We often think of making art like this: we form opinions about the world and learn about what life is like and then, having gained this knowledge and formed these beliefs, we creatively communicate them to others.
But what if this process should be viewed the other way around? What if our art practice should actually be the method we use to gain knowledge of what the world is like?
The painter and writer Makoto Fujimura writes that ‘art is a faithful way of knowing the world’, and compares art to science – as both are methods that help us on our journey towards knowledge. Science strives to understand how thing work inside the confines of the natural world, and art seeks to do the same, but pushing outside those boundaries.
I’d read this a while ago, and thought it interesting, but couldn’t quite see how it would work in practice. However, it all started to make a little more sense when I was at the Brum Sputnik hub a few weeks ago, listening to Sharon Boothroyd talk us through her practice.
Art as getting to know the world
Sharon is a photographer and university lecturer who moved from Birmingham to London about 10 years ago. It was an absolute pleasure to lure her back to her former home city and hear about her artistic journey – particularly how she was actively exploring areas of the world she didn’t understand, and trying to untangle some of the contradictions she recognised within herself.
Since I’ve known her, I’ve been a fan of Sharon’s work, and her project They All Say Please was featured in one of our early Sputnik exhibitions. However, where her early work comprised of carefully arranged set pieces, presented in series of superbly shot images, her more recent work has become much more immersive and expansive.
At the Hub, Sharon focused largely on her latest project, The Subtext of a Dream, which centres around the fictional character Madame Beauvais who is experiencing erotomania (the delusional belief that one is the object of someone’s affection despite that not being true). This character then acts as a springboard for an exploration of madness, hysteria and longing – but it also inspired Sharon into several interlocking projects involving public acts of confession, wallpaper printing, and an enigmatic series of images of water surfaces, accompanied by recompiled fragments of erotic literature.
The works seemed to me very much like the writing of a novel, and it was fascinating to get such a deep insight into the story while it was still unfinished, and with the artist herself unsure where it would take her next.
But as she was working, she was learning. Learning about the abuses of psychotherapy in the past. About the complicity of her own favoured artistic medium, photography, in the historical mistreatment of damaged women. And all along learning about herself.
She is practicing art as a faithful way of knowing the world.
What is a Christian artist?
Alongside this, Sharon sparked an interesting continuation of the perennial question of what it means to be a Christian artist. I’m sure that many are fed up to the back teeth with this conversation, but I honestly don’t think we can ignore it. As Christians, we want to honour Jesus in everything we do, and our artistic practice is no exception. Just because for so many of us, the expectations surrounding ‘Christian art’ have been so restrictive and unhelpful in the past, we shouldn’t stop asking the question of how we can practice our art for God’s glory.
Fortunately, the discussion on this occasion didn’t sink into grievances about how misunderstood Christian creative practitioners can be, and we didn’t just retread all the old conversations either. There were helpful new insights that took the conversation forward.
What was fascinating to me was how Sharon’s body of work showed a real progression in this regard. Early projects like If you get married again, will you still love me? and They All Say Please focused on the effects of divorce and what prayer means to different people respectively. They are thoughtful, beautifully executed projects, and I’m sure any Christian would deem these suitable projects for Christian investigation.
Sharon’s projects show a profound empathy, honesty and humility that is so winsomely Christ-like, I hope all of us catch a little of it in our practices
However, as Sharon has moved away from such generally approved topics, it seemed that her work has become if anything, ‘more Christian’, if such a phrase isn’t totally ridiculous. SW is a simple documentation of the characters, buildings and wildlife that make up South West London. It demonstrates a care for local community that sadly is so rare in many Christians, particularly middle-class ones, who see their local areas as mission fields, but not as communities to respectfully enter and try to learn from.
She also showed us works from a collaborative project with a number of people with learning difficulties, exploring their experience of employment. Throughout this project (as well as her ongoing adventures with Madame Beauvais) there is a profound empathy, honesty and humility that is so winsomely Christ-like, it is something I hope that all of us who were present catch a little of in our own diverse practices. If that isn’t Christian art, I’m not sure what is.
As if this wasn’t enough, proceedings were rounded off by performances by Charlotte Young, Barrowclough and David Blower and we even got a pre-premiere premiere of Mantis’ new music video. Oh, and Catriona Heatherington performed a poem that she’d written during the afternoon that quite brilliantly summed up Sharon’s presentation and our ensuing discussion.
All in all, another fantastic Brum Sputnik hub. Keep your eyes peeled for the next meet up in the New Year.