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To keep the arts alive, we need a lot more imagination

Over the course of the pandemic, unemployment in the arts has cut deep – perhaps deeper than any other industry. The New York Times have called it a looming ‘Great Cultural Depression’. Many actors, musicians and writers have clung on – despite slipping through the furlough net, or witnessing endless setbacks – only to find themselves facing predictions that their sector won’t ‘recover’ for five years at best.

Yet the truth is that the problems in the arts pre-date Covid. The pandemic has accelerated a growing rot in our cultural sector. The arts need help – more than that, the arts need change. Somehow, it’s become not just accepted, but ingrained that being an artist means precarious work, completely uneven shouldering of risk, and high barriers of entry for anyone without privilege to stand on. Public opinion sees all that as the price to pay for ‘doing something you love’, and artists have accepted those sacrifices. But it’s certainly not the only way the arts could work. And after the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether it really will continue to ‘work’ at all.

The state of the arts

Money is a problem in the arts. Not the lack of it, but the distribution of it. As with many things in our society, the wealth gravitates towards a minority. Those who have “made it” are the obvious ones, but more significantly I’m talking about the managerial class who create stable jobs for themselves on the back of precarious workers. This trend is increasing, and will continue, for as long as this group consolidate their power and, in turn, transform the cultural sector towards their primary goal (ie. making lots of money, whatever they might say to the contrary).

One new example of this is Hipgnosis, a UK investment fund that treats songs as financial assets. This means they buy up the rights to songs, like Bob Dylan’s back-catalogue – whereupon their goal is to increase the value of said songs for their new owners – eg. giving them prominence on streaming platforms, getting them placed in adverts, films and squeezing all the nostalgia they can out of them. But, of course, they’re only likely to buy songs from artists who are already a safe bet, most likely older artists willing to cash in their pension, as it were. They want already-proven “hits” that can be squeezed anew, and why not: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing'” was streamed 10 million times a week in the last year.

Nothing reveals the truth more than that moniker “content creator”. The frame is the focus: you just fill it.

Putting aside the many questions this raises – and I think there are very pertinent questions about what this trend does to our culture – just ask yourself this: how can a sector of the economy worth £92bn – more than oil and gas, life sciences, aviation and the car industry combined – be creating steady, profitable jobs for investment funds, or PR companies, but be notoriously, flagrantly unstable for the actual art creators making work now? To the extent that the phrase ‘starving artist’ is a cliché?

It’s because the priority is the machine, the investments, the shareholders – not those doing the work. Nothing reveals that truth more than the moniker “content creator”. The frame is the focus: you just fill it. This ready acceptance of precarity is part of what made the arts uniquely unprepared for something as destabilising as a pandemic.

What hurts the arts, hurts our society

So far, so capitalism. But these trends, applied in the arts, have an outsized effect on our wider, communal life in our country. In a nutshell, what hurts the arts, hurts our society.

Culture and community are so interwoven as to be essentially the same thing. Culture is both the basis of community and the outworking of community. What affects our cultural spaces, affects the very core of our common life. In this case, if money is the driving factor in the making of art and culture, then our communal life itself becomes commodified. Our ways of gathering together, to sing songs, or watch games, or hear stories, happen in the shadows of vast advertising billboards, or on the stages of bizarre game shows.

Author and painter Makoto Fujimura puts it like this: 

An industrial map in the mid-twentieth century colored New York’s Hudson River black. The mapmakers considered a black river a good thing—full of industry! The more factory outputs, the more progress. When that map was made, “nature” was widely seen as a resource to be exploited. Few people considered the consequences of careless disposal of industrial waste. The culture has shifted dramatically over the last fifty years. When I share this story today, most people shudder and ask how anyone could think of a polluted river as good. But today we are doing the same thing with the river of culture. Think of the arts and other cultural enterprises as rivers that water the soil of culture. We are painting this cultural river black—full of industry, dominated by commercial interests, careless of toxic byproducts—and there are still cultural mapmakers who claim that this is a good thing. The pollution makes it difficult to for us to breathe, difficult for artists to create, difficult for any of us to see beauty through the murk.

Fujimura uses ‘beauty’ here in a very broad sense. It’s not just some pleasant ‘nice-to-have’, but the very humanness of life itself: meaningful human connection, spiritual revelation, joy, purpose, compassion: all of these things are threatened by a machine-like, money-driven approach to our own cultural spaces that alienates us from one another and any sense of community.

Yes, for now, art still flourishes in the dark, despite its constant manipulation: it’s a testament to its life and its potency, and of course to the many good people, inside or outside of the church, who strive for beauty and humanness against the tide. The many grants, funds and initiatives that exist are wonderful too, but they only underscore the fact that the ‘market’ approach to the arts doesn’t work on its own. Given the increasing pressure, soon it may not work at all.

Why should the church help? And how?

Frankly, I believe that everything I’ve described is the work of those ‘powers and forces’ that the Apostle Paul warned about: the dark influences warping human intent and appropriating good things for chaotic ends. As followers of Jesus, we long for our society to be more like the Kingdom of God, even though we accept that the work won’t be complete before Christ’s return – and in the arts, this has to mean overturning some tables, or rather, overturning the outdated concepts of work and value that have dominated our thinking (to the minority’s benefit) since the industrial revolution.

We should see the job of an artist as something like a carer: an unpaid, undervalued role, which nevertheless stops society from collapsing.

I began by mentioning just how much the arts are worth to our economy – but I no longer believe that the answer lies in simply paying artists more. Rather, we need category shifts in the way we look at art. Like Makoto Fujimura, we should worry about the state of our culture in the same way we worry about the state of our environment: because it affects all of us, and it reflects pretty poorly on us Christians if we are the ones neglecting it. Like Rookmaaker, we should see the job of an artist as something like a carer: an unpaid, undervalued role, which nevertheless stops society from collapsing.

