Modern Art and the Life of a Culture – Review

In this compelling collaboration between an artist and a theologian, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness begin a conversation about how Christian artists, critics, enthusiasts and theologians can reclaim and rediscover modern art, identifying and celebrating its religious and spiritual impulses.

For any fans of Rookmaaker’s important book on theology and art, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, this recent volume offers a different, more positive perspective on modern art and its worldview.

I’m excited to say that my full and thorough review has been published up on the Transpositions website – please do click the link to read and check it out here.

 

Grab the book from Amazon.co.uk from £11.39

Grab the book from Amazon.com from $14.21

Read the full review on Transpositions here. 

Note: The Amazon links above are affiliate links, which means if you click through and buy anything at all, you help this site with no extra cost to you. I was given a review copy, though not under obligation to give a review, either positive or negative. This is my honest review. 

Secular wisdom for church leaders – 7 top tips

Statue outside the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, J MARLOW

This week the General Synod of the Church of England are grappling with some of the details of the ‘Reform and Renewal’ programme. This programme isn’t without its detractors, in fact one prominent commentator this week described it as “mainly offering secular business-led, management-led and growth-led ideologies – but without adequate spiritual or theological depth.”

The criticism hay be valid. There are thousands of books on leadership in the secular world, and many of these have found their way onto the bookshelves of Christian leaders and onto the the reading lists of seminaries and theological colleges.

But how critical do we need to be when looking for inspiration from the secular world?

During my sabbatical last summer I read two books concerned with leadership. One was Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor, the other was an older book translated into English. The preface began by setting out the author’s noble reason for writing:

“I realized there was nothing more precious or important to me than my knowledge of great men and their doings, a knowledge gained through long experience of contemporary affairs and a constant study of ancient history.

“Having thought over all I’ve learned, and analysed it with the utmost care, I’ve written everything down in a short book that I am now sending to [you].”

So far so good!

And as I read through, I found some key principles for church leaders, which I thought would make a good blog post. So here are Seven principles for church planters, grafters and growers.

#1 Live among the people

How can you know what’s really going on in a community if you’re not part of it? Just as God became incarnate among his people, so our ministry is one of dwelling with those we lead.

#2 Support those who are weaker around you.

When a new church moves into an area, those who are nearby (and already there) inevitably feel threatened by your new thing. They don’t have to feel that way if you make it clear you’re in it together and you’re there to help them too.

#3 Work to gain the support of the people, not just a small leadership team

Leaders often fall into the trap of surrounding themselves with people who think the same way and affirm the same things as they do. While it’s important to keep your leadership team happy and motivated, you’ll have a smoother ride in the long term if you focus on representing a wider group.

#4 Don’t expect help from outside

It can be tempting to think that all we need is a small group from another church to come and swell our numbers for a while, but don’t wait for the cavalry, because it isn’t coming! In any new setting you’re going to need to rely on your own people, no-one else is going to be motivated to grow what you are doing.

#5 Keep the main thing, the main thing

This one should be self-explanatory. If everyone knows what the organisation is for, what their place is within it and what your role is as leader, then you won’t get distracted by frills and risk losing focus.

#6 Be careful what people think of you.

In this world of instant communication and live-broadcasts, be aware of what’s on your facebook profile, twitter timeline and instagram feed. People are acutely allergic to hypocrisy, so make sure they don’t find anything which indicates your lack of virtue when they Google you.

#7 Be generous with your time and resources from the outset, not just once you’re established.

As in #2 above, you are not there just to build up your own empire. We could all use up our resources many times over, so don’t wait until you’re established to start sharing the good will.


So where do you think these came from?

Would it make a difference if it wasn’t an author you would naturally associate with Christian leadership?

Can you guess which book I was reading?


The book these principles were drawn from was written in Italian in 1513 by Niccolo Machiavelli. This book, The Prince, was a theoretical book, drawing on examples from antiquity and contemporary history to explain how rulers needed to behave in order to hold onto power. The Prince was so controversial, even it its own time, that Machiavelli’s name has entered our vocabulary as a word to describe unprincipled or underhand manipulation of others to do our will. All the principles above follow the section entitled Different types of states and how to conquer them.

IMG_3143

Still think this is an appropriate pattern for church leaders? Here’s what Machiavelli has to say about each of these points:

#1 Live among the people 

“When you’re actually there, you can see when things start going wrong and nip rebellion in the bud; when you’re far away you only find out about it when it’s too late. Another advantage is that the new territory won’t be plundered by your officials. Its subjects will be happy that they can appeal to a ruler who is living among them. So, if they’re intending to be obedient, they’ll have one more reason to love you, and if they’re not, all the more reason to fear you.”

The reason for ‘incarnational ministry’ is so that you are close to the source of any disagreement with your regime. You don’t believe the favourable reports of those on the ground, because you can see the reality for yourself and detractors can be dealt with, whether they are members or part of your leadership team.

