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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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The Constitution of Subjectivities

Contemporary art in churches and cathedrals is subject to various audiences, with a greater or lesser degree of engagement. First and foremost, there are the resident clergy and local congregation, who may welcome a work of contemporary art as an enhancement of the space, begrudgingly put up with it, or angrily denounce it as intrusive, offensive or even sacrilegious. Secondly, there is the regular round of tourists and visitors, for whom such works frequently come as an unforeseen surprise, pleasing or displeasing as the case may be. Thirdly, there are those who come specifically to see the art, most of whom come with some expectations of what they will find. In general, for the first group, it is the ecclesiastical space as a place of worship that matters most, against which the presence of art will be measured. For the second group, it is the building as a place to see, explore and experience that is uppermost; whatever art is there may enhance or distract from that agenda, according to the individual response. In all likelihood it is only the third group for whom the art is paramount, against which all other considerations will be secondary. This demarcation of roles is, of course, a gross generalisation, since individuals may well straddle two or even all three groupings. Nevertheless, among those anxious to promote the role of art within the church, it is a commonly accepted factor that outside of this third group, the tendency is to assume a peripheral place for art, especially contemporary art, whose presence is often only tolerated if it is discreet.

In the particular scenarios outlined above, the art itself is assigned a relatively passive role. In such circumstances the conditions of possibility for art are limited. They are vastly extended if art itself may be said to produce its own audience or subjects, brought into being by the work or, better said, called into being. This is the work of the work of art, which could equally be described in currently fashionable terms as the production of subjectivities. What I mean by this is the now commonplace notion of the formation of subjectivity through social reproduction. In Empire, for example, Hardt and Negri reiterate the observation, ubiquitous to modern social theory, that subjectivity is not pre-given, but is to some degree formed in the field of social forces. ‘The various institutions of modern society’, they argue, provide discrete places for the production of subjectivity and, as such, ‘should be viewed as an archipelago of factories of subjectivity’ (2000: 196). This Foucauldian (and overly industrial) analogy assumes that every social institution through which one passes, and by which one is formed, has its own logic of subjectification. Each produces its own material practices, as well as inducing a certain frame of mind and comportment, which we could label productive processes of subjectivity. Notwithstanding the troubling lack of agency that seems to underpin any such notion, according to this logic, the cathedral, like all other institutions, is similarly productive of subjectivities, evident in the demeanour adopted by the typical visitor. They do not behave as they would while visiting a museum, despite the comparisons often made between them and even though certain comparable behaviours seem to correspond to both. In the terms employed by Hardt and Negri, we could say that the church or cathedral does not just welcome different subjects into its space, but produces subjectivities fitting to that space. In this regard, an important distinction must be made between the regular users of a space and those who only briefly pass through. In his consummate exploration of spatial practices, Henri Lefebvre advances the proposition that ‘architecture produces living bodies, each with its own distinctive traits’ (1991: 137); distinctive, that is, to the inherent conditions of a particular place, but distinctive too according to modes of inhabiting. Lefebvre adds restrictions to this productive capacity: it only applies to regular users through their ongoing lived experience of a place, barely touching the passing tourist or passive onlooker. Although there is much in favour of such an argument, this is not quite the line we will be taking, even if we do return to the idea that subjectivity is produced rather than pre-given and predicated upon an active response to a space. Our focus is rather more upon the subjectivities produced by the work of art itself when encountered within an ecclesiastical milieu, based upon the proposal that the work of art produces its own conditions of reception. As such, the important difference to observe is not between regular users and casual visitors so much as engaged versus uncommitted viewers. As a guide to this possibility, we will revisit the concept of ‘event’ (albeit a very different notion of event to Whitehead’s) through a somewhat unorthodox application of the philosophy of Alain Badiou, which builds upon precisely this subjective differentiation.

 
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