I expected to find art in Santa Fe.
I knew I would visit the Georgie O’Keeffe Museum (a touching experience that made me feel bonded to the artist), the New Mexico Museum of Art (with an impressive “O’Keeffe in Process” exhibit on now through January 17), “Museum Hill” (home to the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum of International Folk Art, and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian), and the countless galleries featuring local artists.
I knew Santa Fe would satiate my hunger for art.
But I did not expect to find myself at the center of a profound contrast:
Civic Versus Sacred Art.
On the walls of New Mexico’s Capitol building in Santa Fe hangs a permanent collection of over 600 works by contemporary New Mexican artists. It’s a vibrant expression of the local culture appropriately displayed in “the People’s House.”
Art benefits from such civic support; artists need sponsorship and places to display their works. Artists do not make art to hide behind closed doors; it truly becomes art when it is put on public display.
The capitol art was beautiful. There were vibrant colors and clever plays on politics.
The benefit of this art — hanging in such a political place — struck me. Every day, the politicians who work in these halls see this art and are therefore exposed to views different from their own. They get a broader perspective. They are surrounded by the voices of contemporary New Mexican artists.
Art in a political space can be powerful. It can change the minds and hearts of politicians, and therefore, it can change policy… and the world.
Art in the halls of government. That is, I thought, the most important, powerful kind of art.
Then, I visited several sacred locations in New Mexico…
While contemplating the painted altar inside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, my husband and I both felt the prayers of thousands of visitors before us. My husband felt their desperate pleading; I wept with their hope.
Up at El Santuario de Chimayo — while we walked amongst carved crucifixes adorned with the rosaries of those who had come to ask for miracles, and we drank in the multi-colored altar during mass — I was so overcome with the healing power of God in the wood and paint that I laughed with joy.
And at the Shree Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos — in the ornate statue of Hanuman — I felt a profound love and peace beyond anything I experience in my daily life.
All of this sacred art is no less powerful than the political kind that can change laws, for this kind of art has the power to change hearts. These altars and crucifixes and holy paintings were not necessarily “better” or “more skillful” than the art found in the capitol. This art certainly wasn’t more “clever” or “thought-provoking.” But the art inside those sacred places moved me in a way the capitol art did not.
The sacred art made me cry and laugh and open my arms to the sky and embrace life.
Did the sacred locations give the art more meaning? Context, after all, is everything. Was the feeling JUST context?
Did the people around it — the faithful, the meditators, the priest breaking the bread — make it more profound?
Was it the way I approached the sacred art — in a more “meaningful” mindset — that gave the works more weight?
Or is this profoundness inherent in the ART itself?
This all made me think of two of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures — the David and the Pieta.
Yes, David is a religious figure, but the statue — although originally intended to decorate Florence’s Cathedral — has undoubtedly POLITICAL overtones. It was placed in front of City Hall, a warning of sorts to anyone (especially the Medici) who dare invade the Republic.
The Pieta. An inarguably religious sculpture which stands in one of the holiest sites in all of Christendom, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
I love the David. It is a magnificent, epic statue that makes me feel powerful and courageous and… human.
But my favorite piece of art in the world is Michelangelo’s Pieta.
The David is arguably the “harder” statue, arguably the more masterful work.
But it is the Pieta that moves me to tears every time I see it.
I don’t know why. Perhaps there are no words to express WHY.
All I know is, when I look at the Pieta, I feel Michelangelo’s agony, suffering and faith — I feel his soul in every grain of that marble. No matter where you placed that statue, or who was standing around it, I am sure I would still cry.
And that’s how I felt in front of that sacred art — I felt the souls of the artists and the souls of the people who had prayed there before me. I felt in the presence of the divine.
I’m not trying to disparage the art hanging in the New Mexico Capitol building. Those artists, too, put their souls into their work. And I admire the New Mexican government for embracing the art of its citizens. I hope that means they listen to the peoples’ voices, too.
Political art is important for the growth of our communities. Sacred art is necessary to the healing of our souls. One makes you think. The other makes you feel.
We need both.
Perhaps its the balance of the two — the civic AND the sacred — that makes us human.
And in (and around) Santa Fe, New Mexico, you have the privilege of experiencing both.
Are there places in the world — other than Santa Fe — where sacred and civic art are so clearly contrasted? Where? I’d love to visit every one you can suggest!