MARVIN HALVERSON AND THE ORIGINS OF ARC

William J Conklin

The Society for the Arts Religion and Contemporary Culture is the imaginative construction of one person, Marvin Halverson, its founder and first prophet. Though trained as a protestant theologian, Halverson could not believe that religious insights were to be found only in religious institutions, but also saw such insights in many forms of creative art and thought. He searched for and identified many allies and co-believers and then founded ARC as an institutional framework for their continuing efforts.

I met Halverson in 1951 shortly after I had arrived in New York City.† The fifties have been described as that decade when America put its full faith in the machi: when everyone was wide-eyed about the glorious possibilities inherent in mechanization, when the whole nation was utterly practical and artistically naive. Although that was a truth about the fifties, it was not the complete truth.† In theology, Tillich and Niebuhr reigned at Union Theological Seminary; in art, New York (with Jackson Pollock at the forefront) had seized from Paris the mantle of the avant garde; and in architecture, Walter Gropius of the famed Bauhaus was enthroned in Harvardís Graduate School of Design.†† I had just graduated from that school under Gropius's direction and had taken supplemental courses at Harvard Divinity School.†

Given my interest in religion and my work under Gropius, it was inevitable that, once in New York, the pursuit of new thinking about church architecture would lead me to† Halverson. Halverson had been born in the Midwest in 1913, had been Dean of Students at Chicago Theological Seminary, had traveled widely in Europe and was indeed deeply interested in new church architecture.†† He was now in New York City setting up special commissions within the National Council of Churches to provide leadership to churches in searching out not only new religious architecture but also† new religious music, new religious dance, and new religious drama. Also† during those fifties he waged, together with Stanley Hopper, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alfred Barr and Jane Dillenberger, an unsuccessful battle against the proposed retro-Gothic design of the massive Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive.† But John D. Rockefeller had given the money and won on the subject of design, as is highly evident from the still prominent Gothic pile on Riverside Drive.

Later, when I returned to New York after a yearís study in Europe, I found myself on one of his Commissions whose purpose was to study and to promote new religious architecture.† But his goal for the Commissions was not academic: it was distinctly practical. He was determined to start a revolution and overturn traditions in religious architecture and religious art, and his zeal was extraordinary.† He felt that the status of church art and architecture was abysmal; that the trivial art that especially characterized Protestant churches was an insult to their deep religious truths; that church music had never felt the fresh air of the 20th Century; that dance and drama--the prime language of many religions--were anathema to Protestantism; and that the general mood of Protestant religious services was stifling to creative thought.††† But most importantly, he noted that then, (in the 1950ís), the common understanding of the word myth was that it was simply another word for lie.††† A kind of naive rationality ruled in most fields of thought.† The apple had indeed fallen and was no longer a living fruit.

Halverson was determined to do something about the whole crisis.† Like many a church revolutionary before him, he wanted to use his church position to accomplish his revolution. The postwar fifties certainly contained hints of many kinds of cultural revolutions, both social and artistic. Many of Marvinís perceptions were accommodated under the rubric of modernism.†† In architecture, modernism was not conceived of as a style amongst styles, as it is now;† it was then a revolutionary movement that would strip away all traces of shameful Victorianism, would† provide cleanliness and† equal access to sun and air for one and all, and it was a movement that promised an entirely new social and artistic beginning with its own emergence of new forms of† truth and beauty.† The boldness of these movements in the arts was astonishing, and at least one man was determined to bring their fresh energy into the church.

Halverson was not only a profound theologian and a deeply perceptive judge of art; he was also a marvelous conversationalist.† Completely at home in the most abstruse theological discussion or artistic evaluation, he easily made friends with the high and mighty in every intellectual field.† His initial goal was to incorporate into the church the most creative thinkers and leaders in all areas of human thought.†† His method was to rely not only on his theological and artistic perceptions, but also on his charm, to crash through doors that were normally completely closed to church officials.

He had become a very close friend of Paul Tillich, then at Union: in fact,† they became drinking buddies. Once at Marvinís invitation, Paulus came down to Greenwich Village where Marvin lived on St. Lukeís Place, to explore the local color.† To Halversonís astonishment, Tillich appeared wearing a beret. Tillich had carefully thought through an appropriate attire but his European beret struck a strange, if not laughable, note in the Greenwich Village of the 1950ís.

