Embodying Art: Renewing Religion?

Everything we experience has to be embodied. Or, better, every experience we have can only be perceived, received, experienced by a sentient, embodied individual. That doesn’t mean to say that everything which could be experienced is experienced. Trees falling in trackless wastes still crash to the ground. There is a lot of data to be experienced in such a crashing but because there is no one there to experience the data, it isn’t experienced. It might be filmed, of course. We could imagine a motion-capture camera sending images back to a lab in a suburban university. There the computer takes the images/sounds/data and stores them. But I’m not convinced the computer experiences them. It’s when an operative, at present a human being, downloads the data from the computer’s hardware into their intracranial wetware that experience is possible – when data meets embodiment. All actualised experience is necessarily embodied.

We already know this. If art is described as the framing of experience and the publication of that framing, then art needs to be experienced. Of course, it may only be the artist who perceives the art. And I am not arguing that good art is perceived art. Just as the tree falling still makes a crash, so art makes its own statement regardless of its audience. But the produced data (visual, verbal, aural, oral, plastic, moving, multimedia, monomedia) is usually meant to be experienced through the locus of embodiment. Art, then, can be as digital as it wants to be. Art can exist as data on a computer or as paint molecules on a canvas; as binary digits on a CD or the rich timbre of the live cello sonata. Both digital and ‘live’ (analogue doesn’t quite work here) are forms of embodiment since even the digital makes a physical impression in the memory bank (even if only through the shifting of invisible electrons). But both need an embodied receptor to translate that data into an experience of the art.

This was a truth which the medieval European Church understood much better than the modern. Today our churches are whitewashed halls of sterility; the clean lines of the Protestant/Puritan reformation obliterating the colours, smells, sounds, sights, tastes, all the intensity of medieval multimedia. We have enthroned the Word as mediated through rational Man to transmit a rational faith through readings, sermons and hymns. We have taken the embodied faith of medieval Christianity and virtualised it in the mind of the believer. We have taken sensory spectacle and reduced it to rational assent. Of course, some fight back – the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have held on to their traditions and celebrated the embodied faith. Charismatic churches revel in sensory experiences and even Alpha-type evangelicalism has relearnt the power of eating together.

At its heart, religion is better understood as embodied experience than by rational assent. Think of all the sense images in Christianity alone: blood, wine, bread, flesh, sacrifice, baptism, circumcision, eating, drinking, purification, washing, meals, healing, touch, kiss, embrace, bite, devour, the word of God made flesh. Evidently, this is not an exhaustive list. The point is surely clear. And that’s why the medieval Church, continued through the non-Protestant traditions today, have celebrated art as itself a celebration of that multi-sensory faith. Art embodied, ‘live’ or digital, in all its forms offers an iconographic entry point into a multisensory embodied experience of Christianity itself. Art goes beyond the rational, beyond the disembodied virtuality of the rationalised word, and allows faith to be experienced at the point of embodiment.

That’s why the Church in the West faces continued decline until it reverses its rejection of artists who can frame and present their own embodied experience and draw their audience into an embodied understanding of the world in which they live or hope to live.

Peter Phillips is Director of the Centre for Biblical Literacy and Communication at Durham University. In addition to a background in Classics and Biblical Studies, Pete is also a Methodist Minister.  As one of his key research areas is Theology and Contemporary Culture, Pete is currently exploring how this can be fused with an exploration of Biblical Literacy in a globalised environment increasingly denuded of its cultural heritage.

52 Comments

  • Sam Adams says:

    Count me out of a Christianity that needs “an iconographic entry point into a multisensory embodied experience.” I need a Christianity that proclaims the Gospel as good news and that embodies itself in the self-giving love of neighbor, poor, outcast, and even enemy. That this is not what characterizes the church in the West is the reason it’s in decline, not that we haven’t found room for a more medieval multimedia church experience.

    Sam

    • Pete Phillips says:

      Hi Sam
      I would agree with you about the need fora radical lived-out Christianity – again more like the medieval church. My point it that we have made it all about head knowledge and rationality. That doesn’t include radical prophetic action either. So my quibble is not to make it all in church stuff but rather to make church more earthy and real and engaged with everyday life.
      I think we’re discussing two sides of the same coin?
      Pete

    • jfutral says:

      Sam, “I need a Christianity that proclaims the Gospel as good news and that embodies itself in the self-giving love of neighbor, poor, outcast, and even enemy.”

