Russian realist author Leo Tolstoy once said, “Art is not a pleasure, a solace or an amusement; art is a great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man’s reasonable perception into feeling.”
The International Arts Movement (IAM), a New York City-based arts organization, takes Tolstoy’s observation to heart. IAM crosses religious and artistic barriers by encouraging dialogue in society and by acting as “a catalyst to inspire people to hope, engage deeply into the depth of culture’s critical zones and create a world that ought to be,” as per its Web site.
Founded by Makoto Fujimura in 1990, IAM is comprised mainly of volunteers, many of whom are working artists themselves. The group charges that all of society should seek after “the good, the true and the beautiful” in life, through art. And for many, that includes seeking the role religious faith plays in artists’ work.
“(Since art has become so subjective now), it takes a lot of time and energy to get inside the individual artist’s brain and figure out what self-expression they’re getting at,” said Matson Duncan, an arts advocate closely tied to IAM.
“Overall, I can say that, if art is about individualism and self-expression, I think that definitely reflects society now. But I would love to see art say more than, ‘How am I feeling?’ and, ‘Me, me.’ I would like to see more of an expression that relates to the totality of life and human race as a whole,” Duncan said.
But IAM’s mission isn’t just about religion and art; it’s about humanity. Duncan and others at IAM advocate a shift from placing an emphasis on things (the artwork itself, in this case) to one that focuses more on people, for it’s people that inspire others and create change.
“It’s really about art and humanity. If you take the human being, you can’t extrapolate religion out of the human being,” Duncan said. “I guess because (the creation of) art is such a fundamentally spiritual process, it has a real kinship with religion. But they’re still two different aspects of society, and we respect them as such.”
IAM tries to reconcile the divide between artists and the larger community (and in particular, religious sub-communities) by engaging people in the sort of dialogue that crosses these barriers. It’s a sort of cultural-exchange program, Duncan explained.
However, “it takes a lot of patience for people who see the world in different ways due to their own sub-cultural experiences to interact. (But this) enlarges their perspective, and that’s always good,” he said.
He is also trying to change society’s perception of what he calls the “unhealthy, starving artist” mentality.
“I believe in a society that cares for artists in much more rich ways, much more generous ways. When you care for artists in a generously rich way, then you’ll get a generously rich culture,” he said. “In the past, the artist has always been prophet in culture. They had an active role in speaking truth, whatever that may have been, into the community. And because of that, the community sustained them. Artists have the ‘spiritual’ role to make a statement to the community as a whole,” Duncan said.
For Christy Tennant, IAM’s development and public relations chair, true art comes when “we are creating in a way that truly reflects (God, the creator). When this happens, it will not only be true in its content and what it projects in its message, but it will also be beautiful. My vent is that it would be more beautiful than if it didn’t have any sort of faith view.”
As a musician and writer whose Christian faith is fundamental to who she is as a person, Tennant said it’s hard for her to separate faith and art. Faith, though, doesn’t have to be explicit in art.
“(I think) sometimes people confuse what it means for a piece of art to be a Christian piece of art,” she said. “I would not call something a Christian painting just because it had a cross in it, but I wouldn’t call something not a Christian painting just because it didn’t have a cross in it. I would be more inclined to call something a Christian painting because it had a Christian painter because that (faith view) would inform his or her work.”
Though Tennant and her fellow IAM staff members are Christians, the organization itself is not religiously affiliated.
IAM does, however, contain “folks who are absolutely committed to excellence in their art and they’re at the top,” Tennant said. For example, board member James Elaine, who also serves as curator at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, just received the 2008 Ordway Prize – and with it, an award of $100,000 – for his contribution to the art world.
“These are people that, regardless of their faith affiliation, are positioned in the best of the best of places for art venues. But they are also committed to approaching art from this sense of what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. And their understanding of that is fundamentally informed by how they approach everything to be good, true and beautiful, which is informed by their faith,” Tennant said.
Another one of IAM’s goals is to “create the world as it ought to be.” This can be done subtly or in a very blatant way, said Kirk Irwin, secretary and creative resources manager for the organization.
“It’s stereotypically true that art (creates the world) in general – not necessarily the world that ought to be,” he said. “Usually this is the art that many in my tradition would want to censor, not that I want to censor it myself. That’s a blatant way that art affects culture. People get up in arms about it when they don’t understand – or don’t try to understand – art.”
Art should be used to think more deeply about questions of discrimination, poverty, justice and religion, Irwin said. Art is a visual manifestation of someone’s ideas of what’s going on culturally, and as such, should be a method by which to catch things early on.
“When you’re starting to engage the concepts and ideas of art, you’re engaging things upstream. You’re engaging people’s psyches, you’re engaging people’s emotions, you’re engaging people’s wills, and you’re engaging their intellects,” Irwin said. “We want to do that upstream, and that’s why we do it with art.”
Irwin said he encourages people to seek the deeper motives behind art, not simply get up in arms because of the immediate feeling that a work poses some sort of threat. And if they’re still offended by a work of art, the aim should be to enter into dialogue, not simply to be turned off to the work or to become hostile.
“I try to model my life after Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the time, his response was not hostility or feeling like it was a threat, but it was a graciousness to try to understand,” Irwin said. “It’s been my experience that most people’s initial consideration is to not take (the piece) into context. It could be something that visually really offends a person, but there could be motivation behind the piece, and the person could be trying to offend someone in order to get (that person) to move.”