#2 Support those who are weaker around you

“A ruler who has moved into a new region with a different language and customs must also make himself leader and protector of the weaker neighbouring powers, while doing what he can to undermine the stronger. In particular, he must take care that no foreign power strong enough to compete with his own gets a chance to penetrate the area. People who are discontented, whether out of fear or frustrated ambition, will always encourage a foreign power to intervene.”

This is about building a power base. By appearing to support those who are weak you can improve your our chances of holding off those who are strong, as those you protect and champion will stand up for you.

#3 Have the support of the people, not just a small leadership team

“A monarchy can be brought about either by the common people or the nobles, when one or the other party finds it convenient. Seeing that they can’t control the people, the wealthy families begin to concentrate prestige on one of their number and make him king so as to be able to get what they want in his shadow. Likewise, the people, seeing that they can’t resist the power of the nobles, concentrate prestige on one citizen and make him king so that his authority will protect them. A king who comes to power with the help of the rich nobles will have more trouble keeping it than the king who gets there with the support of the people, because he will be surrounded by men who consider themselves his equals, and that will make it hard for him to give them orders or to manage affairs as he wants.”

This recognises the fragility of leadership and the need to establish yourself as more than just ‘first among equals’ but the true leader. Machiavelli recognises that among those who lead with you, you are only one of many, but to the people you are their champion, so protect their interests and you will not be open to competition for the leadership.

#4 Don’t expect help from outside

“When David offered to go and fight the Philistine troublemaker, Goliath, on Saul’s behalf, Saul gave him his own weapons to bolster the boy’s courage. But no sooner had David put them on than he refused the gift, saying he wouldn’t feel confident with them, he would rather face the enemy with his own sling and knife. In the end, other people’s arms are either too loose, too heavy or too tight.”

“So, sensible rulers have always avoided using auxiliaries and mercenaries, relying instead on their own men and even preferring to lose with their own troops than to win with others, on the principle that a victory won with foreign forces is not a real victory at all. As always Cesare Borgia offers a good example … It’s easy to see the difference between these various kinds of armies if you look at the duke’s standing when he had just the French, when he had the Orsinis and the Vitellis, and when he had his own soldiers and relied on his own resources. With each change his prestige grew and he was only truly respected when everyone could see that his troops were entirely his own.”

In its Renaissance context, this advice is about who will fight for you and who will abandon you when the going gets tough. Those you borrow have other allegiances, those you pay can be bought off, but your own army fights for their own land, family and lives as well as yours.

#5  Keep the main thing, the main thing

“A ruler, then, must have no other aim or consideration, nor seek to develop any other vocation outside war, the organization of the army and military discipline. This is the only proper vocation of the man in command.”

For Machiavelli, the main this was warfare and the accumulation of a more absolute leadership. What looks like focus can all-too-often be just the lust for more power.

#6 Be careful what people think of you.

“A ruler must avoid any behaviour that will lead to his being hated or held in contempt; every time he manages this he’s done what a ruler should and can indulge other bad habits without worrying about the consequences. As I’ve already said, what most leads to a ruler being hated is seizing and stealing his subjects’ property and women; that he must not do.

“So a ruler must be extremely careful not to say anything that doesn’t appear to be inspired by the five virtues listed above; he must seem and sound wholly compassionate, wholly loyal, wholly humane, wholly honest and wholly religious. There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious. In general people judge more by appearances than first-hand experience, because everyone gets to see you but hardly anyone deals with you directly.”

Maybe we think the public and private are different spheres, even in the age of Facebook. Machiavelli certainly thinks that cultivating your pious public profile will distract people from your real concerns. Keeping real relationships at arms-length will also help guard against people seeing the real you.

#7 Be generous with your time and resources from the outset, not just once you’re established.

“A ruler in power and a man seeking power are two different things. For the ruler already in power generosity is dangerous; for the man seeking power it is essential.”

“A ruler leading his armies and living on plunder, pillage and extortion is using other people’s money and had better be generous with it, otherwise his soldiers won’t follow him. What’s not your own or your subjects’ can be given away freely: Cyrus did this; so did Caesar and Alexander. Spending other people’s money doesn’t lower your standing – it raises it. It’s only spending your own money that puts you at risk. Nothing consumes itself so much as generosity, because while you practise it you’re losing the wherewithal to go on practising it. Either you fall into poverty and are despised for it, or, to avoid poverty, you become grasping and hateful. Above all else a king must guard against being despised and hated. Generosity leads to both.”

When you’re on the way up (or the way into a new city, church or area) you need people to think you’re going to be fighting their battles for them and feathering their nest as well as yours. Once you’re established, you’ll need those resources yourself, so don’t give them away. Being a ‘Resource Church’ should initially look like you’re into distributing resources. By the time you are established, the resources should be flowing one-way – towards you. How else could you keep up what you’re doing so successfully?


