Monday 27 February 2012

Exploring the nature of Christian Art

Jonathan Evens gave the following talk about commission4mission and the nature of Christian Art at West Mersea Parish Church yesterday, as part of their Learning Supper:

commission4mission was launched in March 2009 by our Patron, the Bishop of Barking, to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches, as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for churches.
We aim to:
·          provide opportunities for churches to obtain and commission contemporary Christian Art for church buildings;
·          provide information, ideas and examples of contemporary Christian Art and its use/display within church settings; and
·          raise funds for charities through commissions and sales of contemporary Christian Art. 
In the short time that commission4mission has been in existence we have:
·          built up a pool of over 30 artists available for Church commissions;
·          completed 7 commissions;
·          organised 12 exhibitions, two Study Days and several networking events for members;
·          created an Art Trail for the Barking Episcopal Area;
·          worked in partnership with CANA and Veritasse to create an Olympic-themed art project – Run With The Fire; and
·          developed a blog profiling our artists and giving up-to-date news of our activities.
Why do we do what we do? I would want to say that there is a Trinitarian underpinning to what we do.

Firstly, that we are creative because we are made in the image of our Creator. On this topic Michael Hampel has written that:

"Theologians have chewed over the question about what it means to be made in the image of God for some 3,000 years, and it took a writer – a detective novelist indeed – to come up with the most useful answer. Dorothy L Sayers, never shy of cutting through the brambles of theology to talk realistically about God, took a close look at the verse in the Book of Genesis that claims God created humankind in his image (Genesis 1: 27). She spotted that all we know of God up to that point in the Bible is that he was somehow responsible for creation, and so she concluded that to be made in the image of God means that we are most like God when we are being creative. She set about working out how to apply this theory to the creative impulse in her most significant piece of popular theology The Mind of the Maker (1941), a book that still today has a lot to say to us about how we resist the culture of instant gratification that has been more destructive of humankind and its environment than any world war.”

Secondly, the Spirit gives skill to craftspeople (Exodus 35. 30 – 35). Mark Driscoll has said:

Perhaps the finest artist to have lived was Bezalel, a godly man who made sacred art (Exodus 31-40). The first Spirit-filled man in the Bible, he was chosen by God to be skilled, knowledgeable and able to teach in all kinds of craftsmanship. Since God did not want to be worshipped outdoors like the pagan/pantheistic gods, God assigned Bezalel to build the tabernacle. Repeatedly we are told of the result of the Spirit's leading in his life, "he made…" To be biblically inspired is to make. Aristotle defined art as the capacity to make. Art is the making of anything, from a meal to a symphony.

Bezalel's art was where man met God since the very presence of God dwelt with his art.”

Similarly, Calvin Seerveld urges young artists to: “Make your paintings, poetry, sculptures, songs, photography, stories, theatre pieces, music, or whatever artistry: craft it as a psalm before the face and ear of the Lord and let your neighbour listen in. Join the progeny of David, Asaph, Bezalel and Oholiab (Exodus 31:1-11), even the descendents of Korah (Psalms 42-49), and make merry before the LORD God, God's people, and even one's antagonists (Psalm 23:5).”

Thirdly, God the Son was seen/made visible/re-presented in human flesh in Jesus (John 1. 1 – 18). The doctrine of the Incarnation - the belief that, in Jesus, God himself became a human being and lived in a particular culture and time – is a key reason why visual art has featured so strongly in Christianity right from the early stages of its existence. If God had chosen to be seen in human form, so the argument goes, then the representation of God in human form is surely sanctioned by that choice. This can be clearly seen in the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century which led to the destruction of many images, as successive emperors in Constantinople tried to stamp out their veneration.

Rowan Williams has summarised the arguments of those who were the defenders of images. Their argument was firstly that “God became truly human in Jesus … And [that] if Jesus was indeed truly human, we can represent his human nature as with any other member of the human race.” Secondly, they argued that, “If we paint a picture of Jesus, we’re not trying to show a humanity apart from divine life, but a humanity soaked through with divine life … We don’t depict just a slice of history when we depict Jesus; we show a life radiating the life and force of God.”
Next, I would want to say that the Arts are in many ways foundational to all that occurs in Church. Very briefly, we can say that:
     the Architecture of our churches provides a designed context and stage for the worship that occurs within them;
     we re-enact Biblical narratives through the poetry of the liturgy;
     music in church provides composed expressions of emotions and stories in and through song; and
     images in churches re-tell Biblical narratives and open windows into the divine.
Finally, I would also say that the Arts contribute to the mission of the Church by:
    speaking eloquently of the faith;
    providing a reason to visit a church – something we have tapped with our Art Trail for the Barking Episcopal Area;
    making links between churches and local arts organisations/ initiatives; and
    providing a focus for people to come together for a shared activity.
These then are key reasons why, in commission4mission, we seek to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches. This then leads on to an obvious and controversial question, ‘What is contemporary Christian Art?’ or even is there such a thing as ‘Christian Art’?
Some people answer this question by saying that ‘Christian Art’ is art made by Christians but, if that is the answer to the question, then there is much that we are ruling out. Fernand Léger’s mural at Assy, Henri Matisse’s Chapel at Vence, and Le Corbusier’s Church at Ronchamp are some of the most interesting art works and architecture created for churches during the twentieth century and all were by artists who made no claim to be Christians. In fact, all these commissions came about because of an approach to commissioning art for churches which argued that Christian art could be revived by appealing to the independent masters of the time with churches commissioning the very best artists available, and not quibbling over the artists' beliefs. If all ‘Christian Art’ is art made by Christians then we rule all this out.
So, maybe, ‘Christian Art’ is art commissioned by the Church? Again, this seems too limiting a definition. For instance, Mark C. Taylor has noted that "From the beginning of modern art in Europe, its practitioners have relentlessly probed religious issues. Though not always immediately obvious, the questions religion raises lurk on or near the surface of even the most abstract canvases produced during the modern era.” “All of the major abstract expressionists,” he says, “were deeply interested in religion and actively incorporated spiritual concerns in their work.” He concludes that, “One of the most puzzling paradoxes of twentieth-century cultural interpretation is that, while theologians, philosophers of religion, and art critics deny or surpress the religious significance of the visual arts, many of the leading modern artists insist that their work cannot be understood apart from religious questions and spiritual issues."
Re-thinking again, is it art which uses Biblical/Church images, stories or themes? Once again, this is too narrow a definition which would not capture, for example, the images that the deeply Catholic Georges Rouault produced of prostitutes, which William Dryness has described as “painted as penetrating types of the misery of human existence” but with grace also seen as “divine meaning is given to human life by the continuing passion of Jesus Christ.” Nor would we capture the semi-abstractions created by the Evangelical Christian Makoto Fujimura who uses semi-precious minerals in the Nihonga style to create paintings that tend to only hint at recognizable subjects.

