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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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  • 1 The Messenger is again a case in point. From difficult and controversial beginnings its general acceptance became clear when, in 2004, it reappeared in St Paul’s Cathedral without repercussions or disapproval. Since then Viola’s habilitation into the church has been cemented by Martyrs (2014), the first of two permanent commissions for St Paul’s. What was once problematically exceptional has become generally accepted into a normative programme of art.
  • 2 Questions concerning the authority of the priest in such matters had already been rehearsed over Assy, prompting the Papal authorities to reject the autonomy given to individuals like Couturier to make decisions affecting the religious life of the church, with some calling for church authorities to formulate rules as a guide to artists (Rubin 1961: 48). Yet those outside the church, like the art historian Meyer Schapiro, proposed precisely the need for inspired individuals like Couturier: ‘much, if not everything, depends on the initiative and self-reliance of a particular inspired individual — a minister, priest, or layman — whose convictions about art are strong enough to surmount the usual constraints of denominational opinion and the tastes of parishioners’ (1999: 190—191). There is, of course, a place for expert opinion, something that Walter Hussey frequently called upon for advice and support. But what Schapiro saw the need to bypass is what one might disparagingly call the democracy of committees, aware that such a policy brings with it its own problems. In the case of the Heidelberg debacle, for example, although entrenched conservative tastes were ultimately blamed for the failure of the project, a contributory factor was allegedly the assumption of a democratic process. In the end, some felt that a more autocratic model would have produced an exciting commission where the recourse to democracy ultimately put an end to it (Mulder 2005). Even if we concede that a degree of democratic consensus is unavoidable in ecclesiastical projects, in recent years the decision-making entailed by commissions has extended beyond the nexus of immediate stakeholders to include the expert advice of other intermediaries. A ubiquitous element of any ecclesiastical commission these days is the reliance upon arts consultants. In the context of today’s dominant and highly visible culture industry such cultural intermediaries have become increasingly central and apparently indispensable figures, valued for the cultural capital and networks they bring with them. Clearly the expertise of such groups in facilitating and overseeing the creation of works should not be underestimated. Excellent works of art have resulted from the closely monitored, often painstaking process, of turning approved ideas into effective works through their ministrations. However, behind the scenes, reservations have been expressed regarding the degree of control they exercise over ecclesiastical projects. At the very least, reliance upon such groups, even in a purely advisory capacity, introduces a further degree of non-artistic, non-ecclesiastical interference into the process of decision-making. Of course, at the other end of the scale, a more serious concern is that the commissioning process may include people with clerical responsibilities to the church but little or no knowledge of art.
  • 3 Space prohibits a thorough examination of this issue. I refer the reader to my doctoral thesis which included an analysis of the arts policies of several major British cathedrals: Koestle-Cate (2011).
  • 4 Conference, Cathedrals and the Visual Arts, Sarum College, Salisbury, 2009.
  • 5 Conference, Cathedrals and the Visual Arts, Sarum College, Salisbury, 2009.
  • 6 Conference, Commissioning Art for Today’s Church, University College, Chichester, 1999.
  • 7 Interview with Canon Keith Walker, W inchester, 1999.
  • 8 Surprisingly perhaps, considering the strength of his opposition to the Church of England’s patronage of contemporary art, Jones since appears to have had a change of heart, showing great enthusiasm for Viola’s Martyrs. He describes it as ‘a powerful modern altarpiece for St. Paul’s Cathedral that perfectly suits the restrained spirituality of this most English of churches’ (2014). Perhaps the video’s discreet location at the furthest end of the cathedral was a factor in winning his endorsement.
  • 9 In the same article Campbell-Johnston pitted flagging attendance at services against the opportunities granted to the church to exploit its potential as an exhibition space. This is as much as to say that art now fulfils a need that the church once, but no longer, provides. To some extent, this may be so, but the argument presented by this book strongly resists the transformation of ecclesiastical spaces into exhibition venues implied by the article’s assertion that: ‘It is less art that needs the Church, but the Church, in its waning popularity, that needs art’ (2010: 6).
 
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