What is “Christian art”?

“For those of us with no desire to dispense with theology in the name of some kind of religiously or spiritually inflected art, the question really comes down to what we mean by ‘Christian’ when it comes to Christian art. Must the artist be a Christian? Must the art depict Christian themes? Many commentators have argued the pros and cons of such axiomatic approaches to church-based art, and yet, as might be expected, no definitive answer has been forthcoming.

“Could we say, for example, that art is Christian when it shows concern for the politically dispossessed, disenfranchised, and distraught? That is the mainstay of Doris Salcedo’s work. If so, then her installation in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral in 1999 might be considered ‘Christian’ regardless of her own beliefs. These sculptures, employing her signature amalgam of domestic furniture, disconcertingly spliced together and sealed with concrete, stand in solemn testimony to the political violence of her native Colombia, and as mute witnesses for the disappeared and done-away-with. 

“Is art Christian when it conveys an experience of empathy, reflecting our desire to love and be loved? If so, then Tracey Emin’s neon For You, also at Liverpool, could qualify as Christian, whatever the religious standing of the artist.

“Is art Christian when it encourages an attitude of quiet contemplation within a sacred context? If so, then we might vouchsafe [Antony] Gormley’s Sound II in the Winchester Cathedral crypt as Christian.

“Is art Christian when it focuses on ordinary members of one’s society and gives them a place of prominence in the sacred center of a community? If so, then [Sean Henry’s] Conflux could arguably be seen as a work that extols qualities of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance, forbearance, selflessness, and loving-kindness, which our letter writer, you may remember, proposes as the core elements of any genuinely Christian art.

“The argument continues to be made—with considerable justification, I believe—that an insistence on Christian art and artists is limiting where expressions of spiritual experience are concerned—or rather, to keep to the specifics of our terms, regarding definitions of what it means for art to be Christian.”

—Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, “Is There a God-Shaped Hole in Contemporary Art?” (24:51), a lecture from the 2012 Gresham College conference “Thinking Theologically About Modern Art”

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