultural context, the Postmodern nihilistic disdain for ‘matter’ leads us to the abyss whereby everything is negotiable; everything has a price, but no value. Sexuality and sensuality are only additional labels for niche markets and commercial branding. Our appetite for dissipation knows no apparent end. We must take responsibility for this and develop Creational visions of identity and worth, of human joy and fulfilment in the Covenant of Love.
The art of remembering
The art of remembering our Origin helps us to understand the purposes of our lives. The tapestry needs to be further enriched with new threads, rather than unravelling it through destructive worldviews and practices. This erosion merely destroys our memory of the Image in which we were made.
For the spiritual artist, there is a need to indwell this narrative fully, so that our work reflects the expansive nature of the story. Through this story we can discern the joy of our Creation, our potential for depravity, but also the exuberance and richness of redemption. Too often we have reduced salvation to something for the soul and tied it together with the anticipation of the destruction of all earthly matter. Community follows this denigration by its sub-summation (and not consummation) into the cold embrace of the institution; flesh turns to stone. If we understand the implications of this, perhaps we can rectify our practices as artists and embrace the very essential relationship between aesthetics, spirituality and sensuality, as well as reject art as a utilitarian means for ideological propaganda. We can add to this pornography and the consumption of the human image along with the person represented in the image. Our art making must be informed by our art living. That living is never disconnected from other artists, but flourishes in human, creative contact, where the sensual meets the spiritual.
Geoff Hall was born in Hartlepool, the industrial North-East of England and during the recession of the 1980’s struggled to find employment. In 1987, he moved with his wife Jeanette and son Mark to Bristol where he studied for a degree in History and Art History. His dissertation was on the ‘Iconoclastic Disorders of the 16th Century’. He has subsequently received a degree (MPhil) in art education, wherein his thesis remodelled the curriculum for art along cultural narrative threads.
He has been a writer for over 15years, part of which was spent as the Arts Editor for The Big Picture magazine under the Editorialship of Dr Craig Bartholomew. Ten years ago he started a mentoring group for artists, after an art student at his church was told by her tutor that ‘her faith was inappropriate’ for a student at the college! The Group, as it is called, now covers word, image and performance arts and Geoff works with Christians who are misunderstood by their church, or rejected by secularised institutions of art and learning.
He is now a published author with Chris Lorensson’s Upptacka Press and has four books in a series called ‘Spiritual Direction in a Postmodern Landscape’ which will all be published in 2011.
With Tim Woodford, he has a film company, Handy Cloud Productions and in 2009 made their first film ‘One’, which they took to Los Angeles; where it received ‘critical acclaim’. They are seeking new adventures together, to counter the nihilistic spirit apparent in many European films today.