Engaging Art Prize: Two Vignettes [Part Three]

Editor’s Note: Transpositions is currently featuring a 3-part series on Art Prize by guest contributor, Chris Brewer. Brewer started with an introduction to the competition (published 11 April), followed by his suggestion of a storied theology of the arts as a way by which to engage Art Prize (published 18 April). The series concludes with two vignettes from Art Prize 2011 (published 25 April).

To conclude my series on Art Prize, I offer two vignettes. The first, Alfonse Borysewicz at the Basilica of St. Adalbert, was an attempt to engage Art Prize through a particular local church. The second, Art that Tells the Story, took a different route, one that resulted in a very different outcome.

Alfonse Borysewicz at the Basilica of St. Adalbert [exhibition slideshow]

The Basilica of St. Adalbert’s patina-ed copper domes dominate the northwest Grand Rapids cityscape.  It’s the only “Minor Basilica” in the State of Michigan, and what’s more, it falls within the Art Prize boundary.  Thinking that it would be good for Alfonse to connect with the Basilica I contacted the church leadership to see if they might be interested in mounting an Art Prize entry. They were interested, but unfortunately the deadline to register as a venue passed and, for whatever reason, they neglected to register.  Alfonse asked if he might exhibit in spite of this.  The church responded favorably, and so we installed his “Dormition” for an exhibition that ran from the feast of the Assumption through the end of Art Prize.

Read Paul Anel’s meditation on the painting.

In one sense, the exhibition was a triumph. Borysewicz, a contemporary artist and Roman Catholic of Polish descent, exhibited in a prominent Roman Catholic Church with Polish roots in his home state. And how often do churches show the work of a contemporary artist, let alone someone like Borysewicz whose work has been reviewed by The New York TimesArt in America and Art Forum?

On the other hand, the exhibition failed to engage with Art Prize. Not having registered, nor having attempted to engage the church or community by way of an opening exhibition, artist reception or press release, the exhibition seemed to go mostly unnoticed. The priest did mention that it had been helpful for meditation, which is no small thing, but what of engaging Art Prize? Was this Christ against culture by default? And if it was, would it have merit as such? Perhaps it would, but it certainly wasn’t my intention, and so we started from scratch.

Art that Tells the Story [exhibition slideshow]

The genesis of this effort was an Art that Tells the Story planning session with a couple of friends, my wife and several folks from Grey Matter Group and Somersault. Towards the end of the meeting, someone asked if I had thought about participating in Art Prize. I had, but wasn’t sure how to pull it off. Within a week the guys from Grey Matter had secured a space for the final weekend of Art Prize (October 7-9) in the heart of the city on the Avenue for the Arts.

See the installation slideshow.

We cleared and cleaned the space, installed the work and put out our sign.  I expected that the event would draw area hipsters and art students, but given the location’s proximity to the local homeless shelter, the first three of our more than four-hundred visitors that weekend were at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum.  As we passed out cookies and water, and as Bob, the building’s homeless handyman, walked around the pieces, Matthew 25:35 came to mind: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (NIV)

Borysewicz’s Emmanuel I: Bethlehem, Emmanuel II: Jordan River/Galilee, Emmanuel III: Jerusalem and Emmanuel IV: Alpha and Omega had been installed as a suspended cube, conjuring images of the tabernacle and the New Jerusalem.  There, the good news, God with us, was offered in three dimensions as a space, a sort of world where words became flesh, a space into which the stranger was welcomed, a shared experience within which created goods were affirmed and redemptive words spoken, a foretaste of things to come.  Engaging Art Prize?  Indeed.

What value is there in the Church engaging events like Art Prize?  What of Matthew 25:35-36?  How might that text inform our evaluation of, or notions of engaging, Art Prize, an event that brings art to the people?  More generally, how might it inform our notions of exhibitions and their spaces?

See my video interview with Alfonse.


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

More from Christopher R. Brewer
All Is Grace: An Interview with Alfonse Borysewicz, Part 2
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  1. says: Susan

    Chris, you offer some neatly packaged insights to the dilemma of ArtPrize as well as the church engaging the arts. However, this scenario is so indicative of what happens with the church in general-popular culture has something cool going on and the church follows after-adapting to whatever is driving the movement. This happens in literature, music, cinema, dance and finally, the ugly stepchild-visual arts. I think the larger issue is that the church isn’t driving popular culture.
    There is a divide between culture and the church-whether popular, contemporary or whatever you want to call the phenomena that directs the populace- and the church continually constructs bridges of facimile that repeatedly fall away. The church chases after culture and attempts to make it ‘better’, ‘more christian’, ‘more acceptable’ for christian consumption which ultimately pushes genuine culture further away. Not to mention creating censorial versions that are watered down and foster the separation mentality.
    How about creating cultural validity by participating without the caveat of patting whatever it is and saying it belongs to the church? How about engaging culture by driving it more and adapting it less? How about surprising culture by creating in such a way that there is delight that it comes from the church as opposed to dirision that it ‘belongs’ to the church?
    Lastly, it bears mentioning that the ultimate winner of ArtPrize 2011 was an enormous stained glass mosaic of Christ with sixpack abs-completely unoriginal, unchallenging and culturally flacid but speaks volumes.

