Reflecting on “Good Friday”

It is gratifying to report that an article I wrote appeared in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of Aquinas Institute of Theology‘s Signatures magazine. (In the interest of full disclosure I must note that I am presently in graduate studies at AI.) You can find the article online here (it begins on page 9 of the PDF file).

I was invited to write on the intersection of art and religion, drawing on my experiences working at MOCRA. Had I been asked a year prior, I would probably have written generally about the museum’s mission and the ground we’ve covered in our exhibitions. But coming on the heels of MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition, I knew just where I wanted to go with the article.

“The Presence of God in Art” describes the power that Good Friday held for several groups who engaged with the art as a form of theological reflection and prayer. Over the course of almost 15 years I have given presentations to dozens of groups of all ages and from all walks of life. Often the observations made, and the discussion they spark, can be quite revelatory, both about the work of art at hand and about the people making the remarks. However, there was a marked difference with the group discussions that took place with Good Friday.

An explicit invitation to approach the art in an attitude of meditation or prayer seemed to unlock a door for a number of our visitors who, even in a group setting, were willing to make themselves quite vulnerable in sharing their reflections about the art. These discussions also left me feeling more exposed than usual in my role as docent/moderator, both in receiving the visitors’ observations, and in leaving my accustomed “neutral” stance regarding the work to express more openly some of my personal responses.

I invite you to read the article and share your responses. For instance,

  • If you saw the Good Friday exhibition, did you experience responses similar to those I describe in the article?
  • Does the idea of approaching art this way leave you feeling ambivalent or even opposed?
  • Could (or should) something like this take place in a “public” art museum?
  • Or do MOCRA’s particular mission and setting on a university campus give us latitude to do things other institutions can’t safely attempt?
  • Given that Good Friday has a clearly Christian point of departure, and that the groups I described were coming from a standpoint of Christian faith, is this sort of exhibition and approach to art transferable to art from other faith traditions?

You might reply to this post, or you can e-mail me through MOCRA’s website. If I receive enough interesting responses, I’ll incorporate them into a future post.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Bob the Blogger

MOCRA is one of a number of arts organizations located in St. Louis’ Grand Center district. Over the past few years, we’ve been working together with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and the Sheldon Art Galleries (all in Grand Center), along with the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Kemper Art Museum, Laumeier Sculpture Park, White Flag Projects, and Boots Contemporary Art Space, to promote awareness of and participation in the visual arts community in St. Louis.

One recent result of this collaboration is the Saint Louis Art Map blog. Here’s the current mission statement:

This collaborative blog aims to fill a void in the online art world by becoming a place for information and critical discussion about the non-profit visual fine arts in St. Louis.  Topics are focused on art and institutions with a national and international emphasis, and places them within the local context of St. Louis’ thriving and diverse visual arts community.  Through partnerships with guest bloggers, as well as behind-the-scenes posts from institution curators, directors, staff members, visiting artists, etc., the combination of first-party and third-party sources provides information from a wide range of viewpoints.

In a world where cultural coverage continues to shrink, this collaborative blog hopes to inform visitors – both in and out of town – of our activities and to foster discussion in and about our city.

It’s a work in progress, to be sure–take a look and give us your feedback.

Meanwhile, you can also read a blog post by our Museum Assistant, Bob Sullivan, reflecting on the resonances between the current exhibitions at MOCRA and the Pulitzer. It’s on the Pulitzer’s blog (2Buildings1Blog), which also features posts from the Contemporary.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Good Friday exhibition extended

In response to numerous requests from visitors, MOCRA has extended the exhibition Good Friday through May 17, 2009.

MOCRA’s hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Don’t miss this additional opportunity to experience one of MOCRA’s most popular shows ever!

More info about the exhibition is available here.

Good Friday on Good Friday

It seems that every time I post I’m explaining the infrequency of our updates. But I’m pleased to say it’s just because we have been so busy.

The “Art and the Religious Imagination” conference was well received. Pamela Ambrose and Gerald Bolas gave distinct but complementary reflections on the way art museums can present the religious art in their collections in innovative ways. Charles Bouchard used the works in Good Friday to examine theological thought on the question of human suffering. (Sadly, Kevin Burke had to cancel due to a family emergency, but we anticipate inviting him back next spring.) A dynamic question-and-answer session followed, with some excellent insights from audience members.

A few pictures are included below, and we’ll try to have summaries of the talks available soon.

In the meantime, we are preparing for Good Friday on Good Friday. MOCRA’s Easter weekend hours are:

Friday, April 10, 2009 (Good Friday) 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, April 11, 2009 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m
Sunday, April 12, 2009 (Easter) closed

To our readers observing Pesach or Holy Week, we wish you a season of peace and holiness.

