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for regular news about the world of contemporary art and faith.
Art and Sacred Places will be publishing short articles on relevant topics by
Dr Jonathan Koestle-Cate, ASP Trustee and Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, has
given kind permission for us to reproduce here his article "Secular Pegs and
God-Shaped Holes: The Uneasy Alliance of the Religious, the Spiritual and the
Secular in Recent Art for the Church" published by Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.
Read Dr Koestle-Cate's article here
Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and Dean of King's
College London, now Fellow and Honorary Professor of Theology there, and
Honorary Fellow of Selwyn College Cambridge and St Anne's College of Oxford, has
with The Times given kind permission for ASP to reproduce the following article,
published on 18th January 2014, entitled 'Modernism is a Door to the
Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries writes:
David Jones, the modernist poet and painter wrote, "I have been on my guard not
to condemn the unfamiliar
for it is easy to miss him at the turn of a
civilisation." He looked for Christ not only in the myths and geography of Wales
and the mud of Flanders, but in the turn of Europe's civilisation, the modernism
that erupted just before World War I. At the same time he was acutely aware of a
major challenge: the images and narratives that had united Europe for more than
a thousand years, no longer did so. He called this "The break". There was no
"symbolic order" to use Peter Fuller's phrase. So how could a Christian artist
convey Christ at such a time? To this must be added the very rapid and radical
changes of artistic style that followed on from modernism to our own time.
Modernism for Jones, as for so many religious artists since then, turned out to
be an enormous liberation. For its defining characteristic is that a work of art
exists in its own right, and is not simply a representation of something. So
much Christian art before then had simply been attempts to visualise what went
on in the past- pictures of Jesus in Palestine being born in a stable,
performing his miracles, dying on the cross and so on. That is fine up to a
point, in that it conveys the fact that the life of Jesus was a real human life.
But it does not convey any sense that this life was also a disclosure of the
very heart of God. How to do this has been an issue since the time that
Christians first started painting their story in the Catacombs in the 3rd
century. How can the transcendent be conveyed through the mundane, the divine
through the human? How can a human story convey the sense that something else is
going on, that another dimension is present? Modernism, in releasing artists
from the idea of representation, and the artistic movements that have followed,
opened up possibilities of doing this in fresh, often very challenging ways.
Sometimes it is the abstract element in a work that can to do this - or even a
totally abstract painting, as witnessed by the extraordinary spiritual effect
that some of Rothko's paintings have on people.
It is no accident I think that a century that saw the birth of radical new
movements in art was also one which felt anew the religious impact of Romanesque
carving and the mystical appeal of icons. Both are very different in their
approach to that of the high Renaissance. And whilst the artistic brilliance of
the latter can be hugely admired, it is the former which seems better to convey
a mystical other. Icons are not representations, and do not use ordinary
perspective. Painted (or "written") as the Orthodox prefer to put it, they set
an aspect of heaven before the worshipper and invite them to share that life.
Modern Western art does not do that, but it does have a greater capacity than
straightforward representations to convey a sense of something other.
Paradoxically modern art, which seemed, and can still seem, so hostile to
traditional religious imagery, has turned out to be a surprisingly good friend.
One fruit of this is the extraordinary amount of good quality work commissioned
or shown in churches and cathedrals over the last 60 years. It began with that
remarkable man, Walter Hussey, when as Vicar of St Mathew's, Northampton, in the
1940's he commissioned first Henry Moore and then Graham Sutherland to do work
for his church, as well as Benjamin Britten in music. He continued this high
level commissioning when he went on to be Dean of Chichester. It is above all
due to his influence that in the last sixty years, work by some of the iconic
names in modern art, Anthony Caro, Elizabeth Frink, John Piper, Marc Chagall and
Jacob Epstein have been commissioned for churches and cathedrals. This renewal
of Christian art continues even in our own time with, most recently, a work by
Maggi Hambling being done for an ordinary parish church.
Professor Lord (Richard) Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford, is the author of
The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate).
Dr Jonathan Vickery, Associate Professor at the Centre for Cultural Policy
Studies, at the University of Warwick, and Director of the MA in Global Media
and Communication writes about the meaning of the sacred and how art can only
approach it with great difficulty.
Dr Jonathan Vickery writes:
There is a paradox at the heart of the coupling of 'art' and 'sacred places'.
The history and development of both are so intertwined, they seem naturally
inclined to each other. Yet at the same time, the contemporary spheres of art
and the sacred are mutually alien and estranged, and require particular
intellectual interventions, cultural projects or cultural policy initiatives to
Not all spaces used by religion or faith communities are 'sacred'. There is
something distinct about consecrated or 'sacred' spaces - spaces that have
become 'places' through an intriguing confluence of narrative, values,
revelation and spiritual authority. Sacred places have changed, of course, but
not altogether succumbed to secularisation, and in their own marginal way have
flourished. There are always dangers. It is easy to use sacred places as yet
another platform or attractive 'plinth' for displaying contemporary art
installations. Many sacred places (mostly Christian), like it or not, are now
absorbed into the cartography of the cultural tourist industry, as popular
visitor locations. In one sense, they become involved in another moral economy.
