Monday, August 10, 2020

Uprooting Racism: A Ground Motive Series

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The killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, which has launched countless protests and demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world, has made the conversation about systemic racism unavoidable. Much of the outrage surrounding Floyd’s death, however, is due to the fact that for many this conversation is not at all new. Calls for radical social and political change, such as the renewed and increasingly popular demand to defund police forces, highlight the tragedy of Floyd’s death as yet another representative of entrenched institutional racism, yet another horrific instance of the aggression, violence, and marginalization that Black and Indigenous persons and People of Colour (BIPOC) experience on a daily basis. It has become increasingly difficult as well for non-BIPOC persons to avoid confronting these realities, as the events of the past several weeks have helped to expose the ongoing presence of white supremacy and have forced white persons to address their own privilege and complicity in racist systems. And as a larger society we are seeing many of the familiar assumptions and thought-patterns that have guided our discussions of race and systemic injustice in the past crumble before our eyes: Must protest always be “nonviolent” in order to be legitimate? Is it really necessary to have a militarized police force? Is there a way out of this crisis within our current political systems?

Here at Ground Motive, we want to bring these questions close to home for ourselves as members of the ICS community. As institutions and communities become aware of their participation in systemic racism, we would like to begin by recognizing the need to lament – in a biblical sense – our involvement in the systems that have victimized so many; to listen to the voices that continue to be marginalized and oppressed in our fields of study, academic circles, and communities; and to imagine, together with those voices, ways to effectively dismantle racism within our institution. Authentic engagement in this process entails reflecting on what it means for us to participate in antiracist efforts as Christian scholars and educators, acknowledging that the tradition that supports Christian educational institutions rests (at least in part) on colonialism, marginalization and oppression of minorities, slavery, and many other concrete outworkings of systemic racism. 

It is because of the tainted nature of our tradition that one of our most pressing challenges in engaging with the struggles of BIPOC communities is to look within, to acknowledge, assess, and address the ways in which we have benefited from and continue to perpetuate racism in our scholarly practice. In particular, as we embark on this process of self-examination and deep reflection on our practice, we must acknowledge:

  • Our complicity, as a predominantly (although not exclusively) white and settler community, in systemic and institutional racism, as well as our privilege not to be subject to the oppressions experienced by BIPOC communities

  • Our responsibility to engage in the practice of thoughtful reflection on issues of systemic racism, injustice and marginalization, and to bring these issues to the forefront of our work as scholars

  • Our responsibility to create spaces for equal participation among diverse communities together with members of such communities, and to empower those voices that represent perspectives beyond our own 

  • Our need to join others in dismantling the systems of racism in Canadian society and elsewhere.

As a first step in our self-examination, we have created this Ground Motive series as a space for institutional reflection on the practice of philosophy and its bearings on racial inequality. In an effort to foster internal critical engagement, we will invite faculty, students, and other stakeholders to share their personal reflections on our institutional complicity with systemic racism in our practice. In an attempt to attune our ears to the struggle of BIPOC communities, we will invite people from those communities in the field of philosophy or in the context of Christian education, within and outside the ICS community, to contribute their own reflections. Finally, in an attempt to develop concrete outcomes to our reflections, we will invite some of our community partners who work in equity and diversity advocacy to suggest strategies and tools to translate our discussion into an action plan designed to assess and combat racism within ICS.

We welcome your questions, thoughts, and reactions to these posts, and invite you to engage them with the spirit of respect and openness that has always characterized our learning community. As we struggle together through these issues, we hope to help build a more critically and socially-engaged ICS.

Welcome to this Ground Motive series, Uprooting Racism.

- by Andrew Tebbutt and Héctor Acero Ferrer, Series Editors

Thursday, August 09, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 3, Sacred Recycling and Artistic Vocation

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by Julia de Boer

Gallery night, where all participants shared their work from Orvieto.

In our last week in Orvieto, we took a little "field trip." Instead of being in Rome, Florence, or Assisi, this one was within the city itself, just a short walk from the convent. It was arranged for our group to go below the church of San Andrea, to see the archaeological excavations that were going on underneath the floor of the present-day church.

Human activity on top of this rock foundation dates back to at least the Bronze age, to some Italic peoples. Etruscan activity begins in the 7th century B.C.E. Our guide was able to show us the cobblestones of an Etruscan road and some home dwellings. After the Etruscans are brought under the long and forceful arm of Roman administration, the distinction between people groups begins to disappear and the Etruscans and their descendants intermingled with the Romans. What is clear, however, is that after they were Christianized they went to nearby Bolsena to avoid a Barbarian invasion, and then later returned to Orvieto and built a church on that site, making use of the Etruscan wells for their baptismal font and the stones of their homes for the church walls. The church at street level is the second one built on the site, the seat of the bishop before the Duomo was built a few hundred metres away. The blending of various people groups and religious traditions is significant, because the Christians who returned to Orvieto and built the font were related to the Etruscans who dug the wells initially.

Decorations from the first Christian church built on this site,
above Etruscan homes and roads

It felt to me like a physical hermeneutic spiral, going around and coming back at the problems of life with fresh insight. Or like an ambitious recycling project, reusing bits of mosaics from pagan temples in Rome to decorate around the altar.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 2, Part 2, Chasing Grace through Art History

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by Julia de Boer

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, Assisi

This week, the temporal proximity of two of our day trips provided our students with a study in contrasts. There are three day trips incorporated in the three-week ART in Orvieto program, these two being proceeded by a sojourn in Rome. This year, our Assisi and Florence trips happened on the Wednesday and Friday of the same week, in distinction to last year (when they were a week apart).

