What is Art? What is Church?

Candace Whitman ’79 B.A.

Before I became a pastor, art was my professional focus, and I notice now how art today – installations, videos – has pretty much left the canvas. I can’t help but wonder if there is any connection with the way people are leaving the church.

Yes, there are still traditional painters and sculptors. And there are indeed traditional steeple churches doing just fine. But for decades now a visit to a gallery inspires a basic, ancient question, “What is art?” New methods and materials are expressing a myriad of ideas. Representational art isn’t capturing the imagination the way it used to. It makes me wonder what we would discover if people of faith returned to a foundational question: “What is church?”

My art history training ended in the 1980s and didn’t really prepare me to understand this new “conceptual” art – although I want to. For those clergy whose seminary education was situated in another era, we too may not have the tools to understand contemporary trends, including lagging worship attendance – although we need to.

The move away from the canvas has given the artist a fresh hearing in new conditions. It promises a more direct encounter between the work and the viewer, freed from conventional expectations. Art made in an open field, art made out of light – if artists can leave behind a traditional canvas and still have art, perhaps society is ready for worship outside the familiar expectations of “church,” new settings that provide a fresh hearing for the gospel.

This wouldn’t be the first time. The iconoclasts in the Reformation smashed the statues and whitewashed the paintings in church interiors. Behind the destruction was not contempt for art but an awareness of the power of images upon the human spirit. Removing the gilded saints would take away the temptation of idolatry. And Protestantism thrived in plain sanctuaries. Once again, beliefs are unsettled and embattled, forcing us to reexamine whether the gospel is being obscured by ritual, by architecture, by programming.

Recently I saw an exhibit by an artist who was formerly a professional dancer. On display was a video of herself making movements around her studio. Her moves weren’t dance, but they weren’t random either. The choreography seemed exploratory, spontaneous. At first, her point seemed inaccessible, but with my pastor’s hat on, I saw it as the beginning of a conversation. The video was about an idea that intrigued her enough to investigate. It included a tacit invitation to share in it. Not that any specific response was required. “I don’t presume to know what people should take away from my art,” one painter told me recently. Yet the video seemed to invite a response.

This approach has a sustained contemporary energy in the art world. I wonder if our denominations need to reexamine what is church – and then offer a more distilled, direct experience, an unencumbered, authentic invitation to God’s life in sharing, community, discipleship. And could we do it trusting the response to the Holy Spirit?

Jesus’ words “come and see” come to mind. Consider all the places he taught, healed, and preached. He was out in the world where people were, and hardly ever in the synagogue – unless it was to challenge what he found there.

Here and there, ministers are finding new places for conducting church: a Bible study in a bar, worship in a café, loft spaces converted to sacred spaces. I claim no inside track to success, but my work as an artist emboldens me to take chances  in ministry, and I am grateful for that. Of all my experiments, our summer “Beach Church” has the strongest following. I think it’s because it offers an unusual setting with a pared-down liturgy. People are relaxed and open under the sky. It feels intimate. We take time between the message and prayers to listen to the lapping water, the wind in the trees, the birds. The quiet nearly brought one visitor to tears. This is a recipe that works here, for us, for now. That is enough. I am learning to start the conversation about church in different ways and places. A onesize- fits-all proclamation isn’t where the future lies.

I have heard artists say that going into their studio is like going into church. We might consider regarding church like a studio. Take some chances prayerfully. The art of doing church might mean putting traditional forms aside.

Art may have left the canvas, and people may be leaving church. But Christ has not left us to ourselves. May the Spirit guide our work to capture imaginations again with the wonder of the gospel, wherever we possibly can.

The Rev. Candace Whitman ’79 B.A. is pastor of Fishers Island (NY) Union Chapel (United Church of Christ). She is the author or illustrator of 13 children’s books.