    1. says: Chris Brewer

      Susan, good to hear from you. I should mention that my intention was to provide a framework for engagement (part two) and then several examples or sign posts for engagement (part three). Neither the framework nor the examples are comprehensive/exhaustive and while the nature of conversation (i.e., that we are finite and can only say one thing at a time, that speaking is a choice to say one thing from many things, etc.) as well as the constraints of a blog post necessitate “neatly packaged insights” it wasn’t my intention to suggest that I have it all figured out or that these vignettes are THE way to engage Art Prize. The framework is basic and the examples two from many possible examples. They are intended to serve as an entry point to the conversation.

      That being said, that the first example took place in a church and that all of the pieces in both examples were religious in nature are not necessary characteristics for any/all Art Prize engagement. I would argue, however, that they are allowable characteristics for Art Prize engagement. It seems as though the pendulum has swung away from what I described as propaganda (i.e., redemptive word apart from created good) in Part Two towards the extreme of dis-allowing work that is explicitly religious (i.e., created good apart from redemptive word). While I would agree that work along the lines of Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” is, to quote Greg Wolfe’s description of Thomas Kinkade’s work, “a form of denial” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303425504577353743803849150.html), I reject the notion that our only alternative is to leave 1) the Bible as a source of narrative and 2) the inspiration of Christian history, liturgy and the Christian calendar in favor of 3) human experience viewed through an informing faith lens (I’ve borrowed these categories from John Walford’s “Christian Artists & Contemporary American Culture,” see http://www.wheaton.edu/WETN/All-Media?p=John Walford). Any of these are allowable for the artist who is Christian and just because Borysewicz is working in the first two categories as opposed to the third doesn’t mean that his work should be lumped in with Tavonatti’s. His work, unlike Tavonatti’s, holds created good and redemptive word in tension, acknowledges the reality of the fall and anticipates the world to come.

      In order to address your comments more directly I should mention that I’m coming to the Christ and culture conversation from a neo-Calvinist, Kuyperian, Al Wolters, or to reference a more recent author, Andy Crouch sort of perspective. I believe that we should cultivate and create culture, a sort of be-the-change-you-want-to-see approach, and this in an effort to bring the sinful direction of culture back into line with God’s good intention (i.e., structure), or to put it another way, bring redemption to bear on our corner of reality. While I like a lot of what James Davison Hunter has to say in his To Change the World, I don’t share his Anabaptist tendencies/conclusions. That being said, I’m all for “participating” without “saying it belongs to the church” or attempting to create a Christian alternative to Art Prize as a sort of city on a hill. All too often, this results in the “cultural Protestantism” concerned with “social custom” from “older cultures” that Niebuhr critiqued in his Christ and Culture. He notes:

      “How often the Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism – by which cultural Protestantism is meant – is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty, a number of Fundamentalist interests indicate. Not all though many of these antiliberals show a greater concern for conserving the cosmological and biological notions of older cultures than for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The test of loyalty to him is found in the acceptance of old cultural ideas about the manner of creation and the earth’s destruction. More significant is the fact that the mores they associate with Christ have at least as little relation to the New Testament and as much connection with social custom as have those of their opponents. The movement that identifies obedience to Jesus Christ with the practices of prohibition, and with the maintenance of early American social organization, is a type of cultural Christianity; though the culture it seeks to conserve differs from that which its rivals honor.” (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 102)

      I think we’re on the same page here even if your attempt to engage Art Prize (http://www.artprize.org/susan-mulder/2011/pour-some-sugar-on-me) took a different route (i.e., human experience viewed through an informing faith lens). Would you say so (i.e., that we’re on the same page) or am I missing something? If not, what are the specific areas of disagreement? Perhaps you could share a bit more about that experience in terms of the Storied theology of the arts that I outlined in Part Two.

      1. says: Susan

        Chris-fantastic-thank you for expounding, this is exactly what I was hoping for. The conversation needs to be deeper and I appreciate your response! As always, you provided a thoughtful response and great resources to look into.
        Thank you!

