Artistic Culture and a Theology of Art

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

On the first day of class in Theology of Art at Mount Angel Seminary, I explain that we are taking an intuitive approach to theology, similar to the steps of lectio divina:

Lectio: A meditative reading of the Scriptures or other appropriate text.
Meditatio: Free association with the reading; the Holy Spirit speaking to us here and now.
Oratio: Prayer, reflection, and insights offered to God.
Contemplatio: Resting and waiting for God’s response.

 I also use passages from John O'Malley's Four Cultures of the West (public library) to reflect on how the experience of this class may different from the students' experience of other classes and activities at the seminary.  O'Malley first discusses prophetic culture, academic or professional culture, and humanistic culture.  The fourth, artistic culture, differs from the others because it is visual rather than verbal:
Presenting this culture is difficult because it entails talking about a reality that itself does not talk, except in some highly ritualized way.  Culture four is essentially about physical beauty.  While it is in expression the most material of the four cultures, by eschewing words it is at the same time the most spiritual, even transcendent . . . Culture four is the culture of enchantment.  It takes us from where we are to a place where human speech and human concepts fail . . . (180).
The words that appear in the historical sources sometimes deserve quotation, but even when they express appreciation for culture four they invariably betray the verbal culture from which they originate, and they deal with it accordingly.  Culture one values culture four as propaganda.  Culture two sees it as ideas in disguise, and culture three as an incitement to devotion.  But, though it may have such uses, it is none of these.  Words that come a little closer to capturing the essence of the culture are pleasure and play (180).
As we move through the semester together, my hope is that we will learn about and experience some transcendent pleasure and play.