“Art, and Humanity, and Connection,” with Katie Kresser
Dr. Katie Kresser is Seattle Pacific University's resident art historian, and she says great art teaches us empathy, unveils human nature, and forces us to think outside the box. Visual art can reveal the thought processes of people living far away or in our distant past, and for her, art history has been an unparalleled journey of the imagination. If art can help us understand the past, it can surely help us understand our neighbors. Dr. Kresser received her bachelor's degree from Indiana University, her master's and PhD from Harvard University, and has been at SPU since 2006.
Amanda Stubbert: Well, let’s just start at the beginning, shall we? I understand your father was also an art teacher. Has art been a part of your life from the very beginning?
Dr. Katie Kresser: Yeah. I would say that it has. Yeah. My dad was a high school art teacher for several decades, actually. While I don’t think art was a big deal in my home growing up, my dad actually did bring with him a bunch of textbooks and specifically for me, art history textbooks from college that I just pored over when I was a kid, and it just opened up a whole new world to me. Yeah. It just gave me horizons that were totally unknown to me in the small town I grew up in, in Southern Indiana, and I did do some art on my own at home as well, an emulation of some of the wonderful things I saw in those art history books.
Amanda: It really is amazing how early exposure to art and art history really can change the way you think about education. Hopefully, you’ll understand what I mean here because from my world, it was less visual art, more literature and theater. But having been exposed to that early on, you understand some of the references, and it makes you feel like literature and theater and art are accessible to you when you understand what other people are talking about.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s absolutely true. Yeah. One thing I stress to my students in my classes is that there is a language of art, a language of culture that we all need to learn to share so that we can understand each other and have exactly those common reference points. So what we try to do in my classes is we try to acquire this visual vocabulary that has been handed down to us over the centuries so that we can indeed relate to all of those things coming from the past and from distant countries, and yeah, get references out there in the world, and just have such a richer experience in life as a result.
“One thing I stress to my students in my classes is that there is a language of art, a language of culture that we all need to learn to share so that we can understand each other.”
Amanda: Because there’s so much more meaning, and I think we all understand it. Like in a TV show, if there’s a sitcom where it’s referring to or it’s an homage to a classic movie, if you’ve seen that movie, especially if you love that movie, then all of a sudden, it comes to life. You get all the little ‘in’ jokes and it’s so fun. If you don’t get it, you just are left with this feeling of, “I don’t really get the joke.” I think some students come to college, and it’s that way. They try and read great literature or watch a play, and so much of it, they’re feeling like, “I don’t get the joke.”
Dr. Kresser: Yeah. That is so true, and I think in our current media environment as well, where it’s easy to get in little bubbles of information, like little echo chambers with just like-minded people who share your specific affinities, it’s really easy to just lose sight of all of those common deep and broad cultural references that people have shared over the centuries. One benefit of going to college, and specifically a liberal arts college, is that you get all those references in the classroom, and you’re able to go out there and try to continue doing that work of keeping your culture connected, and keeping everyone on the same page, and honoring your heritage, and keeping connected to those universal issues.
Amanda: Absolutely, absolutely. In your book and some of your writings, you talk a lot about the connection between art and faith, and how art can help us reach the divine. How does that play out in … not just in your teaching, but in your daily life?
Dr. Kresser: Yeah. I do think that art gives us many different ways of conceptualizing the divine. I think when we grow up maybe in fairly limited sort of settings, God, the divine, tends to get stereotyped a little bit, and limited, and viewed through a narrow lens. When we have access to all of these other different cultural conceptions of the same one great God, then we can start to tiptoe toward an understanding of his greatness a little bit more and see how multifaceted the divine is, how much greater it is than we maybe initially imagined, how much nuance it has, and just how much bigger it is than our little limited cultural milieu and our limited imagination. So, yeah. I think the arts have expanded my view of God infinitely. Well, maybe not infinitely, but expanded it a lot in ways that haven’t undermined my belief at all, but have only enriched it.
Amanda: The word that comes to mind when I hear you talk about that is humility.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: Right? It’s that understanding innately that we don’t have all of the answers right now, that maybe someone on the other side of the globe, or someone hundreds of years ago growing up in a completely different society might actually have a piece of the truth that we don’t have yet.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly. Yeah. We all have narrow lenses, absolutely, by how we’re raised, by the influences we’re exposed to, and we really need to listen to each other, absolutely, to get a fuller view of the “Truth” with a capital T, and art is a really important tool in helping us do that.
