In Praise of Excellent and "not-so" Excellent Liturgical Dance

Once again I have found that the good folks over at Transpositions have afforded an occasion for me to clarify my thoughts. In this case the clarification relates to a comment I make in my own chapter. I respond first to Jenn's question and then to a question that installation artist Dayton Castleman poses in the comments section.

Jenn writes:

"As a second point, Taylor suggests that artistic excellence is “contextually relative”, that is, it is “relative to the context in which it is done and why it is done.” I find this specific point more confusing in relation to one of the dangers Taylor addressed earlier—the making of bad art. If artistic excellence is relative to context, then how can we determine what is good and bad art? Are context and taste posed against each other here? My initial thought is that they needn’t be diametrically opposed, but I’m left wondering how we might determine good or bad art when it is so dependent on context."

Jenn, let me offer two responses to your entry. One, with my chapter I could either take the helicopter ride and try to cover as much landscape as possible or I could pick a few dangers and mine them deeply. It was a choice between general investigation and specific investigation. I chose the former. I felt that in the long run it would be more useful to readers if they got a sense of the whole. The weakness is that they would be left with little concrete help. I made my peace with that possibility, even if it meant a negative reception of the chapter. In the long run other books will be written to address particular issues. Some good ones have already have been written. In the end, the overall project of my book remained singular: to help pastors and artists to see the big picture.

Two, with regard to your question under the "contextually relative" section, I'll say this. If I remember correctly, the example I gave around the issue not of artistic excellence but of aesthetic excellence was of kids dancing during the corporate worship. My contention is this: I do not believe that the only criterion that matters in the context of corporate worship is that of aesthetic excellence. To believe that is to want the church to behave and to be something that it is not.

The church is not a gallery. It is not a performance hall nor is it established to enter into competition with fine or popular art. The church is the corpus Christi, the domus Dei birthed at Pentecost. The church is the redemptive society, of saints and sinners but mostly sinners, through which the Triune God seeks to bring about the healing of the world. As such we must let it remain a beloved gathering of the broken, of pilgrims on the way. I believe, additionally, that there are ways that we can instantiate this truth rather than simply allude to it or worse, behave in ways that contradict the church's calling. I believe also that this is easier said than done. To live this way requires a great deal of wisdom and humility.

My point is this, and it is a dual point which I'll try to state as carefully as possible:

First, the church must be a place where things that are not always aesthetically excellent
are given admission into its life. This might seem like a provocative point. I don't intend it to be. In my chapter I argue that other excellencies must be acknowledged as equally good for the well-being of the church. The reason why, on occasion at least, children might be given a chance to dance before God in the presence of the congregation is that children--especially those who haven't been trained at junior Julliard academies--have something important to contribute to the church. It can be any number of things that they contribute.

For example, it may be a way for a church to say that children have a role to play in the discipleship of this church and that this is a good way for us to embody that truth. It may involve a declaration that "little ones" are welcome too. It may suggest that the "least of these" belong in the midst of the assembly. It may be a way for a church to declare that rough edges and wobbly performances have a place within the larger scheme of its ecclesial life. This isn't necessarily to make rough edges and wobbly performances a normative aspect. "Rough and wobbly" cannot be what the church aspires to in its artistic life; but neither should it be proscribed altogether.

It might simply be a way for a church to define itself in deed and not only in word. Other churches may not want to define themselves in this way. That's fine. But to offer a colloquial summary of my basic point, there are two kinds of churches: those that get embarrassed when something does not go according to (a seamlessly smooth) plan and those churches who laugh it off as just another day as the body of Christ.

Let me make explicit what I am not advocating. I am not advocating slovenly, thoughtless worship. I am not advocating an antinomian view of church life. I do not believe that any art will do or that all that matters artistically is the sincerity of your heart. I believe in spending 20-25 hours a week preparing for a sermon (which I did). I believe in rehearsals (lots). I believe you can only get two out of three: good, cheap and fast. I believe in training and education. I believe in the wisdom of experience. And I believe that the Spirit both works through and works beyond our preparation.

