Introduction to Global Art & the Church
Take away the Christian faith and one wonders what would be left artistically, architecturally – in almost any concrete area there would be an almost Pascal-sized abyss where once there were richness almost beyond measure.
But what have we done lately? And what are we doing in the face of the steamrollars of Postmodernism who deconstruct more often than construct? This is not just “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” (Yeats), it’s that the falcon has been captured and is being dissected and the falconer has been brought up on charges for endangering other birds with his bird.
The “centre” holds fine – it is just being ignored, and as such we unravel and it’s unsurprising that we cannot find the horizon.
Into this mess comes “Christian Art” most often in the form of safe Christian music in the church, and safe Christian art in the Church (like having someone paint during a sermon that’s artsy -flatulensy). So bad CCM “art” (evangelists with guitars and a drumkit) “happens.” And we would compare this with other eons of the Church if we had any sense of history and be ashamed – but we don’t have any sense of history so we are generally very sure that we are onto something very new and exciting!
Against this backdrop of course God is always at work in His Church. If, as Andre Malraux says “art is the last defense against death,” (Voices of Silence) then Christ goes beyond that – defeating death and opening up whole new possibilities for art.
“But wait, there’s more! In addition to two conferences and two artists, no quick overview of Global Christian art would complete without examination of an art form that is currently gaining attention for its potential theological implications: the Asian art of Kintsugi!”
This report is small. Like a biopsy it can only take a small sample here and there to determine some areas of health. I have chosen to swiftly highlight two art conferences (one in Europe where the Church is in trouble; and one in Asia where it is thriving) that happen every few years.
Then I will turn specific attention to the current Asian influence on Christian art through the works of artists like Makoto Fujimura (in the U.S) and Nyoman Darsane (in Bali).
But wait, there’s more! In addition to two conferences and two artists, no quick overview of Global Christian art would complete without examination of an art form that is currently gaining attention for its potential theological implications: the Asian art of Kintsugi – which repairs broken earthenware with actual gold resin, producing not only wonderful pieces of new art, but ones which are emblematic of the work of God in people’s lives through their personal suffering, loss and brokenness.
Representative Art Conferences
Christian Artists Seminar 2016 – Germany
This group, which originated in 1980 with an ecumenical vision, took time to bring allies on board. Roman Catholics and others were suspicious of some of their sacred Protestant forms (as was historical the issue in the early ’80s especially concerning sacred music)
The large-scale organization went through three shifts described below by Susan Snell in her detailed history of the movement:
The three main products of this movement have been the large-scale Seminars (1981 to 1993, promoting artistic quality and integrity, and from 1994 smaller scale and masterclass quality), the Association (founded in 1990, promoting national arts groups) and the Symposia (from 1991, promoting networks and specific socio-cultural studies).
The six day seminar features keynote speakers, performers, workshops and a variety of ways for artists to coordinate their efforts and advance their work and callings.
A brief video explains it well; just click HERE.
Christian Arts Conference – Bali
The next conference has historically been held in Bali, but they are trying to have it take place this year in Cambodia instead. Friend, artist and poet Stephen Scott is a usual participant at the conference
Scott, a keynote speaker and performer at the 2014 conference said,
At the conferences in Bali we saw ways in which the local church explored contextualizing and incarnating the gospel in a culturally rich and spiritually complex culture. Artists, from different places and communities, came together to celebrate culturally diverse expressions of their shared faith. We also reflected together on the truth that the goodness and beauty of God which can be grasped through abundant diversity of (its) expression.
Examples of Christians Who have “Made it” as Artists.
Art conferences – especially Christian ones – seem fraught with all manner of difficulties – the largest one being funding.
I have my own ideas for how an “Arts House” can take place in the Bay Area – but that’s a ways off.
It is easy enough to point to people like Bono, Wim Wenders or T-Bone Burnett as Believers whose art has made their faith acceptable to large numbers of people who are often antithetical to the Faith. It is worth noting that none of these (or the others that follow down the list) have any history of Fundagelicalism” (my word) – but tend to be non-violent activists for world peace who will work with anyone in a non-judgmental way.
Which is as it should be for all of us (he said judgmentally).
Turning from the general to the specific, and from forms of art which can easily slide into the category of “entertainment” – we will look at U.S.-based artist Mako Fujimura and Balinese artist Nyoman Darsane.
