Just because it’s art, doesn’t make it religious

Re: “Some may find art offensive” (The Progress, Feb. 14)

I hope Mrs. Van Eysinga is arguing that religious art should not normally be placed in public facilities. In a pluralistic society the state must not promote religion. However, not all art is religious, though it may be spiritual. The distinction between the religious and the spiritual is not easily drawn, however, since it is arguably all in the eye of the beholder. But if we are to have any art at all in our hospital? and we should since art helps us heal in ways doctors cannot? then there must be some consensus as to what constitutes “religious” and potentially objectionable art. Otherwise, for those who quote injunctions against the creation of idols from the Bible and the Qur’an, as does Mrs. Van Eysinga, most anything could be construed to be an immoral object of worship.

Is a man on a cross symbolic of Christianity? I would suggest most of us would affirm that to be the case. It would be an extraordinary artist who could portray a crucifixion without making a visitor to the hospital think of the traditional iconography associated with Jesus. Even a crucifixion depicted in an irreverent manner in order to challenge Christian beliefs would still not be acceptable in our hospital. Certain symbols, figures and settings are obviously religious and, at the very least, should be subject to open and thorough debate before appearing in a public space.

But the art soon to be on display at the Chilliwack Hospital (the opening ceremony is this coming Friday) is hardly “religious” in any normal sense of the word. If any single term is fitting, it would be “medicinal.” The images of a medicine woman, a red cedar spindle whorl, and a healing wheel with five words, can hardly strike any viewer as an explicit attempt to persuade or dissuade anyone regarding a particular creed or dogma. Such images address the art of healing that must be available not just for devout believers but for all our relations. Any attempt to assign theological meaning here is entirely out place, and says far more about the commentator than the art itself. Such art is neither religious nor offensive to any reasonable person. In fact, consider how the art in question seems the opposite of “religious” in that it does not distinguish between the spiritual and the physical as does Christianity, Islam, etc, and instead encompasses a holistic concept of health that is remarkably absent in Western medicine; the artists respectfully represent our elders and their lore, the earth and the herbs it provides, and the circles in life that require balance.

Additionally, the hospital is located upon what used to be aboriginal land and therefore it is very appropriate that aboriginal art is displayed. I went to the hospital today and noticed many first nations people there. While there I also took an informal poll of visitors regarding the hospital’s choice of artwork, and found everyone supportive of the decision made by Fraser Valley Health.

And finally, regardless of whether or not aboriginal art deserves special treatment due to its near annihilation by the forces of colonialism, in terms of cultural and even economic impact artists like Greene, Horne, Pennier and Krulicki, produce beautiful work that is very popular both here and abroad; they add breadth and depth–and money–to our community. Hard to object to that!

Tom Hartley