Encounter versus Recognition

So far, there has been plenty of talk about dialogue between the worlds of church and art, but it is worth considering the value of a term like ‘encounter’ over that of ‘dialogue’, especially between worlds that are, rightly or wrongly, perceived to be incompatible. A fundamental tension for the modern church is how to negotiate between the desire to impose the securities of recognition, familiarity and tradition, and the possibilities offered by unexpected encounters with whatever disrupts thought and experience (hence for many the necessary rejection of representation in religious art is precisely for the cul-de-sac to thought it effects). More specifically, the value of encounter over recognition, as a principle for rethinking the role of art in the church, is a response to the Deleuzian conviction that thought is animated by encounter, but stifled by recognition. Encounter is the name Deleuze gives to an experience that is not limited to the possible, the recognisable or the imaginable (1997: 139). It confronts us with the unexpected rather than offering us the comfort of familiarity; it forces us to think or to rethink what we expect of art in relation to what we expect of the church. How does the Deleuzian ‘object of encounter’ fundamentally differ from an ‘object of recognition’? An experimental application of this idea to art practice explains this well:

With the latter our knowledges, beliefs and values are reconfirmed . . . An object of recognition is then precisely a representation of something always already in place. With such a non-encounter our habitual way of being and acting in the world is reaffirmed and reinforced, and as a consequence no thought takes place. Indeed, we might say that representation precisely stymies thought. With a genuine encounter however the contrary is the case. Our typical ways of being in the world are challenged, our systems of knowledge disrupted. We are forced to thought.

(O’Sullivan 2006: 1)

This is then a creative moment, a challenge to habit or expectation with the potential for an experience of something new, a transformation equated with our (frequently disappointed) hopes for art. To what extent, then, can it be said that contemporary art for the contemporary church operates within the realm of encounter rather than recognition? And to what extent is this desirable? Or, to put the question another way, to what extent should a concept of encounter, as opposed to recognition, as described above, determine the conditions of possibility for contemporary art within ecclesiastical spaces? There is after all an argument to be made for the creative thought stimulated by familiarity, for the importance of an artistic link to the past and a continuing conversation with artistic tradition. We will consider this objection later in the book, but, to be blunt, all too frequently recognition and representation take precedence over an encounter with the unexpected in order to secure against the intrusion of anything new. Opposition to modern art in the church, hedged about with prohibitions like ‘inappropriate’ or even ‘sacrilegious’, often masks a fundamental demand for the familiar.

Objects of encounter enlarge the viability of experience, escaping the rigidly policed parameters set forth by whatever or whoever mediates the admissibility of art in an ecclesiastical environment. Thus, as O’Sullivan puts it, as an object of encounter, art might be ‘less involved in knowledge and more involved in experience — in pushing forward the boundaries of what can be experienced’, in order to ‘[transform], if only for a moment, our sense of ourselves and our experience of the world’ (2006: 52, 50). Put this way, if we entrust art with creating openings to a rich store of possibilities, is this an unrealistic raising of expectations or could it be argued that this is the minimum expected of art? So much contemporary ecclesiastical art already deals with many things beyond the aesthetic or theological, encompassing the sociological, political, ritualistic, relational, participative or affective, and sometimes operating at the fringes of the experiential. The struggle facing the modern church, and the source of its continual debate with contemporary culture, is the strain between an adherence to timeless verities versus a concession to changing cultural experience — or, to put it another way, the tension between the longevity, stability and familiarity of a venerable tradition and a willingness to question, challenge, invert or remould that tradition; the debate, if you like, between continuity and interruption. If art once upheld the practices and teaching of the church according to certain established aesthetic and theological principles, it has been increasingly replaced by an art willing to question those principles, to reframe both its form and content according to other media and other agendas, or that seeks a dialogue with the church through the lens of the surrounding culture. As O’Sullivan suggests elsewhere, in this encounter between continuity and an art that interrupts it, art reveals its innate tendency to exceed the frameworks established to contain it, including hermeneutical frameworks that seek to understand and interpret it, forcing us to be ‘attentive to art’s own logic of invention and creation’ (2010: 196). Indeed, in the struggle between encounter and recognition, for some the inescapable imperative of art is that it says something other than whatever already counts as art within the art world and its accepted discourses of artistic production. This is surely no less an incentive for art in an ecclesiastical milieu.

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