I am, in short, advocating a broad concept for the idea of excellence. I am also challenging perfectionistic attitudes and mentalities.

Second, if I allowed the kids to dance one Sunday morning, for whatever reason, that does not mean that I have shut off my aesthetic excellence brain. As a pastor I have hopefully educated the congregation well enough that they will know the difference between the kids' dance and the dance that professional modern dancers perform in the service of the liturgy--whether in complement to Scripture-reading or to the preaching or to the Lord's Supper or any other aspect. If the congregation has been educated properly, they will not confuse the two artistic performances. They will understand that one is rough and wobbly and that the other is quite possibly sublime.

They will hopefully understand this in the same way that I put
up on the walls of my house art by my nieces and nephews as well as art by professional painters, photographers, calligraphers, etc. I will not be confused by the artistic merit of the two kinds of art. I will simply understand that they perform two distinct functions in the context of our home. I am proud of both. Both enlarge my life. Both inspire me to become more than I am yet today. And that, hopefully, is what might also happen in the context of a church's life that allows the kids (on occasion) and the professional dancers (as the occasion allows) to serve the congregation through the language of dance.

I confidently believe that the church is better off when both kinds of dance happen. (See, for example, here and here.) I also believe we could learn a thing or two from the 4th-century Egeria's experience of "processional dance" through the streets of Jerusalem (see here also) as well as from the ridiculous, dancerly joy that Hasidic Jews experience around the feast of Simchat Torah.

Laslty, Dayton Castleman responded to this statement of mine: "I do not believe that the only criterion that matters in the context of corporate worship is that of aesthetic excellence." He writes:

"I agree, but this raises a question for me that I have batted around for a long time: Are non-music art forms evaluated with a different aesthetic standard in the church than musicians are? Are dancers and visual artists and poets held to more relaxed standards than singers and guitar players and piano players?"

Without access to quantitative data we can only go on anecdotal evidence. Have I witnessed this pattern of behavior? Yes. Do I think it's widespread? Very likely. Is it discouraging to non-musical artists and detrimental to the well-being of the church? I believe yes. Does it result often in cheesy art that reflects a lack of respect for the craft? Bingo. Do Protestants display this behavior in disproportionate measure because of their theological history? Most certainly.

To reinforce my point above, my argument is a principled one. In principle the church is better off when the general thrust of its aesthetic and artistic life is marked by beauty, excellent craftsmanship, thoughtful concern for context and a care-filled love of God and neighbor. But as always there will be exceptions. As always, to my mind, there should be a place in the assembly of God's people for the children to dance. Am I envious of the Shakers? Yep.

[Artwork near Dayton's question: Dayton Castleman, "Paper Shredder," 2007]


Unknown said…

Thanks for your thoughtful post/response. I'm glad to be on the same team as you.

In relation to Dayton's many churches do you know who have dancers, poets and/or visual artists on staff? I can think of very few. It is not like I am trying to put myself or other musicians out of a job, but until we can find ways to bring more artists from different artistic disciplines onto our church staffs there will Always be an aesthetic imbalance. Yes, I am pointing more to the effect here than I am the cause, but hopefully the point comes through.
Brian, I have always admired both the way you think about and the way you model the life of a good worship leader. I think any artist would feel well-cared for under your leadership. I say hoorah for all your hard work over the years.

With regard to your comment, I honestly don't think other kinds of artists will ever be hired as principal staff of a church. Of course you have your usual exceptions. St. John the Divine in New York City and other large churches with cathedral-like resources will have opportunity if they so wish. Sojourners down in Louisville, KY, hires Michael Winters to run their visual arts ministry, but he, I think, would not be regarded as senior staff. This is in contrast to the majority of churches, traditional and non-traditional, who will usually make musicians a priority--for any number of reasons.