But how far and in what way has the sacred changed in relation to the social
accessibility and visitor popularity of the 'place' of the sacred? This perhaps
depends on the various theologies of the sacred that function within each
religion or faith or each institution's interpretation of their obligations to
the sacred. For some the 'sacred' is more emphatic than others; for some it is
transient, only operative within the context of a consecrated rite or activity
or prescribed day; for others, the sacred cannot be physically desecrated, as it
is a spiritual phenomena. Yet there is always something distinct about the
tangible concrete sacred 'place' that sets it apart from castles or other
heritage locations. For sacred places, the universality of 'the good', which may
not emerge as a fixed set of ethical imperatives, is nonetheless unavoidable
(even if it is often ignored).
Even in religions that prohibit certain types of image-making (Judaism, Islam),
we find profound traditions of artistic expression. It was the early Renaissance
that saw the pulling apart of the medieval interrelation of 'the true, the good
and the beautiful' (verum, bonum et pulchrum), and with it (in the West, at
least) any necessary relation between art and religion, spirituality or faith.
Art and religion were forced to evolve their own spheres of meaning and
validity. Yet they still seemed to maintain a mutual affinity, to the extent
that art often assumed, or was placed in, a quasi-spiritual cultural role. For
both appealed to a realm of human value and a meaningful existence beyond human
desire and social acquisitiveness; both appealed to an expanded sensibility and
to modes of human communication that transcended the utility of the everyday.
They both still have the power to generate a sense of community and of cultural
identity. Whatever your philosophical or theoretical conception of the sacred
and of art, their social endurance demands that we consider both their origins
and contemporary significance.
So art and sacred places, it would seem, can forge some kind of relationship in
contemporary society. The nature of this 're-uniting' of what was originally a
mutual relation is not so straightforward, for we find that the historical
reality of their estrangement has radically changed the character of each. They
have become something quite other than what they were, and being reunited does
not result in a happy celebratory unison. This, perhaps, is more of a puzzle for
'sacred places' than it is for art. Art seems to have flourished throughout
modernity, in its enforced contingency from the spheres of power, spiritual and
secular. Art has flowered in its state of marginality, and not just from the
evolved orders of 'the true' or 'the good' but even of itself, of 'beauty'. It
long ago relinquished any sense of self-certainty, and happily inhabits the
realms of relativity, doubt, and the ephemeral. The sacred, however, can never
reconcile itself to the contingent, for it cannot escape 'the good', however
mysterious or variable truth and beauty.
In contemporary society a sacred place cannot but proclaim the loss of the
communal experience of 'the good', a place where life's antagonisms were
reconciled and we could locate a sense of a source of our being. And however
mysterious or unintelligible to the dominant orders of 'the true' the sacred
remains (to science, or modern philosophy) it cannot help but refer us to an
order of reality that is trans-human and salvific.
Of course, I am generalizing, for sake of argument. But I think it's fair to say
that admitting to the category of 'the sacred' as a cultural category should
incline us to acknowledge its difference and its antagonism to our culture and
our consumer society. I personally like to think of the sacred as the 'edge' of
the social world, or a place of cultural disorientation, where I am exposed to
my own inability to comprehend enormous tracts of human experience and meaning;
or where I find histories, personal or communal, that are not reducible to the
history of society, capital or the state.
The 'universality' of the sacred as a 'place' for contemporary culture will
confront us with our fears about 'master narratives' and religious monoculture
or dogmatism and intolerance. Yet, there is something about 'the good' that we
need to pursue, in the face of other forms of universalised (or globalised and
consumerised) culture. It was 'the good' that connected our practical everyday
and sense of self, with a ground of being or source of 'rightness'. If there is
anything that needs pursuing in today's world it is this. In this context, 'art'
becomes less a form of cultural display than a spiritual quest, a philosophical
inquiry, and on the part of the artists as much as viewers, an expression of a
Dr Jonathan Koestlι-Cate is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, London,
and a frequent contributor to debates on art and the church. In 2012 he
completed a Ph.D. on the subject of contemporary art in ecclesiastical spaces.
Dr Jonathan Koestlι-Cate writes:
The contemporary relationship of art and sacred places, though rich with
possibility, can be fraught with difficulties, no more so than when art enters
the church. Common to the history of modern art and the sacred spaces of the
Christian tradition has been the anxiety that still governs the minds of many
worshippers and visitors regarding the incongruity of modern art within
churches, with its perceived predilection for transgression and sacrilege. As
one active proponent of art in churches has put it, art's inimical tendency to
act as a provocateur can make it 'an unruly and divisive congregation to be
included in the life of the church'.