      How is this evidenced? In what form or physicality does this exist to you?

      Joe

    • Ric says:

      “I need a Christianity that proclaims the Gospel as good news and that embodies itself in the self-giving love of neighbor, poor, outcast, and even enemy.”

      Yes – so do I, how can any of us claim to follow Christ and not do that. However I fall so far short of that ideal and I can’t change myself however hard I try.

      The experience of art (making and engaging with) is an experience of and participation in the beauty and holiness of God, In that encounter I am transformed to better embody the love of Christ that Same talks about.

      So, ‘by the fruits you will know them’ – art is a decadent luxury if it’s just for entertainment and to relieve boredom, if, however, we allow it to enable us to engage with the living God then art’s prophetic nature is revealed and we are challenged and transformed into the image of Christ – which can only ever be embodied in sacrifical service.

      Every blessing,

      Ric

  • Sam Adams says:

    Hi Pete,
    Is the artistic turn that you are advocating just another way of mediation that falls into the same trap that you criticize the reformed churches of falling into? It seems to me that including more of our senses is not the answer. The answer is that we don’t know how to proclaim the gospel as good news in a broken world, and we’d rather do art than wash our neighbor’s feet. I suspect that if we do truly proclaim the gospel as good news we may indeed continue to decline, but it will be for the right reasons, and not because we failed aesthetically.

    Also, I’m not so sure that the medieval church had a more radically lived out Christianity.
    Sam

  • Ned Lunn says:

    Thanks for this Pete.

    Sam- to answer your question, if I may, as a performance artist I would say that the tasks you are suggesting are art in the sense that they express a sentiment and when done truthfully can be judged by others as beautiful. Pete’s call to engage in the art is about perceiving life in all it’s sensory aspects. The tasks you rightly call us to do, washing feet, communicating love to the outcast and stranger, is art as it is an expression of life and requires an embodied audience, I.e. the served person with their feet, the outcast, the stranger, etc.

    It seems you are discussing two sides of the same coin.

    Thanks again, Pete.

    Ned

  • Cole Matson says:

    I’m going to have fun taking Sam’s side for a moment, and point to one very important statement which he makes: “we’d rather do art than wash our neighbor’s feet”. Ned replies by saying that washing our neighbour’s feet is art. Assuming that it is art (which I actually wouldn’t say it is, unless we’re taking art to mean all of human activity), should we do it because it is art, and therefore good, or because it is commanded by Christ’s Gospel, and therefore good?

    • jfutral says:

      Are God’s commands right because God commands them? Or does God command them because they are right?

      Joe

      • Cole Matson says:

        Joe, I’m not going to open that can of worms, because it’s incidental to my point (though I see how my wording made you want to ask that question). What I was trying to ask is, is art necessarily good, or is it morally neutral, and there’s something else about a piece of art besides it’s being art that makes it good or bad? (Or, a third possibility, is art inclined to goodness, and therefore not completely neutral, but not necessarily good, and therefore it’s possible for an individual artwork to be bad?)

        • jfutral says:

          Sort of incidental, but related. To me, art is simply humans being human as God created humans to be. You might as well be asking me if breathing is necessarily morally good. So do I help my neighbour because it is commanded by God or do I help my neighbour because that is how God created us to be?

          To ask your question another way, can doing what God commands ever be bad? What if my helping my neighbour is because I am trying to swindle them out of their money?

          I think, for whatever reason is in humanity’s nature, we continue to draw distinctions in the wrong places.

          Joe

        • Muriel Sowden says:

          Isn’t the most important thing about a piece of art the effect it has on the person looking at it, or experiencing it? Art stimulates and provokes a reaction in the viewer that makes that person a participant in something bigger.
          I have heard it said that there is no such thing as bad art, just bad art critics.

        • Cole Matson says:

          Joe,

          Like breathing, I would call art in itself a morally neutral activity, in that it can be either good or bad, depending on how it’s practised. (Though I might call breathing inherently good, since it preserves life, and there are only a few situations where it needs to be stopped for a greater good.)

          I think you’re trying to draw me to a connection between what God commands and how we’re created to be (i.e., what is right), and if so, I would go with you in that connection. I think there’s no real distinction between God’s will and what is right, even though there’s a conceptual distinction. God is Goodness. If you’re helping your neighbour in order to steal from him, you’re not actually helping your neighbour, you’re stealing from him. The activity of helping him (in the short-term) is actually a means to an immoral end, a seemingly moral tactic you’re using in the pursuit of an immoral objective. You’re not doing what God commands. Saying “I love you” is a good thing if it expresses love. However, I can use those exact same words in a way that means “I’m about to kill you dead.” There’s an action, and then there’s an action, if you catch my drift.