So I guess we need to be careful where we draw our inspiration from and please do call me on it if you think I’m putting any of this into practice.

Here’s a final quote with a warning about misappropriating secular wisdom:

“When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus Christ, Matthew 20:24–28 (NIV11)


Photos are my own. Quotations from are from Tim Parks’ translation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (Penguin Classics). Available from Wordery.

You can also buy The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli from Wordery.com for £4.32 

You can also buy The Pastor by Eugene Peterson from Wordery.com for £8.93 

This post contains Wordery and Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click through to either site and buy anything at all, you help this site, at no extra cost to you.

I understand art, but is that enough?

The other day I picked up a book of postcards in an art exhibition gift shop. They were illustrations from Grayson Perry’s book ‘playing to the gallery’, taken from his 2013 BBC Reith Lectures. Out of the context of the lectures and the book, however, the postcards stand as slightly obscure jokes about art, the art world and the artist himself. Jokes which, nevertheless, made me chuckle so I bought the book.
 
Over a pain au chocolat in the nearby bakery afterwards, I tried to explain the jokes to my five year old. Starting with this one:
 
Grayson Perry - Urinal
 
As I was putting the pieces together, I began to realise just how much specific knowledge about art and the artist was needed to explain the joke. Here’s what I think you’d need to know to raise a chuckle:

  • That in 1917 Marcel Duchamp took a standard urinal, signed it R. Mutt 1917 and submitted it to the American Society of Independent Artists for their annual exhibition as an artwork called Fountain.
  • That this subversive act marked that start of a trajectory in contemporary art that would allow artists to define anything as art.
  • That, had it been preserved rather than thrown in the skip, that urinal would now be one of the most valuable pieces of contemporary art every produced.
  • That the trajectory of ‘anything can be art’ has led to artists needing to use more and more shocking images and materials to arouse our emotions. This includes using human excretions in art (such as Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine and Piero Manzoni producing 100 numbered cans of his own faeces in 1961).
  • That ‘Highbrow’ and ‘Lowbrow’ are terms frequently used to differentiate between ‘good art’ and art that has ‘popular appeal’.
  • That popular appeal in that last point isn’t a compliment.
  • That Grayson Perry is best known for his ceramic work, which led to him winning the Turner Prize in 2003. (Famously leading to his quote that “it was about time a transvestite potter had won the Turner Prize”)
  • That, since 1984, the Turner Prize has been awarded annually to British Visual Artists for outstanding exhibitions or contributions to art in Britain.
  • That in his Reith Lectures, Grayson Perry described ceramics as part of the craft suburb, that one needs to travel through to get between the genteel countryside of traditional fine art and the hip urban environment of contemporary art. Middlebrow being very much the no-man’s-land of art that is neither cutting edge, or that popular.
  • That Perry’s work now sells from far more than the ‘two week’s dole money’ which he used to sell his pots for. In fact, in 2012, Perry’s ceramic vase Triumph of Innocence sold at auction for £85,250.
  • Not essential to the joke, but a nuance for the really sharp, you might also recognise that, since urinals of that design are not made any more, any copy of the work that you see today will have been hand-crafted. By a potter.

Or maybe, as my five year old put it, “It’s funny because there’s wee-wee in that standing-up toilet”.
 


 
For the professional communicator, it’s a dangerous moment when you begin to assume that your hearers have the same background knowledge as you do.
 
This is especially true when teaching the Bible, because there is such a lot of background to be aware of. As a Lecturer in Biblical Theology, my jokes might fall a bit flat when people don’t get humorous references to Jael and camping accidents (Judges 4:21), or Eutychus and boring preaching (Acts 20:9), but when I’m preaching I don’t want to mistake a technical detail for a common cultural reference.
 
On the one hand, unnecessary over-explanation leads to dull and technical presentations. On the other, inaccessible references leave hearers bemused and none-the-wiser. It’s always interesting to hear the reaction of your regular hearers to a visiting speaker. Are they saying, “it’s good to be stretched”, “that was a bit over my head” or “I didn’t hear anything new today”? These could be a good barometer as to whether your own preaching is building up a foundation of biblical understanding for your regular listeners.
 
It isn’t enough for communicators to just be experts in their subject.
 
Communicators need to know their audience as well as they know their material. Or make wee-wee jokes. The choice is yours.
 


Grayson Perry’s book, Playing to the Gallery is available from Amazon.co.uk

 
or Wordery.com (UK) for £10.54
 
Grayson Perry’s postcards, also named Playing to the Gallery, are available from Amazon.co.uk
 

 
Or Wordery.com (UK) for £6.76
 

 

This post contains Amazon and Wordery affiliate links. This means that if you click through to either site and buy anything at all you help this site, at no cost to you.

 

1000 Words – The Return of Narrative Art

As an aspiring artist, I’m well aware that in some of my pieces, the only hint of meaning comes through the title. I suspect that my secret isn’t unique and that I’m not the only one who occasionally produces work for it’s aesthetic (or commercial) value alone.