If we haven’t seen in the past year how much we need culture-makers – the ones who cultivate our shared social spaces – then I can’t imagine what will convince us. But if artists are indeed carers of sorts, then expecting them to simultaneously make their work economically viable, while they keep our local communities alive, undermines everything.

To create a new model for artists is indeed a big feat of the imagination. But as Ursula LeGuin said:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.

I love that Sputnik can give out £500 grants to a few artists a year – it’s a joy to be part of. But we haven’t begun to change the power dynamic at play. We want to think much bigger, and I long to see the church catch the vision for how important, and spiritually revitalising, change in the arts could be. For now, why not let your own imagination run for a minute: if we accepted that artists play a necessary social role, but an essentially unpaid one, how do you think the church should treat them? And what could we do, right now, to make that role possible? If we don’t start asking ourselves that, it may stop being feasible altogether.

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Are you a patron, or a consumer?

Arts patronage sounds very grand. It’s the kind of lofty practice that built St Peters. It is the realm of rich philanthropists and open handed millionaires.

The only thing is that, well… it’s not. In a way, we are all patrons of the arts whether we like it or not. We all buy stuff, or at the very least stream stuff, and our attention and the capital behind it encourages more art like that to be made. 

This should cause us to be careful about the art we consume, but more than that, I think it is a warning against viewing our art engagement through the lens of ‘consumption’ at all.

Our society is not known as consumerist for nothing. We are offered different diets in all the different areas of our lives, and we make almost all of our choices like we’re ordering from a menu. The watchword is value for money and the key question is how can I get what I want for as little money as possible?

Now, it’s easy to write off this system completely, but I personally think that this is an acceptable course of action when deciding which green beans to buy in Aldi. 

It is not, however, a good way to approach art.

Muddy digital waters

Obviously in the good old days, this was more clear cut. Let’s take music, for example. Twenty years ago, to listen to the music you wanted to listen to when you wanted to listen to it, you had three options: a) Buy a physical copy, b) Copy it, c) Steal it. 

C was obviously bad. B was basically the same as C (and deep down we all knew it). Therefore, if we wanted to appease our consciences, we were left with A!

Fast forward to today. Not saying it’s better. Not saying it’s worse. It’s just different. At least in some artforms. 

Take music and film as two examples. Almost none of us pay for individual artistic products in these disciplines anymore. Obviously, there are still DVD collectors and I’ve heard cassettes may be making a comeback, but for the vast majority of people, we choose our provider, pay our subscription, then stream.

I think, for music, it’s 0.004p a song. Might work if you have 10 million streams (and an advertising deal, and a sold out world tour). Not good if you are feeling your way, trying things out and producing promising but flawed music that could evolve into something great. 

If we all continue to approach art as consumers now, we will probably kill off the artists who exist in the ‘aspiring’ category, and ensure that the art that survives is unchallenging, populist and totally forgettable.

Yes, the production costs for emerging musicians have gone down (no CDs to press) but there was always a real buzz about breaking even when you’d printed up 1,000 CDs. It is not so encouraging when you spend hours and days and weeks crafting your opus, only to receive back £12.50 from AWAL for 6 months of solid streams. 

It must be even harder for filmmakers, and it’s likely to get harder. In terms of film, we’ve already got very used to watching most of our content for free on YouTube and Vimeo. Of course, we stream major releases, but you are not likely to find your friend’s short film in the Amazon Prime search bar. 

If we all continue to approach art as consumers now, we will probably kill off the artists who exist in the ‘aspiring’ category, and ensure that the art that survives is unchallenging, populist and totally forgettable. 

Or worse, any artist who wishes to make a living from their work will have to bow before corporations to sell their products. Who knows what the future holds for live art, but what we do know is that we’re likely to be spending more time in front of screens post-COVID, not less. This means that we will be spending more time being sold stuff. This means that, while other revenue streams dry up, the lure of advertisers will increase and artists who are willing to jump on that train will get paid, while others won’t.

I’m in no way suggesting that artists shouldn’t work for corporations or contribute towards advertisements. In many disciplines, to draw a line here would be career suicide. However, surely this should be an exception rather than the rule. Surely, we don’t want the corporations to be the sole patrons of the arts. That would be a bad thing, right?

Approaching art as patrons, not consumers

Now, I’m not suggesting there is an easy fix for all of this, and there are complexities here that need to be fleshed out at much more length. However, if enough of us made an effort to approach art as patrons not as consumers, surely it would improve the situation.

When it comes to art, especially our friends’ art, I think we need to learn to turn off the consumerist part of our brains and act in a different way. 

What could this look like? Here are a couple of practical examples.

1. A local musician releases an album on Bandcamp, asking you to pay whatever you want. 

A consumer does one of two things. They either download it for free or shrug their shoulders and wait till it comes out on Apple Music. 

But what does a patron do? A patron pays them for their trouble. I mean seriously, even if it’s not a classic, have you heard many albums that are of less value than a medium sized Costa latte? Surely £2.50 is not asking too much just as an act of respect for the human enterprise of music making. If you actually enjoy it, why not go back and download it again and bump it up to a tenner?

This is not generosity. This is not giving to charity. This is common sense. If you want more music like that made again, pay the artists so that they might have another go. 

2. A film maker friend of yours goes off the radar for 6 months to work on a short film. 

You hear about the project when you see a Facebook event for the film screening (this is, of course, in the far distant future).

A consumer again does one of two things. He assumes he can blag a Vimeo code off his friend later on, so stays in that night to continue binge watching The Crown from his sofa. Alternatively, he pesters his friend for a place on the guest list. After all, they’re bound to have got an Arts council grant at some point anyway, so why do they need my money?