Amanda: That, what you just said, reminds me of a quote that I wrote down of yours. “Truth is more than we can express. Art pokes holes in what we know so that the mystery can shine through.” I love that so much. I’m actually going to say it again.
“We really need to listen to each other, absolutely, to get a fuller view of the ‘Truth’ with a capital T, and art is a really important tool in helping us do that.”
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: “Truth is more than we can express. Art pokes holes in what we know so that the mystery can shine through.” I mean, when you sit down to paint or when you’re teaching others to paint, how do you teach them to let the mystery shine through?
Dr. Kresser: Ah, excellent question. I’m actually an art historian. I don’t really teach people to paint, per se. What I do teach people to do is read art, interpret art, understand and empathize with art. Yeah. So the way I use art to poke holes so that mystery can shine through is I often use art in the classroom to try to poke holes in students’ preconceptions. One nice thing about showing art from an earlier period, maybe Baroque art or something like that, or medieval art, is often it can look exceedingly strange to students here in the 21st century.
It might show ideals of beauty that look unfamiliar to us. It might show ways of conceptualizing the ineffable that look strange and even frightening to us. It may have very strange kinds of ornamentation or something like that, or very odd materials. It may be a little gory in some ways, but all of those things that are strange to us have the result of shaking us out of our complacent attitude, shaking us out of our very, very limited 21st century view in order to realize that there is a big, deep truth beneath what we perceive every day and that there are these utterly different ways of perceiving it. So sometimes I like to really challenge students with art in the classroom that’s going to look very, very strange to them and even disconcerting. It is that very strangeness that I hope will snap them out of their apathy a little bit and help them start to see things in a new way.
Amanda: I think that’s where the term “art appreciation” came from. I think when I was going through school, it wasn’t art history. It was art appreciation, and that was the idea. It was to teach you enough of understanding about a certain time period or a certain painting that you could appreciate it, even if it wasn’t something that you go, “Oh, I really like that. I’m going to hang it in my house.”
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, definitely. You appreciate it. Yeah. It pulls you out of your set mindset and pulls you into another one that you can inhabit. You can start to see the world through their eyes, through past eyes or distant eyes, and appreciate it, and therefore, expand your view of the world as a result. Absolutely.
Amanda: So you have this … what I’m hearing is there’s this juxtaposition where it’s helping us see more of the divine, but it’s also helping us draw on our own human experience in a new way.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Definitely, because I think we all have within us the potential to grow out and let our inner energies expand and inhabit what we do in the world. We all share a single human nature. All of us are created in the image of God who became incarnate. All of us have an enormous richness inside of ourselves that we are just struggling to unlock as we go through our lives. So one reason we can relate, I think, successfully to art of distant countries or art of the past is because we have that potential inside ourselves to really empathize with it because we are all created in the image of God and share that rich, deep incarnate fullness with Christ.
“I think we all have within us the potential to grow out and let our inner energies expand and inhabit to what we do in the world. We all share a single human nature.”
Amanda: Yeah. I’m seeing now your point about understanding our neighbor a little bit better when we can use that art as empathy, when it helps us see through someone else’s eyes, but also, through our … I was going to say see through our own eyes in a new way to sort of … sometimes we don’t really know what’s going on deep within ourselves either.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I agree. Yeah. I’m uncovering new things about myself all the time. Yeah. We think we consciously know what’s going on, but oftentimes, there are things welling up in there that we’re not aware of until maybe an artwork prompts us to recognize it, or maybe just a kind word from a friend, or something beautiful in nature makes us realize what was actually going on in there all along, and we weren’t conscious of it. The human creature is a very interesting thing.
Amanda: Right? And ever-changing.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: We can’t ever fully understand something that will be changed again tomorrow.
Dr. Kresser: That’s right. That’s so true.
Amanda: Having recently gone through some unexpected grief moments myself, I was drawn to your writings about using art and faith together in tackling personal struggles. I know you’ve had some health struggles recently. Do you mind if we talk about that for a bit?
Dr. Kresser: No, that’s fine. Yeah. Thanks.
