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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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Renewed Ecclesiastical Encounters with Art

The precedents for the joining of such apparently immiscible forces as modern art and the church were principally established by the pioneering and persistent efforts of figures like Dean Walter Hussey and Bishop George Bell in this country, and Pere Marie-Alain Couturier in France, who sought to reforge a relationship between the sacred spaces of Western Christianity and modern art, looking for a new visual language relevant to the times. Indeed, Couturier’s declared intention was the recrudescence of a once-thriving tradition in order ‘to bring to an end . . . the absurd divorce, which for the past century has separated the church from living art’ (1951: 30). Couturier’s stated aim had been to re-engage the church with that ‘living art’, a reconciliation of the church and the contemporary world from which it had been so lamentably disengaged, resulting in a religious art mired in tradition and stiflingly archaic in form. That spirit of rapprochement appears to a large extent to have been achieved, judging by the evidence of the past few decades, with a steady flow of living artists apparently eager to extend their practice into the environment of the church. Even so, writing on this subject some 20 years ago, Howes had rightly pointed out that the ‘religious’ quality of artistic output is invariably poor since ‘few contemporary artists have either the religious imagination or technical capacity to respond to ecclesiastical demand’ (1991: 441). Besides which, however much some elements within the church express an enthusiasm for the possibilities offered by contemporary art, outweighing more conservative uncertainties about its efficacy or desirability, certain entrenched positions remain, manifesting as opposition or resistance. For Ena Giurescu Heller, then director of New York’s now-defunct Museum of Biblical Art, an enforced gap separates the two worlds of art and religion, whatever their common roots. More optimistically, she does see signs of change:

Are religion and art two worlds that have a hard time meeting in our society? Recent studies reveal that, in spite of a perceived need for more dialogue between people involved in the arts and those involved in religion, an obvious gap between the two groups continues to exist. And although arts and religious leaders alike expressed the need for, as well as their personal interest in, more cooperation and dialogue, still only relatively little interaction between the two worlds exists. This may be about to change. Significant efforts have been made in recent years to create a dialogue between art and religious institutions, and between the two fields of inquiry.

(2004: 8)

Exactly the kind of dialogue envisaged by Heller was the focus of an art seminar held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 and documented in Re-Enchantment. The seminar was presented as a debate on the present relation of art and religion, aiming to redress ‘the near-absence of religion from contemporary discourse on art’ (Elkins and Morgan 2009: i), an absence predicated on the perceived reluctance of the art world to seriously engage with religious or spiritual language except within certain narrow parameters. Contrary to Heller’s conviction that attitudes are changing, however, what was striking about the seminar was the degree to which a certain ingrained bias continued to characterise perceptions of the relationship between the worlds of art and church. The art seminar in a sense assigned itself the task of discussing what it perceives as a ‘troubled’ and ‘deeply conflicted’ relationship (2009: 147, 19). And yet a common assessment of those invited to respond to the seminar after the event testifies to a lack of genuine commitment to the seminar’s objectives. Throughout the debate, art and religion are held to be polar categories, in many respects upholding the opinion still held by many who declare the gulf between art and faith to be unbridgeable in the contemporary period. As one contributor put it:

Far from being a conversation about contemporary art and religion — or even about the activity of theorising contemporary art and religion — it is instead a conversation that illuminates a chasm between the assembly and the object of study.

(2009: 223)

Earlier I suggested that the presence of contemporary art within churches and cathedrals created anxiety for those uncomfortable with art’s sacrilegious potential. What the seminar starkly reveals is the degree to which this concern can be inversed, since it exposes a comparable anxiety within the contemporary art world for any forms of cultural production that operate under the sign of religion. This could not be clearer from the reaction of two prominent art critics, Michael Fried and T. J. Clark, who were both invited to the seminar, but declined on the grounds that it would be too ‘painful’ to participate in a discussion linking religion and art in any positive manner (2009: 110). In an age of intertextuality and interdisciplinarity, when it comes to the church, all the fears of contamination resurface. Whether from the rise of religious fundamentalism or the stridency of the new atheists, a surprising degree of polar thinking works hard to keep art and culture separate from the church.

