What am I doing and why am I doing it?
This question has been lurking in the back of my mind for some time now as I push forward to finish parts of my thesis. It has taken too long for anyone to be interested in it anymore, and I just want to be done. But more significantly—at least to me—it has taken me through some very convoluted passageways in my memory and imagination. At first, I wanted to prove myself and show others that I had a deep and intellectually rich perspective on the arts. Then, after a few years of grad school at Yale, I wanted to revolutionize the trajectories of how churches develop their liturgies, and in turn, their theologies. Religious art that engages our most fundamental and profound understandings of our experiences has always been my thing. From the earliest conferences of Christians in the Visual Arts, to the Image Journal and its conferences in NYC and Philly, to my meagre attempt to challenge the relatively low status afforded to visual artists even within an institution devoted to Christian arts and worship—all these layers of experience have put me in a position to reflect on the modern church and its potential as a visually creative and expressive being.
Meanwhile, I’ve spent the past 7 years in Byzantium busting my chops using all the languages, critical reasoning, and argumentative power I can muster to make this the best possible dissertation I can, or at least a finished dissertation. Sometimes it is hard not to see this time as an excursion into an historical fantasy where more people were earnest about their religious convictions and when art was made to be permanent, intense, and revelatory. I’ve tried to learn the old ways of doing things with traditional formal analysis and iconographical interpretation, just as I’ve tried applying newer theoretical frameworks to a somewhat lesser degree of success as I try to discern how audience, materiality, and non-iconographical visual material operate in this work.
My assumption is that more modern religious art is made for a different audience, meant to be engaged for a time, but not for a lifetime. Another assumption is that better methods of engaging art are found within the discipline of art history. I was annoyed with the shallow ways theologians and even liturgists talked about artworks when I was in Divinity School, troubled by that we weren’t learning enough about the object in order to make any significant claims about the object or image. The same holds true when art historians dabble in theological interpretation by trying to argue that an artwork is somehow involved in a theological debate. I remember trying to negotiate with a prof to adapt the assignment and to use early medieval images instead of early medieval theological texts as sources for the project. He was open to it but utterly unable to engage my quest.
It is going to take a long time for our interpretive schools to attend to both texts and images. And an even longer time—if ever—for our churches and congregations to regard images as authoritative.
In the wake of the Church of England’s disappointing decision against the consecration of women bishops, I’ve been reflecting on how cultures change and why. I’ve been wondering what would happen if these churches were in a position to commission new windows and doors, or memorials and chapels, or illuminated prayer-books and Bibles, or some other genre of religious art. I wonder if the process of designing these things would change the way the patrons saw themselves and their place in society?
Much of the steam against the consecration of women bishops is about the degree to which the church as an institution must be distinct from its broader society, and so one would assume that such an institution would have a keen self-awareness and intentionality about its distinctiveness. No, I would not describe Anglicans in this way and yes I would advise a conferences with Anabaptists on this issue stat!
My thesis is that by ceasing to make art, church groups have (unintentionally) fossilized their traditions and cultural identities in an old-fashioned mould. We would be more open to women bishops (and perhaps one or two other radically modern notions) if we were a more creative church willing to engage with with the living culture around us.