Contemporary Art in British Churches: A Review

Contemporary Art in British Churches is the latest publication by Art & Christianity Enquiry (ACE). Published in 2010, this book aims to bring understanding to the recent resurgence of art commissioning in British churches as well as consider the ‘practical, theological and aesthetic issues’ connected to this movement.

The book is short – less than 100 pages – and consists of three articles, a series of reflections from artists, and a review of Tracey Emin’s For You piece in Liverpool Cathedral. While its length means that the issues it raises are only touched upon, the book does provide a helpful introduction to the movement.

The first article, “Contemporary Art & Church Commissions: Boom or Bust?” by Paul Bayley, sets the stage for the reason why this book has been written. Bayley provides an overview of recent examples of commissioned contemporary art in British churches. For Bayley, this action is evidence that the church is moving ‘from engaging with contemporary art in an opportunist manner to thinking it central to their mission and an achievable and sustainable activity.’ (15) While the current recession might stall this movement and reduce the number of works commissioned, what remains is ‘an increased acceptance that contemporary artists have a unique contribution to make in reinvigorating and re-enchanting our churches and cathedrals.’ (20)

The second section is composed of reflections from artists who have been recently commissioned by churches.  The artists were asked to respond to the question: ‘When you were commissioned to create a permanent artwork for a church community, how did the experience differ from your usual practice?  Was the production process different when working with a consecrated space?’  To me, this was the most interesting and enlightening section of the book. This section, however, would have been served by a critical analysis of the artists’ responses that explored how their comments support observations made in other articles in the book. Additionally, some of the responses could be elaborated. In summary, this section is a good start, and it provides great material for another article.

Third, in “New Art in Catholic Churches,” Laura Gascoigne starts by laying the blame for the lack of art commissioning in the Catholic Church on Vatican II when the emphasis shifted to helping the poor over the commissioning of new art. (42) She continues with a short survey of examples of how the Catholic Church has re-engaged with art commissioning. While the examples Gascoigne offers are interesting, she seems to have a bias towards non-representational art supported by an assumption that art in the church is for the expression of the artist. ‘…too often, in the sacred sphere, their [artists] expressive talents are wasted on reiterating the effable and their torment is creative frustration at having their freedom of expression curtailed.’ (46) Gascoigne’s article highlights the tension present in art commissioning, especially when the art is liturgical and meant to support the worship of the congregation. While Gascoigne perceives a tension between art for the artist’s expression and art in the service of the liturgy, this article could be improved by exploring this issue further.

Fourth, in “Icons Commissioned for Anglican Churches,” Stephen Stavrou explores the recent surge of the commissioning of icons within Anglican churches and attributes this to four factors: the rise of ecumenism, the realisation among Anglicans of the liturgical contribution of icons, their potential as a means to evangelism, and the realisation of an icon’s role in prayer. While Stavrou offers several examples of Anglican churches that have commissioned icons, his article raised this question for me:  Is an icon an icon if it is not used liturgically? If not used liturically, is it not just a work of art in the style of an icon?  Stavrou admits that ‘there are even some – albeit many fewer – examples of commissioned icons that are being used liturgically in direct and specific ways.’ (53)  This admission begs the questions raised above, something that Stavrou does not do.

The final article is a review Tracey Emin’s For You installation in Liverpool Cathedral.  Written by Catherine Pickstock, it is a short piece that is reflective rather than analytical.

In this short book, ACE has drawn attention to an interesting development in the relationship between the British church and the contemporary art world. While there are areas that need and deserve elaboration, this book is a helpful starting point for those interested in contemporary arts patronage.

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