Transcribed and edited by Katie D
Jesus takes us to a place of discomfort because He goes into the darkness. He's going after people who are lost. He's on the hunt and we need to follow Him - Bruce Herman
In 2017 we chatted with noted painter, speaker and author Bruce Herman. He has been a professor and curator of exhibitions at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts since 1984. Here he speaks of artists, scandal, hospitality and the crossing of borders…
As a kid, I was fascinated by Jesus and also by Dracula. Not equally. I love Jesus and I was afraid of Dracula, but I thought about them both a lot. It never occurred to me until I was an adult why that might be. Jesus shed His blood and gave it for us to drink so we can have enteral life. Vampires, like Dracula, drink our blood so they can live. Dracula is an inverted Christ figure. It’s a bizarre example, but lots of artists find themselves irresistibly drawn to thinking about things that people really find weird or uncomfortable.
However, that's where Jesus Christ went, to where we really are—in utter darkness. Jeremiah speaks about understanding that the human heart is desperately wicked and dark. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV). Only God can really know it. We don't even understand our own motives or our own hearts. Part of the job of the artist—the composer, the poet, etc.—is to bring light into the darkness. The only way to do that is by entering into the darkness. That's what Christ did.
The job of every Christian, not just artists, is to follow Jesus. It’s not going to be an easy ride. Jesus warns his followers about it: “Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.' Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head'" (Matthew 8:19-20, NIV). Jesus is an itinerant, a misfit. He’s not welcomed. He tells His disciples the only place He’s going is a place they won’t want to follow—He’s going to be crucified. Following Jesus is not a comfy, middle-class preoccupation. It’s not a cosy religion.
Part of the artist’s job is to remind our brothers and sisters, whom we love, of this. There is a tendency to settle into really comfy lives and mistake that for being the way of Christ. But it isn’t. The way of Christ might lead you into the inner city to deal with drug neighbourhoods or gangs. It might lead you into politics to deal with dishonest, manipulative, self-serving creatures. In my case, it brought me into the world of the arts.
Elegy For Bonhoeffer 2002, oil on wood with gold leaf; 72" x 48", collection of Messiah College
Embrace the Sublime
It is important to embrace the ambiguities because there's so much of our lives that live outside the threshold of conscious, definable, propositional truth. Artists have to deal with that. It’s incredibly beautiful but also incredibly dark at times—at least, this side of eternity. All Christians have to deal with the full-orbed embrace of truth and beauty—complex beauty, broken beauty; not beauty that fits into the category of "prettiness."
This kind of beauty is closer in English to the word "sublime”—a terrifying kind of beautiful, like mountain peaks, canyons and crevasses. They're beautiful but they're also deadly. Cloud bursts, rainbows, thunderstorms, lightning strikes—they're beautiful, but in a sublime way. The temple, the tabernacle before that, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire—it was awe-inspiring. In Exodus 20, the Israelites were so terrified of God’s presence, they told Moses, "You go talk to God. We don't want to talk to Him. He scares us.”
Annunciation 2002, oil on wood with silver leaf; 110" x 72", private collection
Art for All Purposes
Art, like many other things in life, has different purposes. One of the roles art can play is to welcome people again into a place of awe, into a place of receptivity to the glory of God—which is not a tame glory. It's not sentimental, not safe. It should signal to us that we are vulnerable and coming into a space that is holy and therefore should take off our shoes, so to speak. Part of the purpose of worship is to break down our familiarity with God and remind us we're not dealing with a strictly human presence, even though He came to us as human. We need to refresh our understanding of how radical the incarnation is. In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the Greek word skandalon, which means ‘scandal,’ to describe the Messiah dying on a cross. The church needs art that leads us to recapture that sense of scandal.
The art world is more open to this kind of probing at the edges than most church communities are. If anything, the art world is a little too addicted to edginess. It's not smart or important or useful for artists to simply cross borders for the sake of crossing borders. That's just mindlessly accepting an identity of "I'm an artist so I have to be different." If your honest inquiries as an artist take you into areas of alterity, of strangeness, you need to go there. Not because you like to be different, but because the body of Christ needs your help. They need to be reminded this is not a cosy, comfy, cheap grace. It's costly.
Another role of the artist is a decorative one; art can be celebratory. Through hospitality, we open our lives up to others, creating safe spaces—oases of genuine peace and grace. We artists should get over our sense of loneliness and of being the odd-man out, and instead throw parties for our neighbours. Let’s invite people to a place of celebration, of beauty, a place where they can encounter the complexities of life and still feel spiritually safe. It requires a shift in perspective; let’s host the party instead of waiting for an invitation.
Fixating on culture’s idea that artists don’t fit in is a mistake. There needs to be room in a group or church or society for the person who doesn't quite fit in—because they see things at skew angles. When they tell the truth, they "tell it slant" (Emily Dickinson). Some truths need to be
told indirectly for us to accept them. It takes work because when someone is offbeat, there's friction and discomfort.
Against Chaos 2000, oil on wood; 65" x 48", collection of Taylor University
Take Us Deeper
Jesus takes us to a place of discomfort because He goes into the darkness. He's going after people who are lost. He's on the hunt and we need to follow Him. At the same time, artists need to let down their guard; we can't have a chip on our shoulder. We ought to be the ones who are reaching out, who are hospitable—whether or not we are welcomed into the fold. We should throw really cool parties and welcome people to them, including the Church and including not-the-Church. Let’s create places to celebrate the gratuitous beauty that surrounds us and explore God’s mystery. Artists should be producing astounding, mysterious and provoking works that take us to a place where our hearts are broken in a right way and we start to care again.
Herman lives and works in the Boston area. His art has been exhibited nationally in most major cities and internationally in Italy; Israel, UK, Japan, Hong Kong, and Canada. Herman’s art is in public and private collections including the Vatican Museum in Rome; Cincinnati Museum of Fine Arts; the Hammer Museum, Grunwald Print Collection, LA; Cape Ann Museum, and in university galleries throughout the United States and Canada. Herman holds the Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts at Gordon College where has has taught and curated exhibitions since 1984.
This is the first in an occasional series from the OM arts archives. This article first appeared in ‘Vivid’ Magazine, December 2017.