Quakers' and Everyones' Need for the Arts

It is quite clear that Quakers need the fine arts. Efforts to make up for the slights that the arts have received from us Quakers are popping up all around, and for good reason. For too long Quakers viewed the arts as a frivolous pursuit, ignoring the need for artistic self expression except in journals and "good works." But the climate was different then. In the 18th and 19th centuries religion was in the very air one breathed, and spirituality was expressed in lengthy sermons and discourses. Today’s materialistic, rational, secular times offer a sparse diet of spirituality for the hungry. The hunger for religion and the spiritual life finds needed nourishment in the arts.

I discovered how important art was to health when I suffered a deep depression. Emotion needs outward expression to be adequately felt. When I felt like drawing the branches of a tree, it seemed to signal real improvement. The tree symbolized a reaching out and up, with tentative growth. Later, as an art therapist, it was thrilling to see that as patients explored the materials of art, their feelings and drawings could change in a positive way. One who drew only fences began to draw the strings of a harp; a picture of an ugly, menacing face would be redone as a benign face. Angry colors and wild compositions would become harmonious.

Quakers, too, have had to contend with materialism. Poetry and music offer no obstacles there, but the visual arts are a hurdle. Monetary value aside, a wonderful teacher once told me that the real value of a work of art was simply in the spiritual response that one felt in looking at it. That seems a very Quakerly thought. The hope and release the artist feels in creating it is also a great part of its spiritual value.

Janet Mustin

Janet Mustin, a member of Lansdowne (Pa.) Meeting, is a painter and printmaker who has exhibited in the U.S. and abroad. She has taught sketching and printmaking and has volunteered as an art therapist.