Serious Faith, Serious Art

By   /  January 26, 2011  /  4 Comments

An interview with Cameron Anderson, executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts | CIVA

Cameron Anderson became the executive director of CIVA in February, 2009, after 30 years of campus ministry leadership with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. A longtime member of CIVA’s board of directors, Cam has been involved in a wide range of the organization’s programs, and he is also an artist in his own right having completed an M.F.A. in painting and drawing from Cranbrook Academy of Art. In 2005 he co-edited, with Sandra Bowden, Faith & Vision: Twenty Five Years of Christians in the Visual Arts (Square Halo). His book, tentatively titled Artists in Evangelical America, is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press.

 

For those who don’t know about CIVA, please describe its mission.

During CIVA’s Board of Directors meeting in October 2009, we revisited our mission. And while our organization’s overarching purpose has not changed since its founding in 1979, during those days we dedicated a generous amount of time to sharpen our focus. Three priorities emerged.

First, CIVA regards creative work as a high calling. Not infrequently, Christians involved in the arts—especially the visual arts—harbor serious doubts about whether or not their pursuits are a worthy vocation. While it is relatively easy to believe that heeding the call to be a pastor or a doctor or a teacher or a parent is important, by comparison an investment in the visual arts can seem dubious. CIVA believes that the artist and her work is an essential feature of any healthy community or culture. But more than that, we regard both the act of making and what is made as part and parcel of a holy calling. Those who sense this call should heed it.

Second, CIVA is devoted to the church. We believe that the church is God’s primary means of working out his purposes in the world. Historically, the church has had a primary role in sponsoring and encouraging the arts, even as the arts have powerfully aided the church. It is time to renew this kind of reciprocity. At the same time we also recognize that we no longer live in the world of fifteenth-century Florence. Consequently, the concerns of artists living in the twenty-first century may need to radically depart from those that occupied a painter like Fra Angelico, even as their gratitude for this heritage increases.

Third, CIVA is present in the culture. We want to see the Christian presence in the art world—museums, galleries, publications, historians, critics, theologians, and artists—increase. This is consonant with Jesus’ reminder to his first-century followers that they were salt and light in the world. Ever since, all who belong to the Body of Christ are called to embrace this same posture.

An apt summary of these three priorities might be this: CIVA is about serious faith and serious art.

“Liminal” by Cameron Anderson

Do all CIVA artists make biblical-themed or liturgical art?

For the most part our membership consists of arts professionals who hold to a Christian world and life view. From this perspective they go on to create, collect, research, speak, and write. This Christian worldview leads some to depict biblical narratives, create objects for spiritual contemplation, or produce liturgical objects. I consider these kinds of objects and spaces “Christian art.” But CIVA has an equal and perhaps greater number of members who do not feel called to produce Christian art, at least not in this narrower sense. Rather, they may paint the figure, create installations, install public sculptures, or pursue traditional crafts without obvious reference to Christian themes. I’d like to maintain the balance in CIVA between these several ways of working and believe that it adds to the organization’s vitality.

What can CIVA offer to artists who feel isolated or alienated, either from the church and the art world?

It is very difficult to live and work in isolation. A primary benefit that we offer our members and friends is the possibility of connection. When persons attend a CIVA conference, submit work to one of our juried exhibits, read our journal, or gather in their local communities, they enter into a national and even international conversation. The point is, organizations like CIVA really do help people get connected and sometimes at a very deep level. It is my hope that we will continue to improve in this area. It is important, very important.

With that end in view, we have just launched a new website. Our members will soon be able to have their own pages on the CIVA site and can, in turn, post images, artist statements, contact information, and links to their websites.

Since you first became involved with CIVA, what changes have you seen in Christians’ engagement with the arts both in the church and in the secular culture?

