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)
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).
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.
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.