While teaching freshman-level Foundations of Art this year, I made the curriculum decision to base our units on a general study of Art History. I introduced the year with the basics of art practice: elements of art and design, compositional layouts, color theory, and conceptual basis. But once we completed a quick look at those foundational concepts, I jumped straight into the earliest artworks found in the Lascaux Caves of France and Mesopotamian masterpieces. We read about and observed artworks from every great art era, including the adept woodblock prints from parts of Asia, the stark contrasted lighting in Rembrandt’s portraits, the historical and Biblical paintings that were revered as the highest form of art practice, and even the strange and misunderstood Jackson Pollock monstrosities.
Unit after unit, I always ended my lectures with the same questions, hoping to allow the students to make connections on their own through critical thinking. I would ask what I called “Context Questions”. Where are we in the world? What else is going on during this time? And what was the necessity for art for this people group? Some units, the students jumped at the questions easily, hearing of the surrounding events of World War I and II to launch groups like the Dadaists and Surrealists, and understand the need for expression to make some sense of the crumbling world. Other units, the students were puzzled and couldn’t quite grasp why cultures would produce the artwork they did for their time period and what lives they lived.
We recently reached the pinnacle of what I was hoping the students would gain through this laborious year. We finished identifying a few color field paintings from Newman in Abstract Expressionism, and a student stopped me and said, “Mrs. Spare, what is the purpose of all of this? Why do we care about art through history? Shouldn’t this class just be about making art, not about studying other peoples’ art that I’m not even sure took them much time or skill?”
It was happening. They were asking why. And I was beaming.
I opened up the class for discussion and asked the other students their thoughts. “Well, what is the point? Did we waste our time this year?” Some nodded their heads with scowls on their face because they felt they had to complete an unfair amount of work in my class for just an elective, but others started to ponder and answer in understanding. Through art, we see a constant evaluation of what art must be – a constant amendment made to the “Art Creed”.
My intention in teaching my students this way was for a recognition of historical liturgy in art. If I had stopped at teaching my students one “Art Creed” – a list of rules and practices for every art piece made that was forever in stone – they would have found the constraints of creation in their own art practice to be evermore stifling. But as we look at art through the ages, we get to see its freedom of creating to fill the necessity of art based on that specific time’s culture. And we keep looking at art’s evolution to allow it to fit every time and place.
The practice of reading the Apostle’s Creed, or stating what we believe in the church, is a good practice. It is a practice that turns our hearts to remember and relive the Gospel. But stating our beliefs is greater than just a mnemonic trick for our brains. It is a shaping tool to help us live into the fully revealed mystery, not something that is evolving and slowly given to us in tidbits of understanding, like the history of Art. When we state our beliefs, we step into the freedom found in the constraints of love. God doesn’t give us a Creed with limitations that doesn’t account for our world, our lives, and even our current time. God gives us a Creed that gives forgiveness and love fit for all time, that unites us because we all need it. When we state our beliefs, we allow our story to be written outside ourselves, and we repeat it so that we might remember its historical liturgy: Christ’s sacrifice is real and we are inheriting that story.