Such concerns are still central to current debates. Nevertheless, the
difficulties of cohabitation should not deter, and may even be a positive aspect
of a work of art's relationship with a sacred space (indeed, modern art for the
church is equally capable of banal conformity, which for many of its supporters
is perhaps more of an issue than its more contentious manifestations). For
certain of the more contrary, even deliberately controversial, advocates of art
in churches it is imperative that a work of art positively and non-passively
engage with the ecclesiastical space, even jar or quarrel with it if necessary.
By initiating conflict, so the argument goes, the potential for dialogue may be
Critics of so combative a stance would no doubt complain that it does a
disservice to art in sacred contexts, reaffirming misperceptions that others
have tried hard to overturn. There is a persistent tendency to cast modern art
and religion as 'enemies', as if each is necessarily antithetical to the other.
Eleanor Heartney, for one, has vigorously disputed this claim. Her work
specifically challenges Catholic denunciations of artists like Andrιs Serrano
and David Wojnarowicz whose purportedly sacrilegious works are, she claims,
actually rooted in a Catholic corporeal sensibility, yet even as recently as
2011 were subject to censorship or attack by reactionary elements.
To be fair, those whose stated aim is to capitalise on, rather than reduce, the
perceived divide between art and religion do so not in order to segregate them
as two spheres that should be held apart, but in order to recognise their
specific competences, contrary to an ecclesiastical tradition in which art is
simply part of the whole. Their view is that art is, and should remain, another
way of expressing spiritual truths rather than a vehicle for the church to
express its own values.
A more justifiable complaint is that all too often the 'two worlds' of church
and art are, as Robin Jensen put it, 'mutually wary, sometimes even hostile,
often with little understanding or appreciation for the other,' the hope being
that ways may be found to assuage their mutual mistrust. Surprisingly perhaps,
it is more typically the secular art world rather than the church that maintains
the greatest resistance. It persists in seeing not only an unbridgeable gulf
between the worlds of contemporary religion and contemporary art, but expresses
little or no desire to see that gulf bridged.
Initiatives like Art and Sacred Places, whose broader remit extends beyond
solely ecclesiastical contexts, are among those working hard to mitigate this
situation, and indeed it has developed rather stronger lines of communication
with the wider art world than the church usually achieves. Even so, however
silent the art world may be on church-based art more generally, it is certain
that a lively and progressive alliance of the church and the arts is thriving,
such that many of the concerns over their allegedly reluctant partnership no
longer appear to reflect current practices. As the number of projects of recent
years makes clear, the question is no longer, why is there a lack of dialogue
between art and the church, and what is to be done about it, but rather, what is
the nature of the dialogue in which they are presently engaged, and what sort of
positive dialogue might we envisage for the future?
Concomitant with such questions has been a greater encouragement towards a
different kind of integration of the arts into some of Britain's major churches
and cathedrals. Many of the installations and commissions of the past two
decades have done much to stimulate a re-appraisal of the church's attitude
towards the culture of which it is ineluctably a part, and to which it seeks to
address itself, with the potential to develop anew an invigorating and enriching
relationship between not only the art and these spaces, but also with those who
Professor John Haldane, Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public
Affairs at the University of St Andrews, talking about the Bristol City Council
commissions at Roman Catholic Faith Schools, traces the history and influence of
artwork for schools.
Professor J. J. Haldane writes:
From the early part of the twentieth century it was realised that art might have
a special role in general education, both as practice, and as object of study:
in each case introducing pupils to the idea of creative expression.
In the 1940s the School Prints movement championed by Herbert Read and Brenda
Rawnsley brought original lithographs by Henry Moore, Picasso. Braque and others
into British classrooms and since then there have been other schemes to bring
art into schools.
The commission by Bristol City Council of two unique artworks for two city
Catholic secondary schools (St Bede's and St Bernadette's) marks a new
development in the interplay between art and education. The two artists, Michael
Pinsky and Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, have each engaged imaginatively with the
physical, functional and cultural environments of the schools.
Pinsky's' Intersection' weaves together an image derived from crosses hand-drawn
by pupils of St Bernadette's. The particular religious symbolism of the cross is
obvious enough, and a mainstay of Christian art and decoration; but it is also a
universal mark, an element of drawing, a means of signing, a method of marking
place and position. All of these are recalled in the work but beyond that it
brings them together into a net(work) a fabric of signatures representing an
actual school population and their successors.
Hadzi-Vasileva is also concerned with symbolic meaning but in the form of a
stucco and gilt wall and ceiling relief. The ramifying lines suggest patterns
both branching above and rooting below ground, and the design manages to be both
figurative and abstract, and on both accounts a representation of growth and
development, referring externally to the landscape beyond and internally to the
progress of pupils through the school and into the fertile ground of knowledge.