At the moment, the best that we might hope for, I'm guessing, is the following:

a) a worship leader who values these other kinds of artists enough to include them in his or her decisions about the shape of worship in their church.

b) a church that is willing to invest in an internship or residency program that allows non-musician artists to participate in the life of the church for a season.

c) a church that is willing to build a large enough arts ministry that could support a strong presence by non-musician artists.

d) a church that partners with other churches or para-churches to invest in non-musician artists.

e) a church that is willing to hire part-time or full-time non-musician artists as official members of a church staff. Often we'll see this with drama ministries. Multi-media persons will be hired at certain kinds of churches. Maybe dance? I'm afraid visual artists get the short end of the stick more often than not, especially if they are contemporary artists.

That's my two pennies on the issue. I'm sure others will have seen different arrangements that churches take on with non-musician artists. I'd certainly love to hear them.

The point that requires more serious thought is the underlying ideas about non-musical arts that may diminish their worth in the context of church life, whether in worship, the community or mission.

It's a long row to hoe. We need to eat our Wheaties.
D.C. said…
Moss! 'Sup brotha!?

I agree that Brian could care well for artists. Did. Does.

A good visual artist or dancer--even a group of them--aren't usually going to pack the pews. A good music team? Well...

And that's one issue. So be it.

I think what it requires of other artists, then, is a little imagination. In 2004 I stumbled on a Presbyterian church in downtown Philly with a big building and a small congregation. I proposed to the session (of elders - here my Presby preacher's kid understanding of polity came in handy) that I turn the entire fourth floor (maybe 10,000 sq. ft.) into low cost artist studios for a group of believing artists for whom I had been a sort of de facto coordinator for a couple of years.

Viola, the Church Studios were born, and have now thrived longer in my absence than while I was there. This church had nothing but a big unused space--perfect. And the studios are populated by really, really good artists, who do minor maintenance, and shovel the sidewalks for an ailing congregation, in spite of the fact that almost all of them go to other churches. The work they do in the Philly art world is a constant source of encouragement and joy to me.

My point is that maybe we need to encourage artists to set the table when it comes to serving the church, not the other way around. I tend to think that there's a lot of potential out there if we are thinking creatively.

Thanks David, for carefully responding to my question.
Unknown said…
DT - Thanks again for your thorough thinking-through-ness.

You write, “I honestly don't think other kinds of artists will ever be hired as principal staff of a church.”

Isn’t this something worth pushing back on? Does not this kind of hiring/calling policy/practice exhibit an ecclesiology that values music above all other art forms? Should not the Church be seeking a multifaceted aesthetic approach that includes many different artistic expressions from many different kinds of artists?

The only reason I continue to press on this right now is because these questions lie at the core of why I left my church music directorship. It was (both then and now) a high-priced decision for me to make, but I believe that, as pastors, we need to cast a wider net in this regard.

I do not, in any way, want to suggest that we’re supposed to do away with musical worship. I do want to suggest that the exploitation of music in the North American Evangelical context has reached idolatrous proportions. I humbly suggest that we need to open ourselves (and our church staffing models) up to reform

OK. I’m done, having well overrun the scope of your original post, which, by the way, was great. Shalom. (Looking forward to Tejas next May!)

DC – Your creative enterprise is helping to lead the way. This is a great example of one way in which pastors (and sessions!) can look to artists for our next steps forward. Keep setting the table! (Looking forward to SoCal next June!)
Watkins said…
I posted this comment on Transpositions, but I wanted to post it here as well because it is in direct response to comments and questions made by David and Dayton in regards to aesthetic excellence in church:

David and Dayton, thanks for these questions and comments concerning aesthetic excellence in the Church. I'm glad that we have already made the distinction between artistic and aesthetic excellence (artistic excellence meaning that the work serves well whatever purpose it is made for or used for, and aesthetic excellence meaning that the work serves well the purpose of aesthetic contemplation). David's example of children dancing is interesting in relation to aesthetic excellent. Whether one is a parent or not it is difficult to call children dancing aesthetically poor simply because they are just so darn cute! Maybe if I really detested children (though I don't), I would be able to say that their performance was ugly, but I think that, in general, we judge a children's performance differently from an adults performance because they are children and not adults. Aesthetic excellence is, as you say David, contextually relative. So a children's dance performance is not really an example of aesthetic poverty, of the ugly. Nevertheless, as you suggest David, it seems (perhaps more for theological reasons) that there needs to be a place for the ugly with the church walls.

