john davies
notes from a small curate

    on art and faith

    Liverpool John Moores University, 6/11/ 03

    (Talk to lunchtime discussion group)

      There are only questions in art - no answers ... The question is where are we now? But there's no answer. (Norman Rosenthal)
    Steve Collins last month went to see Damien Hirst's latest exhibition Romance in the age of uncertainty, which for the most part explores Christian themes. Here's his description of what he saw:
      the central room contains the apostles, a series of works that represent the deaths/ martyrdoms of each of the 12, and the ascension of Christ. each piece consists of a steel and glass cabinet hanging on the wall, containing objects arranged on several glass shelves. most of the objects are laboratory glassware, but mixed in are other symbolic and narrative objects derived from the stories of the apostles and their deaths. there is a good deal of [dried] blood splashed about, on objects, cabinets and in some cases on the floor. there are circular holes in the glass cabinets which, one realises, represent wounds - a crucifixion, for instance, has three [two hands, one for feet]. in front of each cabinet on the floor is a vitrine with a skinned cow's head in formaldehyde.

      st. andrew: four holes, out of each a blue nylon rope with blood - as i recall his limbs were tied to four horses to tear him apart
      the suicide of judas iscariot: this cabinet only is painted black. on top is the hangman's noose. in the centre of the cabinet is a single hole, out of which dangles a plastic container like a stomach and masses of tangled plastic tubing, falling onto the floor - acts 1:18 'his intestines burst out'. it's convincingly grisly. in the cabinet, the 30 pieces and purse. blood everywhere, floor, walls - huge amounts. the cow's head is black, and blindfolded
      st. peter: everything is upside down, because peter was crucified upside down. keys, picture of cockerel, book by peter kaplan - meaning?
      st. thomas: the cabinet run through by four bloody spears
      the ascension of Jesus: clean cabinet, completely empty, doors [with wounds] wide open. above, glass shelves mount into the sky, topped off by a real [stuffed] white dove taking flight. no cow's head in the vitrine.

      it's clever stuff, and the apostles make one realise how little one knows about the details of their deaths - I'll have to look them up to know how to interpret some of the items. most people wandered in and out, i spent a long time in there 'reading' the artworks. but once the game of meaning was played, there was nothing to draw me back.
    When Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford went to the exhibition, he reported, │two people who saw me in a clerical collar kept on coming up to ask how each particular apostle met his end. Is it really a sign of a good work of art that this kind of knowledge is necessary for appreciating it? In any case, is the religious symbolism too heavy? As Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters, has written: îTaking on religion requires a lightness of touch in the 21st century and I don't see it.'" (Church Times, 19 September 2003)

    Hirst himself doesn't help lighten the burden of understanding which his works place on viewers, because he won't explain them. So we're left wondering if Hirst sees anything in the stories of the apostles other than the physicality of their martyrdom.

    Guardian critic Adrian Searle suggests that │[Hirst's] modernity, perhaps, is in his not knowing whether he is serious or not, or whether an artist can consciously say anything very meaningful in any case." A previous exhibition îSensation' at the Royal Academy featured Hirst's ubiquitous sliced cows alongside Mark Quinn's No Visible Means of Escape, a hung corpse, disembodied with only the skin remaining, and Ron Mueck's Dead Dad, an exact replica of his naked dead father. One critic responded, │This is how the exhibition leaves you - desperate for someone to say something about being human." │To look at these artworks," write Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin, │is to find yourself asking the same question over and over again: îIs this all we are?' ... Of course (they continue), take God out of the picture and that is all - flesh, blood, bone and a few pence worth of chemicals." (Art and Soul p.51).

    Brand and Chaplin suggest that this sort of art reflects our society's damaged image - of God and ourselves. They point out that the Bible uses the term îimage' to refer to both human beings and idols. And, as John Wilson says, îIf man is not the image-bearer of God then he is an accidental nothing'.

    This raises a question; is contemporary art merely a form of empty idolatry? Which refutes the divine, diminishes our humanness and denies the spiritual within us?