Wrestling with Veronica’s Veil

Today we have our first guest blog. Thanks to Courtney Henson, MFA, Visitor Services Manager at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts for this commentary on a work by Daniel Goldstein. (Be sure to check out the PFA’s great blog, along with the blog of the PFA’s next-door-neighbor, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, at 2 Buildings – 1 Blog.

*****

The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky cross-referenced with Icarian XI/Leg Extension by Daniel Goldstein:

After visiting Good Friday at MOCRA, I found attachments to several works — mostly those involving textile media or found objects and at this particular show, mostly dealing with the topic of HIV/AIDS.

A few days later, I found myself confronted with the story of Randy “the Ram” in The Wrestler and thinking back to Icarian XI/ Leg Extension. Between the workout scenes in The Wrestler, Randy’s overly tanned skin and the allusions of him toward Jesus, I kept thinking back to the leather seat because of its original life as an overworked piece of equipment. The seat now transcends that life and has this residue that shows its hard work — the stains of those who used it have become its stigmata.

When contemporary art finds an even more contemporary reference, I feel it proves the power of the work of art. When Randy shows off his scars to his friend, Cassidy (played by Marisa Tomei), Cassidy quotes a line from The Passion and draws parallels to Randy as a type of Christ figure. Certainly Randy, with his long blond hair and Jesus tattoo on his lower back, emulates a figure who aims to redeem himself.

from left: Luis González Palma, "El Santo Sudario" (1989); Daniel Goldstein, "Icarian XI/Leg Extension" (1993); Georges Rouault, "By His Stripes We Are Healed," from the series "Miserere et Guerre" (1922)
from left: Luis González Palma, "El Santo Sudario" (1989); Daniel Goldstein, "Icarian XI/Leg Extension" (1993); Georges Rouault, "By His Stripes We Are Healed," from the series "Miserere et Guerre" (1922)

The artwork by Goldstein similarly shows the struggles played out by the human body for the sake of becoming more godlike, at least by contemporary society’s standards. The work is composed of a leather covering for a workout bench, the brand name Icarian. The covering was salvaged from a gym in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood at a pivotal time during the AIDS epidemic. The piece is housed in a shadow box and displayed like a shrine. In this memorial, the leather is deeply scarred from use; years of sweat are seeped into its surface. There are creases and crinkles from where it was wrapped around the bench. The object is powerful in its stains of sweat, alluding to the story of Veronica’s clothIcarian XI/Leg Extension seems to have the faint image of a portrait; as I write this, I find my reflection placed in its outline — reminding me of the importance of placing myself in the shoes of others.

I would entreat you to view two things this week: The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky, and Icarian XI/Leg Extension by Daniel Goldstein at MOCRA.

We’ve been busy: Part 2

In addition to preparing our “Reflecting on Good Friday” booklet, we’ve been assembling a conference, to be held on March 29, 2009. Titled “Art and the Religious Imagination,” it will feature a panel of distinguished museum directors and theologians discussing the roles that secular and religious art museums can play in the presentation of art with spiritual and religious content. Panelists will also explore how spiritual and religious art has the potential to invite viewers into a deeper interior journey.

You can find a list of the panelists and the titles of their talks on the MOCRA website.

I’m hopeful that some of the concerns I mentioned in my previous post about the booklet will be considered during the discussion. For instance,  how does an institution produce reflection materials that have a chance of speaking to a broad range of visitors? Can such materials cross the borders between different faiths, or even different spiritualities within one tradition? How are specificity and universality balanced in such materials?

If you will be in St. Louis on March 29, please join us from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. and add your voice to the proceedings.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

We’ve been busy: Part 1

It’s been another busy stretch at MOCRA. The response to Good Friday has been tremendously positive, with a higher-than-usual number of groups scheduling visits. We’ve also been busy with two projects:

MOCRA's "Good Friday" booklet
MOCRA's "Good Friday" booklet

The first, supported by a grant from the VOICES project at Saint Louis University (funded by the Lilly Endowment), is a booklet of reflections on the artwork in Good Friday for use by visitors who wish to approach the exhibition in an attitude of meditation or prayer. The booklet takes a different approach from our wall texts/didactics. While those provide relatively “neutral” information about the iconography of the work or the artist’s expressed intent, the booklet explicitly puts the works in a (Christian) faith context. You can see a sample page on the MOCRA website.

This is something we’ve been interested in trying for a while now — bridging art appreciation with theological reflection and catechesis (religious education) — and this exhibition presented an excellent opportunity to experiment. So far feedback has been encouraging.

The challenge ahead will be to develop similar resources for future exhibitions (which may not have such clearly religious themes) and for visitors of other faith traditions. Also, we will be exploring what sorts of activities are “appropriate” in a museum setting–either sponsored by the institution, or simply permitted?

We’d welcome feedback from our blog readers. If you would like a copy of the booklet, send us a message with your snail mail address and we’ll send one your way.

[contact-form]

–David Brinker, Assistant Director