But what does a patron do? Firstly, a patron turns up. Secondly, she pays for her ticket without moaning. Thirdly, she, at the very least, buys her friend a couple of drinks afterwards. Maybe some merch, if there is some.

If we care about the arts, we need to change our mindset, from that of consumer to that of patron when engaging with the art that we say we care about.

Again, these are not the actions of a maverick altruist. They are simply the things you do if you value the art that you are consumi… sorry. Start again.

They are simply the things you do if you value the art that you are enjoying. The art that is firing your imagination. The art that is putting you in touch with your humanity. However imperfect it may be.

These are just two examples, and I’m sure you can think of many more. The specifics are not the point. The point is that, if we care about the arts, we need to change our mindset, from that of consumer to that of patron when engaging with the art that we say we care about.

And that is the case whether you are an appreciator of art or an artist yourself. At Sputnik, we’ve always underlined that we’re here to give money to artists, not pester them to give money to us. This is still the case and will not be changing any time soon. However, the call to patronage is for artists too. In fact, there is a sense that if you don’t pick up this role with others, it is hard to see how you can complain if others (for example, your church) refuses to take up this role with you.

I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine moaning about the fact that an album that she’d just released (on a reasonably reputable label) had been downloaded illegally something like 12,000 times from a particular torrent site (I told you it was a few years ago). I expressed my condolences, but was slightly less sympathetic when she revealed that she downloaded almost all of the music she listened to from similar sites. This was blatant hypocrisy. 

Let’s model the attitude that we want others to have to our art and if, to fund this spirit of patronage, you need to pass on the occasional medium sized Costa latte, well, you know, your reward will be in heaven!

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Don’t patronise artists by not patronising artists

One of my first questions to artists when we started Sputnik was “how can the church support you more effectively?” The answer was always immediate, instinctive and apologetic, and it was always the same.


At first, I thought that they were being facetious. I mean, you can’t go around asking for money. From churches at that. How brazen! However soon, it started to sink in.

After all, it’s not that different to what James writes in his letter:

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

The churches that I connect with have an increasing openness to supporting the arts and artists, but it is often of the ‘God bless you. We appreciate you’ variety, but often stalls at the payment end of things! You could say that this is better than nothing, but in reality, to do the first without the second is demotivating, annoying and quickly appears very insincere. 

I got a small flavour of this a few years ago when I was in talks with a church about putting on an event for artists. Leaders from this church had been very encouraging to me personally and verbally supportive of Sputnik (we love your heart/what you’re doing is valuable and important/keep going) and as far as I saw it, they’d agreed for me to put on an event for the artists in their church and others from surrounding churches too.

I was happy to do all the legwork, do the presentation, etc., and I wasn’t expecting payment. However, I also wasn’t expecting to be told that I’d have to pay for room hire and for the attendees’ lunches too! Not getting paid is one thing, but paying £800 to provide a service is another thing entirely. I politely declined the ‘opportunity’.

It seems that when it comes to church and art, there is certainly a disconnect regarding money. Although this is only one of many reasons churches and artists often miss each other, it is an important one.

Therefore, we don’t want to just talk about art. We don’t even just want to build community for artists or profile their work. We want to fund them. In fact, we don’t even want to stop there. Why keep all the fun to ourselves? We want to sweep Christians (individuals and churches) back up in the joy of arts patronage.

We want to be able to say: this is from the church. The church that has made mistakes in this area. The church that may have taken you for granted before. But the church who is really trying to learn in this area.

For this reason, we started our patrons scheme in 2017, and since then we’ve slowly built up a group of lovely patrons, both individuals and churches, who provide the funds that we can distribute to artists in the form of grants for specific projects. When COVID hit, we rerouted these funds towards our Emergency Artist Fund, but now, we’re swinging our attention back to the patronage scheme. In light of this, we wanted to shine the spotlight back on to arts patronage and put forward the ‘whys’, ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of supporting artists.

Yes, we are going to be asking you to give money to something. But, it’s not to us. We want to be a funnel to get money to as many Christ following artists as we can. And, with every penny, we want to be able to say: this is from the church. The church that has made mistakes in this area. The church that may have taken you for granted before. But the church who is really trying to learn in this area.

I’m not looking for the evangelical church to wind the clock back to the Middle Ages. If my memory serves me correctly, the church’s benevolence towards the arts in those days had its drawbacks! However, I am hopeful that we can do better than we have done in recent times.

Take, for example, the church I mentioned above. I was pretty fed up from the interactions described above, but with a bit of hindsight, I kind of get it. I probably didn’t communicate all that clearly and made assumptions along the way. More to the point though, that same church have more than made up for that slight misunderstanding in subsequent years and have given us genuine, concrete – and yes, financial – support since, for which I am very grateful.

If we can see past the blunders of the past, I think that this is a real moment for the church to grab hold again of its important role in patronising the arts, and if you’re even a little bit interested in getting involved, stick with us for the next few blog posts and we’ll spell out how that might look.

In the meantime, please feel free to peruse our back catalogue on this subject and hopefully we’ll see you next time. 

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Can arts patronage help reshape our post-COVID culture?

Since late 2017, arts patronage has become one of the core pillars of Sputnik’s work, and raison d’etre. There are certainly some things we’ve learned in the last 2-3 years, but if anything, we’ve only become more convinced of the need for this role, and the opportunity for the church to do more.

Right now, considering the damage facing the creative industries in lockdown and its aftermath, we’ve temporarily shifted our approach – to simply offer emergency funds to out-of-work artists. But at some point we’ll be returning to funding artistic projects, and as we consider the future, it’s time to raise the bugle again (sadly still in the office) and talk about the need for change in the arts at large. 

So, why is arts patronage needed in this moment?

The arts are (part of) the lifeblood of society

I’ve written before that ‘culture’ can be thought of as the fruit of human community. When humans join together in clans, tribes, cities: culture happens. Culture isn’t exclusively art, but the arts are a pretty big part of it. 

