The art of dying

Artist Tobi Kahn, who has a long association with MOCRA (including the exhibitions Metamorphoses and Avoda: Objects of the Spirit) , was featured in a recent New York Times article on the role art can play in the dying process. (Read the article here.) As he relates in the article, Kahn found that through his artwork he was able to provide a measure of solace to his mother as she lay in the hospital during her final days. From that experience, Kahn was inspired to consult with clergy members, hospice workers and funeral directors about what qualities in art would be comforting to people who are dying.

Expressing through his work both the pain of suffering and the hope for healing is not new ground for Kahn, who has completed a number of commissions for hospices, hospitals and memorial chapels, along with several Holocaust memorials. And, as MOCRA has demonstrated amply in exhibitions such as Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, The Greater Good: An Artist’s Contemporary View of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Robert Farber: A Retrospective, 1985-1995, Junko Chodos: The Breath of Consciousness, Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art, Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre, and Lewis deSoto: Paranirvana, numerous contemporary artists confront the reality of suffering and death in their work.

MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., was interviewed for the New York Times article. He remarks, “One of the common bonds across traditions is the human concern with suffering, love, mortality, immortality. The role of religious art at the end of life is that it helps us focus on what’s really important–an interior healing, even if there is no physical healing, and finally a sense of gratitude.”

I am struck, though, that Kahn is creating art for this privileged point in people’s lives with a measure of intentionality. While many (if not most) health care facilities select art that will be soothing to its patients, and even commission specific works of art and even sculpture gardens or meditation rooms, I wonder how often that art is considered from the perspective of those who know that death is near, that there is no further physical healing to be expected. How can art contribute to palliative care? How can it complement the services of chaplains and hospice workers in accompanying people as they approach the end of life?

Samuel Freedman, the author of the article, suggests that Kahn’s works “subscribe at least loosely to the Judaic concept of ‘hiddur mitzvah,’ sanctifying something (a commandment, if one is literal) by beautifying it.” Amidst all the trappings of current American healthcare–cutting edge technology, powerful pharmaceuticals, agonizing contention over how to pay for treatments–can all parties in their own ways help to beautify, and thereby sanctify, the process of dying?

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

The long Good Friday

MOCRA is extending the exhibition Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art through May 16, 2010.

Now, this may strike the liturgically inclined as a bit of a disconnect, since we are now into the Easter season. What sense is there in stretching out an exhibition that focuses so squarely on the events of the Passion?

While the works in Good Friday focus on themes such as suffering, injustice, and death, they also explore complementary themes of healing, redemption, and renewal. In other words, the experience of Easter is implicit in all of these works, and even explicitly hinted at in several of them, such as this painting by Nick Boskovich titled Emmaus: Rose of the Passion (Requiem for Caravaggio):

Nick Boskovich, Emmaus: Rose of the Passion
Nick Boskovich, "Emmaus: Rose of the Passion (Requiem for Caravaggio)", 2007.

So, although at first blush it may seem jarring to come see a show titled Good Friday during the Easter season, we believe that the works in the show offer important perspectives on the deeper meaning of suffering and redemption.

Furthermore, one of the most-commented upon aspects of this exhibition is the invitation it offers to visitors to allow the works to become gateways to contemplation, meditation, and even prayer. Close to 100 visitors made the exhibition part of their Good Friday observance last week. As a former chapel, MOCRA’s architecture itself fosters an atmosphere of calm and reflection. We don’t believe the practice of this sort of reflection with art is bound by time or season.

Now you have a couple more weeks to explore this rich exhibition for yourself. Find out more about Good Friday here.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

“Good Friday” comes to “America”

Cover of America magazine, Mar. 1, 2010MOCRA’s exhibition Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art, is featured in the March 1, 2010 issue of America magazine. The article by MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, titled “Lenten Mysteries: Perspectives on the Passion in contemporary art,” can be read online here.

