LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ted Prescott: On Identity

Sculptor Ted Prescott earned his MFA from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He has taught at several colleges, including Messiah College where he chaired the Department of Visual and Theatrical Arts, and Gordon College, where he was visiting artist in the Orvieto Program in Italy in 2003. He has a long list of exhibitions, commissions, and installations. His work has been included in many collections including the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art at UCLA, the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, and others. His grants and honors include scholarship grants and Distinguished Professorships from Messiah College and more. He has been quoted or referred to in many books and articles. He edited and wrote the first chapters of A Broken Beauty (Eerdmans) and Like a Prayer: A Jewish and Christian Presence in Contemporary Art (Tryon Center for Visual Art). He has also written chapters for other books and magazine articles. A sought-after speaker, Ted also serves on the advisory board of IMAGE and served as president of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) from 1985-1989.

LeAnne: What is your background in the arts? What draws you to sculpture?

I waivered between art, literature, and biology growing up. When I learned that biology required chemistry, that door closed. After one year as an English major, the English faculty suggested I might not be suited to a life of parsing texts. The physicality of the visual arts has always drawn me. We use our bodies making art, and the result is a physical artifact, engaging our senses. The material embodiment found in sculpture is more substantive than in other visual arts and I have a special interest in the role that materials play in sculpture.

LM: In the book It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (Square Halo), you have a thought-provoking essay on identity called “Who Do You Say I Am?” My next few questions will focus on that essay. Why is it dangerous to assume that we can get to know an artist through his or her work?

TP: It
is dangerous to assume we can know an artist through their work because the artwork is an incomplete or insufficient revelation. There is a parallel to theology here, because in similar fashion the creation can’t lead us to an accurate understanding of God’s character or purposes. The natural world teaches us much about design, majesty, and power, but it is mysteriously silent about the creator’s attitudes and intentions. It is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that confirms God’s purposeful love and redemptive suffering. That’s still mysterious, but much more sharply focused than trying to discern the creator’s character from roses and mountains, or aphids and avalanches. Just as in our faith, in art we often “see” evidences of the artist’s character in their work after we’ve been told what to look for.

The belief that art reveals the artist is—historically speaking—a pretty new idea. In our culture it is supported by three factors: the lingering Romantic notion of the expressive artist/genius; the Freudian legacy that animates pop psychology; and a marketplace that promotes personality as a product. I find very little support in either the long historical view of art or in the Biblical record for believing that the artist’s persona is central to understanding the artwork, and that the art work necessarily reveals the artist. It may, but it also may not. Put bluntly, artists can fail to disclose, invent, or lie through art. Why should we think otherwise?

More from Ted Prescott on Thursday.

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