Tuesday, 15 December 2009

commission4mission catalogue

Our newly produced catalogue briefly tells our story and profiles our current artists showcasing the wide range of media and styles which can be commissioned from our artists.

The catalogue includes the following article on the 'Challenges of Church Art' by The Revd Jonathan Evens, Secretary of commission4mission:

Local churches contemplating the possibility of commissioning contemporary art are often put off by what they think will be prohibitive costs, disputes in the congregation about appropriate styles, and arguments that there are more important priorities for the available money.
Since the midpoint of the twentieth century, cathedrals in the UK began, once more, to regularly commission contemporary art but, for the reasons listed above, local churches have rarely followed their lead. commission4mission is a new arts organisation which is seeking to change this, primarily by making the commissioning of contemporary art an opportunity for mission and a means of fundraising for charities.

The visual arts can contribute to mission by speaking eloquently of the Christian faith; providing a reason for people to visit a church; making a link between churches and local arts organisations / initiatives and providing a focus around which local people can come together for a shared activity. A good example of this is St Albans Romford, where commission4mission was launched in March 2009. As a direct result of its many commissions the church is regularly visited by those from the local community - and further afield - who come to see Christianity differently through their visit.
When the visual arts are seen as integral to mission, then the interest of congregations in commissioning is likely to grow - but the issues of cost and competing priorities remain. As a result, commission4mission is building up a pool of artists from a range of different disciplines all of whom are able to work flexibly to available budgets and are willing to allow a proportion of the cost of each commission to go to charity. commission4mission also facilitates a process by which commissioned artworks can be donated to churches as memorials to loved ones.
Our experience suggests that this combination of charitable fundraising and memorial donations overcomes many of the issues usually faced when considering the commissioning of contemporary art for local churches. And, none of this means that quality is being compromised either. In the words of Henry Shelton, a founding artist member of commission4mission, what we offer is "quality work and craftsmanship, rather than mass-produced work, to continue the legacy of the Church as a great commissioner of art."

For the artist, however, a very different set of challenges exists as a result of church commissions. All churches, regardless of age and style, provide an existing space, which is coupled with a history (recent or ancient) that includes architecture, existing art, and community memories. The artist, and the finished artwork, has to relate in some way to the space and its history, either integrating within it or challenging what already exists through its difference.
Christianity, too, comes with a history and visual heritage with which the artist and the finished artwork must interact. Questions must be asked. Will the artist work with traditional Christian imagery or iconography? Can a legitimate contemporary approach be found to traditional iconography? Can new and contemporary symbols be found for the traditional images and doctrines of the Christian faith?
Each of our artists has one or more solution to these questions. Contrast, for example, the expressionist style of Rosalind Hore’s The Baptism of Christ with the semi-abstract minimalism of Henry Shelton’s engraved window on the same theme at All Saints Goodmayes. Both work with traditional iconography but to very different effect; Hore conveys a sense of Christ caught up in an ecstatic union within the Trinity, while the simple elegance of line and minimalism of imagery in Shelton’s design suggests the ease with which those at the time could have overlooked the significance of this event.

As part of this dialogue, all artists also face the question, ‘What is Christian art?’ In the past, this question was easily answered. Christian art was simply art for churches created under the patronage of the Church, by artists in communion with the Church, and using the iconography of the Church. Today, there is no easy answer to this question for several reasons: artwork using traditional iconography could be created for church or gallery; the Church is no longer a major patron of the visual arts; traditional iconography can be utilised by artists in order to be subverted or challenged; artists exploring spiritual themes could be people of faith, or not - and may - or may not - use traditional iconography.
Today, all of the old certainties regarding Christian art can be questioned. commission4mission, though, by focusing primarily on encouraging the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches largely returns to the earlier understanding.
And finally, let us not forget that, in addition to their dialogue with space, history, and iconography, artists commissioned by churches are also in dialogue with people. Most commissions will involve the artist in relating to a group of church members, and possibly to some advisory body (such as the Diocesan Advisory Committee in the Church of England system). Relating to the different tastes and appreciations of the visual arts, and to differing understandings of the role of the artist among those liaising with the artist on behalf of the church, make this dialogue one of the most challenging for the artist - and can lead to a concern that art is being created by committee and vision diminished as a result.

In writing of the “passionate and intelligent understanding of the arts in the service of the Church” that was demonstrated by Bishop George Bell (Bishop of Chichester, 1929 - 1958), Canon Keith Walker sets out a model for an ‘ideal’ relationship between church and artist (K. Walker, Images or Idols? The Canterbury Press Norwich, 1996). Bell argued, “The Church should dictate the subject-matter whilst the artist should decide the style;” and that “Today’s artists (should) be employed to paint in our churches, not in a style imitative of the past, but in the idiom natural to them;” and lastly “The Church … must be prepared to trust its chosen artists to begin their work and carry it through to the end as the fulfillment of a trust, the terms and circumstances of which they understand and respect.”

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