Expanded Communities for Art

One question foregrounded by an installation of this kind, and hardly to be avoided in a book like this, is who is ecclesiastical art for? In an artistic climate intensely aware of the unavoidable agency of context, any space for art today may be said to extract meaning from the interaction of art with the environment, history and ideology of that space. But if art in ecclesiastical contexts is to have any meaning beyond this, must it not also take into account the individuals and communities who inhabit those spaces? Although a church is populated by many different groups and subjects, above all it is the home of a lay and ecclesiastical community of Christian believers. When it ceases to be so, it becomes merely an historical object or aesthetically stimulating architectural conceit that offers a peculiarly otherworldly ambience. This difference becomes clear whenever one enters a decommissioned church that has become an art space. The primary directive of an active church is its worshipping community, and although art need not be directly engineered towards an encounter with that community — and indeed often is not — it cannot really afford to ignore it if it is to have a sustained and effective presence within ecclesiastical contexts.

At a conference on theology, liturgy and the arts, Christopher Irvine, speaking on the role of theology and the visual arts in ecclesial formation, asked a number of questions pertinent to this discussion: how is the ecclesial community nourished, informed or challenged by visual art? What is the place and role of art within ‘believing’ communities? How is art involved in the formation of subjectivities and, in particular, in forming Christian subjectivities?5 Irvine referred to the seminal moment when Christ emptied the temple, pondering what new conditions of possibility that cleared space made available. He identified three things: a space for encounter, a space where we are addressed and a space of meeting. The cornerstone of this ecclesial life, he continued, affirming an imperative of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, is ‘responsive participation’ through various types of ecclesial formation. If this begins with being formed and conformed to the likeness of Christ, the standard expected of the Christian, it extends further to encompass other subjective responses, taking a number of forms in relation to the space in which it operates. It has a liturgical form inasmuch as the social body relates to what it does rather than what it is. It has a symbolic form in that the space itself is moulded according to the human activity that takes place there. It has a pro- cessual form that organically shapes, makes and remakes the social space and the community that inhabits it. But it also has a form defined by its art, for which Christ’s clearing of the temple alerts us to the artistic imperative to sweep away the cliches that adhere to the canvas before the creative work can begin. Indeed, this analogy holds at a concrete level, numerous writers attesting to the literally emptied space of the post-Reformation church as the catalyst for artistic creation. As you may recall, this was precisely the starting point for Byars’s liturgical installation, building as it did upon the largely emptied space of St Peter’s.6 One path to this clearing away is art’s relocation, a by-now commonplace strategy within the art world. Liberating art from its secular institutions is commonly perceived to be a means of reanimating engagements with art by recontextualising it in unexpected places or, more pressingly, to initiate encounters with art for those rarely exposed to it. Despite the rich artistic legacy of the church, bringing contemporary art into churches and cathedrals can be understood in both senses: positively, as a re-engagement or fresh encounter with art, and negatively, as an intrusion, disruption or undesirable presence. In either case, a common factor is a meeting between a work of art and a public whose reaction to the work is likely to be very different from that of a museum-going crowd.

Here we find some overlap with certain contemporary genres for art, notably community-based art practices. These tend to be dialogic in principle, often with the audience working alongside the artist in a collaborative manner and within the local spaces of the community at hand rather than requiring their relocation to the spaces usually set aside for art activities. Such practices stress the importance of taking an audience into account where a more conventional approach to art has tended to occur in isolation from the potential viewer. As such, the ideal scenario for dialogic art bears a close relation to our hopes for ecclesiastical art:

In dialogic practice the artist, whose perceptions are informed by his or her own training, past projects, and lived experience, comes into a given site or community characterised by its own unique constellation of social and economic forces, personalities, and traditions. In the exchange that follows, both the artist and his or her collaborators will have their existing perceptions challenged; the artist may well recognise relationships or connections that the community members have become inured to, while the collaborators will also challenge the artist’s preconceptions about the community itself and about his or her own function as an artist. What emerges is a new set of insights, generated at the intersection of both perspectives and catalysed through the collaborative production of a given project.

(Kester 2004: 95)

Dialogic art is primarily collaborative which, for Kester, is theoretically underpinned by a conception of community associated with Jean-Luc Nancy: the inoperative community, a form of sociability predicated upon ‘being in common’ (Nancy 1991: xxxviii). Not a common being or substance, or the sharing of some kind of pre-existing sensus communis, being in common is based instead upon communication and negotiation, on the recognition of a lack of common, shared or substantive identity, in which ‘the participants think, act, and speak beyond their a priori roles and identities’ (Kester 2004: 155). It does not seek to produce a community as a grouping with fixed borders, but rather to realise the ongoing possibilities of community and its necessary opening to whatever or whoever remains on its outside (autoimmunely, we might say, after Derrida). In the words of Miwon Kwon, this implies a thinking of community not in terms of ‘an existing social relation’, but rather as a ‘call or appeal to a collective praxis’ (cited in Kester 2004: 159). Even where a community is deemed to preexist the process of artistic participation, it is hoped that the social grouping that emerges through the process is not the self-same grouping that preceded it. As Kester emphasises, there must always be room for ‘unanticipated new insights that emerge from collaborative interactions or dialogic encounters’ (2004: 163). This applies not only to the process itself but also to any consequential exhibiting of the work. In an ecclesiastical setting, this imperative is no less demanding than in the secular settings described by Kester and others, even if the more collaborative aspect of dialogic art practice is usually less apparent. Those responsible for inaugurating such works must be prepared to trust the artist’s vision and those responsible for overseeing its period of showing must be ready to allow a public to respond to it in unexpected, even unprecedented ways.

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