Chessboard Admirals | J Marlow | 2004

Chessboard Admirals – J Marlow – 2014

It’s a common criticism of contemporary art that it is meaningless, or that the supposed meaning bears no real relation to what is on the canvas or plinth. But to think this is to ignore the direction of travel which the art world has been collectively making away from the totally abstract shapes, splashes and slashes of ‘Modern Art’.

In a gross simplification we might see the following as marker posts on this journey:

  • In 1991, Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was at once feted and maligned by the public for its simplicity and nuance.
  • In 1998, Tracey Emin’s My Bed told a story more clearly, but with an ambiguity that allowed art pseuds across the globe to claim a unique insight into the work.
  • Then in 2003, the prestigious Turner prize for the arts was won by Grayson Perry for his decorated ceramic pots and vases, many of which narrated accounts of Perry’s real and imaginary life.

A decade later, Perry has been catapulted into the national consciousness by his lecture series explaining and exploding the contemporary art scene as Radio 4’s Reith lecturer in 2013. The series was called Playing to the Gallery and can be downloaded from iTunes and BBC iPlayer. As one columnist wrote following the lectures, Perry has transformed seamlessly from controversial artist into “national treasure”. [Lisa Jardine, Guardian, 21/11/2013]

Having loved and re-listened to these lectures last year, one of the exhibitions which I’d resigned myself to not seeing this summer was Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences.

The internet was fairly confused about how many sets of these tapestries existed and whether any of them were reachable in a day-trip from the South of England. Thanks to a tip-off in Art Quarterly, however, I caught up with one of the sets as part of an exhibition called Progress at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London, where Perry was a trustee. Progress marked the 250th anniversary of the death of William Hogarth, himself a major contributor to the Foundling Hospital Collection and this event brought together four contemporary works responding to Hogarth’s famous series of paintings A Rake’s Progress.

I was keen to spend as much time with the tapestries as possible, so (given the absolute 45 minute limit imposed by the Boy), we skipped the rest of the museum and then spent almost as long in the coffee shop afterwards.

Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress follows the life of Tom Rakewell, a merchant’s son who inherits a fortune and blows it on all ‘women, wine and song’ in vice-ridden London. Hogarth’s protagonist ends his life in Bedlam lunatic asylum, having been driven insane by drink, debt and prison. In his modern take on the rise and fall of the rake, Perry chronicles the life of Tim Rakewell as he moves though the social strata and taste tribes of contemporary Britain. Tim’s life starts surrounded by the ornaments and icons of working class taste and it ends ignominiously as he is thrown from the Ferrari he bought with the spoils from the sale of his technology company.

#Lamentation | Grayson Perry#Lamentation, Tapestry by Grayson Perry. Photo by thornypup. )The Hastag is deliberate, and in the scene passers by can be seen photographing the wreckage and uploading their images from their phones.) 

The basement room in the foundling museum which was displaying the tapestries was only just big enough to accommodate the exhibition, but this gave us the chance to get up close and personal with the work. I’m an advocate of taking the trouble to see an original work rather a copy and these tapestries are filled with so many details that they would be difficult to take in at anything less than two meters high.

One such detail that I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to spot, was the little figure with the camera, reflected in a convex mirror, recording the scene in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal. The mirror itself gives us an alternative viewpoint on the scene in the same way as Jan van Eyck reflects the room and figures in The Arnolfini Portrait. What we see in this mirror, however, is surely a self-portrait of Perry, as observer and chronicler of British taste tribes.

Tapestry Detail

Detail from The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal by Grayson Perry. Photo by failing_angel. Inset image of Grayson Perry from ‘In the best possible taste’ on Channel 4.

We looked at each of the tapestries in turn and, as we sat on the bench in front of #Lamentation, the Boy asked “is that Jesus?” In doing so he had picked up on the visual homage which Perry is paying to the genre of religious paintings and sculptures depicting the dying Christ in the arms of His mother Mary.

Christ in the Arms of Mary.Sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Photo Jon Marlow

In fact, each of the tapestries has similar allusions to well known art works and genres which is one of the reasons that these art works will enjoy a place on the art curriculum for some time to come. The third image in the series is The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close which includes the reference to the most well-known work, Adam and Eve banished from Paradise, a renaissance fresco painted high on the wall of the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence by Tomasso Masacchio.

The Expulsion for Number 8 Eden Close | Grayson Perry

#The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close by Grayson Perry. Photo by thornypup

The Expulsion for the Garden of edenAdam and Eve banished from Paradise by Masacchio – Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Photo by Jon Marlow 

Masacchio was among the first of the renaissance painters to use perspective and create figures which seemed to inhabit a physical space rather than a two dimensional canvas or wall. In this regard, he stood in contrast to his collaborator on the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, Tomasso Masolino. When seen side by side in the chapel, the work of the two men appears to be from different eras, even though they were only 20 years apart in age.

