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Book Review by Jonathan Evens

Book Review

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2016, ISBN 9781472437624 - £95.00).

by Jonathan Evens

Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace is a book made for these times, while opening up a broader discussion regarding language and concepts with relevance to encountering contemporary art in ecclesiastical contexts. The book is particularly pertinent because it accurately identifies the revival that is underway in encounters between the Church and contemporary art, while asking probing questions of the direction such encounters are currently taking. Koestlé-Cate’s informed suggestions of new conversation starters mean that this is a book to which those involved in these encounters will frequently return for renewed insight and challenge.

The book is surprising in that, while valuing the revival in commissioning (both permanent and temporary) which the book explores, Koestlé-Cate ultimately argues for less contemporary art in churches rather than more. This is on the basis of quality over quantity, respect for the existing aesthetic of churches and for the sacredness of a ‘super-abundant emptiness’ in church settings.

In arriving at this conclusion, he introduces a range of genuinely innovative and instructive concepts to the discussion, often drawn from his wide-ranging reading in other disciplines. These concepts include: the porosity of space (the blurring of distinctions), art’s evental possibilities (as occasions of experience), durational relationships with environments (the effect of a sequence of events), the adoption of a left-handed sacred (radically creative alternate dimensions of sacrality), and exceptional contingency over calculated certainty (the exception over the normative). Although often drawn from other disciplines, Koestl é-Cate consistently provides a theological rationale for these concepts with many being open to further theological exploration; for example, the connections between the concept of a left-hand sacred and Walter Brueggemann’s exploration of core (normative) and counter (alternative) testimony in his Old Testament studies.

In exploring these concepts, Koestlé-Cate uses specific commissions to illustrate and illuminate, thereby providing an analytical review of contemporary exhibitions and installations. While he draws on the earlier history of modern ecclesiastical commissioning (Marie-Alain Couturier, Walter Hussey et al), the installation in 1996 of Bill Viola’s video projection The Messenger in Durham Cathedral is used as a significant moment in the history of the commissions that he explores. These include: Anthony Caro’s Le Choeur Lumière, 2008, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Bourbourg; installations by Anthony Gormley at Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals; Yoko Ono’s 2006 installations at St Paul’s Cathedral; Doris Salcedo’s Untitled, 1999, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral; and shows at the Walllspace Gallery including Damien Hirst’s New Religion and Marcus Coates’ Pastoral Spirit. He takes a particularly strong interest in the commissions of Fr. Friedhelm Mennekes at Kunst-Station Sankt Peter in Cologne, and The White Mass by James Lee Byars in particular.

While exploration of these concepts forms the substance of this book and will provide the principal reason why this book, despite its hefty price tag, will be read and re-read, threaded through these explorations is an argument for a particular approach to ecclesiastical commissioning, which should be viewed as beginning a debate about rather than signalling a definitive way forward for such commissions.

Although he takes great care to present a nuanced argument, Koestlé-Cate is principally providing language and concepts for conceptual art commissions of a temporary nature. He also argues for less commissioning than is currently the case, in order that by carefully exploring the type of approaches he commends more effective and affective work will be commissioned. His approach is predicated on using artists with mainstream profiles (as Couturier would have put it ‘secular masters’). He ends by calling for ‘a degree of reflective circumspection’ while speculating ‘optimistically about future prospects.’

In that spirit of reflection, I would suggest consideration be given to the following as a counter-weight to some of the main planks of Koestlé-Cate’s argument:

  • exploration of the reasons why the use of the iconostasis in Orthodox churches and of retablos in Latin culture point towards the value of a ‘more is more’ aesthetic, and of the extent to which ‘less is more’ aesthetics have a particularly Western basis;
  • the lack of scope which the focus on secular masters provides for commissions by artists who are part of church congregations and their consequent sense of being overlooked and under-used by their own community. As a result, greater consideration for the value of a twin track approach, rather than an either/or;
  • the extent to which installations such as The White Mass and Wish Tree would in another context be viewed as alternative worship and exploration of the reasons why they are not generally viewed within this frame;
  • the reality that for a left-handed sacred to exist there needs to be a right-handed sacred against which an alternative response can be made. In a context of declining congregations, it may not be sufficient to assume that the right-handed sacred will be maintained ad infinitum;
  • consideration of the positive contribution that sustained relationships can have in artistic practice, commissioning, liturgy and the combining of these three;
  • the possibility that today’s ‘secular masters’ are actually establishment artists garnering the bulk of government funding and private investment, so using the rhetoric of radicalism and the avant-garde because that is what sells. If so, then ecclesiastical commissioning may wish to provide an alternative to the artists which the establishment promotes;
  • greater discussion of how ‘quality’ in today’s art world can be assessed and evaluated. Grayson Perry states that it generally comes down to consensus plus time (i.e. “If it's agreed amongst the tribe for a fairly sustained amount of time, then it becomes good taste.”) and, if this is so, recognition of the role and agenda of art elites needs specific exploration in this context (particularly in relation to the comments Koestlé-Cate makes about art consultants); and
  • further thought regarding the arguments Koestlé-Cate makes about art policies and the role of committees in commissioning. Arguments against democracy and the advocating of the radical cleric plus radical artist creating controversial commissions paradigm simply perpetuate elitism. The range of commissioning experience which now exists should enable policies, which support radical commissioning while enabling real consultation to also occur.

With this book Koestlé-Cate has given a great gift to all those involved in encounters between the Church and contemporary art by engaging with a particular moment in such encounters, whilst also creating new avenues for the reflection on such encounters in the future. All who read Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace will be grateful for the insights and challenges that he provides in doing so. 


Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for Partnerships at St Martin-in-the-Fields and Priest-in-charge at St Stephen Walbrook, a City of London church which works in partnership with St Martin’s. He is also a director of Sophia Hubs Limited and secretary to commission4mission. Before being ordained Jonathan worked in the Civil Service forming partnerships to support disabled people in finding or retaining work. He is co-author of ‘The Secret Chord,’ an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. 


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