Halverson not only talked, he was also a great listener.†† Tillich told him about an inspirational moment that he had experienced years before in Germany.† He (Tillich) was touring the Bauhaus, and while first gazing at the astonishing, radical, fresh, new art being created there, the idea suddenly came to him:† This is religious art!† And that, Halverson said later, was the mythical moment of ARCís birth.††

Together they defined Tillichís relationship to the evolving concept of an organization that would be devoted to their common interests. Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art, the American leader of the modernist revolution, became ARC;s first President.† Eventually they decided that Tillich should not be a member of the governing board, nor even an honored Fellow; he was to be ARC's floating, spiritual, father-figure up there, just a little beyond touchability.†

All the initial Fellows of ARC were friends of Halverson: architect Philip Johnson, theologian Stanley Hopper, poet W. H. Auden, psychoanalyst Rollo May, as well as† Alfred Barr of MOMA. Other friends who quickly became ARC stalwarts included Amos Wilder, Wolf Zucker, and the European-born Frederick Franck and Emery Valyi as well as many artists and art historians.†† So ARC gradually became the institutionalization of one manís remarkable vision that depended for its structure on his many friends.

To encourage churches to consider modern drama, Marvin wrote a small didactic book, Religious Drama; it included work by W. H. Auden and other authors.† Consider a few introductory sentences from that book that he hoped would be used in churches.†

These plays represent the return of poetry to the theater, one of the aspects of the renewal of religious drama and a sharp departure from the prevalent naturalism of the 19th and 20th Century drama.† ... T. S. Eliot in his plays has pointed to his awareness of the role of myth in illuminating manís situation.† ... This need to return to the hero paradigms of Judeo-Christian culture, to the Bible, to history is demonstrated in each of the plays in this anthology.

Regarding Christopher Fryís The Firstborn, Halverson wrote: "The immediacy of this story suggests the power of symbols and myths out of our past to illumine the present and define the issues of life in our time."††† These sentences suggest that Halverson had begun to feel that myth was the ancient and eternal form of the human/divine conversation and that art was its language. He felt that American culture and institutional religion now had closed eyes and ears; and he wanted to move toward renewal and reconnection.

Halversonís work within the institutional church moved from the National Council of Churches to the Congregational Church† and then to its successor, the United Church of Christ.† His Commissions formed to revolutionize the church from within had met with stiff resistance, and his institutional position and financial support began to erode.† His roster of friends in the world of high culture, however, constantly increased. He thought of somehow formalizing their conversations and cross-connections concerning religion and the arts -- insights that he thought held great importance for the church, as well as for the world at large.† But very few of these thinkers who understood the interconnections of myth, art and religion were† active in institutional religions.† The estrangement between creativity and the institutional religions seemed almost total.†

And so Halverson gradually came up with the idea of an independent structure in which creative intellectuals might feel more at home and more able to carry on the crusade.† Its members would form a sort of army who would gather for mutual reinforcement and then go out into the world to fight for the new truth.† The first board meeting that I remember, probably in 1961, was held in the offices of the Board of Homeland Ministries of the Congregational Church.† Truman Douglas acted as chairman of the board, which was formed of Halversonís colleagues and friends.

Halverson wanted his new Foundation for the Arts, Religion and Culture to have a home.† He dreamt of having a town house on the east side of Manhattan where his scholar/soldiers from around the world could stay during their New York sojourn, their evenings filled with theology and art.† Then later there would be similar centers in other cities, formed for renewing the connections among local religious groups, creative artists and the local culture, with the local meetings being their common ground.† Such chapters, then, through their inspired meetings, were to lead churches and synagogues into a New World resonant with both the new art and the ancient myths.