Nicholas Wolterstorff has an interesting discussion of this issue under the heading "Aesthetic Excellence in What Is Not Produced for Aesthetic Delight" (169-172) in Art in Action. He seems to disagree that there is NOT a place for aesthetically poor works of art in the church, and this is a result of his 'qualified instumentalist' theory of artistic value. The theory breaks down like this. For, say, a hymn to be artistically excellent it must (1) serve its purposes effectively and (2) also "prove good and satisfying to use for this purpose." #2 is where aesthetic excellence contributes to the artistic excellence of a work. Thus Wolterstorff can write: "There is no such thing as a good artifact -- a good shovel, a good wheelbarrow, a good house -- which is aesthetically poor. Or to put it more cautiously, and more accurately: If an artifact occupies a significant place in our perceptual field, then, it is a better artifact if it is an aesthetically better artifact. Perhaps the ugly concrete-block flats in lower-class housing developments serve rather effectively the housing needs of those who live in them. Yet they are not good houses -- not as good as they could be. Something is missing, something of the joy that rightfully belongs in human life, somehting of the satisfaction that aesthetically good housing would produce in those who dwell there."(170)

So, it would seem that Wolterstorff would want to hold artistry in the church to a fairly high standard of aesthetic excellence. In general, I agree with Wolterstorff's instrumentalist view on the value of art, but I would still want to reserve a place in church for the aesthtically poor, for the ugly. The reason for this is that I wonder if some of the purposes that art serves in the church requires it to be ugly in order to serve that purpose well. For example, might it not be more appropriate for a passion play in a church to contain an element of ugliness to remind us of that terrible night. This is, of course, an ugliness that is ultimately swallowed up in beauty. But perhaps that is the final aim of aesthetic excellence in the church: to remind us that the diverse ways in which our lives do not seem so excellent will one day be redeemed.

Dayton, I would love to see more intentional partnerships between churches, para-churches, professional societies and communities of artists--all for the sake of serving the well-being of one's city. That would be beautiful. That would in fact be powerful.

Brian, I don't know. Hm. I think that there is a unique function that congregational song performs that other art media have a hard time approximating. Dance actually might be one of the few media that could generate the kind of theological, spiritual, relational togetherness that music accomplishes. But hiring staff to cover other artistic disciplines? I'm not convinced that that's a long-term, full-staff necessity for churches. It could be. Again, I've heard of plenty of multi-media and drama folks being hired. Maybe so.

Do we need full-time staff under each artistic media? Or do we need one staff person, a skilled arts pastor if you will, with a ginormous budget to commission new artworks and to establish internships and residencies for artists to serve as they are able and according to developing needs of the congregation.

Hm. Thinking....

Jim, I find Wolterstorff to be repeatedly and immensely helpful. I agree with the statement you've quoted there. But I'm sympathetic to Dayton's concerns which he expresses over at the Transpositions blog. I would not state my argument in the terms you propose. Nor would I say that my argument above is an argument for aesthetic ugliness. I think the idea of ugliness is almost as complicated as the idea of beauty.

I would say that there should be a place for artworks in the church that do not represent top-shelf aesthetic excellence. Hence: my kids dancing example. The kids certainly serve an artistic purpose. They also serve a liturgical and communal purpose. But I won't call it aesthetically excellent work.

That doesn't mean that we put the kids on stage *because* they enact a cute moment in the service. I realize that happens more often than not. It's unfortunate, I find. I also think that it's a bad decision. Nor do I think we put the kids in front of the service higgledy-piggledy. Their dancing doesn't have to be crap. Or ugly. But it can be given permission to be, in your terms, aesthetically poor. At the risk of introducing another term, I might suggest that their dance is aesthetically simple, rudimentary, rough-hewn. For the record, I've seen plenty of simple, rudimentary and rough-hewn craft-work--wood work, ceramic work, etc--that is still pleasing to the eye, perhaps in its own way beautiful.