Well established in the Art world, Mako Fujimura’s art is recognizable almost immediately. It ranges from the deadly serious (post 9/11) to the whimsical (such as his series his current series in New York; Silence and Beauty.)
Fujimura , in the following video says that “art is transgressive” and that “we need to transgress in love.” He contrasts this with our Modern language that “celebrates waywardness.”
This is a fabulous FUJIMURA VIDEO.
Fujimura has a certain fearlessness in both subjects and mediums. He will use gold (in leaf and powdered form) as a medium – which would be unnerving enough on his large canvases, but then he will take on Post 9/11 depictions or do illuminated art for the 400th Anniversary edition of the King James Bible. So while a Modern artist working in New York he is hailing back through time and allowing traditions to inform him – from illuminated biblical texts to his artistic bedrock in Nihonga artistic technique, Fujimura is also a scholar of art with several books and who has earned four honorary doctorates.
Recently named Director of Fuller’s Brehm Center in Pasadena, Fujimura has also served on the President’s National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009. Along with Fuller’s new project on the Psalms with U2 frontman Bono (Paul Hewson) new avenues are opening up for crossover between popular art and theology that has some depth.
The best introduction to Darsene is given by Baltimore writer/blogger Victoria Emily Jones, who says,
Balinese artist Nyoman Darsane was born in 1939 and raised as a Hindu. At age seventeen, he became a Christian and as a result was ostracized by his family and village community. But because he so persistently strove, through his art, to give Christianity a Balinese shape, they eventually decided to accept him back in. They saw that he still loved and respected the culture; he was still “one of them,” even though his religious beliefs took a different turn. Does he feel that, as a Balinese Christian, his identity is divided, that he cannot fully embrace both at once? Not at all. “Bali is my body; Christ is my life,” he says. In other words, Jesus Christ is his all, but can he not pray to and worship and express his love for Jesus Christ in a Balinese fashion? And can he not picture Jesus as a fellow Balinese, incarnate in the skin tone and dress and dance poses of his people?
Dance is a major aspect of the Balinese culture as perhaps best known by the wayang purwa – or the dance of the shadow puppets.
Darsene recontextualizes the Gospels within Balinese culture rather than attempting to destroy it. In this way he is an example for those wishing to take the expression of longing and lostness which exist in any culture and inform them with new meaning. In a sense this is no different than what Paul attempts to do in Acts 17 at Mars Hill where he seizes both upon the Athenians art and their poets and then proceeds to tell them that the “unknown God” can actually be known.
I agree with Fujimura that “art is transgressive” although the word I choose to use is “subversive” – meaning that it presents a “different text” or series of “verses” – an alternate view of reality to the dominant culture in power (and always will).
In that regard “Gospel” is always good news that the dominant culture, and its metanarrative, is a lie. The Empire has no clothing and it is up to artists of all kinds (musicians, poets, painters, videographers, iconographers, etc…) to keep revealing nature, beauty, truth (in all its forms) and sometimes even the trailing backside of God’s glory after they have been deposited in the cleft if some rock.
This, to a very real degree – always keep the Artist at odds with the Powerful.
Many artists create out of brokenness – in fact it was Otto Rank in his famous book Art and Artist who said “The difference between the artist and the neurotic is basically talent.” So Kintsugi – presents artists with both a world of beauty and a great metaphor for the human condition and its redemption. Here is a rather fun and humorous video done by a fellow who has really done some research:
Not confined to just scriptural images and narratives, global Christian art has the potential to tell new stories as well as unmask the old ones. Surely this is what we have seen in the best authors: Flannery O’ Conner, Walker Percy, Tolkien, and then the countless classics working against that backdrop (like my own personal favorite – Steinbeck’s East of Eden.)
Christendom may have shut down a great deal of the dialog with the Postmodern culture via it’s coercive tactics and tuned others off with its “Gospel as Product” nonsense – but the Arts are still a healthy and wide open venue for theological exploration – if you are any good.
You have to be good – both as an artist and as a theologian.
 Scott, Stephen. Direct Instant Message Facebook dialog between Stephen Scott and Christopher MacDonald on May 17, 2016.
 Jones, Victoria Emily. The Jesus Question: Jesus the Dancer Part 7: The Art of Nyoman Darsene, as cited at https://thejesusquestion.org/2012/03/25/jesus-the-dancer-part-7-the-art-of-nyoman-darsane/, on May 17, 2016
 Acts 17:22-31