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Why Art Matters: A Conversation with Roberta Ahmanson - Part 1

James K.A. Smith, Image

Image from "Otherwise/Revival" installation at Bridge Projects, Los Angeles.

James K.A. Smith: There are so many parts of this broken but beautiful world that need restoration. A lot of Christian philanthropists have focused their attention on material needs, or missionary endeavors, or political influence. The work that you and Howard have done is notably different. To be direct, why support the arts when there are so many other needs out there?

Roberta Ahmanson: Refugees lined up at the airport in Kabul fleeing the Taliban or ISIS. Children with not enough to eat in war-torn Ethiopia. Schoolchildren kidnapped by the Fulani in Nigeria. Uyghurs arrested and sent to camps in China. The ravages of Covid-19. In the face of those horrors, how can anyone justify spending money on the arts?

My husband calls that idea “as-long-as-ism.” The argument is that as long as there is any suffering anywhere, we cannot do anything else—educate our children, build a house, create a painting or a sculpture. Underlying that is a kind of hubris. As if we are in charge of this cosmos. As if this world is all there is.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, a twentieth-century Roman Catholic philosopher, looked at the question another way. Why, he asked, did Christ begin his ministry by making wine for a wedding party in the little Galilean town of Cana? His answer:

[At Cana] we find this divine extravagance, this unlimitedness of charity which reaches to the smallest detail. It is this divine tenderness which excludes no gift from its intention as long as it is a beneficial good to the person… At Cana, joy was the theme.

Jesus turned water into wine to show people why he would go on to heal the sick, feed the hungry, make the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the dead to rise. The point is to bring us into a life of joy and deep communion with each other and with God.

The arts share that purpose. Baroness Caroline Cox has a history of visiting people in some of the world’s darkest places—Southern Sudan at the height of the fighting, Nagorno Karabakh during the Balkan wars. When she tells their stories, she often reads a poem written by a child living in a bombed-out basement or describes someone playing a violin in a makeshift shelter or a class in session in the corner of what’s left of a building as bombs fall. Her point? There is something beyond our circumstances worth living for. And these people know it.

That’s why we give to the arts. Art and sacred spaces drive a stake in the heart of the lie that this is all there is and then we die. A Rothko painting, a Beethoven symphony, a Mumford and Sons song, a sunset all give us the opportunity to release the longing in our hearts for God, for beauty, for wholeness. Until we start there, we have no reason to respond to the physical suffering around us.

At the height of the ISIS campaign in Iraq a few years ago, a refugee camp was set up in Calais, France. An artist friend in London visited regularly to make art with the people living there. They cobbled together a gallery out of whatever they could find—scraps of wood, cardboard, bits of corrugated tin. They held a show. Art mattered. Art matters. That’s why we give.

Howard and Roberta Ahmanson visit Olafur Eliasson’s “Room for one colour (1997)” at the National Gallery in London. The immersive installation is the final work in the exhibition “Monochrome: Painting in Black and White” curated by Jennifer Slivka and sponsored by the Ahmansons. The exhibition spans seven centuries and includes 50 works by artists who have—in most cases—deliberately turned to monochrome in their art, whether it me black and white paintings, grisaille drawings, yellow and black stained glass, or a room filled with yellow light.


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