Under lockdown, I believe we felt pretty quickly our need for culture, for shared experiences and that connecting lifeblood. It wasn’t just that we missed our friends; we missed the contexts in which we usually see our friends: pubs, cafés, gigs, theatres, football grounds. Streaming services, and the usual online chat around films and shows, patched some of the gap. More interesting were the bursts of community activity: musicians playing for their neighbours, online table readings for the fun of it, tennis games from tower block windows, zines and arts initiatives springing up to capture the moment.

No doubt our threshold for boredom is embarrassingly low compared to previous generations, but even so: can you imagine lockdown without art? And yet our government continually stumbled in understanding the threat, and the needs, of the creative industries. It’s hard to shake the feeling that it was the continual reminder of the industries’ financial heft (£111.7bn in 2018), rather than the real value of culture, that moved the government’s hand. I couldn’t help but face-palm as our Culture Secretary seemed to conflate ‘the arts’ with ‘classical music in the park’.

Arts and capitalism doesn’t really make sense

I’m glad the arts make a financial difference, but no-one should have to explain that stimulating the economy isn’t where art’s value lies. What about the arts programs lifting up disempowered youth? What about the spoken word nights where sparks fly and confidence is found? What about – gasp – the amateur arts organisers who bring community to disparate daydreamers?

Anyway, how do you measure the value of a song? Not so long ago, I could pay 79p to download a song that changed my life: and 79p for a waste of three minutes. Now that I pay a subscription charge to listen to any songs I like, it only gets muddier, and the only thing that seems remotely clear is that no-one is getting paid anywhere near enough for their work.

Capitalists are not blind to the fact that artists are still going to create the precious ‘content’ pretty much whether they’re paid or not.

The funny thing is that many (not all!) artists seem to have a desire to give away their work for free. Perhaps it’s knowing that the artistic process is not finished until the art is received by an audience; perhaps it’s a sense that to be ‘gifted’ is not something you possess, but rather an imperative, something you need to get out of your hands for it to fulfil its purpose as a ‘gift’. Unfortunately this internal desire is frequently exploited: capitalists are not blind to the fact that artists are still going to create the precious ‘content’ pretty much whether they’re paid or not. But it does build the sense that art and capitalism are odd bedfellows at best.

There seems a low-level hum around the fact that most Britons don’t want post-lockdown life to return to ‘normal’ as it was. (Colour me surprised). There also seems to be a new energy – out of necessity, I suppose – for local, grassroots initiatives in pretty much every sphere of public life. Depending where you live, these might involve local councils; equally likely is that they’ll spring up as a form of collectively-run projects, a more active form of citizenship.

Out of the tragedy of the last few months, the painful loss and all the rest, there is a window for re-thinking things that have seemed bleakly unchangeable for too long. But we need imagination, and we need risky generosity. Can we create better, less capitalist ways to get art made?

We need to play our part in culture

Makoto Fujimura, in his eye-opening book Culture Care (now a podcast!), compares our culture to a local ecosystem, like a river: in a polluted culture, heavy with the demands of commodification and mass-consumption, artists are pushed to make shallow and un-nourishing work, just to survive. Everyone suffers from the loss of a rich common life. 

Caring for our mutual culture, he asserts, is a societal good. We do it in the way that we clean parks, or we clothe the homeless; not as a thinly-veiled excuse to share the gospel, but as a thing that is good in itself, a way to bless others and create the environment for faith and spirituality to grow.

There is a counter-cultural current growing: a desire for a common life not merely precipitated on cruel markets. I believe it’s a current worth encouraging. Ideas like arts patronage are a part of this: a way to allow artists to make work that enriches culture, not just what sells. It is, of course, an old idea – most of the art that has endured through history was supported by patrons – and in a sense, its ethos already exists in a hundred arts organisations who make constant sacrifices for the arts. Sputnik alone can’t support the arts sector! But we want to go further. 

There is a counter-cultural current growing: a desire for a common life not merely precipitated on cruel markets.

It’s a difficult time for many, not just artists, so it’s an odd time to talk about fundraising: but let’s not talk as if this is ‘charity’. This isn’t about ‘starving artists’ needing a leg-up. This is about an apocalyptic moment that could allow us to rout the profiteers, the moneylenders if you like, from the spiritual heart of our common life.

We’ll be talking more about our particular Patrons scheme in the coming months as we relaunch things, but we want to hear from you, too. What can we be thinking about? What should we try?

And, of course – you can currently sign up as a Patron yourself from as little as £5 a month!

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Perspective is the Key to Survival for Career Artists

Perspective Marlita Hill Sputnik Faith Arts

I remember a day not long after God had told me to quit my job: I was driving home, and I felt like my chest was going to cave in. It felt like I had on a corset that was too tight. It was the pressure of feeling like I had no possible way of making it through this. As far as I could see, there was no way that I could do what God had told me to leave my job to do.

In that moment, I lacked perspective – and that’s a crucial requirement for any career artist. As you’re walking out God’s promise to you for your career life, it’s important for you to check yourself at each juncture about how you’re seeing what you see. What is your perspective on the things you’re watching unfold in front of you?

We Looked Like Grasshoppers

In the book of Numbers, a group of men get challenged in this very area. In this account, God tells Moses to send some men to scout the land God had promised would belong to Israel.

Moses says to them, “Go up to the mountains, and see what the land is like: whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many; whether the land they dwell in is good or bad; whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or strongholds; whether the land is rich or poor; and whether there are forests there or not. Be of good courage. And bring some of the fruit of the land.”

The men go out. They spy out the land and they collect fruit. They report back to Israel: “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large.” They recount all the different tribes there, and they say: we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them!

Basically, ain’t no way we getting in this land.