But I'll stop there. This is great. My mind has been plenty stimulated in the last week. Thanks for all your contributions. Now I need to go home and eat dinner with my lovely wife.
Marti said…
I was a member of an experiential service in Atlanta that existed within a traditional church for 2.5 years (the church split and it all sort of disintegrated).
The worship planning team would ask laity to participate in various types of visual and performing arts. Here's a listing of *some* of the things we did:
Artist (both adult and teen separately) drawing, painting throughout a sermon series, interpretively.
During different series we had children (or anyone) come to a space in the front and dance (spontaneously) during a music set. Really helped the congregation understand that kids were included, unpredictable and okay.
Laity of different ages and stages reading the passion scripture dramatically. They had practiced and it was very moving.
When a group of kids was visiting from a local boys club, one of the kids happened to have brought his cello. After the sermon, our pastor asked him to close the service (had no idea if he could play or not). It was really sweet as he played just as a 12 yr old should--some hiccups and missteps but it was beautiful that we celebrated it and weren't afraid to let there be a possible fail.
These are only a few of many ideas we carried out. There were definitely times we did things that didn't work so well. We were surprised to have people mention, however, that they liked that things weren't perfect. Hmmm
Marti, thanks for sharing what your community does. That sounds quite lively and creative. What's the name of the church?
Matt Oakes said…
How do you recommend including artists who are at the developmental stage where they need to contribute in the gathering/publicly to continue to grow. I am thinking specifically about musicians, though I'm sure it applies throughout the disciplines, who need to play in the band on sunday morning so that they can grow in serving the gathered church.
In my experience it seems important to prepare the artist, the church leadership, and the church body to make space for artists who are not always nailing it, so to speak. How would recommend preparing those parties?
Matt, great question. So much of the answer would depend on the kind of church a person were working in. I think I can guess y'alls church situation. But here are a few thoughts, some that I've tried over the years.

1. Get musicians to lead in small group settings. If they can lead well here, they can learn to lead well in larger settings.

2. Get musicians to lead in larger gatherings that take place outside of the main corporate worship assembly. That is, if your primary worship service happens on Sunday morning but there's an additional Sunday pm or midweek service or some other event, such as a church retreat, leadership meeting, etc, then let them lead there.

3. Invite the musicians to be a part of rehearsals before they play at your main worship gathering.

4. Invite the musicians to play back-up during your main worship gatherings.

5. Invite a musician to share the leadership of the main worship gathering.

6. Take a risk and invite the musician to lead the whole service.

7. Communicate to your congregation that you value including new musicians in your main worship gathering and that that may mean that the music is not always the best of the best, but that you want to help musicians grow into their calling.

8. Communicate a culture to your church that values growing people into their giftings.

9. Communicate to your artists the value of honing their craft and maturing their character.

10. Lead by example.

Matt, those are a few things that come to mind. I'd love to know how things proceed at Austin City Life. Blessings to you guys.

Jenn Craft said…
David, First, let me apologize for not responding to your comment before now. I can only blame laziness, forgetfulness, and Gmail for crowding up my inbox and making me neglect Transpositions comment-replies! :)

I can see how writing this kind of chapter would be difficult and I think you did an excellent job of giving such a wide overview (and the concrete examples you DID choose were quite helpful!)

Also, thanks so much for your extended response to my question about being “contextually relative.” That does clear things up quite a bit, and I really like what you say about broadening our concept of the idea of excellence. I hesitate to say much more about artistic versus aesthetic excellence, as Jim and Dayton have raised some incredibly interesting points in the comments on Transpositions following yours. Suffice it to say, however, that I think the point is aptly raised and the church could benefit hugely by recognizing how important context is to the making and use of artwork within its domain.
Jenn, no worries. We live in a busy world and our blogs need not consume *every* waking moment. I appreciate your comments.

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