In his physical space, Masacchio has captured the tragedy and agony of Adam and Eve, who have been permanently banished from the place where they could approach God. An angel looks down on them wielding a sword, not in anger, but as a reminder that they could never return. In contrast, Tim and his girlfriend hurry away from the forced conformity of the aspirational middle classes into “the sunlit uplands of the middle classes”, those whose taste is defined by what they know and appreciate rather than what they own.

By way of explanation why it is Jamie Oliver looking down from the thundery sky, the text on the windowsill has Tim’s girlfriend say of his mum and step-dad: “Their house was so clean and Tidy, not a speck of dust… or a book, apart from her god, Jamie.”.

These works tell a story and come with a written commentary. Could it be then, that the journey away from abstract art is complete?

Grayson Perry certainly thinks that art must have a meaning. In his interview with Simon Hattenstone in last week’s Guardian Weekend Magazine he says that the problem with many art students is that they are too anxious to create stuff they simply like. “You have to know the impact of everything you’re making, because that is the nature of contemporary art. It is very self-conscious: it knows, or should be seen to know.” [Simon Hattenstone, Guardian Weekend, 4/10/14] 

Things can appear abstract, but they are not allowed to be. Abstraction must be ironic because, in Perry’s words “Britain has the toad of irony sitting on it.”

So the next time someone asks me about my ‘process’ I need to come up with something more self aware than “I smushed a lot of paint around”. Even though that was my process this time around.

In the meantime, I’d love another opportunity to get close to these tapestries again. Maybe we could even lobby for them, to visit Plymouth.

 

Iconoclasm and Dictator Chic

No-one would seriously disagree that art is political.

'Judith beheading Holofernes', a bronze sculpture group made by Donatello and located in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence Italy. Picture: J Marlow

‘Judith beheading Holofernes’, a bronze sculpture group made by Donatello and located in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy. Picture: J Marlow

As you wander around the streets of any city, the art and architecture will give a powerful message about the last regime to hold real power in that place. Nelson’s column and the bronze lions of Britannia in London’s Trafalgar Square remind us of the once-powerful empire and the feeling of superiority which still infuse the city and its leaders. The People’s Palace in Bucharest and the surrounding boulevards are a lasting monument to the destructive power of communist president Nicolae Ceausescu, who ordered the razing of the surrounding churches and apartments in order to create a capital city which spoke of the unassailable power of the communist regime. Similarly, the streets and piazzas of Florence are filled with marble and bronze statues preserving the legacy of the Medici dynasty, who ruled the city for nearly four centuries.

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 The People’s Palace, Bucharest, Romania.

All influential people, from despotic dictators to advertising executives, know that their message and ideals can be hidden in the arts. As we are entertained and enthralled, our inbuilt cynicism and resistance can be circumvented and we imbibe the message with the medium.

Often the ideas and theories which start circulating among academics, are picked up and popularised by the arts. Even abstract art which claims to be devoid of all meaning carries with it the unsubtle message of postmodernism, that all objective meaning is elusive.

So what should any self-respecting dictator, despot, Pope or CEO do upon seizing power? The obvious answer is to stamp their authority on the arts and the resulting iconoclasm can be very hard to stomach.

In 2001 the Taliban destroyed two enormous statues of the Buddha, carved into a cliff in Afghanistan in the 6th Century, having declared them as idols and not permitted by under their extreme form of Islamic law. The niches where the statues stood can be seen towering above the Bamiyan Valley, which was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage in danger in 2003. In a similar way the French Revolutionaries of the 18th Century took pains to decapitate the statues of bishops and kings that adorned their cathedrals and basilicas. Further back in history, in Florence in 1497, the followers of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola set fire to many works of art and books in what became know as The Bonfire of the Vanities. The art historian of the period, Giorgio Vasari reports that Botticelli was a follower of Savonarolo and may have put some of his own painting onto the pyre. It is certainly clear that Botticelli’s exuberant style become more muted in works painted after this event.

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 Empty niches in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, Photo taken in 2005 by Hadi Zaher

But as we begin to tut under our breath at the waste and the cultural barbarism, we might recall our reaction to this images on the news.

US soldiers and Iraqi citizens topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Dictator Chic has not always been tacky statues and brutalist concrete palaces – what we celebrate in Florence is no less the result of a dynasty intent on displaying its dominance through the arts. The principal difference, it seems, between artistic iconoclasm that attracts our ire and that which gains our approval is the tricky matter of personal taste. Did we like what was pulled down?