Perspective is not just about what you see. It’s about how you see what you see. Remember, they’re in the process of being brought into their promised land. They were not sent to find out if they could get in; that was already settled. They were only sent to find out what was there. But they lost sight of that, and instead made conclusions about their situation from the way they saw it. They reported from the wrong perspective.

They talked themselves out of God’s promise, because of their own perspective on it.

It wasn’t the fact that they reported these difficulties. The difficulties were there, and they were real. It was that they lost sight of why they were sent there, and of what to do with the difficulties they saw. They didn’t come back and say here’s what’s going on. Let’s seek God about how to deal with this. That’s not how they saw the situation. Instead, they talked themselves out of God’s promise because of their own perspective on it.

Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.”

I just think this is so funny because these men are like no, y’all didn’t hear what I said. I said the Canaanites are here the Jebusites are there, these people are here, you got these giants over here. We can’t do this! There are times when you’re walking out God’s promise where no matter how you look at it, it seems there’s no possible way you’re going to be able to do this.

Getting Nostalgic for the Past

Because of the report these men brought back, “all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness!”

It makes me laugh, because this is the insane talk that truly happens at some point when you step out to believe God. Now let’s remember what was happening in Egypt. They were enslaved. They had no freedom – the Egyptians treated them horrifically. The whole reason God tapped Moses on the shoulder was because they cried out to Him about how horrible Egypt was and how they were being so mistreated. They were in the position that they’re in in Numbers 13 because God answered their cry.

That’s important to remember. Sometimes, in the midst of God answering us, our perspective goes awry. You are in the position you’re in now because of God’s faithfulness to you. Remember how miserable you were behind that desk job? Remember how much you prayed that God would make a way for you to leave Kansas and get to New York? Remember how hollow and depressed you were not being able to do anything with your art?

Without the proper perspective, we start to devise steps and solutions of our own making.

Instead of looking at their current situation, remembering they were there because God was in the middle of fulfilling His promise to them; instead of seeing this as the next step into that promise; their perspective became that God had brought them there to die, on a mission that was guaranteed to fail.

Their perspective was so bleak that they planned to select a leader who would take them back to Egypt – the place of their oppression. This is another way we get it wrong: without the proper perspective, we start to have crazy conversations, and we start to devise steps and solutions of our own making. And they are always stupid ideas that make the situation much worse if we actually go through with them.

Being Blessed with ‘Enough’

I quit my job in June 2016 at God’s asking. After an amazing experience in Spain over the summer, I came home to begin the next season; and things were dead quiet. I went from 7 years of being busy with plans and phone calls and projects… to silence. And I’m the kind of person who’s able to find plenty of peace and enjoyment in long periods of solitude and silence. But in this particular season, the silence was deafening and hard to deal with.

I felt anxious; it was hard to sit still, and the overwhelming presence of inactivity was very hard. Not only was I broke, but I was broke and inactive. My phone wasn’t ringing, no emails were coming in. I just felt stuck in limbo, like no progress was being made. All I could think about was the gnawing feeling that I left my job for nothing.

And then one day while I was cleaning the house, the Lord checked me and he checked me hard – by reminding me of the previous four years. Over those years, I wanted to write, but I was working full-time; I would get up early in the morning to write, or I would stay up late at night to write. I would write on my lunch breaks. I would take my stuff with me everywhere I went, so that any available time I had I would squeeze in time to write these books that He told me to write. And because I was faithful when it was difficult, he had brought me into a time where all I had to do now was write, a time where I had the freedom to do nothing else but write. He had brought me into a time of blessing, a time where he was rewarding me and honouring me: a season where I didn’t have to juggle my life to follow him anymore.

I’ve had conversations like the children of Israel, where I felt nostalgic for the times I didn’t have to worry about paying my rent, even though there was no doubt it was time for me to leave my job. Whenever I would substitute teach, or try to stick my toe in to go back, as much as I’d remember very quickly why I’d left, there was the very real temptation that “at least I didn’t have to worry about this” or “at least I had that”.

In those “at least” times, when the day-to-day-ness of walking this out seems overwhelming, when the bill collectors are the people who check on me the most, I remember God’s faithfulness to the children of Israel even in the Manna season. Yes, during that season every day was about just having enough. But for forty years in that wilderness, they always had enough to eat. Was it what they wanted? No. Was it what they needed in that season? Absolutely. And I’ve seen that same faithfulness in my own life. Even in a very, very slim financial season, my rent’s been paid every month, I’ve never gone hungry, my lights haven’t been turned off. When I get my eyes on the right things, I can see God beautifully bringing me into the very thing He promised me. I can see His hand at work all around me.

So I challenge you to take some time and assess how you’re seeing what you see, right here in the moment you’re in. I challenge you to see God who has been faithful in taking care of you; and I challenge you to acknowledge all the signs of forward progress He has allowed you to see and experience along the way.

This article has been adapted with permission from Marlita Hill’s podcast, The Kingdom Art Life.

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St. Peter’s Seminary: a Memorial to Lost Futures

St Peter's Seminary Unseen Luke Sewell Sputnik Faith Arts-08

For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.

In the woods outside Cardross in Dumbarton, Scotland, lie the remains of St. Peter’s Seminary.

Finished in the brutalist style, a megalith of raw, exposed concrete, the seminary was designed to house up to 100 priests-in-training.

The building was made almost immediately redundant. Before it was completed, the Second Vatican Council ruled that priests should train in the parishes they would eventually serve instead of in isolation. This, coupled with increasing social secularism ultimately resulted in the closure of the seminary in 1980. It has since been reclaimed by the trees, by rain and by fire.