Art has a special role in introducing and keeping fresh the alchemy by which
matter is transformed into objects and places of wonder and beauty. The City
Council, the schools, the artists, and Art and Sacred Places which was involved
in the commissions, all deserve thanks and congratulations on playing their part
in providing the opportunity for that alchemy to be practised.
The Revd Keith Elford, the founder member and former director of Art and Sacred
Places, takes up the theme of Bishop John's July commentary. Keith is now
Honorary Vice-President of Art and Sacred Places.
The Revd Keith Elford writes:
Bishop John speaks of the role that art can play in adding the voice of
contemporary feeling and concern to the complex story of faith and culture
embodied in the church building. I would like to consider another reason why
artists have a great deal to offer the church and its community.
For centuries the church was at the centre of public life. It defined it and
provided both public and private meaning. In these days the church is no longer
at the centre of our culture and no longer a focus of unity. (There will be
many, including Christian believers, who do not regret this change reflecting a
conviction, sometimes borne out in history, that political power does not bring
out the best in religion.) Instead, even though the Church of England remains
established and its leaders are still public figures, the experience of being in
the church is often that of being part of a rather embattled minority.
The story modern believers live with is one of decline. The Church is adept at
ignoring this much of the time but the facts remain: fewer people believe or
even understand what the church believes than in the past; fewer people attend
church and the Church has far less influence on what happens in society. In this
atmosphere church people have tended to do what embattled people often do: they
have retreated into safer places, that is, into the congenial world of the
Church. They focus on internal concerns and keep their heads down.
Churches are now, typically, intellectually and culturally conservative. And if
the thought that they might be anything else surprises you then it shows how far
we have come from the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, from the subversive
impact of the early Church and even from the reforms of the sixteenth century
which gave rise to the creation of the Church of England and spawned a number of
other protestant churches. The Church changed the world.
And now, at just the moment when the Church most needs to be engaging with the
meaning of the world around it, thinking new thoughts and addressing the vital
question "what does it mean to be a Christian in a world like this?" it is least
willing to respond. Asking and answering this question intelligently is the only
possible foundation for a renewal of the Church.
I am not suggesting that a conversation between art and faith is 'the answer',
but it can help. It is one way in which the Church can help itself to think
differently, to engage. When a contemporary artist creates a work of art in
response to a Christian building, or simply shows a work in that environment,
the artist brings modern convictions, ideas, perceptions and questions into the
Church. The physical proximity of the work and the sacred space sets up a
dialogue between the traditional and modern worlds. It provides an opportunity
for the Church to engage with a voice from outside and is a real opportunity to
learn and grow.
Of course this is a two way street. Each acts as a challenge and stimulus to the
other. The dialogue between ancient and modern offers "insiders" and
"outsiders", believers of all stripes, agnostics and atheists even, the
opportunity to arrive at a deeper and richer understanding of things that are
important to us all. We might all learn something.
We are delighted that our first contribution is from the Rt Revd John Gladwin,
under whose auspices Art and Sacred Places was founded:
The Rt Revd John Gladwin writes:
Buildings speak. They tell us not only what they exist to achieve but also
something about the vision and beliefs of those who created them and about the
prevailing culture in which they are set. Churches are no exception to this
When a work of contemporary art is placed in a church building it adds a further
sentence to the story of the building. Just as the building is not simply a
functional reality but a statement of truth and of culture so a work of art
placed in an established place of worship is not primarily about adding to the
beauty but entering the meaning of the place.
Churches are about God and about our human understanding of the divine. They are
rooted in the Christian tradition and history. So entering them we encounter
many worlds of meaning within these bounds. Those worlds may have been shaped by
the communities' experience of plague or of triumph in war. The mystery of the
unseen being of God is transformed into images in human life as we try and make
sense of what is happening.
When I was Provost of Sheffield we had two exhibitions in the Cathedral
organised by the Contemporary Arts Group in the city. The second was more
successful and challenging than the first because the community of artists had
come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the church. That was not easy
because Sheffield Cathedral is an architectural nightmare! 20th century efforts
at turning the old parish church into a massive new and modern Cathedral
thankfully ground to a halt with the outbreak of the Second World War. So only a
part of the 20th century vision was embodied into the building.
Yet, for all its complexity the church spoke profoundly of crucial aspects of
the spiritual history and journey of the people of Sheffield. So even a
temporary exhibition needed to understand all of that.
This is what makes the work of Art and Sacred Places important. The movement
takes its time to try and interpret what a church or Cathedral is all about and
then bring into it something new from the world we are in to add that crucial
contemporary sentence to the meaning of the place.
This is important because we must do what we can to bring the life and dilemmas
of the 21st century world of spiritual life and faith to bear on our churches.
Generations to come will then have the opportunity to know something of what our
life was all about.