I am, by nature, a “glass-half-full” person, an optimist. Having admitted this, it seems to me that we are witnessing a new day—an art and faith movement unlike anything that occurred in the past century. Forty years ago, especially in the more conservative parts of the Protestant church, there were only a few books on art and faith—notably by writers such as Francis Schaeffer, H. R. Rookmaker, and Madeline L’Engle—and no supportive national organizations. Today, this landscape has been transformed! There is interest and support on many fronts including, but not limited to, books and blogs, conferences and journals, arts-related undergraduate and graduate programs, and local and national exhibits. The hope, of course, is that all of this will generate better art, a more informed art discourse, and more support for the arts generally.

“Safe Passage-Spring” by Cameron Anderson

Regarding the church, increasingly worshipers want to experience mystery and metaphor, not just apologetic argument. They sense that the arts can help them with this. At the same time parishioners are not entirely sure what they want from the visual arts and often lack the language needed to discuss this. Nonetheless, whether it is an emergent, mainline, or mega-church congregation, something is happening.

The relationship of Christians to the secular art world is a different matter. To be sure, CIVA desires to see serious artists who are also serious Christians gain a higher profile in the art world, teach at elite art schools and academies, exhibit in world-class galleries and museums, and publish in celebrated journals. But while we are eager to see this happen, it would be arrogant, I think, to suggest that we know how to accomplish this. What we can and must do is to encourage our members to do their best work, enter into the art world discourse with grace and wisdom, and exercise the kind of shrewdness that Jesus affirms in Luke 16:1-9.

What excites you most as you look at the creative work being done by CIVA members?

Two things. On one hand I take great delight in the mature art work and scholarship that some of CIVA’s long-term members are doing. And while it does not necessarily follow that just because one is an accomplished artist she will also be able to speak or write well about her work, when she is able to manage all of this, observing the convergence of these gifts is pure pleasure.

On the other hand, I am equally excited about the imagination of the rising generation and their willingness to engage all kinds of new media and themes, especially social justice. Inevitably, it is important to wrestle with questions of quality, and the kinds of digital tools now widely available add to this urgency. At the end of the day, however, content and the artist’s voice still matter and I think that on both counts the rising generation of artists is on to some very stimulating stuff.

What is your own vision for CIVA? What would you like to see in 5 years or 10 years?

We are a membership organization, and so my hope is that will serve our members more effectively and that our membership numbers will increase. That’s going to be important for us if we hope to generate the kind of capacity we need to accomplish some of the things we would like to do, not least renew the relationship between artists and the church.

 

An important aspect of what CIVA does, and what you do personally, is mentoring. In what ways do young artists and art students need to be mentored, and what advice would you give to someone who feels called to mentor young artists?

The theme of our most recent issue of SEEN Journal is called “Making It,” and it addresses making it in the art world and making art. The journal is chock-full of practical advice—everything from how to find artists residencies, to understanding what kind of work galleries are looking to exhibit. The simple fact is that pursuing a vocation in the arts requires serious effort. What artists on this journey need, then, are people in their lives who can encourage them to take the long view, help them to examine their motivation and find their voice, and, ultimately, nurture their ability to listen to God.

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like readers to take away from this interview?

I believe that the primary reason we are witnessing a resurgence of the visual arts in the church is that there are two things we cannot live without, or at least can’t live very well without, and they are meaning and beauty. Artists help us get at the meaning of things. They’re not the only people who do that: pastors do, teachers do, friends do, parents do. But artists have a role in approaching the “meaning” question and seem to have the knack for digging down beneath the layers to get after deeper realities. If an artist’s work is arresting, then it helps us to “hit the pause button.” Similarly, some artists at least are persons who usher beauty into the world. As men and women who bear the image of God, we possess the deep and abiding sense that there is or ought to be something more, and this is something that artists can help us with.

For Christians, of course, what lies beyond all of this is the glory of God—that is, the truth being revealed to us in Holy Scripture, fully present in Jesus Christ, and ultimately the goodness, truth, and beauty that comes from and resides in our Triune God.

“Hovering Water” by Cameron Anderson

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