Art’s Central have posted this picture on their Facebook page. It is of an actual poster used during the era of McCathyism in the US when there was a witch hunt against the entertainment industry amongst others.
It spurred me on to a bit of theological reflection on the last couple of posts I’d written about the arts and about the Fresh Expressions conference. They were completely unconnected but in many ways they are totally connected. The post on arts described the truth which is within that poster to some extent about the ability of artists to mix with all classes, with it’s reference to the South London Black Music Project exhibition at the Tate (for example). The Fresh Expressions conference was embodying the message that the Church wants to be in that position of mixing with all classes too, and that one way in which they are seeking to make it happen are through engaging with the arts in places like Colwyn Bay where one of the Venture FX speakers was from. The project in North Wales is called Engedi Arts and they are involved in an mixed media exhibition during December, which appears to be multi-venued in Leeds and Islington as well as Colwyn Bay and is called ADVENTurous.
Other examples of where there is a specific type of spirituality growing out of engagement with the arts include Holy Biscuit in Newcastle and in Sheffield with pioneer minister Ric Stott who explained in this short video put on the Venture FX blog in April how he got involved in pioneer mission.
The relationship between the arts and the church is not new. Over the centuries artists have engaged with religious themes and religious institutions have worked with artists of all sorts. Art in various forms is woven into religion, (however hard some Puritans and their descendents have tried to make it otherwise). This is because for many art does provide a special and specific way of engaging with Christ and with spirituality.
Some such as Ann Morisy in her book Journeying Out have talked about the way “high symbols” have been lost and “[i]n contrast, the current dominant expressive mode, that of low, earthbound symbols, indicates the predominance of a very different world view: our day-to-day expriences are a series of sensations that belong to us and they are part of a world that can be taken for granted.” She goes on within the same paragraph of page 145 after negatively talking about Tracy Emin’s bed and earthbound poetry and gangsta rap to say, “[t]he result is that the sacred or the holy evaporates from our consciousness. This means that it is not just our awareness of God that gets snuffed out, so too do our routes to God.”
When I originally read this passage and the argument Morisy gives I was horrified. For me the Tate Modern is probably the place where I can most get in touch with God. This is partly the space but often because I am able to see beauty and creativity within the most ordinary things, like unmade beds with the degridation and reality of human life around them. However, I now acknowledge part of what she is saying because the obvious God element is often missing from the narratives we see and hear within contemporary “low culture” although religiously imagry is still often creatively and wonderfully used in works such as Banksy’s 2003 Bermondsey Street “pissed angel”. The thing with art of all forms is it can be read in different ways and it will depend upon the background and attitudes of the viewer/ listener how they interpret it. Personally I think this process of interpretation and reading is a very special one which gives room for the Holy Spirit to come and work in a mysterious and wonderful way.
I think what many of the FX style arts projects are doing, together with specific artists who are working with modern art and street art in its various forms, is finding a new expression for what Morisy is talking about ‘high symbols’ doing within the ‘low art’ forms she slates. They are also finding ways to engage with those who find their cultural and artistic tastes excluded within mainstream church culture.
Going back to the poster the irony is that the church is also meant to be something which reaches out to every class and that is one of the wonders about the gospel and what it teaches us. It should have that equally dangerous reputation, because that mixing with all classes is a key part of what got Jesus crucified. If our modern faith and expression of it doesn’t have that same danger attached to it we need to think about why.
I would finish then by arguing artists and artistic fresh expressions/ pioneer ministers have a powerful role in teaching us, if we are ready to listen.
*PS – have just worked out looking at the site that the Engedi Arts site again that the ADVENTurous event next Saturday and at which Ann Morisy is one of the speakers, which I’d in my head just linked with Greenbelt, is part of this.