Art and meaning-making during the time of COVID-19

Aboriginal photographer Wayne Quilliam has created a new series of work in response to the Covid-19 crisis entitled 'Virus'
Wayne Quilliam, Virus, 2020. [Source: SBS]

During the first phase of lockdown, I managed to break my arm while trying to keep socially distanced on a busy footpath. It was a clean break to my forearm, just below the elbow – no splint, no surgery, no complications. I was lucky. Earlier this year, my GP tripped on a tree root and broke her elbow into multiple pieces. It involved surgery, a lot of metalware, and months of recuperation. Breaking your arm can mean a lot of different things.

Not long after my fall, I was walking with a friend and her three-year-old who was curious about my broken arm. Since we were in-situ out in the street, I demonstrated the tripping over and landing on my arm. I may have been more restrained if I’d realised that his parents would be watching their lad re-enact this for the next two weeks.

My friend sent me a one-minute video of her little boy in his scooter helmet telling the story three times over. Initially the narration is hesitant: ‘I walk along the road … And what happened?’ It gathers force as he demonstrates the moment of tripping, bumping his gumboots decisively at the gutter’s edge. Then, as if he is taking a bow, he bends at the waist and lowers his helmeted head gently to the asphalt footpath – this moment in the re-enactment lends a dignity to my stumbling face-plant. After the bow, the little fellow stands up and with a triumphant flourish extends his arm, pronouncing with great finality: ‘I broke my arm!’ He flinches and holds it close: ‘Ouch!’

I felt honoured that this three-year-old took hold of the story so strongly. The quality of his attention was mesmerising to watch. As a colleague observed, it was a ‘beautiful example of how children work through disturbances in their lives until they integrate whatever the learning is’.

The three-year-old’s mother tells me that storytelling is becoming something of a rite of passage for her boy. Recently, after an episode involving a series of tantrums, he asked her, ‘What happened?’ She realised this was an invitation to telling about the episode and attempting to get a handle on it. In a continuation of this, when her son recently had a mishap on his scooter, she consoled him with telling how he had crashed when he bumped into a big stick. The story told, he was emboldened to get back on the scooter.

The capacity to story our experience is a powerful tool for reflection and understanding. As adults we learn that no story is pure and that we are capable of telling ourselves spin, but the shaping of experience into story is the bread and butter of our lives. Narrative, it has been said, is a primary act of mind.

My son was almost three when his sister was due to be born. He was bewildered by my absence. When I came home, he was waiting at the front gate: ‘Mummy, we losed-ed you’. 

His baby sister took up residence with many visitors admiring her surprisingly bright blonde hair. Bedtime stories settled into a nightly repetition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Our firstborn asked for it every night for those first weeks. I realised that the story of the blonde-haired female intruder needed retelling until he’d shooed off Goldilocks enough times to be able to give up his place as the singular baby bear of the family.

The two three-year-olds took hold of the tools for making sense; one by the telling of what happened, the other by adopting a story from the cultural storehouse. Meaning-making is a lifelong task that becomes more nuanced as we age.

Songwriters, poets, and musicians bring us narratives wrapped memorably in melody or honed words which allow us to see our own stories more clearly. They offer ways of naming love and loss, yearning, delight, gut-wrenching fear, and hooting hilarity. No matter if they adapt the vernacular or write in elegant prose, we receive the possibility of understanding ourselves in a new light. We may find we are not so alone after all.

It is self-evident that we need diverse artists from the varieties of ethnicity, gender, and geography if we are to see our lives reflected in these ways. Songs, poetry, and story become a shorthand whereby we integrate our own experience and find a common language. This doesn’t replace mental health-care but forms a fabric that connects us to ourselves, and to others.

Celebrity and commodification can sometimes disguise this process and lead us away from the message to being dazzled by the messenger. But there are artists, song-makers, poets, and writers who companion us and enable us to honour our ordinary lives. The best ones know that this is their job, that it is not all about them, but about where the songs or stories or poetry meet the listeners. Their words and melodies free us for the work of making sense of our un-famous lives.

When we understand what artists enable in us, it is no surprise to find outrage at their dismissal by the federal government. Notwithstanding rescue packages that give a cursory nod, the prevailing message is that artists are surplus to need. Even announcing his arts rescue package, the Prime Minister felt compelled to mention the benefit to the tradies, but unable to acknowledge the artists themselves. Earlier in the lockdown, in a move that has caused grave disquiet, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra stood down its musicians, overlooking their offer of taking a 50% pay cut, meanwhile maintaining 75% of their administrative staff. There is a disregard of the lifelong cost of what it takes to maintain a practice as an artist.

