It is important to remember that there are always pros and cons to everything, and this is no less true in regard to artistic practice in the church. Art can always be misused and misunderstood. In chapter seven of The Beauty of the Church, David Taylor brings his reader’s attention to some dangers associated with artmaking in the church, which must be addressed if the church is going to engage with the arts in any real and edifying way.
Taylor identifies six main dangers of artmaking in the church:
- Bad art: Bad art, he says, is “cliché, melodramatic, cheap, rushed, plastic, superficialized, elitist, garish, lazy, cold, self-indulgent, and impersonal.“ (150) While I think this is a helpful distinction to make, Taylor does not elaborate on how we might judge what is good and bad art (besides his list of what bad art is). Bad art seems to be a real danger in the church, surely. While this is too big a topic to fully address at present, I wonder, might one possible way to overcome this danger be a cultivation (and definition) of good Christian taste?
- Supersaturation: As a culture, we are constantly overstimulated—visually, mentally, physically. When art becomes only a means of stimulation, and thus distraction, from the real world, it is in dangerous territory. We become unable to fully or properly engage with each other and the world around us. And because the church’s task is partly to help us do just that, using art in way that contributes to this oversaturation only proves to do harm.
- Estancandose tercamente, or “stubbornly stagnating”: Often we become so concerned with “tradition” or the way things have always been, that we cannot see room for good Christian growth and development. We neglect to see that those hymns that we always sing were only written very recently when placed in the context of the history of Christianity, so to make them necessary to the way Christ is worshipped universally is not only absurd, but extremely harmful. This isn’t to say that tradition is always deleterious to the arts in the church, but rather, that we should appropriately place those traditions in our broader understanding of the way the church functions and engages with culture. Taylor concludes: “What is dangerous is when we stubbornly close God off from refreshing, redirecting, or even replacing elements in our corporate practice of Christian faith.” (153)
- The utilitarian reduction of art: There has been the tendency to reduce the function of art to use as an instrument or vehicle for the church’s service of evangelism or otherwise. But as Taylor points out, “art is good for human service in general.” (153) It is part of the basis of being human, not just a tool for Christian service. We take away from the power of art to engage us when we reduce its function to that which is merely useful for Christian service. This seems, to me, to be one of Taylor’s most important and relevant points, given the history of the church’s use of the arts. But if we maintain a view of Creation which sees the world and our human participation and making in it as intrinsically good, then the arts become just one more way to glorify God, whether or not they serve any explicitly Christian purpose.
- Art as a form of distraction: Art can be used as an escape into three things: feelings, entertainment, and the art itself. For each of these forms of escape, Taylor addresses different types of Protestant Christianity that may be susceptible to such dangers (charismatic, seeker-friendly, and traditional churches, respectively). It seems to me that this point is connected to danger number 2 in the way that art interrupts the normal processes of daily life and Christian practice.
- Immaturity: Art can become divisive through both using and viewing it in an immature or attenuated way. It is true that sometimes art is used and interpreted in a wrong way, but this does not preclude its use in the church. “The possibility of abuse does not remove legitimacy of use.” (156) This danger in particular takes into account the importance of context in regard to the art’s use in the church. The context determines how we should treat art, and often immaturity results in the use of the arts in inappropriate or unhelpful ways given the certain context within which it was created.
In response to these dangers, Taylor suggests three qualities of healthy artistic growth in the church.
- It is relationally ordered: Art in the church (and outside the church, for that matter) must be created out of relationship. The artist is not an isolated individual, but creates in relation to other people and society. If art is going to be made in the church, then, artist and pastor must work responsibly and responsively together. This is not to say that the artist’s creativity is constrained to the vision of the pastor. The result of this relationship will result in “order that is relationally vibrant” and work that communicates “God ordained wisdom.” (158)
- It is contextually relative: “A work is artistically excellent,” Taylor says, “if it accomplishes the purposes for which it was created. In our case, the merit of an artistic work in the church is determined by its context.” (158, my emphasis) This is one of Taylor’s most important points as I see it, as he is not discussing dangers in artistic practice from a general standpoint, but rather, is elucidating the dangers of artmaking in the church. Our view of artmaking in the church, then, must take the purposes of the church into account. While the arts can be viewed as ends in themselves, they necessarily exist in a community and context of meaning. As a second point, Taylor suggests that artistic excellence is “contextually relative”, that is, it is “relative to the context in which it is done and why it is done.” I find this specific point more confusing in relation to one of the dangers Taylor addressed earlier—the making of bad art. If artistic excellence is relative to context, then how can we determine what is good and bad art? Are context and taste posed against each other here? My initial thought is that they needn’t be diametrically opposed, but I’m left wondering how we might determine good or bad art when it is so dependent on context.
- It is organically rhythmed: In art, as in life, we need balance. Taylor identifies what he calls the “artistic rhythms of festal muchness and cleansing simplicity.”(159) Taylor discusses practical ways in which churches might display or use art that balance the rhythm of extravagance and simplicity. While he makes no specific connection to the liturgical church calendar, it seems as if this is one way that we can produce art that corresponds to the different seasons of a Christian’s life, resulting in a balance by which we are nurtured and fed through the arts in the church.
Taylor touches on so many important issues regarding art in the church, and there is certainly room for more extended discussion related to certain points. Overall, the essay is insightful and helpful in regard to how we might go about thinking about the practice of Christian artistry. In the end, we see that artmaking in the church involves a give and take; it involves a mutual understanding and respect for artist, pastor, and churchgoer; and it involves an understanding of the various ways in which the arts can function, and should function, in certain contexts.