Art and Meaning

Each of us has stories about a work of art, and how it connects us to … something. We all have stories of a song or a film, a play or a painting, that touches our souls. It might be the song our fathers sang to us when we were scared, or the scene of a movie that speaks our truth, or a sculpture in a favorite museum that is permanently etched into our memory.

And if I were to ask you to describe a moment in worship that stuck with you, chances are it will be a piece of music, or a story that was acted out, or some object that was used to illustrate a point.

When we think about art that way, they stop being simply objects – a painting, a song, a play – and as musician Brian Eno suggests – they become triggers for experiences that transport us to a time of joy, or comfort, or ease. Suddenly, it is well with our souls. Because of art’s power.

Which… is mysterious.

We can’t know for sure what moves us when we see a famous play or painting or dance, but we know the one that captures our attention, and makes us wonder, and lets us consider our humanness and our connection to the divine, and our profound dance with life and our interconnectedness with the world. In fact, we are so moved by the arts, we create artistic places to house and engage them – from the Guggenheim to the Sydney Opera House. We are so moved by the arts, that despite our austere Puritan forebears, we cannot help but put art in our places of worship, from stained glass in the windows to paintings on the walls. We are so moved by art, we write songs about art – like “Mona Lisa” and artists – like “Vincent” and even entire musicals about art – like “Sunday in the Park with George.”

So what IS it about art?

First, I would argue that art helps us see and speak of our humanity – to tell our human stories. Even the most abstract painting is telling some sort of story. And story is what moves us. Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, points out that “we are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is actually in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm und Drang.”

But it isn’t just that we like these stories, we need them. As Gottschall says, “the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.” Science has shown us that when we hear or watch or read stories, not only are the language or visual processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too. As science writer Leo Widrich notes, “Whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.”

In safety.

Storytelling happens throughout the arts – whether television, film, books, dance, sculpture, stand-up comedy, or painting – stories emerge. Our stories. Human stories. Sometimes joyful stories, but often times hard, tragic stories.

New Testament scholar Hal Taussig suggests that the arts help us tell the hard human stories in ways that address the untenable without our knowing it; art brings us up against things we have a hard time facing in real time, but it never says explicitly “here’s the scary part.” Rather, art provides a structure that allows us to peel off layers and go just a little deeper each time we engage it.

This is especially important as we encounter the stories of those who are not like us – stories from people of color, or queer people, or immigrants, or the disabled, or the impoverished. These stories are often difficult to understand because they describe experiences we have never and can never have. But artistic structures help make space so we can approach the difficult sideways. Art creates a shared experience through which we can connect and understand in relative safety; as George Bernard Shaw quipped, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

Imagine if we all created art that helped make the world a little more bearable? And imagine if our expressions of Unitarian Universalist theologies – not just in an occasional worship service, but throughout our congregational life, governance, and public witness – were grounded in creativity?

Imagine the power our creativity would have: as writer Arthur Graham notes, “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see.”


Engaging in the creation of art – whatever form it takes – gets our creative selves energized to tackle other tasks, whether it be caring for an aging parent, or volunteering for a service organization, or teaching young minds, or dismantling racism, or resisting hate, or reversing the effects of climate change.

Art, as author John Updike notes, offers some space – a certain breathing room for the spirit. So breathe – let doing art alone or together be your way to enter the world, to explore the messiness of life,  to compel you to action, to let your spirit dance.

(excerpt from “The Art of Meaning” a sermon by Rev. Kimberley Debus)