Amanda: So how do we use art to tackle those things that are bigger than we are, that we’re crying out to God? We can’t quite hear back. We know there’s more going on inside us than we can unpack at the moment. How can art help us in those moments?
Dr. Kresser: Yeah. I do think images of suffering, recognizing what an artist was going through when they produced an image of suffering, can often give us a sense of someone traveling with us as we go through really difficult things. Again, it gets to that empathy thing. I know you were referring my own health struggles. I recently went through cancer treatment and had all of these new sensations about the weakness of my body, the mortality of my body. Also, my physical appearance because I lost my hair and my eyebrows, and my skin changed color a little bit, and I got bloated at times, and I didn’t look like myself. I was sometimes ashamed of my appearance and felt grotesque. I think seeing these rich images from the past of people also going through similar kinds of suffering was a balm a little bit and made me realize that yes, people suffer and people have gone through enormous suffering all through history.
“Recognizing what an artist was going through when they produced an image of suffering can often give us a sense of someone traveling with us as we go through really difficult things.”
I think in our day and age, we’re actually insulated against a lot of suffering. People in the past dealt with serious illness, and violence, and starvation a lot more than we do today in 21st century America. So when something hits us hard sometimes today, we don’t have the resources to deal with it. It’s unfamiliar. But if we are familiar with this legacy of human beings painting and writing about suffering, we have a little bit to draw on there and realize that we have companions on that path, that it’s part of the human condition, and that there is a cloud of witnesses up there of people who have gone before us who understand what that suffering is and who are walking alongside us spiritually and can help us through.
Amanda: That really resonates with me. I’m sure I’m not the only one listening to this who was raised with this sense of if things are going very badly for me, that somehow I’ve done something wrong, that I’ve stepped out of God’s will if I’m suffering greatly. When, like you said, you look back through history and if that’s true, pretty much all of humanity was out of God’s will, and that’s…
Dr. Kresser: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: That’s a theological conversation for later.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: But really, it’s letting go of any shame and guilt connected with your own suffering as you realize, “Yes, I’m part of this human family, and this is part of it.”
Dr. Kresser: Absolutely.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). People in the Bible suffered. People in the New Testament suffered. Absolutely. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves and think we’ve done something wrong. I completely agree. Yeah, great observation.
Amanda: In this, also, this time of… this very specific time of where it just feels so difficult to disagree with others that we seem to have picked sides, how can this concept of art, and humanity, and connection to all of history, how does that help us on our day-to-day, like sitting down to dinner with our family members and our neighbors that don’t agree with us?
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great question. I can think of a couple of different ways. I mean, if family members share a common deep cultural vocabulary, like we were talking about, the cultural or visual vocabulary you can get in college if you take art history classes, maybe that can still give us like common reference points despite present-day disagreements. Sometimes that might be a little hard to achieve sometimes, though. We still don’t necessarily all share those reference points, even though it would be nice if we did.
I also think that just even … I don’t know. Well, there’s a theorist of art. He’s actually a philosopher, a French philosopher named Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who said that art does not judge. I think that good art, if we stand before it together and contemplate it together, can give us a record of somebody’s lived experience without passing judgment on it. I think that art does this, but it manifests someone’s experience in the world just in a raw, matter-of-fact way, and it doesn’t say, “This is good,” and it doesn’t say, “This is bad.” It doesn’t say, “This is either virtuous or evil.” It just says, “This is what is.”
“I think that good art, if we stand before it together and contemplate it together, can give us a record of somebody’s lived experience without passing judgment on it.”
If we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and look at that, and bear witness to that, this communication of like, “This is what is. This is an experience. This is someone recording their experience,” then maybe we can reach a place where we’re just being present with each other and listening rather than rushing to judgment. But for me, I think good art does not rush to judgment. If we can cultivate ways of looking at art together, good art together, then maybe that can cultivate in us a tendency not to rush to judgment as well.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me. You can find some videos out there, even a commercial that I’ve seen recently, that just really shows if you can speak as human beings first, then you’re not as reactive to each other’s opinions. You can talk about the why instead of … if you start with the opinions, then you immediately judge everything else about that person. So I really enjoy the idea of taking something like art. Like maybe don’t go out to dinner with your family. Go to a museum with your family and start talking about the beauty that’s in front of you before you get to those opinions.