  2. says: Alfonse Borysewicz

    If I may engage a bit and sidestep the theology (which I love as evidenced by Susan and Chris) as the artist involved: while aware of the Art Prize endeavor I honestly did little to engage with it…I was aware of the Basiciica’s past sponsorship but did not seek the same for me in any active way. Not to sound Machavellian but I saw the Art Prize as an opportunity to open a window for the church to exhibit my work. It is so difficult for churches (especially in my own Roman Catholic tradition) to engage with contemporary art making (that root has been severed for a few generations if not more). As Chris hinted, just to get it up was a victory in itself even though my Dormition panel painting was rooted in traditional Icon painting. Simply put my paintings are most at home in churches. I was just thrilled that it was up SOMEWHERE/SOMETIME in a sacred space. You really cannot imagine (or perhaps you can?) the hurdles that are placed in what cannot be exhibited in churches and shocked as what actually is permitted. The other options, as Susan noted, just fall flat (that is why I have disengaged with the gallery art world over a decade ago). Knowing from the get-go that my work had no chance for any victory lap in the Art Prize endeavor I stil welcomed Chris (and his hard working friends) in exhibiting the Emmanuel paintings in the space they did to invite others into the sacred dialogue, so to speak. Other than the speeding ticket I was given on my return trip to NY (unjustly, I may add, and all the complications it caused) I have no regrets for the different bodies of paintings being exhibited when and where they did.

    1. says: richard kooyman

      I think anyone would be hard pressed to provide examples where so called religious based art work was “disallowed” as Chris suggested above. I’m sincerely intrigued and a bit confused just what an artist such as yourself feels about the art world. Did you feel your work did not have a chance because it was religious? Other than for the figurative images what in fact makes your work religious in nature?
      My own belief is that if you choose to participate in the professional art world one needs to deal with the fact of being relevant to what is going on in that world today.

      1. says: cbrewer

        Richard, I’ll let Alfonse respond to those questions directed to him, but allow me to clarify what I meant by my comment “dis-allowing work that is explicitly religious (i.e., created good apart from redemptive word)” in response to your comment above. The context within which that comment was made (i.e., the paragraph from which it was excerpted as well as the entire series of posts) has to do with Christians engaging art and Art Prize. Clearly, there have been unbalanced approaches to art as well as Art Prize by artists who are Christian. I’ve suggested that their lack of balance is due to a more general lack of a theology of the arts that might guide their engagement. The Storied theology of the arts that I’ve outlined [Part Two] calls for the embrace of art as created good and redemptive word. From this vantage point, it seems that the more recent history of engagement (i.e., between artists who are Christian and the arts) might be described as the abandonment of a Storied theology of the arts in favor of what I’ve described as propaganda (i.e., redemptive word apart from created good, a caricature of sorts) and then a reaction against this “form of denial” in favor of art that is, in Makoto Fujimura’s words, “useless” (i.e., created good apart from redemptive word). I’m suggesting that neither of these approaches tell the whole Story (i.e., the Story the Bible tells: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation), and that what’s needed is an embrace of art as created good and redemptive word, that acknowledges the reality of the fall and anticipates the world to come; in short, one that follows the contours of the Biblical Story. All this being said, my comment should be taken as describing the reaction against what I’ve called propaganda, which has been, in my estimation, an overreaction, one that has thrown the baby out with the bath water, one that should be checked by a Storied theology of the arts.

        To cite an example, one that I was not hard pressed to find, see Paul LeFeber, “Art is Useless” (Online: http://civa.org/civablog/art-is-useless/). He makes a case for art’s uselessness, and rightly so, but what of it’s usefulness? Do we really have to choose between the two? I don’t mean to call LeFeber out. For all I know he embraces the tension, but his post is certainly indicative of the tendency that I’ve described.

        For a provocative read, one that suggests a way forward for artists and art lovers who are Christian, see Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. I had the privilege of spending a morning with Dan touring The Phillips Collection (http://www.phillipscollection.org/) as part of Q Ideas (http://qideas.org/) in Washington D.C. last month. I found his perspective learned and refreshing.

  3. says: Alfonse Borysewicz

    What do I feel about the “art world” or my relationship to it? Well, first I dont think there is one monolithic entity as the “art world” (same way when people talk about the “media”). My relationship to it is schizophrenic. I exist outside it but yet cannot deny its reality (not that I necessarily want to) and its effect on my well being ($$$/sales). As I stated in my previous post I have been disengaged with my former existence there and now work outside it with various church projects. Why? Because the gallerists (again, a general term) can’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t (you can choose) broaden the dialogue with “religious” art (would warmly greet a gallery exhibit proposal that could). All the currents of the art world (there I go again) run counter to it. As to the basic question, what is religious art (as opposed to ‘spiritual art”)? I like to quote Cardinal Gabriel Paleotti (post Trent) emphasizing the power of visual images to teach religious truths, “that true religious art should teach, give pleasure, and move the emotions.” With so much angling on popular banality in the galleries (my view) I opted to be relevant by being irrelevant in the cultural world by my engagement with sacred religious traditions alive in various communities (with alarmingly decreasing numbers),using the few gifts I have.

    1. says: richard kooyman

      Alfonse, Thank you for you reply. I suppose the pickle you find yourself in is described by CArdinal Paleotti who in my mind seems to really be saying that true religious art should teach religion, give religious pleasure, and move religious emotions. That’s, as I see it a problem of limitations. Limiting because it says the art can only be about the religious world or viewpoint which is not what relevant art is about today. Art left those required conditions many years ago and criticizing a culture or an art world that doesn’t need religion any longer isn’t going to change things.

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