1978 – Signs of Life: Art and Religious Experience

The 1978 Swarthmore Lecture by John Ormerod Greenwood. Reviewed by Jay Clark.

John Ormerod Greenwood, born in 1907, was an actor, playwright and producer, as well as a Quaker historian who completed a three volume series about Friends’ international work called ‘Quaker Encounters’. In this lecture, he says that being given an opportunity to talk about religion and art, he could finally ‘speak from the centre of myself’.  This talk was given in 1978, the same year that the Quaker performing arts group The Leaveners were formed.

At the beginning of the talk, Greenwood says that ‘half the anguish of writing this lecture has been about trying to find a language in which we can understand each other’. Several times, he mentions his concern that people will think that art is too trivial a subject to talk about in a Swarthmore lecture, or that there is no longer a discussion to be had about whether art has a place in Quakerism. He recognises that among the audience he was speaking to, art is no longer seen as a distraction from or temptation away from a spirit-filled life. But he argues that this is not enough: art needs to be seen as a spiritual necessity.

He talks, with a real sense of personal loss, about the early Quaker rejection of art. He takes Solomon Eccles as an example: a man who came from generations of musicians, but felt that music was seducing him away from truth. He gave up music, went up to Tower Hill and burned his instruments, believing that they belonged to the temptations of the world. Greenwood uses his own experiences with art as a counterpoint, describing trying to play Schubert as a child, with his ‘fiddle and scrap of voice’  just out of the joy of the music. He is passionate about intuitive art, clearly deeply troubled that the early Friends could interpret such expression as leading away from, not towards, God. He asks himself, and the audience: how could we be different now if we had delighted in art and its potential for spiritual transformation, rather than turned away from it?

Although he is critical of early Friends in the lecture, he comments that ‘in spite of their asceticism, our ancestors were closer to the artistic experience than we are’. He suggests that despite forbidding themselves music, theatre and painting, early Friends felt the necessity of artistic expression that comes from a full-hearted religious life, and it spilled out regardless. His concern is that while we now have no restriction on what kinds of art we can make and enjoy, we don’t feel the same compulsion towards it. He aligns artistic experience with spiritual experience and quotes the writing of an early Friend, who describes that when they experienced a spiritual leading, they ‘saw in it that which does not lie’. To him, this exemplifies the kind of bold, prophetic claim that can join religion and art, and he suggests that in searching for ‘that which does not lie’ we would be wrong to overlook art as a way in.

Commenting on his own life as a Quaker, he describes a lingering mistrust felt towards artists when he joined the society in the 1930s, as a young actor; although he lived around artists, he felt he had to keep that world entirely separate from his Quaker life. He quotes an artist who, when asked why she would not consider Quakerism, said that ‘the artist’s link with religion is nearly quite entirely aesthetic… and therefore they won’t have us inside’. She implies that there is a conflict between aesthetics and morality, that they approach truth in irreconcilably different ways. This opposition comes up again with a speaker at the 1895 Manchester Conference who feared that art would become a new religion that discarded morality in favour of artistic concerns.

Judging by the artists Greenwood quotes, the mistrust between artists and Quakers seemed to be mutual; some of them talk dismissively about Quaker ‘philanthropy’ and ‘dull committees’, suggesting that their calling as artists puts them beyond these everyday things. Greenwood, the arbiter, doesn’t believe in this opposition, and says (in a scriptural phrase) that artists can reach a fearsome and moral honesty in their work, in which ‘their lips are touched by coals of fire’.

If this sounds pretentious, Greenwood is keen to stress that he’s not only talking about classic works of art. He dismisses the categories of ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ art, and argues instead that any artistic impulse is enriching –  from writing a birthday rhyme to making a printing block made out of half a potato. Good art is good within its own place, and even bad art is important, he says, because it is part of the ‘ferment’ that occasionally produces a masterpiece.

The ferment is made up of life, and isn’t apolitical. He mentions the Bread and Puppet theatre, a political theatre group whose tall, blunt-nosed puppets became a feature of protests against the Vietnam war. They created a play, ‘Fire’, about Norman Morrison, a Quaker who set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon in 1965 in protest at the war, and Greenwood quotes an extraordinary description of the play from an audience member who describes it as being like prayer: ‘a peopling of death with human forms, a vague yet affecting sense of the scale of things; a notion of the preciousness of life, and of its vulnerability’.

I was delighted by the inclusion of Bread and Puppet in the speech (I co-led a workshop inspired by them at the last Young Friends General Meeting). The Bread and Puppet manifesto wasn’t published until 1984 but it seems to me to represent some of the exuberance and vitality of Greenwood’s belief in art: ‘Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you. Art has to be cheap and available to everyone. It has to be everywhere because it is inside of the world… Art sings Hallelujah!’.

At one point in the lecture, Greenwood quotes the theatre director Artuad’s description of ‘that fragile, fluctuating centre that forms never reach’, and it seems to be this elusive centre that he believes we are grasping for in art and religion. He leaves his audience with the question of how we can truly use our artistic freedom to reach spiritual depths, and create a common language.

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