A New Kind of Patronage: Thoughts on Pie-Raymond Régamey’s Religious Art in the Twentieth Century

Gesa E. Thiessen edited a reader titled Theological Aesthetics with SCM Press. One particularly interesting passage that looks at the Church as a patron of modern art is Pie-Raymond Régamey’s ‘Religious Art in the Twentieth Century’ (pp.223-227).

This French Catholic priest proposes that art created by a non-Christian certainly has a place within the Church. He argues, firstly, ‘at the moment some of the best artists are outside the Church’ (p. 223). Christian artists are often overly sentimental or simply dull: their works fall into the world of ‘kitsch’. The non-Christian artist however, can be ‘partially attuned’ to the Christian view of the world. Where a Christian artist’s work may be dulled by senses of religious duty, the non-Christian artist is free to react and create to the commission with ‘pure spontaneity’ and with an ‘unerring instinct’.

Defining ‘Christian art’ is complex and next to impossible, and who can ever know the heart of man? Art that is produced from a genuine Christian faith can be weak and worthless; art produced from a partial faith in the realities of art can enrich and enliven worship within a congregation. But, of course, ‘it is impossible to generalize’ (p. 226).

‘Art is only Christian or sacred when it submits to laws of appropriateness for its destined place’. (p. 225)[1]

To hire artists who exhibit a secular faith that brings glory to God and excites the congregation is ‘infinitely more constructive than decreeing from the start that no “unbeliever” will be allowed to create a work of art for the Church’ (p. 223). This is Régamey’s argument in short. It is compelling and also acts as a call for Christians to get serious about the arts and their purpose within the Church.

The limiting question of whether an unbeliever should be commissioned to make ‘Christian’ art for a Church only looks at the material product of the dialogue between the Church and the artist. It is time for a new kind of patronage.

In his book Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Grant H. Kester presents to is what he terms a ‘dialogical aesthetic’, an artwork or project that is conceived and brought into being through a continual conversation between all the participating parties. In a dialogical aesthetic, the artist is not the sole creator of the work, and the patron is not simply the moral arbiter and the funding behind the project.

‘While it is common for a work of art to provoke dialogue among viewers, this typically occurs in response to a finished object. In these projects, on the other hand, conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself’ (p. 8).[2]

Rather than the process of agreement, disagreement, and tweaking between the artist and the organization, the artist within the Church could be an active member of the congregation, a pillar in the community whose inclination is to build up the body of Christ. Kester cites many examples of art where the artist doesn’t perform as a craftsman, but the work is born out of a continual dialogue, formed by the many hands that contribute to the work or project that serve to build up.

This new kind of patronage is Trinitarian in its process; it requires the personal interrelationship of the contributors. The whole process should be dialogical: intercourse between all members, but conducted in such a way that no part of the ‘artistic process’ is removed from the ‘love that builds up’ (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Benjamin Harris is a student who is currently studying Fine Art (BA Hons) at the University of Wolverhampton. His study has brought him to actively seek a synthesis between art and theology through their dialogical practices. He writes a blog on theological aesthetics, which can be found here: http://benjaminharrismusings.blogspot.com.

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1. Régamey, P. (2004). Religious Art in the Twentieth Century. In: Thiessen, G.E. Theological Aesthetics. SCM Reader. London: SCM Press: 223-227.
2. Kester G. K. (2004). Conversation Pieces. Community and Communication in Modern Art. California: University of California Press: 8.

5 Comments

  • Marion Hendrickson says:

    This reminds me of Dorothy Sayers’ famous comment: “No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman…. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.”

    • Sara Schumacher says:

      This is an interesting quote, Marion! Do you know which book/article it is from?

      • Marion Hendrickson says:

        It’s from Sayers’ essay, “Why Work?” included in the book, “Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine.”

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    Thanks, Ben, for contributing to Transpositions! It’s great to read of others taking an interest in the action of church arts patronage. Your post raised some important issues in relation to arts patronage: the significance (or not) of the faith commitment of the artist, the nature of the relationship between the artist and the church, and the theological resources that might help provide a framework for this action. I wondered if I could push you on a couple of the points you’ve made so I can understand more clearly the new kind of patronage you are advocating.