St Peter's Seminary Unseen Luke Sewell Sputnik Faith Arts-08
St Peter’s Seminary, by Luke Sewell

St. Peter’s was intended as a meeting place between the old and new worlds – the brutalist complex encasing a Baronial Revival mansion called Kilmahew House. Built in an L-shape, the seminary’s bedrooms formed a repeating ziggurat pattern over the central chapel complex.

Perhaps more so than ever, St. Peter’s feels like a mysterious, liminal space between old and new. The ruins are surrounded by woodland gorges, rushing streams and old stone bridges; Tolkienesque but for the steel fences and barbed wire preventing access.

Cutting through a golf course, into the woods, past an abandoned shipping container and the ruins of Kilmahew Castle takes you to the gates of St. Peter’s itself.

Again; the collision of old and new. A Kubrick moonbase of a building, created with bold intent and great optimism, reduced to the same fate as the medieval fortress it neighbours, a crumbling edifice coated in moss and graffiti.

Lost too is the way of life the building was intended to nurture. As we wandered around the site, we came across several pathways built for contemplative walks, of great isolation and beauty, bereft of the seminarians they were built to transform.

The roof of the chapel, long since decayed, is now completely absent. The walls are covered with various graffiti, messages including ‘bath time’ above one of the reflecting pools, ‘expensive shit’ along a balcony and ‘pleasure some’ along one of the roofbeams. Inverted crosses line the walls; perhaps a reference to the death of St. Peter himself, or an attempt at sacrilege.

Most upsettingly, the altar is destroyed. The great table, which fittingly took the form of a giant slab of concrete, has been reduced to rubble and is set behind an extra steel fence at the south wall of the chapel. Where the Blessed Sacrament was once given and received, is made inaccessible, and from where the precious blood flowed lies a pool of stagnant water.

Walter Benjamin, fleeing Nazi-occupied France at Midnight in the Century, wrote of Lost Futures.* Where history feigns a narrative of unbridled technological and social advancement, Benjamin describes an angel of the past, who sees nothing but wreckage upon wreckage, ruin upon ruin, piled up to the sky. The angel longs to turn back time, to mend what was broken, but is carried inexorably forward by a “storm from Paradise” – a storm Benjamin names Progress.

For every supposed technological innovation, there are thousands of lost futures – those of indigenous peoples, of ecosystems, of workers, trampled beneath the feet of history’s relentless triumphal procession. Rarely are we able to memorialise these losses. They are for the most part discarded, forgotten and destroyed.

It is intriguing how often the deep, melancholic sense of loss to which Benjamin alludes is communicated through brutalist architecture. Recent years have seen the disappearance of many of Britain’s most distinctive post-war buildings. Progress is often cited as the cause, and the buildings have largely been demolished to the protests of a very small, if vocal, minority. They are often sad, white boys like me. Some mourn loss of a unique aesthetic, others the architecture’s distinct utopian intent. But look closer and you can see the boot prints of the triumphal march of history over the lives of the oppressed and the marginalised, just as Benjamin did. They are present in the ruins of Birmingham Central Library, demolished to make way for a shiner model which actually holds fewer books. As a result, the city began disposing of surplus stock, beginning with all works not written in the English language. In Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, former social housing built as ‘roads in the sky’, now owned by ‘regeneration specialists’ who appropriated the tragic romantic pleas of former residents as PR for their gentrification project. Or Glasgow’s Red Road flats, once home to 4700 people, and more recently used as housing for asylum seekers. Their demolition was originally intended to be broadcast as a kind of bombastic comic punchline to the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but safety concerns delayed their destruction by a year.

Whilst the fight to reclaim the past is important, there is also something profound in the memorialisation of the lost future.

There has always been a great struggle to reclaim and uphold the forgotten narratives of history, and it has been heartening to see this struggle brought to the fore in recent years – in our museums, curricula and public spaces. Whilst the fight to reclaim the past from the dominant, hegemonic narrative of the rulers and powers continues to be of great importance, there is also something profound in the memorialisation of the lost future.

In this guise St Peter’s may still serve us. It is important to recognise that it is in no way representative of all lost futures. It remains the property of an immensely powerful and affluent organised religion, built at the seat of one of the largest imperial projects in history. And yet it reminds us and invites us to join Walter Benjamin in clinging with grim hope to the expectation of the Last Day, when all unseen history is made known, every marginalised narrative honoured and upheld, when those crushed underfoot are raised up, and those in triumphal procession will be laid low. And no suffering will have been in vain.

In between, let us live in creative, active anticipation of that day, honouring and advocating for the lost and forgotten. To loosely quote David Blower, whose latest album was charged with Benjamin, there are not tears enough to do justice to history’s lost futures, but in facing this sorrow we surrender the hope of saving what we thought was ours, catching instead a glimpse of a future that belongs to none, and all.

* ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. Walter Benjamin does not use the term Lost Futures, but it does serve as the title for a book on Britain’s disappearing post-war architecture by Owen Hopkins, in which St. Peter’s Seminary features.

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The Entropy Blues: Contemplating our Artistic Mortality

Artistic Mortality Chris Donald Alan Lomax Blues Sputnik Faith Arts

In the internet age, it’s easy to feel like nothing will ever be truly lost. If we picture our lives decades in the future, it’s easier to imagine ourselves fighting for our old pictures to be deleted, than mourning over lost memories that we’ll never be able to recover.

But you don’t have to look back very far to find an era where the opposite was the case – where the idea of your work ‘lasting’ through time was a far from sure bet, especially if you were an everyday folk artist. And there’s something I find fascinating about near-forgotten music and recordings. I have a feeling there’s something valuable to gain from that sense of fragility and limitation, in a world where you can’t rely on the cloud to back you up forever.

The folly of phonographers

The phonograph was the earliest technology that could record and play back sound. But early phonograph companies didn’t think of recordings as cultural artefacts: allegedly, they sometimes sold off recording masters to be used as roofing shingles.