  • Muriel Sowden says:

    God bestows Beauty, which is part of himself, on the artist’s creative process and so blesses the artist, the creation, and the viewer. In my experience, God “finds us” and touches us in these moments.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    This is a fascinating conversation, and I hardly know where to jump in first.

    Pete, thanks very much for this post. I think you are right to point out that engaging the imagination in worship through various forms of art can counter overly rationalistic forms of the Christian faith. I also wanted to point out that Protestant churches are all iconoclastic is not entirely true. The Lutheran church and the Anglican church are certainly iconodulic. Perhaps what links them to their non-Protestant brethren is their higher view of the sacraments. If one accepts that the sacraments are effective and visible signs of God’s grace, then I imagine that one would also value other forms of sensory experience in worship as well.

    Sam, I am a bit confused by this statement: “The answer is that we don’t know how to proclaim the gospel as good news in a broken world, and we’d rather do art than wash our neighbor’s feet.” Do you think that art is not a proper vocation for the Christian? When I did my studio art degree in undergrad, I certainly had people suggest to me that going out into the mission field would probably be a better use of my time. Do you think it would be best for Christian artists to find a new job, or do you think that Christian artists can serve others in and through their vocation? Also, if we don’t know how to proclaim the gospel as good news in a broken world, don’t new and imaginative portrayals of the gospel (e.g. art) help us to do this?

    • Sam Adams says:

      Hi Jim,
      My comment was suggesting that the answer to the decline of the church in the West is not going to be resolved through art, or churches that embrace the artist. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that artists can be gifted by God and have a place in the ministry of the church, of course they can. I just think that making it central as Pete seemed to be doing is missing the point of the gospel and somehow making aesthetics primary. I also agree that art can be used to proclaim the gospel, but, to be honest, I’m extremely suspect of attempts to replace words with images. I’d be interested in hearing how, without words, a painting can be gospel proclamation.
      Sam

      • Ric says:

        “I’d be interested in hearing how, without words, a painting can be gospel proclamation.”

        Good question…

        Because responding to the gospel means responding to the experience of the love of God revealed in Jesus not signing up to a set of dogmas and doctrines. the conduit for that experience might be words but it may well be (and I would argue – could be more profoundly and more powerfully) communicated through images.

        • Sam Adams says:

          What scripture does, using words, is to point to Jesus’ words and actions–not to images, except as they are described through words. I don’t see how to get around this. I agree that the gospel is not reducible to propositions and that the church is much more than a dispenser of creeds and formulas, but that doesn’t change the fact that primarily what we have are words to deal with in our proclamation. No?

        • Jim Watkins says:

          Hi Sam,

          I’m glad to hear that I was merely misinterpreting what appeared to be a dichotomy between art and Christian service.

          In regards to your question about paintings and proclamation, I think I would need a little more information before I could answer. Could you provide me with an example of someone who attempts to replace words with images? Also, what does it mean to look at a painting ‘without words’?

        • Cole Matson says:

          Sam, I think the questions Jim asks above are excellent ones to bring up in a face-to-face (“embodied!”) discussion. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we “replace” words with images. You’re right, we’re a People of the Book (though we’re also a people of sacraments, which involve words, but are more than words, as your foot-washing example shows). But I would argue against your statement that Scripture points us only to Jesus’ words and actions and not to images. The image of Jesus as the vine and his disciples as the branches is a very powerful dominical image. The image of Jesus as the Word who became flesh and ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, with its connotations of Jesus ‘tabernacling’ among us, as the Presence of God came down into the tabernacle of Israel, is another powerful scriptural image. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” creates another powerful image, drawing a correspondence between Christ’s Cross and the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up to heal those punished by snakebite for sin, so that the image of the Crucifixion gains another layer of meaning. Words create images, and images give meaning to words.

          But there’s also non-verbal communication through images, or other sensory data. I remember my design instructor having us tell the story of our lives using no words at all, only light, colour, composition, and other completely non-verbal tools, to create an emotional experience which corresponded to the emotional journey of our life. There are other ways that humans communicate with each other, and with God, that don’t involve words. These are not a replacement for words, but are a necessary complement to them.