In the article, Fr. Dempsey discusses why Good Friday has returned to MOCRA, and explores the ongoing relevance of the image of the suffering Christ for contemporary artists and viewers.

What is your reaction to the article? Do you agree that the image of the wounded Christ is still relevant? Have centuries of use denatured its power, or strengthened it? Have other images perhaps superseded it? Please share your thoughts with us.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

On the air with Michael Byron and Fr. Dempsey

Yesterday afternoon I sat in on an interview with MOCRA’s Director, Fr. Terrence Dempsey, S.J., and Michael Byron. We were at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, and host John Launius was recording the interview for the Saint Louis Art Map: On the Air podcast (available on iTunes or as XML).

The conversation was wide ranging, from broad questions about the potential for art to lead the viewer to an encounter with mystery, to specific questions about the genesis of the Cosmic Tears series and the interplay of text and image in Michael Byron’s work. I was particularly intrigued by Byron’s observations about the transition from the solitary environment of the studio to the public display of work in a museum, and the effect the public setting has on the art and the artist, as well as how he sees his work situated in the grand terrain of art history.

The podcast will be available online early next week, and we’ll have links to it from the MOCRA website…but I encourage you to subscribe to the Art Map podcast and stay up-to-date on the contemporary art scene in St. Louis. It’s an important contribution to the St. Louis arts scene, especially given the increasing paucity of print media coverage, and a great complement to the Saint Louis Art Map blog.

Sitting in on the interview whetted my appetite for Michael Byron’s talk at MOCRA on Sunday, November 15, 2009, at 2 p.m. I’m looking forward to hearing him expand on some of his comments from yesterday, and to hear what questions audience members want to pose about his work. More details about the talk are found here. We hope to see you there.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

The principle at hand

Today I am at MOCRA. This is my 42nd day of work in row.* I am tired, but happy. This type of work in the arts is incredibly important to me. The Cosmic Tears exhibit  is a good one and Michael Byron will be speaking about his work on November 15th.

A few weeks ago, two men entered the museum and began looking around. The taller of the two asked me if I was an artist. I said yes. He said that he and his friend were both former students of Michael Byron. We then began discussing the two statements that Byron wrote to go with exhibit:

Cosmic Tears

The Universal Principal upon seeing its Creation, realized

the potential humanity could exert on the world. The very

thought caused a torrent of the tears – one for each man, woman,

and child. Each tear contained all the joy, pain, and sorrow each

person’s life would hold. To this day a cosmic tear is shed at the

birth of each child. It is the womb of our psyche. Our task is to shape that tear into

Meaning.

And on the opposite wall it reads again with a tiny change:

Cosmic Tears

The Universal Principle upon seeing its Creation, realized

the potential humanity could exert on the world. The very

thought caused a torrent of the tears – one for each man, woman,

and child. Each tear contained all the joy, pain, and sorrow each

person’s life would hold. To this day a cosmic tear is shed at the

birth of each child. It is the womb of our psyche. Our task is to shape that tear into

Meaning.

Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears, at MOCRA, Fall 2009.
"Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears," at MOCRA, Fall 2009.

We talked about the definitions of principal and principle. We wondered about the words that were obviously purposefully capitalized. We then concluded that there was something intentional about the isolation and capitalization of “Meaning” at the end of the statements. We decided nothing concrete, but the conversation was enjoyable.

To me, I see a hint of Buddhism when I think of the bittersweet birth of a child. It is a happy occasion, but there is also sadness for me. I know the potential suffering that awaits the child. Buddhists wish to end human suffering and it seems that with each birth inevitably come more suffering and pain.

I am happy at the coming birth of my little girl. I am also worried about the pains life holds for her. Is this a cosmic tear? Or is this a cause of the tears? I think I see what Bryon is saying here…

— Bob Sullivan, Museum Assistant

* Not all of them at MOCRA. Bob has a busy teaching schedule as well! — ed.

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

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