    1. You seem to be suggesting with Regamey that the faith commitment of an artist somehow bears on his/her ability to create ‘good’ art. Is that correct? I’ve read of others who hold to this view but to me, I’m not sure making the faith commitment of the artist somehow determinant of the kind of work they will produce very helpful. I think that this argument actually takes us away from where the real issue lies. If we believe that artistic gifting extends to both believers and non-believers (which I would assume we would), then we cannot conclude that there is something inherently limiting or freeing within one’s faith-commitment (or lack thereof) to create significant art. Rather I think that if Christians seem inhibited in what they create, it is more because of the limitations out with their faith commitment, maybe theological doctrine or expectations put upon them (which does lead us to consider a new kind of patronage in the church). If you take someone like Flannery O’Connor, she believed that an artist who is a Christian should better fulfil the artist’s vocation of presenting reality because the Christian view of the world has a bigger (and more accurate) view of reality and therefore can produce better art. [Check out Mystery and Manners if you haven’t already] She recognises that sometimes the church does put limitations on the artist and prevents a full realisation of this vocation but the limitation is not in the faith commitment. I think this is an important distinction to make in considering an issue like this because it makes sure we’re addressing the right issue going forward.

    2. It sounds like the new kind of patronage you are advocating is dialogical in nature, following Kester. It’s interesting to bring Kester into this discussion – could you expound a bit more about how you think introducing dialogue overcomes how the Christian artist is limited? If I understood Kester correctly, he seems to be arguing that the conversation/dialogue is the art; whether an object is produced is irrelevant. The problem this could raise is that the distinctions between artist and participant are done away with, which ends up negating the contribution and gift of the artist which I suppose, if the Christian artist is unable to produce good art, this view sorts out that problem. Could you explain a bit more about what this dialogue looks like and how you think each participant contributes? As well, I am interested to know why the process of agreement/disagreement/tweaking is not necessary if the artist is an active member of the congregation. (I was a bit confused by your use of ‘rather than’.) Surely this is an important part of the creative process? Are you suggesting that if the artist is a member of the congregation, then he/she would be able to produce work without any input or critique?

    Thanks again, Ben, for contributing to this important conversation!

    • Ben Harris says:

      Hey Sara,
      Thanks for your feedback, you pose some great questions which I would have loved to tackle in the original post if the word count had permitted it.

      1. “I’m not sure making the faith commitment of the artist somehow determinant of the kind of work they will produce very helpful.” I agree with you completely in this, I am a Christian artist myself and would disagree sharply with anyone who suggested that my faith lessened my work, but nonetheless the accusation is there. It is a disagreement with this assumption that makes me want to press on to a new kind of patronage which actively involves the congregation as participators, no longer a group of people who are bewildered at what their Church leaders are spending ‘their’ money on (of course this comes from a very broken idea of community within the church and a misshaped view of art). I want to endorse a patronage that is communal in that it activates the church and gets as many people as possible actively involved.

      2. I think that introducing dialogue would confront the often assumed schism between the congregation and the artist, I mean they would be in conversation about this ‘project’ that they are proposing to create. I think there is often a lack of understanding between the two parties, and rather than the artist simply disregarding others as ‘Philistines’ and the congregation dismissing the artist as ‘pretentious’, an open dialogue with the cornerstone being ‘love that builds up’ could help this divide.

      “If I understood Kester correctly, he seems to be arguing that the conversation/dialogue is the art; whether an object is produced is irrelevant.” I disagree with this because two of Kester’s great example are Stephen Willat’s and Adrian Piper who both make very object based conclusions to their projects. It wouldn’t be that the produced object would be unimportant but the process of exchange would be considered equally as important.

      I think that this could negate the gift of the artist but I see that a changing view of the artist from the sole creator to a facilitator is a healthy thing. Of course some artists couldn’t work like this, but an increasing number do. Rev. Jim Craig is an example of a facilitating artist. I think that a view of the artist that focuses less on his/her technical ability allows for other gifting to shine through. If the artist has a teaching gifting then this could be manifest in the process of organising the project. It troubles me that often the artist’s gift is seen to be some talent that extends beyond the intellectual capacity of most, that they go and create art in their ‘high place’ and bring it down to show to the masses. I am really wary of the ‘prophet’ artist. Not that artist’s cannot have prophetic gifting, I just believe that a dialogically-mided project would be able to create a space in which this gift (coupled with artistic gifting) is explored more openly.

      What the dialogue looks like depends on the project idea, it is something that I am currently exploring with some local Churches. The ‘tweaking’ would be more organic in a dialogical project, the critique would be part of the fabric of the exchange. The artist wouldn’t have to submit a something to a panel of leaders who would then judge this work according to their standards or whatever, the critique of the work would occur as part of the work.

      Thank you for your comments.

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