        • Sam Adams says:

          Cole, my point was that scripture uses words to paint images. All those images you describe are textually communicated. They enter our imaginations through words and language. Now I know that along with these words are practices (or forms of life) like we’ve been talking about (call them sacraments if you want), but don’t you think words are important to convey context? I mean, if you told your life story through images it might have an emotional impact, but words would be necessary to provide context and content. Even art in the church must have the words with which we tell the stories that make sense of why this art, why this song, why this dance, etc. Do you agree?

        • Pete Phillips says:

          I’m so glad that everything isn’t limited to words. I am so glad that words do not mediate my experience of the divine or of his creation. I am so pleased that God has written himself and his imagery into everything I see. I simply do not agree that we need to be bound by words as the conveyors of all meaning. Thank God for the mystics and for apophatic theology. Thank God for the cloud of unknowing. Thank God that he is beyond words. Thank God for sign language, indeed for signs of any kinds like rainbows and hearts and fish and the cross which convey more than words could ever say. Thank God for artists of every hue who put into their creations that which words could not possibly convey. I’m with the post-structuralists who see in our fealty to words simply logocentricism as a cipher for the power of the rational over the experiential. But then I would…

        • jfutral says:

          This is a discussion that only exists in protestant circles and one only the Catholics and Orthodox can appreciate the irony.

          Sorry. Had to be said.

          Sola Scriptura or Solo Scriptura? You decide!

          Joe

        • jfutral says:

          Of the choreographers I know, when asked to explain their work they usually say, “If I could use words, I wouldn’t dance.”

          Joe

        • Cole Matson says:

          Sam, I would agree that the words are necessary, and one of those necessary functions is providing context. I was just trying to counter the seeming dismissal of images when you say, “What scripture does, using words, is to point to Jesus’ words and actions–not to images, except as they are described through words” – as if Jesus’ words aren’t actually meant to point us to these images. (Not that that’s all they’re good for, but it’s surely one of their functions.) Scripture points us to Jesus’ words, and Jesus’ words point us to images (as well as functioning in other ways). The point of the “non-verbal life story” exercise was to show just how much one could communicate without words – but of course, the words “life story” were necessary to set a context that allowed for more communication of meaning than could occur if they weren’t there.

          I would agree with you that, for example, if someone’s only exposure to the Gospel was a painting of the Crucifixion, and they knew nothing of the story behind it – had not been given words to give it meaning – that “preaching” of the Gospel would be incomplete. They might learn a little more about the Gospel if it were, for example, a painting of the Crucifixion, Christ’s burial, and the Resurrection – they might see that the man being killed on the left side of the canvas, being buried in the middle, and then appeared to be alive again on the right side, and that might start them wondering about what was happening. But they wouldn’t know the answer unless someone preached the Gospel to them, using words. Words are vital. I would also agree with you that the normative way of preaching is using words, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s what we’re supposed to do.

          However, I wonder if you would agree that the purpose who had experienced that painting, without words, had received some sort of preaching, even if incomplete?

        • Cole Matson says:

          Joe,

          Or between Protestant/Reformed and Catholic/Orthodox circles. Catholic here!

          Cole

      • jfutral says:

        Sam, I am curious as to why you believe art is purely aesthetics and why you think words are not art?

        Joe

        • Sam Adams says:

          I don’t agree with either of those statements. Words can be art and art is not purely aesthetic. To the extent that Pete wants to see art embracing the whole person, that sounds good. But meal sharing and footwashing are better (and I don’t want to turn them into art).

        • Pete Phillips says:

          I think the issue is definitions – both of arts and words. Sam’s pushing for a very enlightenment understanding of communication through words. But that has never been the whole of communication theory – i mean even interpersonal comms is only 30% verbal. God communicates through all he has made and as such our understanding of God is made known to us both through words but manifestly though the incarnate Word – Christ. The fact that the written Torah was not the sole repository of truth in the Hebrew tradition and the need for an incarnate Messiah in the Christian, queries the concept that God communicates through the written word only. Words themselves are pretty weak bearers of meaning. Again, the need to go beyond words to embodiment, beyond words to art?

        • jfutral says:

          I see. You are positing around the same question that came to my mind through this conversation. Is art an act or is art always only about an act?, such that foot washing is not an act about another act, but the act itself.

