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Beyond words, not beyond the pale

31 May 2019

Contemporary art is starting to take a serious look at spiritual matters, says Ted Harrison


Visitors view artworks by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, a winner of the Turner Prize, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., last year

Visitors view artworks by the British artist Rachel Whiteread, a winner of the Turner Prize, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., last y...

TEN years ago, when I studied for an MA in Fine Art, I was struck by the militantly secular nature of contemporary art theory. It was rooted in post-Marxist sociology, and the recommended reading list focused on a narrow choice of late-20th-century European philosophers.

One art student I spoke to from another college said that she had been told that if, at the end of the course, she was still a Christian, she would not have understood contemporary art.

Interestingly, two fellow students on my course were active in their church — or so I discovered later — but they gave not a hint of that fact when working on their art projects. It was as if they had entirely departmentalised their lives.

In 2004, the American art historian Professor James Elkins noted what he called “the strange fact” that there was almost no modern religious art in any contemporary art museums: “It is a state of affairs that is at once obvious and odd, known to everyone and yet hardly whispered about.” He blamed this on “the prejudices of a coterie of academic writers.”

With nothing to lose, and in a deliberate act of challenge, I submitted a religious work for my final MA show. The work explored the challenging question why God allows pain and suffering in his created world. I executed the work through Lent, and borrowed a medieval church as a temporary studio. The very act of creating the work became part of the work in a manner much favoured by contemporary artists.

While the course tutors challenged other students’ ideas, and often overlooked technical shortcomings, in my case little attempt was made to discuss the underlying purpose of the work, or the spiritual journey of making it. Criticism was focused on technicalities.


HAD I been starting the course today, I think that I would have found things rather different. The contemporary art world is starting to take a serious look at the spiritual nature of art, and how art cannot be understood simply in material or social terms.

Until recently, when religion crept into contemporary art, it was mostly when an artist was borrowing imagery from, or satirising, religious practice. Religious art that had as its purpose an exploration of religious questions was kept firmly in its place as a separate genre. Making art as a spiritual practice, a form of prayer, was not acknowledged.

In February, the Royal Academy hosted a discussion chaired by the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon which explored how the public might use contemporary art as a means to express and reflect on religion and spirituality. “The preoccupation with fundamental questions of life are often central to an artist, their work and their audiences,” the advance notice said. “Our panel questions whether an audience can achieve an emotional or spiritual connection through art? Are they more likely to visit a museum than a place of worship? In contrast, what is intended when contemporary art is shown in a place of worship?”

I perceive a shifting of attitudes. Who knows, one day soon the Turner Prize shortlist might consist of four religious works.


ON THE reverse of the same coin, this change is not so evident. While churches and cathedrals are commissioning some radical and challenging works from living artists, the adoption of contemporary art as a fresh expression of the Christian faith is little tried. Few in the Church have thought through how such art might provide radical new opportunities for connecting with the wider world, and few contemporary artists have the courage or theology to think beyond simply creating modern versions of the traditional subjects of Christian art.

Predominantly fresh expressions, messy churches, café worship, and all the other experimental forms being tried at local level exist to convey the gospel message verbally and within a church context with mission at the heart. It can be argued, too, that there is a strong correlation between fresh expression and theological conservatism. Out go the old liturgical trappings of worship, but, when it comes to verbal interpretations of scripture, there is little that is different on offer. Churches with a Charismatic, experiential form of worship invariably provide a mission statement that identifies them as Bible-based.

While these fresh expressions of the old ideas might use art by way of illustration or decoration, there appears to be no engagement with, or understanding of, what contemporary artists and can offer.

My own study of contemporary art was, itself, a reaction to word-based, credal Christianity. I wanted to use the freedom of media offered by modern-art movements to go beyond words, which was one of the reasons for my dissatisfaction with the wordy secular philosophies of art which I was offered. Art can be about transcendence. It is a gateway to the numinous. It can be an approach to an ineffable God who is beyond any humanly constructed creed or language.

In the world of contemporary art, there is a dawning realisation that art is not a branch of sociology — indeed, it is far closer to being a branch of theology. And, for Christians of the future, it may be art, not doctrine or scriptural study, that best provides experiences of God and revelation of divine purpose.

Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.

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