Book Reviews

The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community by Robin M. Jensen

Where Has All the Art Gone?
Yes, Yes, YES! Kept popping in my head as I read the words of Robin Jensen in her book The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community. From the first chapter I found myself drawn in as she talked about the place of art in the church – or rather it’s absence altogether. Where has all the art gone? What happened to chapels with painted ceilings? When did beauty and design become frivolous and unnecessary in the church?

As a graphic artist I’ve often felt “hushed” by the church, silenced like a small child that should know when to keep quiet. “Excuse me!” I would say eagerly. If I were in a classroom my hand would be raised and I’d be stretching my fingers wildly and rocking about to get attention, but this isn’t a classroom, just a drab conference room that once again is stripped bare of any personality or design. “What if we added a bit of color to this wall?” I would ask sincerely, my imaginative mind rife and overflowing with possibilities. My question would be met with blank stares and incredulity. “Who is the new kid?” their expressions would say. Then audibly they would respond, “Well, that’s a nice idea (read: bless your heart), but that’s not in the budget.” I quickly learned that the old Japanese Proverb, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, was indeed quite true. Thwack! I felt the hammer often as my ideas were slammed down. It hurt. It stung on the inside as much, if not more, than a literal pounding on the outside.

At the church where I worked my creative skills were seen as a “nice-to-have” but definitely not a “must-have”. What I thought was just as necessary as a bathroom and chairs; the church thought was superfluous and at times laughable. However, in my experience, budgetary constraints were not the only limitations to church beautification. Even if the artwork could be done for free it was still not valued. Sure it may have looked nice, but did it really function any better? The feeling that I felt most often was dismissed. “Please go away with your creative ideas, we have more important projects to attend to.” While my experiences at this church might have been unique, from what I gathered from Jensen’s book, they were and still are quite common.

Art is Critical, Not an Afterthought
To the artist, art is the foundational element, not an afterthought. It is step one in the planning process, a crucial cornerstone. Art is the heart and soul, the core, not the icing on the cake.

What Jensen seemed to highlight in her book is that Instead of leading with beauty and art, the church has led with form and function. Sterility is a virtue. Boring is synonymous with spiritual. Being forced to worship in a room that is as barren as a cave or a monastery is the only way to truly communicate with God, as if art and beauty are distractions, not something that could incite passion, love, desire or faith. Besides, beauty is not to be elevated or worshipped. No, that is idolatry. Art should know it’s place and it is not in the church, especially not in the sanctuary.

So what has the treatment of art by the church communicated to the artist? That their skills are of limited worth and value – which communicates that they are of limited value. Each artist considers their work part of who they are, a reflection of themselves just as creation is a reflection of God. To not see our art is to not see us.

Art and the church often don’t mesh well because art is controversial. Art elicits a response. It asks a question. It stirs emotion. It causes riots. It causes splits. The church doesn’t have time for that.

Christianity and the arts used to have a great marriage. It was a love affair, a partnership that allowed artists to make a living by doing what God created them to do. But for the most part art and church have been divorced and there seems to be no simple path to reconciliation. Why did church and art become two things that couldn’t coexist in wonderful harmony where each elevated each other? The reasons are many but the most simple are money and then tension that exists between the church and the artist. Art is a form of self-expression; it can be beautiful, abstract, ugly, and awe-inspiring. It is often hated and misinterpreted, but it cannot be ignored. True art speaks. It cannot be silenced. Since the creation of time art has been speaking. “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” (Rom 1:20 NLT)

It is through art that the world was created. It is through visual imagery that ideas are reinforced and it may be for this very reason that art has been removed from the church. Art causes us to feel and feelings are complex. Instead of living in a world of logic and fact, art lives in a world of fantasy and “What if?” This can be frightening.
Art and Entertainment
In very recent times there does seem to be a shift toward an entertainment model of church. Big screens and flashy media along with graphic backgrounds and other “art” are often used in large churches. However, even these uses of graphic design are often met with criticism. “Couldn’t that money be spent on missions?” “Shouldn’t we spend that money on the poor?” Where does the church draw the line between sensational production and misappropriation of resources? As a church should we be trying to compete with a rock concert or multimedia conference? The questions are endless and there seems that there needs to be some balance between marketing, creativity and the purpose behind our “art.” As a graphic artist I know that sometimes resources are very limited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative and find other ways of implementing art without spending a lot of money.

Offensive Art
In chapter six of Jensen’s book she mentions some artists whose art can be extremely offensive to some people. An excerpt from the book, which is talking about an art exhibit called Sensation, reads:

One object in the exhibit got special attention in the press, becoming notorious as the “Virgin Mary with Elephant Dung” painting (otherwise known as The Holy Virgin Mary) by African artist Chris Ofili. During the time of the show’s run, the media gave so much attention to discussion of the exhibit in general and this painting in particular that the show became a kind of blockbuster, a result primarily of its deliberate intent to be shocking and even offensive (hence its name).

When we hear about art that is shocking or offensive we have to run it through our own personal and cultural filter. What might induce apoplexy in America may be mundane in Milan. Artists whose work features religious items mixed with feces, blood, or urine, like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, are sure to elicit a response – most likely anger, from anyone who has been raised in a religious household or who loves Christ. However, because art is a form of self-expression it is hard to define what exactly is “true” art and what is just an attempt to infuriate a religious group or organization merely as a publicity stunt. So where does that leave churches and religious organizations that want to incorporate art into their buildings and sanctuaries? It seems that the best approach to this is to create a guide for artists to follow as well as educating their congregation and church members about the purpose of the art in the church. As an artist my clients request specific artwork and while I get to input my own creative stamp on it, I understand that if they ask for a picture of Jesus I better not paint him to look like Satan. When it comes to artwork that is done on commission then there is a balance, a push and pull that happen between the client and the artist. For me, it is in that struggle that some of my most creative work happens. I believe the same is true for the church. There will be conflict, there will be times when we disagree, but we must fight, and fight fair, in order to progress, otherwise we stagnate.

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