Historically art’s legitimacy within religious milieus was assured by the church’s patronage and endorsement, but always, of course, within certain constraints of form and content. Increasingly within modernity, artists no longer looked to the church as a source of support, nor did the church pursue a progressive attitude towards the art of its time. Howes notes that from the midnineteenth century, during a period of extensive church-building, there are almost no occasions of great artists being commissioned to produce works for churches (with the exception of Delacroix), the work going instead to less-gifted but believing artists (2007: 21). The iconoclastic policy of the Reformation had initiated a cultural shift away from the visual towards the primacy of the word, whilst the Enlightenment precipitated a divorce of religion’s centrality from cultural meaning, discrediting its validity as a means of explaining or describing the world. In the modern age, certain pockets of growth aside, the church’s credibility has been continually buffeted by the vicissitudes of cultural change — its authority challenged, its values undermined — becoming for many an irrelevant anachronism. Against this purported decline, art, it has been said, found its new spiritual home in the gallery. In fact, the ersatz spirituality or ‘bogus religiosity’ (to borrow John Berger’s phrase) of the gallery is something to which many of us have by now become rather inured. It certainly does not seem to reflect the focus of so many contemporary artists upon resurgent ideas of the spiritual, the sacred, the sublime and the transcendent, and their enthusiasm for bringing their artistic enquiry into the church. As the number of projects currently under way makes clear, the question is no longer why there is a lack of dialogue between art and the church, and what is to be done about it, but rather what is the nature of the dialogue in which they are presently engaged and what sort of positive dialogue might we envisage for the future? What are the conditions that would enable possibilities of desirable mutual exchange? Concomitant with such questions has been a greater encouragement towards a different kind of integration of the arts into some of Britain’s major churches and cathedrals, with the potential to develop an invigorating and enriching critical relationship between not only the art and those spaces, but also with those who visit them. Recent practice encourages a reappraisal of the church’s attitude towards the culture of which it is ineluctably a part and to which it seeks to address itself.

This book is motivated by the fact that, in the space of a decade and a half, what Lambirth in 1999 had perceived as a sign of change has become a veritable industry. A shift has occurred in the way that art operates within the context of ecclesiastical spaces, gaining ground in the 1990s and increasingly prevalent today. The potential for a renewed discourse of art and Christianity has prompted a series of risk-taking ventures using unconventional means, in a manner that emulates the earlier efforts of Hussey, Bell and Couturier, but far exceeds their expectations for ecclesiastical art. Commissions and installations no longer appear to be the exception but the rule. The reader might justifiably assume that an argument will be made for an unequivocal validation and expansion of this programme, and that the author wholeheartedly welcomes the increasingly visible presence of contemporary art within ecclesiastical walls. Surprisingly perhaps, he does not. Indeed, if anything, the argument presented here will canvas for fewer works, cautioning against an ill-advised enthusiasm for overfilling our ecclesiastical spaces. The Church of England has had to confront the legacy of an iconoclastic tradition, which still scars its fafades. Empty niches and defaced statues all bear the imprint of an iconoclastic past that is our aesthetic present, the template within which we operate. A word of caution that will be addressed to those responsible for promoting and supporting art in churches is not to be unduly hasty in refilling these spaces. For every effective work of art, experience has shown that others are merely visual clutter, detracting from, rather than adding to, the experience of the space such that one critic has caustically wondered ‘where are the iconoclasts now that we really need them?’ (Greer 2007: 28). The work that had provoked Germaine Greer’s ire is a statue of The Blessed Virgin Mary by David Wynne, installed in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, a once highly decorative chapel now despoiled of imagery and colour, having suffered extensively from the iconoclastic fervour of the Reformation. Wynne’s sculpture is made of Portland stone and is brightly but flatly painted, the golden-haired Madonna wearing an ultramarine mantle with a golden sash and set in an elevated position at the east end of the denuded chapel.7 Her pose is expressive, arms raised, one bare foot thrust forward, peeking over the edge of the stone plinth, but there is as much vitality in the figure as one would find in a mannequin. As an ill-judged attempt to reproduce medieval painted decoration, it jars rather than blends with the space (but not, I suspect, in a manner that Mennekes would approve). As Greer notes, to the modern-day visitor, the chapel offers the ‘austere monochrome’ of a bright and uncluttered chamber (2007: 28) and therefore, however much it may reconnect with an earlier aesthetic, Wynne’s sculpture seems all the more out of keeping with its contemporary environment, peculiarly insensitive to the quality of the space as it appears today. In 2011 a new reredos and altar were added to the Lady Chapel, in part, one suspects, as an attempt to better integrate this controversial piece. At the other end of the scale, a project contemporaneous with Wynne’s that similarly yet successfully reinstated imagery where now-vanished imagery once stood can be seen on the front fayade of Norwich Cathedral.

David Holgate’s Mother Julian and Saint Benedict has sensitively and evocatively filled niches that have remained empty for some 500 years with two prominent local figures. Care has been taken to provide an artistic solution appropriate to a modern aesthetic sensibility, reproducing the time-worn, weather-scoured, bare statuary to which we have become accustomed. The sense of vitality missing from Wynne’s gesticulating Madonna is plainly evident in the personality that enlivens Holgate’s sculptures. Another notable example in this respect is the triad of paintings by Iain McKillop in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral inserted into a reredos vandalised by Cromwell’s troops

David Holgate, Mother Julian and Saint Benedict, 2000, Norwich Cathedral

Figure 1.1 David Holgate, Mother Julian and Saint Benedict, 2000, Norwich Cathedral. Photographs courtesy of Paul Hurst during the English Civil War. The paintings manage to blend almost seamlessly into their background and at the same time reflect the mutilated aesthetic quality of the reredos in their expressionistic style.

 
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