An alternative approach to iconoclasm is to change the message without destroying the medium, as the citizens of Florence did in 1494 after the expulsion of the Medici family. In the 1460s the sculptor Donatello had made a pair of bronze sculptures from biblical stories which would stand in the private garden of the Medici Palace in Florence. One was of David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem standing nonchalantly above the severed head of the giant Goliath. The other was a more visceral and disturbing scene as the apocryphal Jewish heroine Judith raises a sword to deliver a fatal blow to the neck of Holofernes, the general of the mighty Assyrian Army.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Florence

 Detail from Donatello’s ‘Judith beheading Holofernes’ – Picture: J Marlow

In keeping with much of the art of the period and with the narrative of the scene, this sculpture group is infused sexual intensity. The account in the Jewish Apocrypha records that Judith, a noble widow among the Jewish people had entered the Assyrian commander’s camp and surrendered to him. On the night she will murder him we read that “Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her” (Judith 12:16). To this end they drink and feast together until Holofernes had “drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.” (v20). Later that night, as Holofernes lies unconscious on his bed, Judith reaches for his own sword and, in two strokes, hacks his head from his half-naked body. She then runs into the night having saved her city from the marauding army marshalled outside its gate.

Donatello has chosen to evoke that particular moment between blows, as Judith holds up Holofernes by the hair, raises the sword above her head and prays for strength as she completes her deadly mission. Despite his desires, Holofernes is impotent to resist and, as if to emphasise his incapacity, Judith’s foot presses down on Holofernes’ limp and useless sword hand.

Detail from Judith beheading Holofernes, Florence

The message given to this work by its Medici patrons was that Judith stood as an example of the victory of virtue and diligence. This was made explicit by a Latin inscription on the pedestal which read “Kingdoms fall through luxury; cities rise though virtues; behold the neck of pride severed by the hand of humility”. (Judith Testa, An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence, 2012, page 83)

When the Medici family were expelled from the city in 1494, the statue was taken down but, far from being destroyed, it was set up on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall in the central Piazza della Signoria.

Removed from the garden pedestal with its inscription, the Florentines were ready to reclaim this delicate work of art and imbue it with a new meaning. The new (and slightly mismatched looking) column upon which the work still stands reads “The Citizens set up this exemplar for the welfare of the public, 1495”. (Testa, p85).

Detail from Judith Beheading Holofernes, Florence

This reminder of a virtuous city throwing off the tyranny of a powerful and ruthless ruler, now stood to celebrate the victory of the Florentine citizens as they saw off the overbearing Medici.

The group has since been moved one more time, in 1504. It was shifted into a less prominent position ten meters to the left, displaced by the more masculine edifice of Michelangelo’s David.

This seemingly small act of jostling the position of the art works in the square reflected another change in the perceived message of the sculpture group. By 1504, observers could no longer see political overtones, seeing instead the fearful prospect of a man at the mercy of a woman intent on murder. By moving it to a less prominent location, the group would be preserved, but overshadowed by David, a statue which was considered to be more appropriate than one where a woman held such control over a man.

IMG_3908

Detail from the replica of Michaelangelo’s marble sculpture David (Il Gigante) located at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence Italy.
Picture: J Marlow

If there is a lesson for the artist in all of this it is surely that art with a degree of ambiguity has a better chance of surviving the winds of political change. If there is an opportunity to read different meanings into a work, then everyone can claim your art carries their message.

But is such ambiguity an abdication of responsibility? Should artists be content to let their work be appropriated and defined by their patron, or by any subsequent owners? Can art really be said to be political if its meaning can be modified to suit the whims of the viewing public?

If we are comfortable with the paradigm that the ultimate act of artistic expression was the creation of the universe, then there is comfort to be drawn from God’s infinitely complex sculpture group.

Detail from Patchwork Sea - J Marlow

 Detail from ‘Patchwork Sea’ by J Marlow, 2014

Creation is embedded with a message and in Psalm 19, a song written by David and almost certainly sung regularly by Judith, we read that their purpose is to reveal their creator.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”
(Psalm 19:1–4)

In terms of communication, however, the world is impressionist at best, and people are free to suffuse it with their own meaning or even to see it as a pure abstract.

If we want to understand the message we need to accept the artists’ description, but if God seems content to allow such a degree of ambiguity in his art, then we could be content to let others interpret our work, whether we meant it to be political or not.


An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence (Judith Testa, 2012, NUI Press) is available in the UK from Amazon via this Affiliate Link. 

 

Art for Under 5s – Turner and the Sea

fishermen upon a lee-shore in squally weather

Impression of ‘Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner. 2014. 

A couple of months ago I took the Boy to the “Turner and the Sea” exhibition at the Royal Maritime Museum as a dry-run for gallery visits during my sabbatical. The experience was a good one and so, in the first art-related post of my sabbatical, I’m going to share my five tips for visiting exhibitions with under 5s.

1) Keep it simple, but don’t patronise.

Small children tend to be taken to art galleries for one of two reasons. Either a parent wants to go and can’t find a babysitter, or they see it as important to their child’s education that they have a good grounding in art history before they go to school. In the case of the Boy, it’s a bit of both and our trips tend to be a mixture of keeping him engaged and keeping him amused.

