At the end of the 1990s the theologian George Pattison had observed that the previous decade had produced ‘an enormous growth of interest in “art- and-religion,” an interest reflected both in the installation of new works in Churches and in an expanding theological and critical literature’ (1998: 188). Yet it was precisely his sense of a lack of coherent modern dialogue between art and theology that had first prompted him to write on this theme. Between the first edition of his Art, Modernity and Faith in 1991 and its second expanded edition in 1998, Pattison had noticed a distinct change in the cultural and theological exchange of art and religion, a trend which, in the new century, has continued to grow apace. In Britain the Anglican Church in particular is awash with proposals attempting to energise the aesthetic possibilities of sacred buildings or anxious to rephrase the language of religious principles in modern artistic terms. This exchange has prompted new connections for art and its sacred context, promising the (all too rarely realised) potential for art’s meaningful engagement with religious practice and religious spaces, often achieved through unorthodox means. New forms and media have been introduced, radically departing, formally and conceptually, from more familiar imagery. By challenging convention, they urge us to consider anew the role of these great ecclesiastical spaces, their relevance to contemporary society and their response to contemporary culture. Whatever the positive implications of this situation for art and the church, there are also disadvantages to an accelerating programme of art for ecclesiastical spaces. It has the negative potential to create new visual orthodoxies. One of the arguments I will make in this book is that church-based art is best served by occasional but intensive experiences than recourse to an events calendar filled with one art project following hard upon the heels of its predecessor, a tendency increasingly evident in a number of British cathedrals.
Contemporary art has become increasingly visible and the parameters of its public catchment greatly expanded. Prominently public art is in greater danger than ever of becoming little more than an extension of other forms of modern public pleasure. Blockbuster shows predominate in which attendance is the overriding concern (since the art itself can be so difficult to see through the crowds), once-difficult artistic genres achieve astonishing popularity, the proliferating art market gives birth to any number of fairs and biennales, and so on. In such a climate of art ubiquity, churches become a logical extension of the available sites for art, valued for their unique ambience, architecture and history. Central to the concerns of this book, therefore, is a critical engagement with the nature of the encounter between art installations and ecclesiastical spaces. In this context, the specific focus on contemporary art refers not only to art-making that is current but also privileges certain forms of art-making over others, which prompts certain questions. Can methods of art production like temporary installations, performance, video and site-specific work maintain a more significant relationship with ecclesiastical spaces than more permanent or traditional forms? Can the relationships between art and its spatial and sacral context, art and liturgical practice, or art and the worshipping community be extended to produce a viable forum for dialogue between the modern church and contemporary art? It is how art can work within the institution of the church that will concern us, in an age of dissolving or malleable institutional boundaries; a context in which art’s legitimacy continues to be contested at the same time that it is increasingly invited to take part in the life of the church.