Discussion of the Foundationís money matters was largely avoided, but was brought to the boardís attention when Halverson reported that virtually all of the letters received by the Foundation thus far were not donations as he had hoped, but were actually requests for grants from the great ARC Foundation. Also Halverson did not like the sound of the acronym FARC. So for both reasons, it was eventually decided to remove the word "foundation" from the title and call it a "society,"which sounded classier than "organization."† The word "contemporary" was added to reaffirm the Societyís commitment to the real world and to the evolving forms of modernism.†

Early meetings of ARC were irregular and of several types:† group discussions, public presentations by famous names that could provide their own audience draw, and wine cellars modeled on the Viennese variety (small gatherings with one or two Fellows as moderators).† But all meetings were thought of as continuing conversations among the Fellows. Initially there were no members, only Fellows.† Meetings were held in various places. I remember ones in the Museum of Modern Art,† in the Guggenheim Museum, in the Century Club, in the Gramercy Arts Club, and around town in various places, but never, as far as I can recall, was an early meeting held in a church.*

Halverson was ARCís first Executive Director.† Initially he had financial backing from the United Church of Christ.† But the problems with this church backing increased, and he began to have catastrophic personal troubles.† Fortunately, Marvin and the ARC board had previously appointed another Executive Director, Elizabeth Bradley, and ARC was actually well on its way.

I last saw Halverson upon his return from the emergency room of a local Greenwich Village hospital where he had spent the night.† He was badly bruised, had many bandages, and his arm was in a sling; he had been mugged. Later, he seemed to have recovered and was given a job in Berkeley, California, as a counselor to foreign students; but his health deteriorated, and he died shortly afterwards in California at the age of 54.

There is no doubt that ARC is Marvin Halversonís legacy, his long shadow.†† He left several scholarly papers that tell us about the breadth of his thinking on many subjects, but of special interest to us here is his 1963 document concerning the Foundation.† Some of it reads as follows: "The Foundation proposes to foster a timely collaboration of those alerted groups in our society that have been the chief carriers of† cultural health and vitality."†† (Not alert, notice, but alerted, as if there were a† background force moving these avant garde† artists and thinkers in their efforts. There are interesting theological implications in his word alerted.)†† Later he says, "Standing between the religious institutions and the persons involved in these influential movements of our time, the Foundation will seek to build bridges of communication and foster artistic, religious and cultural renewal."†† Further on, "In carefully chosen pilot projects, the Foundation will demonstrate what can be achieved when the best artistic resources are brought into the life of the churches and of society at large."††† Clearly, ARC was to be an intermediate ground between the arts and the institutional religions.† We were to learn here and in our local ARC chapters and then go back and preach the new truths to our stodgy churches and synagogues.† This concept of an organization with such bold intentions creates in all of us, I think, a state of open-mouthed amazement.

An important project in our forthcoming ARC history will be to make available Halversonís writings.†† Consider now a final quote from him:†

Though there were lonely and prophetic seers in the 19th Century who protested against the spirit of the age--Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Van Gogh, to mention but three--it is only in the 20th Century that we have begun to perceive again the full measure of man, even as paradoxically we have recognized, largely through the arts,† the broken-ness of manís existence.†† Amos Wilder--(his good friend, writing at mid-century)--has pointed out that Ďthe most significant art of the 20th Century--Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce, Kafka, Pound and Eliot--is that which comes of the apical convulsions of our time, out of full immersion in the condition of man today.톆

Later, Halverson says:† The arts tell us more about ourselves than does science, because they arise from the† imagination and the heart of life.† The arts reveal manís inner life and the character of the age to a greater degree than does any other expression of manís life.† The serious artists tell us more about our time than do the ostensibly religious representatives.†† Picasso reveals more truth about manís predicament than does Peale, and Stravinsky excels Sallman at opening the channels of revelation.

William Conklin is an architect with offices in New York and Washington and an archaeologist specializing in pre-Columbian textiles. He now resides in Washington, DC where his architectural work includes the United States Navy Memorial and the new town of Reston, Virginia.† His archaeological work has been in Peru and Chile, with his most ecent publication entitled ďThe Individual in pre-Columbian ArchaeologyĒ in the Textile Museum Journal.† Mr. Conklin is an ARC Fellow and Vice President of the Society.

*David Miller later, in answer to a question, detailed the structural plan.† Activity was to begin with wine cellars (Frederick Franckís idea):† small, intimate meetings where artists/ theologians/thinkers (20-25 people) would discuss questions and subjects;†† in larger meetings (like this one here today)† these things would be† sorted out and subjects chosen for a series of papers; then, in places of† real stature,† papers on these subjects would be† presented by Fellows;†† and, finally, published.†† With the recurring distribution of such material for study within the Christian and Jewish establishments, the religious institution would be re-empowered and the level of culture raised.†††††

 

             

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