Because many artists work in an environment where casual or short term project work forms their income, the vast majority have had to apply for Job Seeker rather than Job Keeper. Both forms of funding are subject to undermining. Last year, the Prime Minister famously refused to raise the impoverishing payments of Newstart (the precursor of Job Seeker) by saying it would be ‘unfunded empathy’. It is now clear that it was a refusal not based on a lack of funds but rather on determined hoarding. The dispersal of taxpayer funds is still in acute danger of a sports rorts style disbursement.

Before the bushfires and COVID-19, the federal government had already started shutting down the arts – rolling the department into a lumpy bed with transport and infrastructure.

When Paul Fletcher (the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety, and the Arts) recently appeared on the ABC’s Q&A, the surety with which he asserted that there were no cuts to the ABC was breathtaking. He repeatedly interrupted other speakers with what acting-host Virginia Trioli rightly named as ‘dissertations’. In regard to the new arts rescue package, he demonstrated once more the side-stepping of established advisory bodies. The Australia Council will be consulted but not given oversight of the dispersal of the $250 million arts rescue package.

Now in a move that reveals a boxed-in version of what education is for, any young person with ambitions to explore history and philosophy in a humanities education is being made to pay double, and simultaneously instructed to train vocationally.

Educating in this way is setting the nation up for an even more gigantic failure of imagination than such policies reveal. We need people with the curriculum vitaes that show what they did when they didn’t get what they wanted – life stories that reveal their resilience and capacity to find another path.

If education teaches that A necessarily leads to B, you won’t get that resilience. You’ll get narrow minds that say, ‘What relevance does this have? Is this on the exam? Why should I participate, it’s pointless?’ The curiosity and inquiry that makes education vibrant gets lost. Occasionally, I’ve taught people with this mindset. You don’t want them on the crew when you are sinking.

Amala Groom, The Fifth Element, 2020. Acrylic, found object, 26 x 33 x 1.5cm. Artist’s collection.

And let’s stop saying that we are all in the same boat, because, actually, we’re not. We are in the same storm, but most of the artists, writers, and musicians are on hastily handmade rafts, watching the more-valued professions and high-end company directors cruise by in the shipping lanes. Meanwhile, the industries that flourish in association with a vibrant arts community are running aground; even if those boats are bigger, they’re still getting wrecked in the storm. Just as a broken arm can mean more than one thing, a broken economy costs some sectors more dearly than others. When you lose the arts, you lose more than economists can count.

We will always need creativity to open new pathways in the unknowable future. We need meaningful ways to engage with each other and a curiosity that interrogates our learning. The question is, will the economic measures that are supposed to save us simply serve to crush us? Thank goodness there are three-year-olds who know better.

[A version of this piece appeared in Eureka Street]

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JULIE PERRIN IS A MELBOURNE WRITER, ORAL STORYTELLER, AND ASSOCIATE TEACHER AT PILGRIM THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, UNIVERSITY OF DIVINITY. SHE KEEPS A WEBSITE, AND HER MOST RECENT BOOK IS TENDER. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

‘Jesus in Australian Art’

This richly-illustrated lecture will explore the ways in which the figure of Jesus Christ has appeared in the history of Australian Art. Some of these images will appear familiar and confirm the roles of Jesus as teacher and healer. Some of the images can be found in Churches while others appear in the private studios of artists who have been drawn to the figure of Christ as a source of inspiration. Other images will be surprising as they arise in unexpected place with artists outside the Christian faith who nevertheless bring insights about the search for spirituality in Australia. Some of these images arrive with a sense of shock as they break open expectations about who Jesus is in the complexity of our contemporary culture. This fascinating overview will explore how the image of Jesus has found a home within Australian culture while also turning to challenge its comfortable illusions.

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian interested in the power of images. He considers that looking at art helps us see more clearly the culture we inhabit and what shapes our faith, hopes, and desires in this complex postmodern era. Rod has written and lectured widely on art and spirituality in Australia and for many years was the Chair of the Blake Prize for Religious Art. He is currently minister of the Adamstown Uniting Church where he leads a vibrant arts and community development ministry.