    We can go in various directions in addressing that...

    we can suggest that art has always and only ever been idolatry, graven images which have delighted us and enchanted us but been a barrier between us and God - protestant puritan Christianity has taken this line over the centuries and some contemporary art statements seem to affirm it: like this quote from a character in Douglas Coupland's îHey Nostradamus': │We're all born lost aren't we? We're all born separated from God ... and yet we're all real: we have names, we have lives. We mean something. We must. My heart is so cold. And I feel so lost."

    another approach is to keep looking in Hirst and Quinn and their contemporaries for hints of the sublime, like Richard Harries in his Church Times review, reflecting that Hirst's apostles at least provide │evidence of the continuing capacity of certain Christian images and symbols to reassert themselves." Tracy Emin once entitled an exhibition, îI need art like I need God'. Laden with irony for sure, but was it double-edged? Discuss...

    or thirdly, in trying to answer our question about contemporary art and idolatry we can look beyond the media circus of the high-profile contemporary artists to search for others doing something different in their work - perhaps exploring the transcendent, the visionary, the cosmic, mythic, symbolic aspects of life. Or others maybe addressing issues of ecology and environmental responsibility, or social justice. The Resurgence anthology, Images of Earth and Spirit,, is a good resource in that search.

    The latter responses suggest that art and faith can coexist. I take that as read, coming from a religious background steeped in an awareness of God as creator, the source of creative life in the world. I am with Calvin Seerveld who has written, │Aesthetic life is not something sophisticated ... Aesthetic life is as integral to being human as building sandcastles on the beach and giving your children names." For many years I've been involved in a Christian Arts Festival called Greenbelt, an event designed to celebrate the creativity in all of us which comes from being made by God, in God's image. A few years ago I helped put together a statement of belief...
      Greenbelt believes that God is the creator and since he is the source of creativity and has made people in his likeness, he has made us with imagination and creativity - the need to tell stories, to make music, to dance.

      The evangelical tradition of the church, from which the Greenbelt organisers have come has suffered a tendency to believe that evangelism through the word and message was all that mattered. Creative arts have been relegated to a supporting role and denied a validity in their own right - the call to live out the gospel in acts of compassion and justice has not been heard. Greenbelt believes that the way of Jesus is to act on behalf of the voiceless and forgotten and to meet them with his love.

      The Greenbelt Festival was born in the belief that the arts are neither a luxury nor an optional extra and it encourages Christians to make art of a quality that is pleasing to God. It also urges Christians to make their lives a work of art by reflecting compassion, care, a commitment to justice and the loving nature of God. The arts therefore provide Greenbelt's context but are themselves only one example of the need to apply the truth of the gospel to every area of life and culture.
    Neither a luxury nor an optional extra ... but an integral part of what it means to be human, wholly flesh, wholly spirit, wholly aesthetic. My own particular artistic expression has been literary but as I prepared this talk I was sitting at a desk containing a stack of cds, at a computer displaying a photograph of the Northern Lights taken by friends I was with on Iona two weeks ago, on my wall various paintings, an Orthodox icon and a piece of needlework created lovingly by a friend as a gift to me. Deeply aware of all sorts of forms of artistic expression which constantly enrich, engage and challenge me.

    To Bob's question, what impact or stimulation art may have on faith, I quote my old theological college principal Graham Cray (what he says as a Christian could apply from any faith tradition) ...

    We need to learn Christianity through the arts as much as to express Christianity through the arts. We need a Christian faith enriched through the arts as much as the arts enriched by the Christian faith. Only images and works of art that are the fruit of this depth of dialogue, of hard work, theological as well as artistic and imaginative, can restore the possibility of transcendence to our increasingly one dimensional image culture.

    He's talking about people of faith engaging with creative culture, in all its forms, increasingly deeply, suggesting that only by doing so will faith grow. This approach requires the taking of risks and honest questioning, but this is part of the path to maturity. Since God has given us his creation, his word and himself as guideposts on our journey we need not be fearful or overprotective in the face of new challenges to our faith. And those creating art in contemporary culture may well value the insights which faith communities can provide - for example, Douglas Coupland again, who wrote this in Life After God:
      Now here is my secret:
      I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and I can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me to be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love as I seem beyond being able to love.

    Notes on references

    All quotes are from Brand & Chaplin except where stated...

    Hilary Brand, Adrienne Chaplin, Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts

    Steve Collins' website Small Ritual

    Richard Harries: In blood stepp'd in so far, Church Times, 19 September 2003

    Adrian Searle: So what's new? The Guardian, Tuesday September 9, 2003

    Resurgence magazine

    Douglas Coupland: Hey Nostradamus! quoted in Damaris Culturewatch website

    Greenbelt festival website