          The artist Rene Magritte is known for one of his works, “La trahison des images”, where under the painting of the pipe he writes in French, “This is not a pipe”. It is a painting of a pipe, but it is not the pipe itself. Foucault and Derrida talked often about signified and signifier, so the word “cat” is not the cat itself, but signifies the signifier that we would recognize as a cat.

          So I think much of the art and philosophy world is probably in your court on this.

          The two things that make themselves loudly confrontational to my question seem to be the two things you keep bringing up. You said:

          “What scripture does, using words, is to point to Jesus’ words and actions” But scripture itself is neither those words nor actions, but imagery _through_ words of those words and actions. So in that regard scripture is art as well.

          Then there is the washing of feet. If, as Peter concluded, that Jesus washing his feet was not a theatrical act, an illustrative act, about serving, but an act to be taken literally, then none of our churches today, that I know of, have a feet washing station. By my inference of your words, this is a travesty.

          Joe

        • jfutral says:

          “so the word “cat” is not the cat itself, but signifies the signifier that we would recognize as a cat.”

          Sorry, got that twisted—”signifies the signified”, not “signifier.” Those guys make my head spin.

          Joe

        • Sam Adams says:

          One last comment from me…
          I am not interested in an Enlightenment understanding of communication and I thoroughly appreciate the various dimensions of embodied communicative activity. I think that Pete is writing off words in a very knee-jerk way, characterizing them as rationalistic, tying them to the Enlightenment, while ignoring the fact that images and words do communicate in differing ways, even though there is overlap. Even the worship which he puts down is not as disembodied as he makes it sound; hearing the sermon, singing the hymns, and reading the text are all physical activities. I agree that the church needs to be more embodied, but the direction of that embodiment as art, and the suggestion that art might replace words, seems wrong. That we are a faith with a text seems to suggest that reading and speaking will always be central. But really, my major complaint with the piece is simply the suggestion that the remedy to the church’s decline in the west is the embrace of the artist and that this is in opposition to the reformation’s elevation of the word. Incidentally, for full disclosure, I am ordained in the Mennonite church and in our simple tradition and practice footwashing is a regular part of worship, as is meal sharing. And I have lots of reasons for not wanting to go back to a medieval church!
          Sam

        • Pete Phillips says:

          Thanks, Sam, for the stimulating conversation. We’re not far apart – although I stand by my final line – the church will not know revival until it embraces the artists again. I can well understand your resistance to a return to a Catholic-majority medieval Western church – and the suggestion that I have romanticised the image. Of course there were lots of problems and that’s why the Reformation and counter-Reformation were necessary, along with Vatican 2 and so on. But my point is simply that we have gone too far towards an idolatry of word and reason as we have run away from image and art. I am cheered to read the different explorations of embodied worship and embodied expression of the Word of God. And I know, for a fact, that the puritan whitewashed shrine is gladly becoming more of a parody than a reality. But sometimes blogposts need to stir things up rather than just take the middle way.

          Thank you for being willing to be stirred!

          Pete

        • jfutral says:

          I come across so few Mennonites, I had completely forgotten about the foot washing. And that explains a whole lot, too. Thanks for sharing that. I thought you were just being ornery. I look forward to you “hearing” more from you.

          As Derrida said, it’s all in the text!

          Joe

        • jfutral says:

          Dang. “I look forward to hearing more from you.”

          Joe

  • Dave says:

    From a sort of quantum mechanics perspective, the embodied art changes as soon as someone perceives it, based simply on the fact that it has been perceived. Is this a metaphor for our incarnationly “performing” our faith for others?

    • Pete Phillips says:

      I like the quantum dimension being brought in. Perception can, of course, be non-embodied. I understand that quantum experiments are affected by being filmed not just by human observation? Perception then can move beyond the human subject.

  • jfutral says:

    Peter, The first part of your article reminds me of the previous article here, http://www.transpositions.co.uk/2012/02/art-incarnation-and-the-human-body/. That was one of the most profound articles I’ve read in quite some time. So many good, tasty nuggets there.

    While I am sympathetic to your cause, I would warn to avoid overly broad generalizations. I warn only because I have made the same mistakes in the past, and sometimes still do. The Western church is broad and deep. While I agree that much of the Western church has been more influenced by the age of Enlightenment and Reason, and have soundly succumbed to the rational/irrational, intellect/emotion, science/art, and spiritual/secular dichotomies, not all are as devoid of a holistic desire.

