The church and the contemporary visual art world

Damien Hirst - Cock and Bull, 2012

A few months ago I emailed some of the smartest visual artists I know and asked them the question: How do you define contemporary art? Their answers and the exchanges which ensued were extraordinarily spirited, wide-ranging and far from unanimous. They were very insightful, though, as well as practically helpful to me as I have taken on the role of program director for CIVA's 2015 biennial conference. Of course, if a similar question were addressed to pastors, theologians, ministry and organizational leaders, namely "How do you define the church?", I imagine I would receive equally spirited and disparate answers.

Therein, I suppose, lies both the challenge and the opportunity of this unique conference: "Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church," which takes place on June 11-14 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at Calvin College. To register, please go here. Here are a few things I'm particularly excited about.

The three plenary talks:

1. Wayne Roosa: Friday morning, June 12: "A Conversation Between Contemporary Art and the Church"

2. Ben Quash: Friday evening, June 12: "A Conversation Between Contemporary Art and Trinitarian Theology"

3. Katie Kresser: Saturday morning, June 13: "Conversation Between Contemporary Art and Corporate Worship"

Marina Abramović - The Artist is Present, 2010

The three panels:

1. A "First Generation" panel: including Calvin Seerveld, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Sandra Bowden, Ted Prescott, and Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker.

2. A "Contemporary Artists in the Public Square" panel: TBA.

3. A "Contemporary Artists in the Church" panel: TBA.

TAKASHI MURAKAMI - Self-Portrait of the Manifold Worries of a Manifoldly Distressed Artist, 2012

A "Theology and Visual Arts" track (for details click here):

1. Critical Responses: Reviews and critiques of conference plenary speaker Ben Quash’s recent volume Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit (Bloomsbury, 2013).

2. Theology for the Visual Arts: Constructive proposals from the various theological disciplines aimed at opening up new vistas of creativity and exploration in the visual arts.

3. Theology from the Visual Arts: Generative reflections on the theological meaning or value of particular bodies of art, art movements, and/or art experiences.

Jeff Koons - Acrobat, 2003

The day-ahead events and the various exhibits which will take place during the time of the course of conference.

The devotionals and worship service which will be led by Luci Shaw.

All the amazingly interesting folks who will come to this gathering and, well, so much more. Please do join us if you can.

Below is a basic write-up for the conference.

Gerhard Richter - Abstraktes Bild, 2001

Wayne Roosa - Ideas of Order: I

Conference Theme
It is an understatement to say that the church and the contemporary art world find themselves in an uneasy relationship. On one hand, the leaders of local congregations, seminaries, and other Christian networks don’t know what to make of works by artists like Banksy and Chris Ofili, or Marina Abramovich and Barbara Kruger. Not only are these kinds of artist mostly unknown to church leaders, they and their work cause them to regard the world of contemporary art with quizzical indifference, frustration, and even disdain. On the other, many artists lack any meaningful experience with the contemporary church and are mostly ignorant of her mission. Not infrequently, these artists regard religion as irrelevant to their art practice, are disinclined to trust the church and its leaders, and have experienced personal rejection from these communities. Clearly, misunderstanding and mistrust abound.
CIVA’s 2015 Biennial Conference at Calvin College will host a conversation between these two worlds. During our four days together, we will explore the misperceptions that we have about each other, create hospitable space to talk and listen, and imagine the possibility of a renewed and mutually fruitful relationship. With these lofty goals before us, this conference will provide a range of case studies that exemplify the kinds of programs, partnership, and patronage that might serve the greater good. Meanwhile, where the difference between these two worlds is too great to overcome, this conference seeks to build a bridge that facilitates understanding and mutual respect. In other words, we seek to find common ground for the common good since we — Christians at work in the visual arts — believe this is what God, in Christ, would have us to do.
Contemporary Art
The world of contemporary art is alternately drawn in by and resistant to the considerable influence of the artworld. Works of art that are regarded as “contemporary” often find as their focus narratives that feature marginal voices, transgressive activities, and under-represented communities. In some instances, these creative acts seek to alert viewers or participants to certain perceived injustices. On other occasions the focus of these efforts is to reveal contradictory, banal, and even exotic-seeming conditions. Suffice it to say, in the contemporary art scene, what counts as serious artistic practice and the subsequent purpose of this practice remains highly fluid. In this regard, there is considerable interest in exploring social practice. Nonetheless, a strong interest in making material objects remains though, like its modernist precursor, the resulting practices and processes that these makers call on generally exist in reaction to the Western art canon.
The Church
In its broadest sense, we understand the Church to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, that church which stretches across time and space, and with whom we share communion in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit. More concretely, we mean local congregations who regularly engage in acts of worship, discipleship, community, mission and service. The church in this sense occupies a specific place in neighborhoods, cities and rural areas, endowed with specific capacities and opportunities to manifest the kingdom of God to a particular people, that is, our actual neighbors. In an equally significant sense, by “church” we mean the community of Christians who are engaged in all sectors of the marketplace: professional societies and arts centers; educational institutions and business ventures; para-church organizations and denominational headquarters; museums and galleries; the home and the government, and so on. Wherever a Christian may find him or herself, there we discover a member of Christ’s church. With these three senses, our hope is to capture both the specificity and breadth of the Body of Christ, taking advantage hereby of the kind of language we discover in Scripture. In all senses, moreover, the visual arts play an important role. This is true whether individual churches or Christians are fully aware of that role and of the good work which the visual arts play in the world which God so loves.

Richard Serra - Inside Out, 2013


Alex Humphrey said…
I appreciate how often you post about these varying conferences (in addition to your own yearly conference). While I am still not at a place where I can easily attend many, I am grateful to have a resource I can count on to point me toward a world I am otherwise ignorant of.
Thanks, Alex. Very kind of you.

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