In an earlier post, I drew our attention to the recent increase in church commissioning of the arts within the UK. This renaissance of sorts led a British journalist to see the arts as a potential means of church revitalisation in a society where church attendance and Christian awareness has been on the decline. Not only has the British media picked up on the trend but organisations are also starting to track and assess what’s happening, most specifically ACE and their Ecclesiart project and the recent publication of their book, Contemporary Art in British Churches.
The book includes reflections from artists who have been commissioned by churches and cathedrals, specifically considering how the process of working for a sacred space differs from their usual creative process. Artists commented on the sense of responsibility to the community and to the space, the frustration and joy of having to please a committee or a congregation with their work, as well as how they used this commission to express their own view of God or the world. While some analysis of the reflections by the editors would have been helpful, reading through the responses was nonetheless fascinating.
A majority of the work included in the book and noted by Ecclesiart is art commissioned specifically by cathedrals – Chichester, Salisbury, Canterbury, Portsmouth, Winchester, Gloucester, Liverpool, and Durham – just to name a few. While it is encouraging to see the Church supporting the arts in such a way that draws the most well-known artists to accept its commissions, are we really entering into a renaissance of church arts?
While cathedrals are primarily sacred spaces, they are also destinations for the modern-day pilgrim, the tourist. While I do not want to suggest that the primary motivation for commissioning art is to get more tourists through the doors of the church, I fear that this is the greatest outcome. The importance of the building historically, the beauty of its architecture, the sense of awe and wonder it creates — all these things (and more) draw the traveler into the space. A work of art by a well-known artist makes the church all the more intriguing. And certainly, while they are there, they might have a sense of something Other than themselves. The problem is that they then leave the space for the next thing they want to see and experience. Perhaps the Other captures their imagination but I fear is quickly lost as other visual stimuli crowd in to take its place.
This begs a question – Is this really a revitalisation of the church, especially when one understands the church to be the people of God? A revitalisation of the church is not filling its building with more admirers of its art. It’s a transformation of people into the body of Christ. By limiting art to this definition of revitalisation, do we not also end up reducing how art can contribute to the transformation process? Yes, art brings people into a building. But it has the potential to be so much more in the life of a church.
Are you a part of a church that commissions artists to create work for the church? If so, how has the art impacted the life of your church?