    And the Medieval church had its issues as well. In many ways, the reformation was a needed correction. And I am not so sure Luther would be happy about what the contemporary results of the reformation. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

    While I think Sam overstates your position to mean something you didn’t say, I would only warn not to romanticize the past too much. That things need to change, I would agree, and to some degree not only is that always so, it should always be so. Until the perfect comes we will always struggle with seeing through the glass darkly. With each change, I do believe it is the Spirit at our point of contact. I do see a change in many Western churches’ attitudes to the arts. Here in Atlanta I know of at least two churches that have both evolved an ecclesiology around art making and seek to affect the community through art. And I see the heart of many local churches who want to do likewise, but have yet to work through what that means.

    This is different from even twenty years ago, or even a little more than ten years ago. So, for me, I am encouraged that the Spirit is moving, and it is being realized digitally and ‘live’.

    Joe

  • Pete Phillips says:

    Interesting conversation developing. I agree that Lutheran and Anglican forms of Protestantism do play around with iconography and have a richer sensory milieu than other forms of Protestantism – although the damage which the reformers did to the cathedrals and the general spiritual life of the UK cannot be underestimated with their pillaging of monastic communities. Let’s pray that the developing New Monasticism will unleash a new level of creativity and exploration in the new churches.

  • jfutral says:

    Sam, “But meal sharing and footwashing are better (and I don’t want to turn them into art).”

    What changes for you if they turn into art?

    Joe

    • Muriel Sowden says:

      I think that for some people there is a tendency to view art as something that is not “real”, but rather something that is artificial and distanced from what is truly relevant. If actions such as foot-washing are seen as “art” they lose some sincerity. Again, it probably depends on your definition of art.
      I think we are regaining the sense of transcendence in some of our contemporary artistic creativity that we had lost.

  • Jonathan Evens says:

    Nicolas Bourriaud argued that relational art takes “as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” and that a work of art, if it is to be successful, “will invariably set its sights beyond its mere presence in space” by being “open to dialogue, discussion, and that form of inter-human negotiation that Marcel Duchamp called “the coefficient of art”.”

    Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics suggests that “Art is a state of encounter” and that the role of artworks is that we learn “to inhabit the world in a better way” through participating in “arenas of encounter”, created by the artworks themselves, in which momentary micro-communities are formed:

    “Today’s art, and I’m thinking of [artists such as Gonzalez-Torres, … Angela Bulloch, Carsten Höller, Gabriel Orozco and Pierre Huyghe] as well as Lincoln Tobier, Ben Kinmont, and Andrea Zittel, to name just three more, encompasses in the working process the presence of the micro-community which will accommodate it. A work thus creates, within its method of production and then at the moment of its exhibition, a momentary grouping of participating viewers.”

    What such artists produce, Bourriaud argues, “are relational space-time elements, inter-human experiences … of the places where alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality are worked out.” In other words, such artworks create “relations outside the field of art”: “relations between individuals and groups, between the artist and the world, and, by way of transitivity, between the beholder and the world.”

    Richard Davey has a marvellous phrase for the network of relationships which form around any artwork; “respect for the work of art as an object itself made by an embodied human being for embodied human beings.”

    As Phillips notes in his post, there would seem to be many resonances between what are essentially ‘happenings’ which involve the viewer as participant (indeed, which move those who are other than the artist from viewer to participant), the art created by ‘relational’ artists, and what happens in church services.

    The Eucharist is a happening which is only completed by the congregation becoming participants and which only has meaning as this occurs. The Eucharist can only proceed if the president receives responses from the congregation to the Eucharistic Prayer and the point and culmination of the Eucharist is when the congregation take the body and blood of Christ into their own bodies. A theological analysis of relationships at this point should conclude that the body of Christ has been both dispersed and gathered among and by the receiving church community. There are significant parallels to significant works of relational art such as Rikrit Tiravanija’s shared meal installation.

    It is my belief that as Christians we should be seeking to create temporary signs of the Kingdom of God which can be experienced by those in our community but which are only tasters for the fullness of the Kingdom which is yet to come. These are embodiments of the Kingdom. The Eucharist is the central example of such signs which, as David Jones consistently stated, have to participate in the reality which is being signed in order to have validity and meaning.

    Again, there are significant parallels to Bourriaud’s idea of an endless succession of actions (or ‘space-time elements’) in which a temporary collective is formed by means of which fairer social relations are permitted together with more compact ways of living and many different combinations of fertile experience.

