Guest Post: Conversations and Questions About Art at Church
The following is a guest post by Esther Candari. You can see more of her work here.
Late Monday night I opened one of many recent “official update” emails from church headquarters. Most of the time these emails cover administrative details, that while important and often interesting, don’t have a strong emotional impact on me. This one though piqued my interest from the start. The emotional rollercoaster started at a high point as I read through the text detailing the increased emphasis on making the foyers of chapels a beautiful and Christ-centered space. As an art and design professional, I can’t tell you how much time I spend at church trying not to grimmace at poorly placed, poorly selected, and poorly maintained artwork and decor. While the average non-design focused individual may not be as in-tune to these details or perturbed by them as I am, research shows that aesthetic experience and spiritual experience are intrinsically linked. I continued scrolling through the letter reading through the section about a curated list of artworks approved for foyer use. I sighed a little at this portion, but I know that it is standard practice within the church and it makes sense from both a visual branding perspective and a doctrinal perspective to curate the art that is presented. What I was not prepared for was the way my stomach sank as I continued on to the next page filled with thumbnails of the artwork on this list.
Maybe it was the fact that I have spent the last year of my life writing a master’s thesis how to use artwork in Judeo-Christian religious education to create more constructive and empathetic conversations on difficult but biblically imperative topics. Maybe it was the fact that I had just finished my last paper for my graduate degree, in which I had written about the use of militarized saints in Chartres cathedral as pro-crusade and anti-muslim/Semite propaganda; a subtle visualization of sacramentalized brutality. What ever the reasons were, the artwork displayed before me did not resonate with the deep and personal love I have for my Savior or, for the most part, with my classically trained oil painting artistic roots, most of all it did not resonate with the rich multicultural fabric that I have experienced in congregations across three continents and three times as many countries. It screamed homogeny, whiteness, and slightly-better-than-average-art. What made it worse was that the clearest, and one of only a very small handful, ethnic minority figures was a small African child, cradled in the arms of a clearly caucasian Christ. Now before anyone’s “you are an anti-white racist” prickles come out I want to clarify, I personally do not believe that depicting Christ as white is wrong, what I do believe is wrong, and so subtly powerful, is depicting him, and anyone in a position of power in conjunction with him, as PRIMARILY or ONLY caucasian. If we as a multinational and multi-ethnic church, are ok with portraying Christ and his inner circle in a historically inaccurate light, then let that light be equal opportunity. And trust me when I say, that one black baby in a strikingly colonial toned painting in a church foyer, is not going to be any help in my conversations with my southern and deeply religious African-American coworkers who in all sincerity ask me “why my church hates black folk.”
Now as someone who has experienced a wide array of misunderstanding in my life, I strive to not do the same to others, and that in this scenario includes the committees, administrators, and clerical leaders responsible for curating this list. Bias can be both complicit and implicit and I also understand that due to a wide range of factors, some of them more honorable than others, there is not a diverse array of religious artwork available for these individuals to choose from. Especially when stylistic branding is taken into consideration. I am not going to point fingers, call names, or lay irretractable blame. My faith teaches me that judgments are reserved for God. But what I can, and believe I am called to do, is ask questions. And these are the questions that I am asking.
1) What does the diversity of these decision making panels look like? Are there checks and balances in place to mitigate the racial biases in our church for which there are undeniable historical evidence?
2) Statistically speaking, over half of the church’s membership is female and close to half are not caucasian, but all of the artists behind these paintings (some of who I know personally and respect greatly) are caucasian, and only two of the 18 paintings are by women. While I don’t believe these facts are 100% causational of the caucasian bent and token representation that is visualized in these paintings, I think we are blind if we don’t admit they are correlational. I am a female artist of color who can hold a candle stylistically and quality-wise to more than a few of the paintings on this list. What can I be doing to make sure that voices like mine are visually at this table?
3) I understand that beaucracy works slow and the church is not a democracy, but why aren’t there more opportunities, such as the one created for the upcoming hymn book release, for the members of this church to contribute to the official collective visual language of the church?
4) The Teacher after whom we pattern our lives taught through the richness of symbols. Are we stopping to ask ourselves what we are conciously or subconciously teaching people with the symbols we create of Him?
These are my questions.