LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Sunday, July 20, 2008

James Romaine: On the Creative Imagination

Dr. James Romaine is a New York based art historian. He is the co-founder of the New York Center for Arts and Media Studies (NYCAMS), a program of Bethel University. He has an undergraduate degree from Wheaton College in economics and art history, an MA in art history from the University of South Carolina (thesis: A Modern Devotion: The Faith and Art of Vincent Van Gogh), and a PhD in art history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (dissertation: Constructing a Beloved Community: The Methodological Development of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.). He is a frequent lecturer on faith and the visual arts and has authored numerous articles, in the Art Journal of the College Art Association, American Arts Quarterly, Christian History & Biography, Re:Generation Quarterly, The Princeton Theological Review, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, It was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, and Faith and Vision: Twenty-Five Years of Christians in the Visual Arts. His books include Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith and The Art of Sandra Bowden, both published by Square Halo Books. Dr. Romaine is on the board of directors of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA).

LeAnne: Why should Christians be interested in art?

James: The creative imagination is one of the most powerful and mysterious gifts that God has given us and a critical dimension of what it means to be human. Dorothy Sayers, in her book The Mind of the Maker, notes that all of creation is a manifestation of God's creative imagination and that, being created in his image, we are endowed with a reflection of that capacity to imagine and create. Therefore these qualities are not incidental to our spiritual beings but rather integral to who we are and who, in Christ, we will be.

There are many ways in which this creative imagination is manifested. It is manifested in how we live; there are very few homes that don't have some sort of visual material. It is manifested in how we worship. From the spaces in which we meet to the imagery, objects, and materials we use, our individual or corporate worship is shaped by visual aesthetics. So the question is really not whether Christians will or will not have art. The question is what sort of art we will have.

Works of art generate visual experiences which, in turn, either feed or starve our visual literacy and spiritual imagination which are critical to vibrant, exuberant, and dynamic living. I say "feed or starve" because our creative imagination is a capacity, endowed by God, that must be exercised and nourished. If great works of art cultivate a creative imagination that, in turn, impacts our faith experience, surrounding oneself with quality works of art is as important as getting a healthy diet.

The creative imagination is a capacity to see, in a mirror dimly, an incarnation of a future reality in the present. The work of art calls this reality into being. Great works of art are more than well-made interior decoration. Every work of art is a proposal of how to see and act in the world. Every part of our lives, even  the smallest decisions we make and how we respond to various situations, is a reflection of the quality of our creative imagination.

LM: Tell me about your book, Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith. What conclusions about creativity and faith have you drawn from those conversations?

JR: My aim for Objects of Grace was to highlight some artists of faith who were making good work. More than developing and moving forward an abstract body of knowledge, Objects of Grace surveys a certain artistic landscape and documents the quality and variety of artists of faith. There were also many exemplary artists who were not able to participate in Objects of Grace. I would love to do a follow up.

I chose the title because it became increasingly clear with every interview that these artists' sense of vocation was grounded in an understanding of the connection between their creative imaginations and faith. To go back to your first question about the purpose and value of art, Objects of Grace suggests how our creativity feeds faith and faith feeds creativity. As objects of grace, works of art challenge and encourage us in ways that heighten our sensitivity to the sacramental presence of the immaterial in the material. The creative imagination is a portal through which the still voice of the Holy Spirit speaks to us as we are objects transformed by grace.

More from Dr. James Romaine on Thursday.

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