As a result of these difficulties in definition, some argue that ‘Christian Art’ is a meaningless category. From this perspective, and following the ideas of the art critic Clement Greenberg, it is argued that the artwork is what it is and everything else (including any element of Christianity) is interpretation. But if this is the case then the ideas and influences of the artist, the relationship that the artwork has with its historical and art historical context, and our own response to the artwork are all ruled out of the frame. The artwork is something entirely separate from these and yet each in different ways has interacted with and affected the artwork itself. Without these the artwork does not exist or is not seen.
To add to the complexity, here’s a poem in translation by the German kinetic sculptor Heinz Mack who has had much experience of trying to work in and with Catholic chapels in Germany:

“Church art is not always art.
Art that happens to be placed in church, is art in the church,
But not Church art.
Church art that is shown in museums, remains church art in museums.
Art for the Church is not always regarded as art by the Church.
The Church does not always want art.
Art is art without the Church.
Great Church art is art in the church and for the church.”
In seeking to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches, commission4mission is aiming to be about “art in the church and for the church.”
Why does it matter one way or the other? James Elkins has accurately described the current relationship between the art world and religion:
"Sooner or later, if you love art, you will come across a strange fact: there is almost no modern religious art in museums or in books of art history. It is a state of affairs that is at once obvious and odd, known to everyone and yet hardly whispered about ... a certain kind of academic art historical writing treats religion as an interloper, something that just has no place in serious scholarship ... Straightforward talk about religion is rare in art departments and art schools, and wholly absent from art journals unless the work in question is transgressive. Sincere, exploratory religious and spiritual work goes unremarked. Students who make works that are infused with spiritual or religious meanings must normally be content with analysis of their works' formal properties, technique, or mode of presentation. Working artists concerned with themes of spirituality (again, excepting work that is critical or ironic about religion) normally will not attract the attention of people who write for art magazines ... An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to the art world unless they are treated with scepticism. And that's odd, because there is a tremendous amount of religious art ..."
Essentially, if you are a Christian and an artist, the mainstream art world provides no points of reference, no role models for you to follow. Yet, as we heard Mark C. Taylor saying earlier, "From the beginning of modern art in Europe, its practitioners have relentlessly probed religious issues.” Timothy Potts has noted that “... the pervasiveness of broadly religious and spiritual themes in twentieth-century Western art may at first seem to stand in contradiction to the secularization of so many aspects of life and culture during our times.” But, when we catch a glimpse of the true extent to which the practitioners of modern art have relentlessly probed religious issues, we will not be surprised at this pervasiveness.
What is needed, as Daniel A. Siedell has suggested, is “an alternative history and theory of the development of modern art, revealing that Christianity has always been present with modern art, nourishing as well as haunting it, and that modern art cannot be understood without understanding its religious and spiritual components and aspirations.” When we have this young and emerging Christian artists will have role models and all of us can be nourished and haunted by the religious issues probed by modern and contemporary art.
The four facets of any artwork that I mentioned earlier can be used to explore the way in which modern and contemporary art probes religious issues. To see how this can work look, for example, at Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and think about your responses to each of the four facets of this artwork.
First, the nature of the artwork is that it is a 60x40 inch Cibachrome photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in urine. How do you respond to it? Responses often include comments on its beauty and the traditional nature of the image in addition to questioning whether the work is intended satirically.
Second, the ideas and influences of the artist in creating this piece included it being one in a series of classical statuettes submerged in fluids and a comment on the commercialisation of religion. How do you respond to it now? Responses often include questions about other statuettes in the series and about the artist's motivation in attacking the commercialisation of religion.
Third, in thinking about the artwork’s relationship with its historical and art historical context, we can see that the crucifix has an art historical lineage but is also a contemporary commercial religious product, so the work contributes to a debate regarding traditional and contemporary expressions of Christianity. How do you respond to it now? Responses often include a sense of agreeing that the work raises issues about the nature of images in religion.
Fourth, the response of viewer’s to this artwork has been twofold. There have been death threats to the artist, vandalism of the artwork and attempts to ban it from those who view it as an attack on Christianity. Alternatively, there are Christians who see it as a depiction of incarnation; of Christ coming into the detritus of life. How do you respond to it now? Responses often include the acknowledgement that the work stimulates a depth of debate because it works on several different levels.  
The work comes alive to us through the different layers of response we make to each facet of our consideration of the artwork and the debate this engenders. Each facet that we have considered involved an real engagement with aspects of Christianity, so we could therefore conclude that, however we responded personally, this is actually a deeply Christian work. Sustained reflection on artworks is what will lead us to a recognition of the spirituality and religious engagement inherent in much modern and contemporary art.

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