‘Culture often takes the role of religion in our contemporary world. Galleries are modern-day temples, regularly attended by the people on their day of rest. Exhibitions are discussed with almost evangelical fervour. Art has become a cult. It is there to make us wonder how our lives may be raised above the level of mundanity. As we wander through museums, we ponder the sort of questions that theology once asked: why is this here at all? What does it mean? How should we live in the face of our challenges? In an era in which religion is too often reduced to dogmatic squabbles, art reopens the mind and emotions to the wider questions of the world…It is less art that needs the Church, but the Church, in its waning popularity, that needs art,’ so says an article entitled ‘Let’s Get Artists Into Our Churches,’ written by The Times in April 2010. In this article, the author was commenting upon the recent resurgence of art commissions by various cathedrals in the UK, making specific mention of the artists being commissioned as some of the most important artists working at the moment, including (among others) Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, and Bill Viola.
The author’s suggestion that the commissioning of important art by important artists as a means to revitalise the UK Church is an interesting one. There are clearly areas where art and religion pull in the same direction — challenging people in what they think, engaging with the mysterious aspects of life, and creating a space of personal reflection. Robert Wuthnow in his book All in Sync provides a corresponding argument of how art and music play a direct impact on the rejuvenation within American churches. Perhaps more than in the past, there is greater recognition that art and the Church could be potential partners in supporting the spiritual lives of humanity.
In light of this, I’d like to offer some thoughts about how this might happen. It’s true that art has the potential to raise deep, human questions. However, in many cases, raising questions is only helpful if answers are possible. It is here that art enters into what I think is a powerful relationship with the Church. The Church can meaningfully point to possible answers by providing a foundation of truth and hope that can make the questioning fruitful.
Take Tracey Emin’s I Felt You and I Knew You Loved Me installation in Liverpool Cathedral. Probably best known for her Unmade Bed, Emin is an artist known for using her personal struggles and emotion as inspiration for her work. As a result, her personal life and past abuse are part of public knowledge. Taking that into account, the neon sign with the scrawled letters has an ambiguity of meaning, and if found in a museum, its interpretation would most likely fall in line with works such as Unmade Bed. When found in a church space, however, I think it has the potential to have an entirely different effect. The art raises the questions of who is the object of such a statement and exposes Emin’s vulnerability, prompting many avenues for personal reflection. And yet, the work in a church space makes possible an interpretation that points to a God of love and healing in an intensely personal Emin-way. Viewing the installation in the space where God is worshiped influences the way in which those questions take shape and form. The belief of the Church provides the ground of meaning that starts to point to answers raised by the questions posed by the art.