Thoughts on the Second Flax Bourton Art Exhibition: Art for Art’s sake, Liturgy for God’s sake

AA Flax Bourton Art Exhibtion 2013

 So, the second Flax Bourton Art Exhibition has been and gone. It takes a great deal of organisational work to get an exhibition suited and booted and out on the street. Or, in this case, into the church. A fascinating mix of talented people gave us a chance to see little bits of the world through their eyes and that was well-worth the effort of building the display boards, re-inventing the internal space of the building and pulling in an audience.

 This is only the second time I’ve had the nerve to enter any art works into an exhibition and, to be honest, I still feel an utter charlatan, that I’m only allowed to exhibit because, well, I’m the priest of this church. After all, all I do is a bit of ham-handed copying. Painting for me, is more of a chore than a pleasure. It is about failing to create perfection, about an idea that gets stuck in my head and scrambled across the page. It soon becomes a grinding monotony of production line tediousness. But I said I would get this done and so I’ve got to complete it or bag up another failure.

Of course, art is as much about practise as any other discipline. It is like liturgy in that, and many other aspects. Both are about changing perceptions, about creating windows into fresh visions of reality. At their highest they go well beyond their constituent parts and creators to transport the participants, or even the participant observers, into a new state of being, into new ways of experiencing the everyday. The two come together in the vast spaces of our great cathedrals and in the inverted perspective of icons.

Icons and liturgy exist for one and the same reason: to thin the veil between earth and heaven. One of the ways they achieve this is through completely subsuming all personality, all emotion, all individuality: leaching it right out. Good liturgy and true icons are never about the creator, they are all about the Creator. They both obey a strict set of rules and they both release the Spirit through discipline. Icons are written as if they were Gospel because they are a form of Scripture, and as holy texts they can’t be tinkered with. Tinkering with liturgy runs the risk of reducing the elemental and being overwhelmed by the transient. I never trust liturgy that plays on the emotions, pushes to elicit an emotional response. That’s one of the reasons I can’t abide most contemporary worship songs; that and the pastiche populist rhythms and the theologically moribund lyrics. Michael Gira of Swans is a better liturgist than Matt Redman (which is not to say that Gira is a better Christian than Redman – but then isn’t ‘better Christian’ a dangerous term in its own right?).

OK, so this is a digression from the FB Art Exhibition. But it gives a clue as to my own reticence to exhibit. Not only am I a cack-handed amateur with too little time to hone any technique but I have unattainable standards for my own work. I am not an artist I am simply a decorator. Ten years after being ordained I’m also concerned that I’m not a liturgist (what’s the difference between a liturgist and terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.) but a crowd-pleasing worship leader. ‘Feeling good’ might sometimes be a by-product of liturgy and art but that must never be the chief focus for their creation.

Holding an art exhibition in church feels to me to be a right use of the space, especially if the art provides a challenge to our views of the secular and the sacred. Many of the exhibits on display exuded a sense of fun and playfulness. Can I allow that? Of course, play is a vital part of creation. Can the playful be profound? It is a struggle to answer that. I want to say ‘yes, but…’. In play we can often fix our relationship with the world. There is playfulness in the Sistine Chapel – in God’s animation of Adam. It is there in so much of Picasso. But not ‘Guernica’. Hirst is all playfulness. Chagall is suffused with it, Dali grasps it with lobster claws (and where he leaves it by the pool, such as in that travesty of a painting ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’ he falls apart) and Matisse lets colour play with us. Yet many of the truly iconic works – ‘Guernica’, the Isenheim Altarpiece, ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, ‘The Death of Marat’ are powerful partly because of their lack of play. And while there might be tenderness in some icons there is never playfulness.

Another digression. Let me get back on track. The exhibition in church was pleasurable. It brought together different people with a variety of skills, techniques and worldviews. It gave delight to the eye and something to gladden the heart. Keenly observed nature – the little details of evolutionary wonder fixed as exquisite patterns – as well as an earth sacredness that put biology back at the heart of the divine. The black and white directness of linocuts – capturing a moment of technological evolution as a memory of growing up. The human form explored in all its lush shapeliness – the richness of flesh as the reality we live in. Observations of structures and scenery that ranged from the tender to the elemental to the exuberant. Clay, the earth itself, moulded into forms of function and fun. The work of young folk who were at an earlier stage than others in forming their view of the world. Everything coalesced to give an enjoyable mix of exhibits with something to attract all tastes. Conversations were stimulating, the church space was communal, not alienating, and the wealth of ideas and skill was invigorating. Would I exhibit again? I’m not sure. I gave a redundant piece of wood a new life but in the process wrecked my back, frazzled my temper, disturbed my sleep patterns and ended up pretty disappointed with the result. Maybe I should stick to liturgy, it is what I’m trained for, after all. Will I encourage others to exhibit in St Michael’s again – absolutely, churches should always be doorways to creation.

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