Art moves us. But sometimes we get moved to places we don’t want to go. At some point during Mozart’s Requiem, I am moved to an uncomfortable place. A live performance of the play A Raisin in the Sun made me squirm because of the way it shows race, culture, and the pursuit of wealth. It’s art – it is supposed to move us. Art, after all, is not all roses, water lilies and show-stopping Broadway hits.
A story on National Public Radio caught my attention this week. It might seem strange to hear a story about a painting on the radio but it captured my attention. It’s about an artist who is being sued. Her name is Illma Gore. She made a painting that I find offensive, rude and in quite bad taste. Nevertheless, it moved me – in the way that I was offended and preferred that I had not seen it. The painting is of one of the candidates running for president, naked. The supporters of the candidate have threatened her life and have physically assaulted her on the street. Despite how art might make us feel, expressions are protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. I don’t like what she painted but that doesn’t mean her work should be stopped or that she should threatened and attacked. Distasteful art is still art.
A couple of years ago, there was a protest against police brutality. Using their freedom of expression, angry citizens were marching down a crowded downtown street, all the while being protected by the police. A news reporter asked a police officer how he felt about protecting the marchers. He said they have a right to express their anger; and although he may not see eye to eye with them, his job was protecting their rights.
Art and liturgy go hand in hand. (Liturgy is a fancy word for saying what we do during a church service – the hymns, prayers, readings, sermon and colors for the season) The Oxford Movement in the Church of England in the early to mid-1800’s, among other things, sought to restore beauty and holiness to the liturgy. Even in the 21st century, we are left with colorful decorations, revised liturgies, ancient hymns, processions, and lit candles on the altar as a result of the turning to art in liturgy. Some priests who supported the movement were imprisoned; others were censured or removed from their positions. There were rent-a-mob crowds who destroyed art, broke apart marble altars and interrupted liturgies.
After hearing about what happened to the artist Illma Gore, I wonder if the same could happen to our churches. We don’t all have to like art the same way. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, I think we should all support art and even tolerate that with which we disagree or find distasteful. At our combined service this Pentecost, we are mixing language and liturgy. Although some may prefer a more modern communion prayer, or that others may prefer a more traditional form of the Prayers of the People, I know we will be one in the Spirit. And what a beautiful expression of love of God and neighbor that will be.