Tag Archives: St. John the Divine

Artists and Church

The aim of art is to reveal, inspire and question.  It is a tragedy that many do not know or can not accept that belief shares these aims.
Rev. Jennie Hogan

In her article, Faith should harness art’s appeal, Rev. Jennie Hogan challenges the mainstream faith communities to consider the inclusion of contemporary art amidst their sacred art by asking the question, Is art replacing religion? “I think people are going to art galleries without realizing it may be fulfilling a spiritual need,” says Hogan.

“At the Chelsea College of Art & Design, where I work as chaplain, God is dead.” Hogan writes. Art students are historically forward thinkers; they have no reason or wish to look back unless their work encompasses the “universal themes of death, grief, suffering or delight.” To combat some of that spiritual irrelevance, Hogan, a young, stylish woman, hosts a weekly tea on campus inviting any and all to join her.  Because visually she is the antithesis of religious leaders, Hogan bemoans the reality that many of the students who come by to sip from her porcelain cups, think her clerical collar and religious garb is just Performance Art. Still, she delights in their responses when she can inspire them to look beyond the old, dusty dogma and reconsider God in their lives.

Museums are now vast exciting places that can bring the same kind of reverence shown great cathedrals. Hogan highlights the Tate Modern in London in her article, but the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Inhotim in Brazil, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art all instil the kind spiritual awe great churches once did. “The Reformation damaged the natural connection between art and faith but some places are making serious attempts to heal it,” writes Hogan. She notes that St. Paul’s Cathedral in London commissioned work from prominent contemporary artists and  I recently discovered that Phillippe Petit, the man who walked on a high wire between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974, has been the artist-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine since 1982. His Twin Tower walk was the focus of the feature documentary Man on Wire and since taking up his residency at the Cathedral he has performed there numerous times. “It is my spiritual home,” he says in a New York Times article. “My heart is in this building. My inspiration comes from the beautiful architecture and these stones, which are actually talking to me.”

This year in San Francisco, actress and playwright, Anna Deavere Smith was made the first artist-in-residence at one of my favourite places Grace Cathedral. She worked on and performed a play in February exploring meanings of grace and regularly delivers the Sunday homily. “I hope I can be useful with Grace Cathedral, make it a place where an artist can get a commission and get paid for work.”

If the great religious leaders are slow to incorporate art into their programs, others are not content to wait for change. Writer Kristen Scharold introduces readers to The Line in Chicago. Founded in 2009 by Aaron Youngren, an artist, musician and devout Christian, who had a great desire to “plant a church in an urban hub,” The Line fulfills Youngren’s dream of having a church that was inclusive and that would cease to marginalize community members (particularly artists) who didn’t fit in. “We never say ‘something is missing in my Christianity because your voice isn’t there,” says Youngren. He was not a rich man and was happy to begin the church in his apartment while he waited for his dream to play out. Youngren sought out an artist who could float between the sacred and secular on multi-planes and was a little shocked when Jon Guerra arrived at only the second gathering. Inspired by Guerra’s work and Christian faith, Youngren arranged for The Line to support Guerra with a regular pay cheque and in return, Guerra would continue to make art and be part of worship at the church. Sharold writes, “The church should foster imaginations, but they must be wise imaginations. At The Line, artistic excellence is always paired with spiritual maturity. Becoming more Christ-like, not just better artists, is its main priority.”

I love churches, the stained glass, the serenity. I love ritual and sacredness. But churches today face many challenges, not only from museums but from reality TV shows and internet and life. So entering into a benign competition with art galleries and museums could actually be a good thing. It is a place to start to make change in a constructive and sacred manner.  Churches could align themselves with artists to help inspire critical thinking and change. So how can artists work with churches to inspire faith communities to stretch? How can artists influence weekly service in their own communities? And in the absence of supportive, religious space for artists, how can we break free from our isolation and create spiritual experiences with others?

Harmanci, R. (2012) Mixing Art and Religion for a Loving Reunion. The New York Times online.
Hogan, J. (2010) Faith should harness art’s appeal. The Guardian online
Kilgannon, C. (2009) Same Man, New Wire and a Secret Midtown Venue. The New York Times online.
Scharold, K. (2010) Artists Build the Church. The Gospel Coalition Blog online.
CBC .ca Tapestry online. Art and Soul (2011, July 17) Mary Hynes talks to Rev. Jennie Hogan. http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2011/07/17/art-and-soul-1/

Further reading: de Botton, A. (2011) Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Pantheon Books.