The Assisi trip is the first of the two for the simple fact that works Dr. Smick highlights in Assisi are older than those which are our foci in Florence. One of our course readings, a selection from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, shows the significance of each city’s treasured works within Italian art history. Vasari is included in our syllabus not just for this biographical content, but for his philosophical content; because historical writing is never uncontextual and a reader may see emerge from Vasari’s biography a dedication to certain aesthetic concepts, particularly an interest in the idea that some art discloses a sort of "grace" or "gracefulness." And consequently, that some art does not.

Our day in Assisi was as much a contemplative’s journey as it was an art history field trip. Before leaving, many of the students had read selections of Bonaventure’s hagiography on St. Francis, and we paused throughtout the day to re-read some of those passages and some Franciscan prayers at each of the sites. Besides bringing a real spiritual warmth to our day, this had the added benefit of highlighting the interactions between literature and image in the early middle ages.

The  Hermitage of St. Francis, Assisi

We started our day at San Damiano, the crumbling monastery where St. Francis received a divine message to rebuild the Church, starting from those very ruins and continuing outwards. Francis eventually gave the monastery to St. Clare, and it became the first home of the order of Poor Clares, the sister order of Franciscan nuns. Next we saw the Basilica di Santa Chiara, the church built in her honour and housing the belovèd San Damiano cross. Even before lunch time we made it up to the hermitage of St. Francis and his brothers, then picnicking while overlooking the valley that Francis himself observed in his many months of isolated contemplation.

Friday, July 27, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 2 Part 1, Visit to the San Brizio Chapel

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by Julia de Boer

Week 2 of the ART in Orvieto program has been very travel-heavy, visiting Assisi and Florence in addition to an educational jaunt to the San Brizio chapel inside of Orvieto’s Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, so this report comes to you in two parts. Read the report on week 1 in Orvieto here.

Entrance to chapel, looking outward.

A visit to this 15th century chapel illustrates the usefulness of taking in medieval sites while philosophizing about religious art in the 21st century. Dr. Rebekah Smick, progenitor of the ART in Orvieto program, has been teaching about the philosophical historiography surrounding the concepts of "image," "symbol," and "metaphor," how the current discourse around artistic activity in our current time is shaped by the thought of previous generations of philosophers.

Her course serves to illustrate that current philosophical work on aesthetics did not emerge from a vacuum, but that it instead is the legacy of thinkers within and beyond the Christian and western canons. Do you want to understand why religious imagery is not valued in the institutional "art world" today? You will need to spend some time in the literature of philosophical and theological aesthetics to learn that story.

Dr. Skillen encouraging visual literacy among students.

Of course, philosophical literature has context and praxis, and that is where another professor, Dr. John Skillen, comes to our aid. Dr. Skillen, Gordon College professor and long-time Orvietano, helps program participants to understand the connections between the theoretical literature Dr. Smick teaches and medieval art that surrounds us. His special passion is making it understood that the physical context of religious art from the medieval period matters, that a fresco cannot be understood if divorced from a recognition of the purpose of the room into which it was painted, the time of the liturgical calendar which it is connected to, or from a conception of the affect on people who viewed it when it was first created. He teased us with the question as we entered the chapel: when does this art become theology? Philosophically, what can we say of the difference, since religious art immediately begs a question about what theological commitments are being expressed?

Monday, July 23, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 1

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by Julia de Boer

Dr. Rebekah Smick explains the sources of inspiration for the painting
done by Gordon College students for their classroom.

What is religious art in the secular era? How should Christian artists interact with ‘High Art’ and its institutions (and what about making money)? How have theologies of the image from the wider Christian tradition shaped the creative experience of Christian artists today? How can a life, led aesthetically or artistically, witness our faith?

The Institute for Christian Studies’ ART in Orvieto program seeks to provide space to ponder these and other questions. When reflecting on her own art history training, Dr. Rebekah Smick considered how different it would have been with the inclusion of some historiography to frame the discussion, to help understand why the course of art critique and theory developed in such a manner, and how it framed modern discourse. This was the impetus for her creation of the ART in Orvieto program; to provide scholars and practicing artists the opportunity to learn about the history of the image within the Classical and Christian traditions and their legacy to art theory and criticism today.

Some of the people who attend are philosophers and theologians by training, others school teachers, fine artists, and the intellectually or spiritually curious. The program is multi-purposed, juxtaposing the academic seminar with studio time for those who are practicing artists, and sending everyone to see influential and overlooked works in situ in Rome, Florence, and Assisi. Students leave understanding the cultural and social contexts which changed and were changed by the philosophies and theologies of art throughout the last 2500 years.

All of this takes place in a repurposed, Servite convent atop the tufa rock plateau that is the city of Orvieto. Gordon College, a Christian college in Boston, Massachusetts, have a satellite campus in which they run semester-long experiences for fine artists from their school during the main academic school years, and host programs like our Art, Religion, and Theology course in the summer months.

The worn patinas of a convent door, once home to a monastic order,
now home to Gordon College.

We are midway through the first week of our 2018 program. Most of the participants are beginning to overcome their jet-lag and all our artists are set-up and enthusiastically setting forth upon their projects in the studio. Maria, the fantastic cook who works for Gordon College here in Orvieto, provides steaming platters of al-dente pasta, seasonal vegetables, and roast meats at our lunch and dinner meals.