WHEN: Thursday 12 September 2019 at 7:30pm

LOCATION: St Cuthbert’s Anglican Church, Cnr Darlington and Hillsden Roads, Darlington, WA 6070

TICKETS: Here

The nature of things

You are invited to join us on Tuesday August 6th @ Whitley College to share with Anne Mallaby and Libby Byrne in a material conversation about the way art prompts us to make sense of the nature of things we encounter in the creative process.

The exhibition features selected works from my inquiry into nature of transcendence and joy in ordinary time. Funded by a Field Development grant from the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, this work identified how the experience of drawing in-church each week through ordinary time extended my capacity to see the effects of God’s action in the world, just as the work of art itself was to drawing-in (the) church, transforming our collective capacity to see.

The process revealed the participatory nature of the creative process, engaging people who saw and heard me working in conversation that focussed our attention on one another and on the possibility of something that was still becoming. The conversation will continue to unfold on Tuesday August 6th as together explore some of the ways in which the discipline of regularly seeing and making art can prompt us to engage the stories of our lives with the work of meaning-making and the art of well-being.

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LIBBY BYRNE IS AN HONORARY RESEARCH ASSOCIATE (WHITLEY, UD), LECTURER IN ART THERAPY (LA TROBE UNIVERSITY), AND MEMBER OF THE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH AND SOCIAL POLICY (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture

A new and dynamic online resource – The Visual Commentary on Scripture – has recently been launched by a team centred at King’s College London that is providing resources for those interested in the visual interpretation of the Bible, including general readers, scholars, preachers, and study groups. The project draws on diverse scholars in art and religion from around the world and will eventually build a library of up to 1500 commentaries that give a visual insight into the Biblical tradition. Each entry is curated like a small exhibition, and provides three key images that offer visual insight into a given passage. A longer overview is then provided where we both read and see the various insights into the process of understanding the meanings contained in a passage.

The project team is led by theologian Professor Ben Quash of King’s College who here offers a helpful introduction to the value of the project:

This unique project demonstrates the value of the visual arts in expanding our means of understanding, and our response to texts and their interpretation. There are currently over 80 completed commentaries now available on the website.

Professor Ben Quash explains that the project offers three main purposes:

First, it seeks to instruct those with little knowledge of the Bible about its contents. We hope this will be part of the strategic ‘impact’ of this project.

Second, it uses the warrant of the incarnation to affirm that physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight.

Third, the VCS aims to refresh viewers and engage their affective responses as well as their intellectual ones, affirming that images are made ‘to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal’.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture is an exciting development. It is a richly-engaging resource that has been made easily accessible. It will be a valuable resource to students of the Bible, and those who teach and reflect on its ongoing relevance and authority. Bringing the world of the visual arts into this process of interpretation heightens an awareness of the lived experience of the biblical world as well as our own contemporary context. It allows for a renewed valuing of the visual arts as a means of accessing the world of the biblical tradition in conversation with the current horizon of our lives.

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

Public Lecture: Jesus in Australian Art

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This lecture explored the ways in which the figure of Jesus has appeared in the history of Australian art.

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian interested in the power of images. He considers that looking at art helps us see more clearly the culture we inhabit and what shapes our faith, hopes, and desires in this complex postmodern era. Rod has written and lectured widely on art and spirituality in Australia and for many years was the Chair of the Blake Prize for Religious Art. He is currently minister of the Adamstown Uniting Church where he leads a vibrant arts and community development ministry.

Theology and the Arts, at Whitley College.

In February 2019, I will be coordinating and teaching an intensive class on Theology and the Arts at Whitley College in Melbourne. The class is an introductory-level doorway into a range of other related subjects, including those on film, on imagination, on poetry, and on creativity and spirituality. It is aimed at practising artists, theologians, curators, pastoral workers, and anybody else with interests in the arts and/or Christian theology.

This year, I am delighted to announce that a number of wonderful people will also be contributing: Peter BlackwoodAnne MallabyPádraig Ó Tuama, Safina Stewart, Christina Rowntree, Rod Pattenden, Joel McKerrow, and Libby Byrne.

The class is open to all, and is available for study credits at Undergraduate or Postgraduate levels, or you can participate as an Audit student.

For more information about the class, or to apply, visit here.

 

Theology and the Arts - Poster 2018.jpg

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND TRY-HARD POET WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.