When you think of religious art, you probably envision the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Last Supper, or some other similar artwork made in a different time, for different people, in a different place. In many cases, the artistic culture of many churches has not kept pace with modern changes in attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyles. Unfortunately, the lack of contemporary religious art in our shared consciousness tends to intimidate and dissuade artists and faith communities from embracing newer, more relevant artistic styles and subjects. Jonathan Grant, Artist-In-Residence at the American Church in Paris, aims to bridge the gaps between artists, churches, and marginalized groups by mediating discussions, aligning designs with specific theologies, and advising churches on how they can create more welcoming environments.
When asked to picture religious art, my memory flashed to this mural inside the dome of Florence Cathedral (Il Duomo di Firenze.) It is far from welcoming but, to be fair, this is an extreme example.
When he was younger, Grant recognized that he lived a relatively privileged life and decided that he wanted to use his advantage and his artistic capacity to help others. However, when he discussed creating religious art with church leaders, they often expressed they they already had art so they didn’t need anything new. He argued that maintaining their visual status quo did not communicate the beliefs they preached. The existing art was often rooted in periods of time when, perhaps, the church may have held different attitudes about groups of people who have only recently been welcomed.
This is not the only argument he must make and the clergy are not the only people he must convince. Since beginning this mission, Grant has helped numerous faith communities and artists and he has developed the skills needed to fuel innovation in Christian art. It's not easy to guide a community towards consensus on an unknown and possibly uncomfortable decision. It is clear, however, that communication and respect are essential to the process.
One of two parties typically propose an idea -- either a church leader or an artist. In either case, Grant serves as a go-between. Because church leaders are usually very busy, they need actionable, effective ideas and artists need to respond to the unique characteristics of each commission. Grant helps identify the church’s goals and requirements and then steers the artists’ proposals towards an effective design tailored to that specific church. This way, church leaders welcome art and artists more easily, congregations gain a different perspective of their interaction with faith, and the new visual identity of the church matches its openness to people and ideas.
During this process, proposals are whittled down, refined, and debated. Design decisions are judged on morality (Is it moral to use this plastic tree or this carpet color?) They establish the targeted audience (Is this appropriate for the entire congregation, Sunday school students, or possibly just the bible study group?) They question its effect (Does this work truly represent their religious experience or understanding?) From these many questions emerges a creation that is full of beauty, spirituality, and, most notably, acceptance.
Grant prioritizes the representation and inclusion of the most marginalized groups in order to maximize his impact. Actions that affect the most marginalized people make the biggest ripples because our social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, are all interconnected. For example, black women often face greater adversity than either black men or white women, but an empowered black woman can elevate the position of both black men and white women because of their common social categorizations.
Grant is currently on-loan to the faith community Urban Village Church in Hyde Park / Woodlawn. He frequently meets with artists and innovators, creates commissioned work, hosts workshops and retreats, and he is developing another artist residency in Paris.
At our next meeting, all three City Open Workshop project groups will share mid-term presentations so we can cross-pollinate ideas and catch everyone up on what we’ve accomplished so far.
Now, I will leave you with the two meditations Grant left us to contemplate at the end of his talk:
Think about a space in which you were given permission to create.
Who gave you permission to work towards your vision of what the world can be?
Workshop agenda + notes here.