Review: Contemporary Art and the Church

Contemporary Art and the Church

Contemporary Art and the Church, Edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.

Summary: Essays from artists, theologians, and church leaders participating in the 2015 Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) Conference exploring the conversation to be had between the church and contemporary artists.

The relationship between the church and the art world has often been a tense one, particularly on the contemporary art scene. Often, believing people don’t know what to make of contemporary art, or they may find it repulsive or even insulting when images of their faith seem to be denigrated. Contemporary artists sometimes come from church communities but have experienced rejection, or the disjunct between professed beliefs and lived experience. Then there is the group working in both worlds, and living in the tension between those worlds. These are the people represented by the essays in this book, which came out of a Christians in the Visual Arts conference in 2015, gathered to explore how a conversation might be had between these two worlds–a conversation made up of artists, critics, theologians, and church leaders.

There are three groups of essays, and then two concluding symposia and two final essays. The first group of essays explores what is meant by a conversation between the church and contemporary art. Wayne Roosa’s essay seems to maximize the differences, that this is a conversation between strangers that will involve a posture of close listening and receptivity to even understand each other. Linda Stratford responds that there are overlapping qualities between the two, commending as an example the late work of Andy Warhol, who turns out to have been far more religious than many would have guessed. Jonathan Anderson draws on Paul Hiebert’s work around bounded and centered sets and suggests the latter offers a model for intersection between the two conversation partners around shared concerns of ultimate value. The final essay, by Bowden and Lettieri explore examples of what is being done at a practical level through exhibitions in church galleries and other settings.

The second set of essays focuses on theology–God and contemporary art. Ben Quash opens with the provocative question, “can contemporary art be devotional art?” He considers three oppositions in this relationship, which he describes as a “marriage in mediation,” Taylor Worley responds by exploring how faith, hope and love shape our engagement with contemporary art. Christina L. Carnes Ananias explores some of the different ways one might understand silence and nothingness in the work of Yves Klein. Finally, in one of the most interesting essays in the collection, Chelle Sterns explores a “haptic pneumatology” (the experience of the Spirit through touch, physical sensation) in the installations of Ann Hamilton. If her work is ever in my town, I want to see (and participate in) it after Stern’s description.

The third section concerns art and worship, Katie Kresser, an art historian, explores some of the theory of visual and spiritual perception around images and makes recommendations for art in the worship context that expresses shared apprehensions of truth of the worshipers rather than a mere personal expression of the artist. W. David O. Taylor affirms this but presses further in asking, “Which Art, What Worship?” Allen Craft argues for an art that gives a congregation a sense of its “place” in the world. Finally, David W. McNutt contends that churches in the Reformed tradition shaped by Barth’s emphasis on Word and negative view of images, may find support in Barth’s ecclesiology for art in the church. I have to admit that I wasn’t persuaded, but that McNutt is far more knowledgeable about Barth than I.

The final section consisted of two panels, one moderated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, the other by Kevin Hamilton. The first might be described as “the way it was and how far Christians in the arts have come.” The second was a much younger group of artists working in public settings, describing much more, “the way it is.” This is followed by an essay by Calvin Seerveld giving advice to recent grads–apprentice, do imaginative work rooted in one’s humanness, and create works that reflect one’s vision of “the city of God” in all of life. Finally, he argues that artists are jesters and ventriloquists. Cameron J. Anderson explores both the embrace of calling and beauty in the pursuit of one’s art and the knowledge that grace alone saves the world.

This is a pretty high level conversation, where we overhear serious thinkers and artists exploring the conceptual and imaginary worlds of the church and the contemporary art world. Apart from Bowden and Lettieri’s essay, and the two symposia, there was less on practical program and more on exploring the first principles of such conversations. More important, it seemed to me a kind of rehearsal of how CIVA artists and church sympathizers might extend these conversations, both in the direction of the wider church, and the wider art community. This path-breaking work seems vitally important if a real conversation is to occur, one that fosters new-found appreciation for the concerns of artists, and one that explores how a contemporary aesthetic might open up fresh ways of apprehending the God we worship and God’s ways in the world.

6 thoughts on “Review: Contemporary Art and the Church

  1. Bob: I am with you in being a hard sell when it comes to McNutt’s contention that “churches in the Reformed tradition shaped by Barth’s emphasis on Word and negative view if images, may find support in Barth’s ecclesiology for art in the church.” My mind went immediately to the familiar quote from Elizabeth Achtemeier:

    “Barth’s dedication to the sole authority and power of the Word of God was illustrated for us… while we were in Basel. Barth was engaged in a dispute over the stained glass windows in the Basel Münster. The windows had been removed during World War II for fear they would be destroyed by bombs, and Barth was resisting the attempt to restore them to the church. His contention was that the church did not need portrayals of the gospel story given by stained glass windows. The gospel came to the church only through the Word proclaimed. …the incident was typical of Barth’s sole dedication to the Word.”
    — Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Relevant Remembering,” in How Karl Barth Changed My
    Mind, ed. Donald McKim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), pg. 109 (pp. 108-112).

