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.