Sensuality and Spirituality

by Geoff Hall on November 20, 2010

Introduction: There is little left, only traces of a christian spirituality, free from institutional control.  The institution has occluded a radical community for the development of a spirituality which embraces the arts as culturally formative and sensually evocative.
When I visit the institution I’m always reminded of my sinful condition, always in need of repentance, always unclean.  We are seldom it seems, encouraged to see the ‘new creation’ of our rebirth; newly regenerate and clean!

Art in the past has reinforced institutional notions of control, both of aesthetics and the human condition.  The artist has seldom been left to participate in the free expression of creativity, but this is not just a ‘christian’ problem, it also is at the heart of secularised art colleges, with its control of medium and the de-programming of artists, from utilising their drawing and painting abilities.  Many have succumbed to the pressure to conform to institutional control.  With ‘christian’ artistry, many assume the theological control of art is a natural extension of their faith commitments.

When we look back at the ‘dubious’ value and nature of landscape painting, usually permitted if the view contained holy characters or angels – namely the imposition of a holy narrative as an attempt to sanctify such naturalistic (sensual) revelry!  What stems from the Reformation is the free composition of landscape painting; the joy of Creation freed from justification by holy narrative.

What then do we make of Deborah Keiller’s artwork?  Her lino cuts (or block prints) exude sensuality and I can confirm that there is no attempt on the artist’s part to justify the portrayal of naked models by cunningly placed halos, crosses or chalices.  I talked to her recently at a local exhibition, (Larkhall, Bath UK).

I asked Deborah about her work.
“I am fascinated by the landscape of the human body & soul and often use my charcoal & pencil life drawings as a starting point for my art.  I work in a number of mediums ranging from paint, inks, printmaking and more recently 3D, both figuratively & abstractly.
I am often perplexed by people’s need to define the human body as ‘natural’ and the soul as ‘spiritual’ as if somehow due to its fleshy, bloody, tangible nature the body ranks lower than its invisible counterpart! I see no distinction and guess in some way I seek to challenge the ‘secular’ vs. ‘sacred’ myth that seems to pervade our Christian culture!

Deborah is aware of this tension between her work and that of other artists, who are christian.  She talked to me of an art which is message heavy, not leaving any doubt as to where the artist is coming from.  Aesthetically this falls badly into the category of propaganda, but many seem unaware that in doing so they simply fall into the trap of turning faith into ideology.  This is either naïveté, or a denial that art encumbered by programme or agenda, isn’t really art.

Such artists are still under the misconception that art needs justification, or that sanctification is possible through symbolism; adding code to aesthetic media.

In Figure One, we see a naked figure, the outlines of pink set against the purple/blue background.  Those outlines flow diagonally from top left to bottom right.  It imbues the image with energy, as our eye flows across the surface of the image.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made, not boring orthogonal lines, but replete with interesting contours.  The reclining figure for me is not enforcing passivity, but creates energy, casting our mind back to Creation and Eve’s ‘birth’. 

But, still we are fearful of this alluding to the sensual, we are reserved in our judgements about such things, because our sensitivities are influenced by conservative moralisers, the new ‘Judaizers’ of this present age.  We find it difficult to break free from such prudish persuasion.

Sensuality and Spirituality
There is a strong link between sensuality and spirituality.  Our view of sensuality is informed by where our spirituality starts from, at which part of the grand narrative we find our origin.  If we start at Creation, sensuality is not problematic, but an integral part of our story and worldview.  Creation is good and our origin ‘very good’.  However, if we unravel one of the threads, that of Creation and start with the Fall, then we start with corruption and our view of the sensual will be informed by this.  In fact our view of all ‘matter’ will be shaped and coloured by it.  Deborah Keiller’s work has its starting point in the thread we know as Creation. If this narrative thread is unravelled, Creation picked out, then the whole story itself disentangles and loses its coherence for life.  Art then becomes a problem, because of its sensual appeal.  We have difficulty seeing its purpose and see it as having its roots in the Fall, in corruption.  How on earth then, do the Arts reveal something of God’s purpose for our lives?  How could the artists ‘calling’ be affirmed as valid?  If you think this way, then your worldview is coloured by the wrong glasses, in fact you are reading the wrong book!

This blog article is an edited version of an extensive review of Deborah’s work.  It will appear on the new ArtsMentoring.Co website as a free download.


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