Overcoming the Athena Effect: a Thanksgiving Reflection

Creating Art that Will Stand the Test of Transience

Athena, Greek goddess of the arts, burst from the head of her father, Zeus, fully grown. The myth of a fully realized work of art exploding from the creative folds of our mortal brains onto the canvas, the screen, the stage, is one we often perpetuate unwittingly when we focus on the work of art per se – that is, on the product.

When we fail to reflect on the process of creation, we subtly reduce the work of art under consideration to a consumer-level product, and the artist to a two-dimensional assembly line drone (remember the I Love Lucy chocolate-wrapping skit?). This reductionistic, un-intentional (i.e., lacking the intentionality of purposed reflection) focus on the artistic product while ignoring the process/artist is what we might think of as the Athena Effect.

In her excellent article on art in the church, The Gardener: Bridging the Studio and the Sanctuary, Amy E. Gray notes that,

To speak only of the art object existing in the worship space eliminates the artist from the dialogue. It ignores the reality of process and experience as expressions of the faith of the artist. This focus on product removes the possibility of the process of creating artwork as a spiritual journey. (SARTS, vol. 27, no.1)

Addressing the temptation– indeed, the public demand–  to “create work that will stand the test of time,” Ms. Gray advocates a healthier view of any artistic expression as transient, or temporary. Her works achieve a rare level of poignancy through a collaboration of discipline and the immediacy of the offering to a specific time and place. Her work rarely lasts beyond the event for which it is created. Instead, the materials are recycled. Repurposed. There’s a refreshing humility in Ms. Gray’s approach to her work that counters the quasi-idolatrous posture of many who come to bow before the altar of “permanent” installations. She remarks,

At times, I have wondered about the hubris involved in thinking that a work of art will last forever. Is the tendency toward attachment the basis for charges of idolatry that are often leveled against the church?

It is the sole province of Almighty God to create a universe ex nihilo. And within the context of His creation, He reminds of the transience of life. Everything created by the hand of the Master Artist other than His eternal Word and the souls of humankind will, like the grass and the flower, wither. Our most resilient paints will fade. Our canvas and our flesh will rot.

On the positive side, there is a maturing process to be considered here as we continue to appreciate the works of His hands and our own. We aren’t born mature physically, or spiritually. Works of art, including our lives, take time. It’s the gradually transformative journey that matters. The process. Let’s reflect this Thanksgiving on the beauty of God’s participial beauty – His mak-ing, His design-ing, His creat-ing.

Let’s rejoice in the midst of our being as He patiently transforms us into the beautiful image of His Son – not instantly, but moment by moment.

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