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Thursday, 16 June 2016

Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace

Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art (Hardback) book cover

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate launched his book Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art at Southwark Cathedral on Tuesday with a conversation held with Revd Charles Pickstone.

The "book asks what conditions are favourable to enhancing and expanding the possibilities of church-based art, and how can these conditions be addressed? What viable language or strategies can be formulated to understand and analyse art's role within the church? Focusing on concepts drawn from anthropology, comparative religion, art theory, theology and philosophy, this book formulates a lexicon of terms built around the notion of encounter in order to review the effective uses and experience of contemporary art in churches. The author concludes with the prognosis that art for the church has reached a critical and decisive phase in its history, testing the assumption that contemporary art should be a taken-for-granted element of modern church life."

The conversation between Koestlé-Cate and Pickstone reviewed a selection of the artworks specifically explored and discussed in the book. The White Mass by James Lee Byars at Sankt Peter, Köln was held up as an exemplary temporary installation in an ecclesiastical context. The work "consisted of four pillars and a ring made of white marble, brightly lit by a 2000 watt bulb. The ring was set in the middle of the central aisle, with the pillars forming a square around it, which in turn echoed the rectangle formed by the central columns of the church. Each pillar had two letters carved at the top, which represented a different aspect of the questioning spirit of the work. During Mass the white-clad priest and his two acolytes interacted with the work in an orchestrated synthesis of performance and worship."

Fr Friedhelm Mennekes, the incumbent at Sankt Peter, Köln, "exemplifies a view at the other extreme to [Jacques] Maritain et al, declaring a fundamental distrust of the believing artist. Mennekes simply refuses to use Christian artists, since artistic vision, he cautions, is always in danger of being compromised, or taking second place to, Christian zeal. In this he follows [Père Marie-Alain] Couturier's lead."

This view has no time, therefore, for the approach of the Diocese of London's Capital Vision 2020 which aims to build a growing network of vibrant individuals from throughout the worlds of art and culture in London who can speak the language of creatives, engaging and taking the Church into that world and, as creative Christians, helping the Church resonate with its culture while still remaining countercultural disciples of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, the celebrations of the Mass during Byars' installation had much in common with the emphasis on decentralized leadership, congregational participation, multi-sensory experience, ritual and narrative form found in alternative worship. This was perhaps most the case in relation to the anarchic experiments in transformance art offered by the Belfast-based collective Ikon who challenged the distinction between theist and atheist, faith and no faith and whose main gathering employed a cocktail of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre, ritual and reflection in an attempt to open up the possibility of a theodramatic event. However, it is likely that even Ikon's inhabiting of a space on the outer edges of religious life would have been sufficiently detached from organised religion to escape Mennekes' hermeneutic of suspicion.

Koestlé-Cate writes that, "If a place for art that is not explicitly religious has been affirmed in the church today, an art that is cannot be proscriptively denied; if a place for Christian art or explicitly religious art is not denied, neither can it be prescriptively affirmed." The danger of this approach is that no-one, whether believing or non-believing artists, feels affirmed, and that was essentially the substance of the conversations that I was party to following the conversation between Pickstone and Koestle-Cate.

Their conversation moved on to discussion of the statue of Mary by David Wynne in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. In contrast with the approval given to The White Mass this was discussed as a lifeless commission which had rightly been savaged by Germaine Greer as 'bad' art.

The issue here is the basis on which such critiques and judgements are made. My perception is there are no shared objective criteria on which such judgements can be made and, as a result, are either entirely based on subjective criteria or on a consensus held by certain groups, generally those most responsible for promoting the work in the first place (i.e. gallery owners, curators and critics). In the case of Greer's critique, Wynne is part of the wrong group - the group favoured by the Prince of Wales - while Mennekes' measure is simply that non-believing artists are good and believing artists are bad.

Grayson Perry acknowledges in Playing to the Gallery that, within the art world, the rule by which people work is that of consensus plus time i.e. “If it's agreed amongst the tribe for a fairly sustained amount of time, then it becomes good taste.” This is, essentially, no different to the seeking after rules which Perry criticizes in the lower middle class: “good taste is just an illusion; it's just that they're obeying the rules of their tribe.” The reality is that many choose to work on the basis that, as artists, commissioners, critics, curators, gallery owners, historians or patrons, they know what good taste is because of consensus plus time. If one is in agreement with the consensus it is, of course, a safe place to be.

Koestlé-Cate's book is a substantive contribution to these debates and is of particular value because it explores what viable language or strategies can be formulated to understand and analyse art's role within the church. It may be, however, that what is revealed is that the language and strategies currently employed ultimately satisfy no one because they each privilege particular groups over others, as opposed to looking for the good in all.


Leonard Cohen - Almost Like The Blues.

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