Working at an intersection carries its risks and dangers. The intersection at which I am engaged is where art and faith meet. It will be no surprise if I tell you that these two deeply human realities have not always been on friendly terms. Or perhaps more accurately the world of art and the world of faith have been at odds.
The art world through much of the 20th century has sought to keep a safe distance from religion and its penchant for devotion. The world of religious faith (particularly that of conservative theological persuasion) has commonly operated with a deep suspicion of art – uncomfortable with its elusiveness and fearful of its power. A questions that emerges in this context is whether contemporary art can be devotional art. I want to briefly explore this question drawing on a chapter by the English theologian Ben Quash in the book Contemporary Art and the Church.*
Early in the essay Quash highlights the contrast between contemporary art and the community of faith, he writes;
“So we are in quite a fractured condition, surrounded by art that unites people most effectively only when it entertains (fun) or pacifies (nature) and convinces people of its integrity most effectively only when it shocks or appalls.”
There are few if any entry points for theological conversation when art follows these paths. And he asks:
“…what place if any such art may have in churches – since churches are about loves, nurtured and shaped in common.”
Quash notes three alleged “oppositions” in contemporary art. The first is “eternal/slow versus up-to-date”. Ecclesial art is deemed to be intent on preserving its tradition and so resists current artistic expressions while the art world is committed to pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.
Quash contends that this is a caricature of how the church actually operates noting its “art, devotional practices and theological interpretations …are constantly adapting to serve new contexts.” The second alleged opposition is “sincere verses ironic/transgressive”. Though sincerity may be a virtue in some settings when it comes to making art sincerity may result in being preachy or simply safe where the creative edge is lost The third opposition is that of “cultic or devotional art” and “exhibition art”. In this case context plays a determinative role. If an artwork is in a church we are predisposed to take it as “devotional art” if the art is in a gallery we are inclined to see it as “art for art’s sake”. However Quash makes the important observation that whatever differences there may be, these two options need not negate one another but may be considered in such a way that either option or interpretation is possible.
Quash discusses three church commissions of contemporary art one of which is the East Window of St. Martin-in-the-Fields by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary. The image is abstract and so captures the Islamic prohibition against the figurative, the Jewish commitment not to image the divine and the Christian tradition of the ‘apophatic way’ where divine absence is the theme rather than divine presence. While the allusion to the cross is evident – one might see the oval in the centre of the work as a hint of the incarnation. This is a work that people may come to see for its aesthetic value and artistic innovation quite apart from its context in a church sanctuary or a focal point for Christian worship.
There is one further opposition Quash mentions “plenitudinous and exploratory art”. The earlier oppositions are questionable, for Quash this one seems essential. In worship and discipleship the faith community needs “moments of both recognition of what is deeply known and encounter with what is surprising.” Art can be a lens through which we glimpse the familiar and the unexpected. Contemporary art in the church needs to be rich in meaning and open to several potential interpretations and it may have an exploratory quality drawing the viewer on to a new place.
The Crossings project that IMAGO is doing on Stations of the Cross for Lent of 2022 has moved me to consider the relationship between contemporary art and devotional art. To suggest there is a deep divide between these two echoes the idea of a sacred – secular split, a division Quash suggests may be an “unnecessary mistake.” A single work of art may simultaneously state a truth, nudge to action, ask a question,probe a mystery, help us to see the world or ourselves more clearly or challenge our predilections and re-orient our desires. Art may engage the human spirit or nurture the religious impulse. And what it may do is not something easily predictable. Quash concludes his chapter with reference to the first Art Stations of the Cross exhibition that took place in London in 2016. Of that exhibit he says that it invoked all the moods of speech and was an act of mediation – “mediating between different spaces, different types of art but also different kinds of people.” This third way – this way of mediation is a hopeful option, freeing us from entrapment in the either/or of contemporary art versus devotional art.
Crossings 2022 should not be thought of simply as a religious exhibit – its reach is intended to go well beyond being a religious event. Though all the artwork will be done in response to a narrative central to the Christian faith the meaning and significance of the narrative and of the artwork touch on fundamental concerns of our humanity.
*Ben Quash, “Can Contemporary Art be Devotional Art?” in Contemporary Art The Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, editors. David O Taylor, and Taylor Worley, IVP (2017) – PURCHASE YOUR COPY HERE