Reconciling the Irreconcilable

I am deeply grateful to the staff of Friends Journal for doing another arts issue—the first since 1979—and for involving me as a consulting editor. Since Chuck Fager (p.9) has covered most of what I could say about the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, I feel liberated to speak of how I experience being an artist and a Friend.

The person most responsible for my becoming a Friend was my Quaker aunt, Mary Loomis Wilson, a painter. After she became convinced in the 1950s, I saw her art become steadily lighter, more joyous, freer, more abstract, more Spirit-led. Yet she told me, a few years before her death at Foxdale in 1999, that she had kept her Quakerism and her art in separate boxes until she was past 80.

Only when I began attending Friends meetings in Philadelphia 20 years ago did I become aware of the historic Quaker antipathy to the arts. I have been laboring to understand it ever since. I find the scruples and insights of early Friends worth taking seriously. My sense is that their premises were valid, but that the bounds of historical circumstance and their 17th-century worldview led them to draw the wrong conclusions.

Modern liberal Quaker attitudes toward the arts are full of paradox. Friends integrate art with the fabric of their common life in forms that are spontaneous, Spirit-led, ephemeral, and cooperative. All are artists; aesthetic excellence doesn’t matter any more than it matters to vocal ministry. The testimonies loom large; art serves the prophetic functions of truth-telling, healing, and celebration.

All this is healthy and good, as far as it goes. But it isn’t much help to the individual Friend who feels called to be a serious artist, who has worked hard to master a craft. There appears to be a strong disvaluing of artistic excellence among Friends; the idea that one would put one’s energy into mastering a craft rather than into something socially useful (such as committee service) is seen as an un-Quakerly obsession with trivia.

Yet for many Quaker artists, the Spirit means the Muse. I wait on the Muse at the keyboard. The process of artistic creation is one of Holy Obedience, of ongoing dialogue with the Spirit. To be cut off from my art is to be cut off from that dialogue.

As Friends we are called to live in the tensions, to keep connected to both poles of a seemingly irreconcilable conflict, to resist the temptation to seek ease by opting out of one or the other. Living in the tensions is an internal manifestation of the Peace Testimony. It is the way of the Cross.

Reconciling the irreconcilable is what my art is about. I am continually trying to say at least two mutually exclusive things at once. The struggle to find ways in which the medium will allow me to do so is one way I —to use a venerable Quaker phrase—"keep in the daily cross." Being a Quaker and an artist is another.

Esther Greenleaf Mürer

Esther Greenleaf Mürer, guest editor for this issue, is a writer, composer, and literary translator. She is the editor of Types & Shadows, the quarterly journal of the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts, and the FQA publication Beyond Uneasy Tolerance (see excerpts on p. 11-15). Her most recent FJ article on the arts was "Quakerism and the Arts: And Now, the Good News . . . A Dialogue with the Past," FJ October 1994.