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

How, then, does art figure as an evental process of truth within the church? Must we necessarily divest our churches of their existing artistic traditions? Or is it rather the case that the situation that enframes those conventional traditions must be open to the non-traditional, unconventional and unforeseen as a guide to theological truth? If so, then the subjects of that truth will be those who show fidelity to it, whether as viewers, worshippers or administrators. The role of clerical authorities in dealing faithfully with art will be touched upon in the final chapter. Here we are more concerned with the way that fidelity to an artistic act demands an engaged response, in the sense that art’s demands are meaningless without the viewer’s engaged approval. Yve Lomax’s creative description of the aftermath of an event goes some way towards explaining the relationship of fidelity to an event in terms of the demands it makes upon a subject. Fundamental to the event as a procedure of truth is that, for those who affirm its truth, it becomes impossible to carry on as before. It is worth citing her at length:

You’re a mortal individual pursuing your ordinary interests and then by chance something happens to you. It seizes you and in that moment . . . you let the not-known, the incalculable, seize you. Astonished? Perhaps. Perhaps inexplicable tears. What can you say? However, what you can say — what [Badiou] says — is that you are being seized and punctured (his word) by something in excess of your ordinary living situation. It could be an amorous encounter. It could be something in a photographic image that is nonspecifiable. It could be, as he says, the sudden feeling that this poem is addressed to you; or it could be, as again he says, a scientific theory whose initially obscure beauty overwhelms you. Perhaps it is over in a flash; nonetheless, you are seized and this means you cannot continue as if nothing has happened, as if nothing consequently will happen. And this is where — for the sake of those future consequences — a fidelity takes hold and bores through you. And this is where for you there is a ‘piercing through’. And this piercing through is what calls us to become — for the sake of something new to happen — the subject of a truth-process.

(Lomax 2005: 179)

Lomax’s testimony prompts the view that an artwork has to encourage a response in the person who sees it, who feels compelled to respond to it. One is seized by it, and thereby marked by it, becoming a subject of the work, even if it is only in retrospect that one can begin to understand how one has been seized. The words of David Tracy (whose ideas on the issue of the experience and truth of art are indebted to the prior thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer) appear to corroborate this encounter with art as ‘an event of truth’ that irrecus- ably impacts upon our sense of subjectivity. The work of art:

encounters me with the surprise, impact, even shock of reality itself. In experiencing art, I recognise a truth I somehow know but know I did not really know except through the experience of recognition of the essential compelled by the work of art. I am transformed by its truth when I return to the everyday, to the whole of what I ordinarily call reality, and discover new affinities, new sensibilities for the everyday.

(1981: 111-112)

In fact, despite the apparent similarities of language, the event of truth outlined by Tracy is subtly different from that described by Badiou. Here the encounter with, or experience of, the work of art induces a sense of recognition for that which is already there, only unseen or unrecognised. It describes an experience of art with which many of us are surely familiar. For Gadamer, the power of art over subjectivity is the subject’s induction into an aesthetic tradition hitherto ignored, unsuspected or attended to only partially or superficially, yet able to substantially affect our view of the world when its disclosure of truth is understood and acknowledged. It is, in Tracy’s sense, the recognition of a classic that discloses some fundamental nugget of wisdom or truth about the world. By contrast, events for Badiou are periodic, exceptional and transforming. Through them we do not recognise an existing reality (the truth embedded in a classic of art or literature) so much as experience a changed reality. In a recent interview Badiou explains how an event brings to light a previously invisible or unthinkable possibility (2013: 9-10). It is literally the impossible, because its unprecedented possibility is not even conceivable before it happens, against the forces of the situation as it is, which determine what is possible and impossible in that situation.

In terms of art, we must assume that event stands for a rare and momentous shift that, if followed, will inscribe itself into and utterly transform an artistic situation. Indeed, this is the role of art, or at least of what Badiou names an affirmative art, as Peter Hallward confirms in his early monograph on the philosopher: ‘The sole task of an exclusively affirmative art is the effort to render visible all that which, from the perspective of the establishment, is invisible or nonexistent’ (2003: 195). This is not the ‘making visible the invisible’ so commonly attributed to spiritual or religious art, although it certainly does not dismiss it. Rather, the ‘invisible or nonexistent’ asserts the unrecognisable, unthought or unrepresentable possibilities in any given situation. If Badiou has something like the avant-gardist production of the new in mind, whereby exceptional breaks and entirely unforeseen configurations mark the emergence of a new artistic consistency (to stick with his terminology), it is also possible to envisage an event in more singularly subjective terms, as Lomax appears to suggest.

Even so, we should be circumspect in our application of event to the subject of our enquiry. We cannot presume that it may be turned to an account of aesthetic experience, even momentous experience, per se. One risks hyposta- tising the exceptional event into each and every artistic gesture of consequence or every new eventuality, diminishing the idea of event to mere novelty. Nor should we make the mistake of supposing an event to be just any unprecedented occurrence that requires some degree of commitment to sustain it. On the other hand, that this degree of creative invention is so rarely achieved takes nothing away from its imperative. Lomax’s description above supports this sense of an out-of-the-ordinary experience, and yet it does so in subjective terms that bring the experience closer to a living reality. When Badiou writes of an ‘artistic truth’, he often does so in terms which imply a less rarefied experience, albeit one that undermines expectations or overturns conventions. What counts in each case is our response to the world it makes possible or opens up to our vision. Art’s evental truth, if such it has, will be evident in the subjects who, as a consequence of an encounter with that art, act in fidelity to this unexpected something that has interrupted and transformed their situation so completely. Ultimately, fidelity to this event will operate upon the situation itself, extending its potential, shifting its parameters, re-aligning its functioning to the degree that it incorporates the consequences of the emergent evental truth.

Cast in such terms, a greater parity between an artistic encounter and a reframing of an ecclesiastical context seems viable. It is clearly not the case that every art event of significance is an event in Badiou’s terms, but experience tells us that many installations and commissions of the past 20 years have substantially altered the parameters for ecclesiastical art. By presenting the viewer with the unconventional or unexpected, they have contributed in some small way to reworking the situation of ecclesiastical art by rendering visible or thinkable what was previously unimaginable in a way that can be framed within evental processes. In each and every case, for those convinced of the truth or, perhaps better said, the integrity of the work, the utmost need for fidelity to its truth- process, to the rethinking of artistic possibility it inaugurates, marks the subjects of the work. The art event always requires fidelity to its truth, and it is here that we find striking parallels between the art event within a church and the Badiouian event. Fidelity to the work of art requires an adequate response not only from those who encounter it, but also from the ecclesiastical institution that houses it in the way in which it incorporates it into its worship and its space. Fidelity becomes a mode of doing justice to art, an institutional responsibility all too often abnegated through the demands of other commitments, public pressure or bad faith towards the requirements of the work of art.

 
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