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Friday, 22 October 2010

Commission: contemporary art in British churches

Much has been written about the ground-breaking efforts of twentieth century church art patronage, including the work of Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey in France and George Bell and Walter Hussey in England. However much of this narrative, in the UK at least, peters out after the inauguration of Coventry Cathedral some fifty years ago. Commission, the current exhibition at the Wallspace Gallery, and the Art + Christianity Enquiry monograph Contemporary Art in British Churches seek to bring that story up-to-date.

Artists featured in Commission include Tracey Emin, Henry Moore, Craigie Aitchison, Mark Cazalet, Stephen Cox, Chris Gollon, Shirazeh Houshiary, Iain McKillop, Rona Smith and Alison Watt. The exhibition shows a key work by each artist together with installation photographs, drawings, maquettes and other documentation of the commissioned pieces.

The central argument of Contemporary Art in British Churches is that we are witnessing something of a renaissance of commissioned art for churches and cathedrals in this country. Paul Bayley argues that this upsurge of commissioning from the church sees many significant contemporary artists, such as those featured in Commission, creating art for church spaces. The approach underpinning this upsurge is, therefore, synonymous with that of Couturier and Régamey who argued that "each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art."

Alan Green has provided a theological underpinning to this approach in the collaborative book by Chris Gollon and Sara Maitland based on Gollon's Stations of the Cross at St John on Bethnal Green; a commission which features in both the exhibition and monograph. In his Afterword Green points out that "Jesus was not afraid to associate with, and be looked after by, those who were not seen as good Jews ... Those who approached Jesus and seem to have got the best responses from him were not the religious elite, but those with no particular religious standing who nevertheless recognised something special in him and presented themselves honestly." As a result, he says "it seemed important to share this project with an artist who could come at the themes without the perspective of a shared faith." Maitland concurs saying, "I have come to think that there are real advantages, when working on themes about the Incarnation, in having an artist who is not an active Christian or, try as we will, the "God-bits" creep back in."

Maitland contrasts Gollon's powerful images with "the innumerable images of a rather soppy-looking Jesus, tidily and gracefully - if non-anatomically - pinned to his cross with not a wrinkle of pain on his forehead." Bayley too sets up a similar opposition between the significant contemporary artists participating in this upsurge of commissioning from the church and "self-styled 'Christian art' that though sincere and well-intentioned" is "often formulaic or decorative" and (tellingly) has "little or no standing within the art world."

There would seem to be here a danger of exchanging a religious elite for an artistic elite - the "loose amalgam of artists, curators, public and private galleries, art consultants and publishers" who, as Bayley notes, increasingly inhabit their own architecture, develop their own hierarchies and language, and expand the borders of their own ecosystem that to the outsider, and many an insider, can be opaque and excluding.

Although this reality is noted in the monograph, many of the criteria used to praise significant contemporary artists and dismiss self-styled 'Christian art' are drawn directly from this artistic elite. Contemporary art, for example, is viewed as 'challenging' and 'difficult' and is therefore a "critical dissenting activity" which changes the way we view the world as opposed to a lot of art commissioned for churches which reinforces the context, being decorative rather than transformative. However, the crowds which throng Tate Modern and other contemporary art galleries have been seen by some as evidence that contemporary art is 'populist' and 'easily understandable.' Conceptual art, it can be argued, is simply the illustration of ideas and once the concept has been grasped there is little left to contemplate. There are also legitimate questions that can be asked about the engagement of the art establishment in capitalism and of the extent to which spirituality in the arts provides a veneer for consumerism. These perspectives seem to rarely be heard within the arts world, and don't feature within this monograph, but dissenting voices should be heard if only to ensure that the current arts establishment does not become complacent.

Generalised and stereotypical oppositions of "significant contemporary artists" and "self-styled" Christian artists have always been characteristic of those who have argued for contemporary art in preference to earlier styles, whether the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or Couturier and Régamey. What changes in these arguments is often simply the object of attack, as the previously avant-garde becomes passé. In contrast to such generalisations, what always truly counts in the visual arts is a sustained and contemplative viewing of works themselves which will realise depth of composition and insight within both the best of what is currently considered contemporary and what is currently considered traditional. This, to my mind, has been one of the strengths of the Wallspace Gallery with its embrace of, for example, conceptual, iconographic and visionary art.

There is a second exclusionary issue with a sole or primary focus on "significant contemporary artists" in church commissions which is that of cost. Much of the upsurge in church commissions of such artists has been publicly funded and Bayley notes that "in the wake of the credit crunch and public spending cuts the new austerity will slow the recent surge of Church commissioning." While the monograph contains some examples of local churches engaging with "the whole twenty-first century apparatus of arts consultants, planning stages and public consultations," such engagement is more suited to and more viable for Cathedrals and City centre churches. Local churches can therefore either feel excluded from or simply not consider the possibility of commissioning contemporary art.

If such churches are to be included in the upsurge of church commissions then they are likely of necessity, for reasons of access and cost, to engage with a different grouping of artists who will predominantly be those with local/regional, as opposed to national/interational, reputations. Generalised oppositions, such as that made by Bayley, are likely to discourage and depress such engagement because of the sense communicated of such commissions being second-rate. However where local churches genuinely take a sustained and contemplative look at the work of such artists creative commissions can result despite the absence of perceived 'significant' contemporary artists.

It is my experience, through commission4mission, that there are significant numbers of contemporary artists who are engaging with both faith and art yet who do not feel included by or engaged by the existing faith and art organisations and therefore lack networks for encouragement, debate, and connection to commissioning churches. It is also my experience, again through commission4mission, that the issues which seem to prevent a widespread involvement of local churches with commissions of contemporary art can be overcome through a different form of engagement to that which underpins the commissions highlighted by the ACE monograph.

I agree with Bayley that there has been a real and exciting upsurge in church commissions which builds on the twentieth century achievements of Couturier and Hussey, among others, and which is well documented by this monograph and Commission. Within this upsurge, I for one, wish to see the active encouragement and development of emerging artists and regional arts networks as another tier of such commissioning and as fertile ground for future creativity. My critique of aspects of the survey found in this monologue comes from this perspective and in this cause.


Duke Special - Portrait.    

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