Art is the bottom line. I have believed that for some time but this morning’s 4 Corners Festival Prayer Breakfast convinced me once again. It might become my mantra at this year’s festival but let me say it again, if you want to run a marathon you will need to exercise the muscles of your legs to do so. If you are wanting to change the world, whether that is to imagine a Belfast without walls or a world without Human trafficking as the 4 Corners Festival is doing this week, then you will need to exercise the muscles of your imagination. Change in self or society first needs imagined. No imagination - no grace. No imagination - no hope. The arts are the engine of our imaginings. They are the bottom line of a nourished soul or cared for culture.
This morning we heard about that at the coal face of the Belfast arts community. Maurice Kinkead from East Belfast Partnership shared with us that six or seven years ago there would have been literally no arts events happenings in East Belfast. A Woodstock Blues Festival in a local pub was the genesis of a movement that has now developed into Eastside Arts and after two recent Van Morrison concerts the prospect of him playing in Cypress Avenue this summer, the street he made famous on his iconic Astral Weeks album. Indeed Morrison’s transcendent imagination on that work and everything since is an inspiration. Maurice added that they lost £70,000 on the first Morrison gig but that the in fact was an investment that has been re-energising the business and other sectors in East Belfast ever since.
Deirdre Mackel from Upper Springfield Road Development Trust shared how arts in the community in the west of the city is transforming lives and streets. She was inspirational as she spoke about a dark areas of the city being transformed into a culture garden where family events now take place and how an old police station was also transformed by ordinary people crocheting covers for the boulders around it. Not only did this transform the site but those who took part discovered that they were creatives and began to build friendships and purpose in their lives. When Deirdre spoke of how the community has started coming to them to unpack the the issues around them I was left embarrassed that they were no longer going to the Churches. Not that it should be either or but both together!
As the Festival has approached we have become aware that we are highlighted imaginatives at a time when arts funding in Northern Ireland is taking a hit. Emily DeDakis is Literary Manager for Accidental Theatre and involved in Arts Matters NI who are an advocacy group hoping “to remind the public, politicians, decision-makers, business leaders, community leaders, the media and society as a whole, of the value of the Arts and work towards articulating a new language of cultural value that will help all of us to understand the essential contribution that the arts make to our lives.” That is exactly what Emily did in a short talk that was a piece of art in itself. yet it was art that drew theatre, news room, sports arena and Church into a community where people took hold of faith and looked to the transcendent for more than survival.
We ended appropriately with some art. After last night’s launch of the visual arts at our Exhibition at Duncairn Centre of Culture and Art, this morning gave us the genius of novelist Jan Carson and songwriter Hannah McPhillimy. Jan and Hannah are off to Brussels soon, through the Northern Ireland Arts Council, to showcase the talent in our wee place. They are bringing Jan’s stunning debut novel Malcolm Orange Disappears and Hannah’s songs together in a blessing of their disciplines. Jan’s reading from her novel about seven children with wings who flew in naive adventure before crashing with the darkness of the world they discovered was wondrous of art and moving of emotion. Hannah brought it home literally with a song about homecoming or the thought that someday we might decide to. Beautiful both! In her prayer for the arts Gladys Ganiel picked up on Hannah's song by reminding us that all our is some form of a prayer.
Writing about Isaiah, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann shows how the prophet inspires the people with his poetic utterances to believe that another way is possible. He sparks their imagination to have faith in another day. He says, “The practice of such poetic imagination is the most subversive, redemptive act that a leader of a faith community can undertake in the midst of exiles. This work of poetic alternative in the long run is more crucial than one-on-one pastoral care or the careful implementation of institutional goals. That is because the work of poetic imagination holds the potential of unleashing a community of power and action that finally will not be contained by any imperial restrictions and definitions of reality.”
As I left this morning’s Prayer Breakfast my vision for the arts had been refreshed. We must stand with groups like Arts Matters NI to make sure the arts don’t get squeezed out because we think they are an added luxury. That would be the very worst of heretical errors. And speaking of heresy, the Churches need to see the value of the arts in all that we do. It is intrinsic to all personal and social transformation. Finally I need to be open to the arts in my own soul, seeking its nurture.
After the Art Exhibition Launch and the Prayer Breakfast this morning we will be opening up the messy women of Jesus genealogy tonight in drama form, touring the 4 Corners for 4 art installations in 4 Churches tomorrow afternoon and on Sunday night in St. Malachy’s, Michele Marken and myself will be unpacking the theology of imagination and art. Our imagining muscles need exercised. Art is the bottom line!