Now, I’ll admit that my expectations are probably higher than they should be for the level of engagement a three year old can have with an Old Master, but we’ve always tried to encourage the Boy to have opinions about things, especially art and music. And the questions we should all be asking ourselves about art and culture are fairly easy for children to answer. Do you like it? How does it make you feel? What’s happening? What does it remind you of?

Philip James de Loutherbourg - The Shipwreck 1793 - detail Painting

The Boy picked out this detail as his favourite part of the exhibition. The wreckers in Philip James de Loutherbourg’s ‘The Shipwreck’ look like pirates. Apparently.

What I’m not such a great fan of are activities for children which have nothing to do with the art, like trails to find stuffed toys hidden around stately homes. These do seem to suggest that visits are more about keeping children amused while you look around than helping them engage with what you’re looking at.

When faced with a 2 meter wide canvas there is a limit to how much discussion you can have about technique or the historical importance of the work. But you can talk about the action and the colour. How do the different parts of the painting elicit different responses? The Turner and the Sea exhibition included works by other artists so we tried to guess whether each one was a similar style to the rest of the exhibition or if it looked different.

Of course, it was a particular high-point of the visit when the Boy correctly identified which painting was a Turner and which wasn’t ‘because of the sea’. I’m not sure it was a repeatable exercise, so I didn’t ruin the illusion by trying it again.

A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale

‘A First rate Man-of-War driven onto a reef of rocks, floundering in a gale’ by George Philip Reinagle. Not a Turner!

2) Find non-marking ways of sketching.

Making sketches of what you’re looking at is arguably the best way to appreciate what is in front of you. Add this to children’s natural love of drawing and you have a great way to encourage their inner artist while being able to look yourself. Having said this, gallery staff tend to look very worried if a small child is wandering around priceless works of art with a crayon, so I’ve loaded up my iPad mini with a drawing pad app which cost about £2.50 but has saved hundreds of pounds of babysitting fees over the past two years. It also makes the whole process of moving around a gallery much easier if you don’t have to worry about collecting up all the pencils.

Be prepared for adoring comments though. If you have a small child sitting sketching in front of a early Turner then expect comments about “a young Turner”. Not all comments are straightforward though. One lady looked at the Boy’s screen and asked “Are you drawing a sunflower?” “No” came the reply, “I’m copying this Turner”. And this was his interpretation of “Wreck of a Transport Ship”. You can see her confusion, but then he’s always preferred more abstract art than me.

Wreck of a Transport Ship

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ c.1810

3) See the good stuff first.

Exhibitions are usually arranged in a linear order, often beginning with an artist’s earlier and less developed work. You want to see the good stuff before children get impatient, so don’t feel bad about missing out the first few rooms.

I find that impatience comes in three phases:

  • Stage one: I’m enjoying this.
  • Stage two: I’m bored with art but happy to do something else while you look around.
  • Stage three: We have to leave right now!

With Turner we had about forty minutes of stage one (with drawing on the iPad), fifteen minutes of stage two (with world map puzzles, again on the iPad) and it took five minutes of stage three to get out of the exhibition. Strangely, as soon as we got into the gift shop we reset to stage one.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ 1823-4

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’ which I was enjoying as we moved from stage one to stage two.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’. Formerly the nation’s favourite painting, which I had to go back to the National Gallery and see alone, as we had entered stage three before we found it in Turner and the Sea.

If you do some research before you leave home, you can generally find out what’s going to be where in the exhibition. This also gives you the opportunity to familiarise your child with the most well-known works in advance, so finding them is part of the discovery.

4) Queue-jump if possible.

I’m not suggesting pushing in but, if you book in advance, many places offer timed tickets which reduce the amount of queuing at the door. Standing in a queue to get into the exhibition cuts into your stage one time, as I found at the Natural History Museum to my cost.

5) Don’t worry about other people.

Some artists seem to inspire a muted awe in their viewers, and Turner is the apotheosis of this reverential appreciation. But people who visit art galleries, and especially those who pay for exhibitions, are generally keen that young people learn to appreciate art for themselves, so they would rather see children engaged and talking than absent or silent. Other visitors to a gallery will be using the audio-guide headphones, so can’t hear you anyway.

If you’re at stage one of a visit then most other visitors are going to be charmed, rather then annoyed by a small person commenting on the exhibition. If you’re at stage two then you may need to have headphones on the iPad. If you’re at stage three then the person who is most likely to be disturbed by your child is you, so cut your losses and head for the gift shop.

  • What have you learnt from your own trips out with small children?
  • What have you seen working and not working when you’ve encountered other people’s children in galleries?

Sun Rising Through Vapour

Impression of ‘Sun Rising Through Vapour’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Evening harbour scene with boats being unloaded and spectators

Impression of ‘Habour Scene with Boats being unloaded and Spectators’ by Claude-Joseph Vernet.

The Summer of Art

NTDeckchair

This summer I’m going to be taking a three-month sabbatical. This is a period when I’m released from my duties in the parish to allow “time for rest, renewal and re-creation so as to return refreshed for ministry”.