    All this is ultimately about the reality and necessity of incarnation. As Rhidian Brook once said on Thought for the Day:

    “… there is no substitute for being there – incarnate or, literally, in the flesh. No amount of words sent by post or by telephone or over social networking sites – can ever match the visceral reality of presence. Face to phone or face to screen will never match face to face.”

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hi Pete, this comment is rather late in the game. But something has occurred to me as I have reflected on the comments and I wanted to add it to the mix.

    You point out at the beginning of the post that all experience is embodied, and then you say that art can be ‘described as the framing of experience and the publication of that framing.’ You are probably wise to use the word ‘described’ rather than ‘defined,’ but it occurs to me that many things can be described this way.

    If many activities not normally described as art can also be described as ‘he framing of experience and the publication of that framing’ why say that ‘the Church in the West faces continued decline until it reverses its rejection of artists who can frame and present their own embodied experience and draw their audience into an embodied understanding of the world in which they live or hope to live’? Why single out the artist? Does not the church need all people, all professions, to find ways of living and working in an embodied way?

    At one point in the comments, you suggest that an underlying issue at play in the disagreements is the definition of art. If we take an institutional definition of art, I wonder if your argument still works. Arthur Danto famously articulated the institutional view in response to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box that was essentially a reproduction of an actual Brillo Box. Why is Warhol’s art and the ‘real’ Brillo Box not? Danto believed the answer not to lie in the framing and publication of experience, but in something invisible: the art world. The institutional view highlights the profession of the artist, and so raises the question about why this particular profession should be so desperately needed by the church.

    What if the profession of art, like the church, is also susceptible to forms of disembodiment? If this is the case, why should we hold out hope that embracing the arts will revitalize embodied forms of Christian worship?

    • Pete Phillips says:

      I’ll stick with my lay definition of art as that which is framed and presented. Yep, I do agree that we need embodied disciples of all makes and sizes and professions but I was asked to blog about Art and Embodiment and so that’s why I talked about artists. But I do think there is something special about art as a (re)presentation of God’s creation and so a (re)presentation of God himself. I don’t think that is the same with other professions which are intrinsically to do with human society and the way we run ourselves (law, medicine, academia). But I would embrace so much in ‘art’ and not just limit it to painting, of course – it involves all media (and none?) both professional and lay. I don’t like the institutional view at all. Art wants a conversation not a label?

    • jfutral says:

      Jim, while I agree with you in principle and I accept Peter’s explanation, I would contend no other profession or professional, or vocation or “vocationist” (for lack of a better word) is under as much tension and constant tug with the church, particularly mainline protestant churches, and for any number of reasons that other professions and professionals, and even those who refer to their art more as craft than art (furniture makers, ceramicists, et. al.).

      My admonition to church leaders who want to minister to artists is usually, first stop treating them differently. What it means to be an artist who is a Christian is really no different than what it means to be a contractor or a business person and a Christian.

      And as someone who has worked in the arts for over 25 years, I contend that many issues we face are often of our own making. We want to be different. We want to be special. We find inspiration and motivation in being misunderstood. We think about things, everyday things and extraordinary things, in ways others don’t.

      So, to ignore that artists can be a peculiar bunch is difficult and made even more difficult by the artists themselves.

      To further the damage, many churches view ministering to artists as a euphemism for expecting, even manipulating, them contribute to worship services (preferably for free), often because this is the only acceptable, and Christ worthy art they can conceive of.

      So there is this peculiar and unique schism that has been created between the church body as a whole and a certain part of the body. Neither will last very long as long as this injury exists.

      Joe

      • jfutral says:

        Dang. I’m having issues lately:

        “and for any number of reasons that other professions and professionals, and even those who refer to their art more as craft than art (furniture makers, ceramicists, et. al.).”

        Finish that thought with “… don’t face.”

        Joe

  • Andrew Finden says:

    Interesting post and stimulating comments!

    I wonder if your point, Pete, is more focused on visual arts? The church seems to embrace music, for example, but perhaps it could be argued that it does so primarily when it can be tied explicitly to words.

    In any case, it’s got me thinking about the incarnate Word: it (He!) is tangible, active, representative and speaks (but not always explicitly).

