Twentieth Anniversary Web Talks Success Continues with Dr. Anne Perry’s Discussion of “Where Spirit Intersects Art”
The Wilmette Institute’s third twentieth-anniversary Web Talk featuring Dr. Anne Perry was yet another success. Dr. Perry illustrated her March 1 talk on “Where Spirit Intersects Art” with many colorful slides of art and architecture from around the world, and poems from Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í poets. The question-and-answer session at the end of the talk was the longest one to date.
Dr. Perry began by saying that the first part of her talk would be more theoretical and the second part, more practical and by hoping that her listeners would “get something from each section.” “Art and religion,” she said, “have had a dynamic and intertwined relationship” for centuries, “providing a fascinating field of study for those interested in either artistic dimensions of religion or religious dimensions of art.” Central to her participation in this discourse, she added, is the core Bahá’í theological principle of progressive revelation, for all Manifestations of God (Messengers, avatars, saviors, and so on) appear to “renew religion and engender developments in the arts and sciences.” Bahá’u’lláh, the most recent Manifestation is no exception, and the Bahá’í writings have more to say about the arts than any of the scriptures of past religions. Among many other things, the Bahá’í writings aver that “All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Among reactions to art, Dr. Perry said, it is helpful to note that over time a particular religion “will have a changing relationship to art,” a perspective easy to lose sight of in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Also, to some “people of faith,” art can be seen as “transgressive” where there are prohibitions that “curtail certain forms or expression” (which helps one to understand recent destructions of Buddhist sculptures). To other people of faith, religion can inspire the production of art (for example, “Buddhist or Hindu sculpture; Jewish music; Christian painting; Islamic calligraphy, poetry, or tilework; Sufi dance; and so forth”).
Then Dr. Perry observed that she feels one of the reasons “that art and religion have a persisting interaction is that the creative process and the mystical experience both require trans-rational states of being.” One can “approach art and religion from a purely theoretical or comparative perspective,” but one’s “study can be enhanced through the experience of doing or even being, as the mystical state might suggest or entail.”
Among the things one should understand about art are these: (1) art “cannot easily be reduced to definition or explanation; (2) art does not contain didactic truth found in science, history, or religion; (3) the truth in art is “relative to the context in which it is voiced”; (4) art “excels at showing us rather than telling us about aspects of the human experience”; (5) art can seldom be produced by a committee, “and the order it seeks is a different kind than that engendered by religious community”; (6) the efficacy in art requires trying it out, which makes experimentation necessary, which, in turn, calls for institutional flexibility; (7) as religion becomes occupied with materialism, its art forms can “give way to banal pictorialism and simple hymns.”
To show how “art might inspire a religious experience or quest,” Dr. Perry read some of the poems of Denise Levertov, who talks about “`art that enfaiths.’” She also mentioned artist Mark Rothko, novelist Fannery O’Connor, painter Mark Tobey, poet Robert Hayden, and many more
As she neared the end of her talk, Dr. Perry quoted a number of passages from the Bahá’í writings about art and the artist, together with passages from visionaries Isador Duncan, Brian Swimme, and Bahá’í poet Roger White, who wrote about the “reconciliation between artist and their world. As Bahá’ulláh foretells, the artists are coming home to claim their place. I urge you: Be there! Welcome them! Bring chocolate!” Dr. Perry ended by noting that “Art and religion, both potent forces in civilization, can be seen as having a profound eternal partnership, capable of things beyond our current imaginings. The future propels us into arenas that are profoundly new and distinctive. Art will help us embrace and make sense of them, especially when interwoven with religion.”
If you missed Dr. Anne Perry’s talk on “Where Spirit Intersects Art” (there were a lot of Ayyam-i-Há events on March 1) or want to listen to it again, click here.
The next Wilmette Institute twentieth-anniversary Web Talk is scheduled for Sunday, April 12, at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The speaker will be Dr. Moojan Momen, who will discuss “The Re-Creation and Utilization of Community’s Memories: Shoghi Effendi and Bahá’í History.” For information on the remaining eight talks, you will find them listed on the Wilmette Institute’s website, http://wilmetteinstitute.org, under the “Web Talk” tab and also in “Save These Dates!” in this issue of the Wilmette Institute eNewsletter.