I’m hoping to do a few different things this summer, so I thought I’d share my plans with you.

1) Research

The first part of the sabbatical will be spent visiting several Church of England training colleges and meeting with their Principals. I’m planing to ask them questions about what makes their college distinctive and how the selection process impacts on the training they offer. I’m doing this part of the sabbatical wearing my ‘Dean of Studies’ and ‘Diocesan Director of Ordinands’ hats. Depending on what happens in these interviews, I might put together a research degree proposal from my findings.

2) Renewal

I’m going to be spending five nights away on a personal retreat in Spain. I’ve got a couple of books lined up to read, but am open to suggestions about what to take, what to read and what to pray.

3) Recreation

I’m planning to spend the largest chunk of my time away taking up a new hobby. I’m going to be studying a bit of Art History and visiting galleries. With only six weeks I’ll be limited in what I can see, but I’ve got my ArtFund pass at the ready and I’ll hopefully be able to fit in a trip to the Louvre.

I’ll be taking The Boy with me on some of these trips and I’ll be blogging about what I’ve seen and learnt (which called for a new look on the blog). The boy will be taking my iPad with him, so I’ll post his interpretations of what he’s seen too.

4) Rest

As well as catching up with friends while I’m on my travels in the UK, we’re also looking forward to visiting Tuscany for a holiday with our Godchildren and their parents. As part of this we’re going be spending three nights in Florence, so I’m really looking forward to educating (boring to tears) everyone with my newly acquired art knowledge. There will be lots of photos.

5) Refreshed for Ministry

I’ll be back at St. Pancras just in time for the ordination service in Exeter Cathedral. This is particularly exciting as one of the new deacons will be Wendy Bray, who is going to join the staff of St. Pancras as Curate in September. I’m really looking forward to this new phase in our ministry to the people of Pennycross and Plymouth. Please do pray for my time away.

People are Rude

How do you deal with discouragement?

This week I was chatting to an artist friend who told me that, over the bank holiday weekend, he had hidden the gallery visitors’ book because people had been leaving disparaging comments about his work.

Now if you are an artist, one way to deal with negative comments is to tell yourself that people are rude philistines and that you are misunderstood. Another way is to do what the rest of us do and mentally balance the good stuff with the bad stuff and hope that the scales tip in favour of encouraging ourselves.

So for Martin, the artist in question, he could recall that someone recently compared some of his work to Tracey Emin. He could eavesdrop on a conversation I had where another friend made the link to Matisse. He could re-read my own recent blog post where I wax lyrical about one of his more evocative paintings. Or he could get out the sales ledger and remind himself that people actually do pay for his work, so he must be doing something right.

Incidentally, you might want to compare the three artists mentioned above for yourself. All three have produces series of blue nudes, some of which I’ve linked here. You might not be able to afford an Emin or a Matisse, but you could probably stretch to owning one an original Bush. (but be quick, you never know when fame might strike).

There are times when I get discouraged with my work, and I guess I’m not alone among my fellow church ministers in this respect. The temptation for us is to conduct a similar mental exercise to try and balance the good to outweigh the bad.

The trouble with doing this is that Jesus promises that there will always be something discouraging lurking around the corner. He reminds Christians that people will treat them the same way they treated him, and we shouldn’t expect exemption from the rule because “no servant is greater than his master”. So when we see how powerfully the Holy Spirit has worked through a sermon we preached on Sunday, there will often be an e-mail waiting on Monday morning questioning the theology of what we’ve said. When we see people coming to a living faith in Jesus, there will often be people drifting away from church. High-functioning leadership teams often seem to have people who find it easier to criticise than encourage. Even in our own lives, when we find ourselves feeling victorious about a personal victory, the old sins are still lurking at the door to trip us up.

To use a silly example of trying to balance encouragement and discouragement: last night we had a great prayer meeting asking for the Holy Spirit’s power to keep working to transform those who are being baptised and confirmed over the next few weeks, but I knew that afterwards I was going to have to empty the church recycling dustbin as local dog walkers have been using it as a in for their dog’s poo. The trouble with balancing the good with the bad, is that there is no guarantee we will come out encouraged. 

So is there another option? For the Christian there is, and in the passage I’m preaching this Sunday morning, the Apostle Paul spells out a more secure foundation for dealing with discouragement. He writes:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Philippians 2:1

This is powerful stuff! Suddenly we see that our mood or our measure of success is not dependent on how well our ministry is going, how our congregation is growing, how our budget is balancing or what local people think about us – it is about being united with Jesus Christ.

And unlike growth, reception and people’s good opinion, being united with Jesus Christ is a permanent state, as is his love and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded this week (by Twitter, no less) of a quote from Martin Luther:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

So although people are rude, and we are not as good as we like others to think we are, Jesus is constant and we are loved.

Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

VIsit Martin Bush's Website