  • Cole Matson says:

    Joe, I think you’re right on with your assessment of artists’ relationship with the Church, especially the complications made by artists themselves. It can be frustrating to butt heads with church leaders who hear “theatre” and think “potential director for children’s nativity play”, not realising that the skills and interests of a professional experimental performance artist might not transfer well to herding 4-year-old shepherds around a church basement. On the other hand, we as artists can be too insistent on our “difference” and “uniqueness”, insisting that we must be ministered to in a way different from the “non-creatives” in the congregation. The even greater temptation is to become a “creative consumer” of worship, rejecting church communities that don’t make a point of regularly commissioning new artworks or have an “arts ministry”, or cutting ourselves off into ghettoes of “creative,” “arts-centred” churches. This is a bit of caricature, but we do run the risk of being snobby.

    I wonder how many professional artists who are also Christians want their role as artist to be a major component of their church participation?

    • jfutral says:

      “I wonder how many professional artists who are also Christians want their role as artist to be a major component of their church participation?”

      I’ve kind of gotten to the point that I am trying to find a church that is not interested in arts ministry and has no desire for my profession to be a major component of my participation. I guess I am actively trying to avoid the “ghettos”, if I understand you correctly.

      I spend so much of my time and profession thinking about art critically (my own work, collaborators, and other artists’ work), unless I can experience the work without thinking about the work, it becomes a huge distraction in worship. I’d rather people just not try than to offer some variant of work in progress.

      Joe

      • Jonathan Evens says:

        While I understand what you’re saying, I don’t think your comment acknowledges the extent to which the Arts are in many ways foundational to all that occurs in Church. Very briefly, we could say that:

        • the Architecture of our churches provides a designed context and stage for the worship that occurs within them;
        • we re-enact Biblical narratives through the poetry of the liturgy;
        • music in church provides composed expressions of emotions and stories in and through song; and
        • images in churches re-tell Biblical narratives and open windows into the divine.

        If artists have to critically evaluate all art they encounter all the time then worship would be impossible for them. But critical evaluation isn’t the only valid response to the Arts and in the context of worship, as you note, may actually impede response. Trying to find a church that doesn’t use and isn’t formed by the Arts seems to me like an impossible quest.

        • jfutral says:

          This comment alone may not acknowledge the extent to which the Arts are in many ways foundational to all that occurs in Church, but the body of my comments here and other places do. Not that you should know this, but just to say that I have always acknowledged this.

          I don’t know if all artists have to, should, might, or even want to critically evaluate all art they encounter all the time, but I do. And just as when I go to a performance and all I can seem to notice is stuff that has nothing to do with the presentation, either due to lack of attention by the artist or the inability of the work itself to capture my attention, I get upset that I was not given an unobstructed path to engage with the work.

          Many attempts by churches to develop an arts ministry, as well intentioned as they are, are beyond their means, either in available skill or counsel. I love that art is returning to a level of serious consideration within the church that I believe has always been intended by God. But I am not all convinced that everyone is honest about this as part of how we are created by our Creator.

          I believe when a church does what is natural for them to do, either within a specific set of traditions or as a particular body of believers, then the art within will reflect that. There is an honesty there that is compelling. I am all for that.

          I’m just a bit gun shy of churches where I feel their need to venture into art and arts ministry is forced and contrived. It may do no harm, but it rarely does any good. I would rather they had just put together a pot-luck lunch and everyone participates in that. In many ways, I am very sympathetic to Sam. Not because I think art unimportant, spiritually or pragmatically inferior to “words”, or, worse, idolatrous, but because it is so important to me I am hurt when art is ventured into disrespectfully, even when that is not the intent.

          And I am easily distracted by bad art, either by definition of craft or concept. YMMV.

          Joe

  • jfutral says:

    Sam:

    “Even art in the church must have the words with which we tell the stories that make sense of why this art, why this song, why this dance, etc. Do you agree?”

    “but that doesn’t change the fact that primarily what we have are words to deal with in our proclamation. No?”

    No. I can’t for the life of me figure out how words are superior to images in conveying the Gospel. Neither are of any affect unless quickened by the Spirit along with the work of the Spirit on the heart of the recipient. As a Christian one cannot expect efficacy by person or media, only the Holy Spirit.

    @Muriel “Isn’t the most important thing about a piece of art the effect it has on the person looking at it, or experiencing it? ”

    Some artists believe the work has no life without the viewer to complete it. Within this discussion, the expectation of the Gospel can only be further realized only by the Holy Spirit.

    Joe

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