Those early records had a limited practical shelf life, too: the top oxide layer could peel away over time, rendering them unplayable. In order to save old recordings, Archivists in the Library of Congress developed a laborious technique of holding down the oxide and re-recording the master one rotation at a time. But in other cases, the oxide just got lost, leaving a useless disc.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ heritage radio station WWOZ faced the forces of nature on a much more disastrous scale: the flooded studio was left with shelves of tapes drenched in water and muck. A team from the National Recording Preservation Foundation worked through the reels, drying them out by baking them in a pie oven. Many of them recovered just enough that they could be played once before falling apart: the team captured them to a digital format on that single play.

The privilege of recording

There have been less innocuous reasons your music might not survive through the ages, too. In South Africa, Rodriguez’s The Establishment Blues was reinterpreted as an anti-apartheid anthem – and the government literally scratched out the track from any imported copies of the record. (Luckily, it flourished underground anyway). In the Sixties, local radio stations in the States blacklisted particular records in response to civil rights protests – and some of those records disappeared completely. The National Recording Preservation Foundation is currently trying to track them down again. In fact, they estimate that as much as 82% of all commercial recorded music is unavailable to the general public, sitting unplayed on a dusty shelf somewhere, if copies still exist at all.

That’s before you even take into account the question of access to the recording process – something that has been very, very different in previous eras. The majority of musicians in the 1930s or 40s wouldn’t have made it to a recording booth, whether for practical reasons or social.

There were attempts to counteract the biases of the industry: ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax set about interviewing and recording unknown blues and gospel musicians in the American Delta as early as the 1930s. Lomax could be seen lugging around early recording equipment weighing over 500 pounds as a sign of his reverent obsession. His recordings are still intact, and listening to them now feels raw and otherworldly. Each is a two or three minute window into another time and place, along with a performer’s name, and scant little else. The scrappy recordings feel like a liminal space, a grey area in between ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’.

They feel voyeuristic in a way – I’m viewing these musicians dimly, as a tourist to their experience, separated by time, place, and particularly privilege. They are ‘folk’ musicians in the original sense: not as a genre, but the phenomenon of local artists making work for their time and locality.

That’s why all of this does, after all, relate to us troubadours in the digital age. I doubt we worry much that our recordings might crumble into dust in the next 50 years (though I’ve lost my fair share of files). But even if our art lives on digitally, it has its own mortality.

Firstly, instead of the physical entropy of analogue recordings, we have a gigantic, continental databerg that will swallow us up into anonymity. Secondly, our cultural moment will move on; rapidly, you’d think, given the impending end of our current Western era. Like the Delta musicians, we’ll become an historical artefact. 

Being present in our work

So, what we’re left with is the present. Is that depressing, or is it a helpful spur? Others on this site have posed the question of our work’s ultimate future, beyond broken records and flooded studios. I think Sputnik generally chimes with ‘incarnational’ theology, the worldview that says creation, and bodies, and physical reality, and the things we make, are all important, and sanctified. So, yes, a rebuttal to all this might be that what is lost is not lost forever, but somehow part of the world to come. One might also point to a Van Gogh, whose work was picked up after death and inspires awe decades on. 

But we can’t control any of that. My gut feeling is that a sense of our limitations is useful for something. Like any brush with mortality, hopefully it focuses us more vividly in the here and now, with a childlike (or Christlike) appreciation of the moment. To enjoy our own work for what it is, enjoy the sharing of it, and to pay attention to the work of others that you get to see or hear – that’s a gift in itself. In Lomax’s recordings, perhaps that’s what captures the imagination the most: the sense of place, a present-ness that happened once, and will never be again.

In the life of the world to come, will I really be thinking about the work that was? I hope I’ll be too occupied making mind-bending work in the Eternal Present.

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All That Nothing: A Poem

‘All That Nothing’, read by Hannah Kelly


When I was a child learning to draw my father leant over the page and said,
Don’t forget the gaps

I didn’t know at all what he meant.
I drew anyway, cramming the paper.

Did you know there’s a different line for hair, another for cloth, another for stone and lake and knife and hem and grit.

But where are the gaps? he would say.
You haven’t left space for anyone to get into the drawing.

I had no idea what he meant.

Here, he said
Just hold the pencil differently.


Already, you can draw a leg.
It’s very good.
A leg is hard to draw as you have; to scoop the line over the bridge of the hamstring,
to get the knuckle-shaped bone by the heel.
That is difficult.
But did you know that your lines don’t have to join up?
That the way the pencil goes down and
s w i f t s
across the page
can make – not just a foot

but a leap?


So when I was older learning to write an instinct stood at my shoulder and said,
Don’t forget the gaps.

I didn’t know at all what it meant.
I wrote anyway. Cramming the paper.

Long hours, I bent double over books
And floundered there.
I hurried, harried,
through Lays of welsh hills and the coast of stones
bound by the cadence of those ancient walls
and wandered keenly through the learned halls
of forebears I could not discern
for loudness of their honour.

I don’t want to write a foot

I want to leap.



Cut out
of noise
the harbour
the sliced-up gap and gash through ‘proper’

It turned up
nick of time

come lumbering out of the woods
of acre
the wills
of other say-ers words
from their strings of verses
Their dark wars
and purses
Ways of

And birthed-
words came
where their strokes
Left off- blunt
and barrowed
Bellowed into
being born


I’d love to put Wilfred Owen in a room with Emily Dickenson and see
who comes out standing

only a steady hand
leaves all that nothing in
and lives


did you know?
An eyebrow is not just many hairs shaped like the bend of a bow
It is a flick of question
A tick, darkened at contact, frowning.

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What About the Art That Never Gets Made?

Jess Wood Art That Never Gets Made Sputnik Faith Arts

I think that the scariest of all unseen art is art that never gets made in the first place. 