    See also Karl Barth, “Protestantism and Architecture,” in Theology Today 19:2 (JUL 1962), pg. 272; on Sage Journals at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/004057366201900214 [accessed 7 AUG 2018]. Both of these sources by Achtemeier and Barth were cited on this issue in a dissertation that specifically addresses Barth’s ecclesiology when it comes to art and the Word of God. See Thomas Christian Currie, The Threefold Word of God in the Theology of Karl Barth: The presence of Christ, its ecclesiological dimension, its revision, and ongoing significance, Ph.D. dissertation (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh School of Divinity, 2013), pp. 46–47; on University of Edinburgh at https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1842/8955/Currie2013.pdf [accessed 7 AUG 2018]; published as The Only Sacrament Left to Us: The Threefold Word of God in the Theology and Ecclesiology of Karl Barth, Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 215, series eds. K.C. Hanson, Charles M. Collier, D. Christopher Spinks, and Robin A. Parry (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015).

    While bowing with you to McNutt’s Barthian expertise, if I were to deal with McNutt’s issue of help from Barth on the church embracing contemporary art I would certainly not go to Barth’s ecclesiology for it. I would demonstrate from Barth’s view of music how inconsistent he was. This would be developed in his doctrines of creation and then eschatology. By way of explanation it may suffice to repeat Barth’s famous quote:

    “It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.”
    — “A Letter of Thanks to Mozart,” in Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, trans. Clarence K. Pott (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1986), pg. 23.

    Primary sources for my argument would include this entire volume, and his Church Dogmatics III/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 297–99. See on the latter: “Karl Barth on Mozart: Light Perpetual Shines” (2 MAR 2011), on Abstract Cathedral at http://abstractcathedral.com/2011/03/karl-barth-on-mozart-light-perpetual-shines/ [accessed 7 AUG 2018]; Nathan Barczi, “Barth, Mozart, and the Shadow-Side of Creation,” on Transpositions at http://www.transpositions.co.uk/barth-mozart-and-the-shadow-side-of-creation/ [accessed 7 AUG 2018]; and Jonathan Kleis, “Hearing Harmony in Dissonance: Karl Barth on the Music of Mozart” (14 OCT 2016), on Reformissio at https://reformissio.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/hearing-harmony-in-dissonance-karl-barth-on-the-music-of-mozart/ [accessed 7 AUG 2018].

    Why would Barth allow the art that the ear hears, and disallow what the eye sees? How could he consistently do so with his theology, and his vision of Mozart’s music in heaven? I would make those questions the centerpiece of a treatment of Barth on art in the church. Mozart himself combined the audio and the visual in his many operas. The only remaining issue then would be the appropriateness of the visual for worship in the church as an art form coordinated with the audio of church music.

  2. On another note, I was disappointed to see no mention of Makoto Fujimura in this work. His web site is at http://www.makotofujimura.com/. Perhaps reading his Bio page at https://www.makotofujimura.com/bio/ which includes his extensive C.V. will explain my disappointment. Also see his author page on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Makoto-Fujimura/e/B001JP9O48/. When you read or listen to his commencement addresses, for example, it is no wonder that he is in demand as a commencement speaker at colleges and universities! One example was in 2011 at Belhaven University; on YouTube at

    . Others were at Biola University (2012), and Cairn University (2014).
    FYI: Two editorial corrections are in order. The next to the last word in your 3rd paragraph on the 2nd set of essays is possessive, and needs an apostrophe. In the next paragraph in the sentence that begins “Finally…” the “if” should be “of” in “negative view if images.” In your final sentence “artist” should be plural.

    • John, Fujimura is mentioned in various places. I did not mention him because I was focused on the essayists. He is a major influence in contemporary art. I’ve reviewed a couple of his books. Thanks for the correction, and for confirming that my reservations about McNutt on Barth weren’t amiss!

      • Bob: Thank you for clearing that up. I was not referring to your not mentioning Fujimura in your review, but in the book itself. I am glad to hear that he is in fact referred to, but there was no listing of his name in the index (pg. 239). You may delete my comment on him if you like, or perhaps others will find the links, and your response helpful.

      • The references were passing–one of the panelists interned with him. Perhaps not enough to make the index, which perhaps makes the point you are making. He is probably a prime example of one who has occupied the space between church and the contemporary art world. Perhaps they did not want to keep going back to the same example?

  3. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2018 | Bob on Books

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