Dr. Kresser: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s a good idea.
Amanda: Can those of us who don’t consider ourselves artists per se still benefit from these healing, transcendent properties of art? I know that even within hospitals and things, they bring in art because they know that it can really ‘center’ people, for want a better term. So if you’re a total novice when it comes to art, all you know is, “I like this. I don’t like that,” how do you begin to bring that power into your own life?
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right. Good question. Yeah. I do think it’s important to begin where you are and not try to jump into engaging with something that seems completely alien to you. We all maybe need a little bit of handholding at first, but yeah, I think there is benefit in finding something that we consider beautiful and just contemplating that. Then, eventually, we maybe discover more things that are beautiful, and we contemplate those as well, and we start to find connections.
Contrary to some contemporary opinion, art is not, I think, primarily made for the artist. It’s made for other people to view. I think that a lot of art is therapeutic, and there’s a therapeutic property in the making of it, but it’s always pretty much made to be shown. So the viewer is an important part of that whole process. The viewer is necessary for art to exist. Yeah. You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from the healing properties of art, I guess I’m saying.
“The viewer is necessary for art to exist.”
So I think I would encourage people to just go out and find what is beautiful, and just sit with it in quiet for a while because I think we all have a hard time finding space just to be quiet and contemplate something. There’s so much noise and so much stuff competing for our attention all the time, but just visually focusing yourself on something you consider just beautiful, that you’re attracted to, and just being quiet in front of it, and maybe making that a practice, a daily practice, or maybe just a few times a week, and seeing where that takes you because I think eventually, that might cause you to want to go out and discover new things, and contemplate things that are maybe a little richer, or deeper, or a little different, until eventually, you’ve built up a fairly big vocabulary, a visual vocabulary for yourself and a lot of reference points that you can use to aid yourself in contemplation.
Amanda: Right. Yes. So much is just opening our eyes, isn’t it, to the things that we see every day?
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: But we haven’t stopped long enough to look and see the beauty there.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Kresser: Definitely. None of us. I feel like none of us ever stops. We’re just going, going, going all the time, and that’s not what we were made to do. I don’t think so. Not at all. We were made to be contemplative, and quiet sometimes, and at peace. That’s what prayer is, too, in some ways, I think.
Amanda: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. Well, thank you, Katie. This has been such a lovely conversation, and I feel like we could just keep going all day. I’m very interested in how you’ll answer our final question that we ask all of our guests, and that’s, if you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?
Dr. Kresser: Okay. Yeah. I did this rather unwittingly, but I think I hinted at this just a moment ago, and I was actually … Yeah. I know you guys ask this question. I was walking along yesterday thinking, “How would I answer this question?” This is how I would answer it: I would recommend that everyone set aside some time in their morning to just be quiet. First thing in the morning, if you can manage it. I know that’s not possible for a lot of people, but ideally, before you begin your day, just be quiet and put yourself in the presence of something calming and beautiful. Maybe it could be an artwork. Maybe it could be the view out your window. Maybe it could be the beach at Golden Gardens or something like that, but just being quiet, maybe for a half an hour or something like that, and letting the universe speak to you.
If you’re a person of faith, this would be a time to be in the presence of God very deliberately and acknowledge that he is the one who is the architect of your day, and he is the one guiding you through your day. If you’re not a religious person, just being open to the beauty and the energy of the universe, and just letting that set a tone. I think if we could just allow ourselves to be quiet and contemplative, and give ourselves just that little bit of space, maybe in the morning at the beginning of our day, then it would improve things so much for everyone. I think our tempers would cool. I think our anxiety would improve. I think we could go through the day in a calmer, more gracious fashion. I know for me, my best seasons in life are when I’m able to take that quiet time in the morning. It’s just so important, I think, for our health in general, and for the way we interact with others and the way we interact with the world.
Amanda: Absolutely, absolutely. If I can paraphrase a Bible verse, whatsoever things are true and beautiful. Think on these things for a while.
Dr. Kresser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I love that verse.
Amanda: Thank you, Dr. Kresser. This has been so much fun. Let me end with our prayer of blessing over you.
Dr. Kresser: All right.
Amanda: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May God bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.
Dr. Kresser: Thank you so much, Amanda. It’s been a pleasure.