Can you imagine a world where all the greats never had time to give to their practice, and so it just never developed? 

There are so many factors that can contribute to a lack of undisturbed creative time. It can be self-inflicted: I’m sure many of us have heard the argument that technology’s great capacity for connecting people comes hand in hand with its ability to stop us from connecting with those right in front of us. By keeping everyone insanely busy, it’s become dubbed as a thief of time. And although big tech companies have created screen-time apps – knowing that their users are becoming increasingly concerned with their internet usage – it can still be hard to strike the balance between time spent online, promoting, marketing, researching your work (or, you know, just scrolling) – and actually making the stuff.

Or it can be externally imposed lack of time; the business of work and family life, the responsibilities in and outside of the home. For women there is an added pressure, as this article by Brigid Schulte shows. Historically speaking, it is because of the work of women, acting as gatekeepers of time for the men they served, that men have been able to pursue their artistic careers. For parents – I can only imagine that navigating the 24/7 job-and-joy of a child, alongside the 9-to-5, makes it near impossible to carve out time for yourself, let alone time for yourself and a pen, an instrument, a paintbrush etc. 

It needs to be asked then: how do we do it? How do we continue to create, to push ourselves, to grow in our craft and know that we’ve given everything we possibly could to it and that we haven’t left anything unseen that we’ve wanted to be seen? 

Some personal reflections on time…

As I enter the working world, or at least desperately attempt to, I’m constantly told to enjoy this unfettered time for my creativity and enjoyment. The freedom to indulge in reading and writing. It’s definitely easier said than done, and I know that everyone who encourages me in this says so from the distinct lack of time that the working week allows for these pursuits. 

So aside from spending my time raving about the ideal utopia I have in mind of a four-day working week for the benefit of our creativity and the planet, here are a few things I’ve learned.

1. Get yourself a group of dedicated supporters. 

Sputnik has several Hub groups you can join to be continually inspired and challenged in your creative endeavours. It’s always an encouragement to attend them, because they remind you of the wider art world in which we’re working, where everyone is dealing with similar issues. Beyond this though, they’re great opportunities for networking and creating. It’s inspiring to hear from artists in disciplines as far-flung as fashion design and writing, or filmmaking and lino printing. I challenge you to attend one and not leave feeling inspired and energised. 

2. Make a routine.

This is very easy for the unemployed gal to write, but yet I still always find myself too busy to write, read, and market myself. If this means waking up a little early to write every day – or if that’s too daunting, then even once a week – this will help create a muscle and a rhythm that makes your art a continual practice rather than an overwhelmingly daunting task when you finally have free time to commit to it. 

3. Keep it sacred and safe. 

By this I mean treat your art with a level of seriousness and importance that you would any other act of service. As much as art is, hopefully, a joy, it’s also a duty and a service to translate and make sense of the world around us through what we create.

So I leave you with the question. What haven’t you made yet? What ways have you not challenged yourself? What’s that piece you keep meaning to create or the poem that you’re afraid of writing? 

And what would it mean if you never got round to making it, what if it goes forever unseen?

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The Repentant Completionist: When Outtakes and Demos Become Too Much

Completionism: that’s a word, isn’t it? Yes. Yes, it is. It’s the desire, the need to complete the set of whatever you’re collecting or the drive to finish every level in a game. I gave up on collecting every record by bands I liked a long time ago. I was too broke to be a proper completionist. I was getting there with De La Soul albums on vinyl, but then my brother nicked the records and sold them or lost them somewhere in California. No biggie.

The one band who’ve most tempted me back to completionism is Radiohead. I own all the studio albums, the I Might Be Wrong live album, Com Lag and the bootleg Oxford’s Angels, which includes early stuff including the Drill EP songs, the B-sides, the Record Store Day exclusives, that rejected Bond Spectre theme song and then there’s the special edition of… oh, shut up, Joel. Either you’re a Radiohead fan and there are fond tears welling up in your eyes or you’ve glazing over and are very close to skipping to the last paragraph, so let’s just get to the point.

That Radiohead leak

In June 2019, someone leaked over 16 hours of Minidisc recordings of Radiohead demos, rehearsals, soundchecks, song sketches on tinternet. These recordings from the late 90’s weren’t ever meant to be made public. In wake of the leak, the band begrudgingly decided to officially release all this material on Bandcamp for a limited time: the deal was you had 18 days to download the whole lot for £18. The profits would go to the environmental group Extinction Rebellion. The band, bless ‘em, tried to make something positive out of a genuinely frustrating situation. The unabridged and quite fascinating story of the stolen and leaked material is in this super nerdy Reddit thread.

Naturally, I, like thousands of other fans, was curious to hear these recordings. Allegedly there were hidden gems and full songs amongst the half-baked ideas, false starts and melodic vocal place-holders.

So, to Bandcamp. I’m at work sorting through and editing photos. Perfect time to listen to this unexpected mammoth audio treat.

The first minidisc ‘MD111’ is 70 minutes of material. Unsurprisingly, by the time I’m listening the hardcore fans have already provided tracklists and notes, for those who can’t quite read the scrawled tracklists in the artwork. And sure enough it does feature a rarity, an early version of True Love Waits, but it’s mainly songs I know and love being soundchecked or in various stages of not-yet-dressed.

Radiohead circa 1997, from ‘Meeting People is Easy’

Importantly ‘MD111’ also features Thom Yorke’s wails and murmurs as he attempts to get those initial song ideas out of his head. Onto the next minidisc, and the next one. More gems and more curiosities and more raw song sketches. It’s fun…for a while.

Five hours later it feels like I’m treading on sacred territory; sacred and to be honest, not that enjoyable. A voice is saying, ‘Leave Thom alone, let him bloody finish writing the song before you listen to it.’

I don’t edit photos very often at work. In fact, there aren’t spare hours throughout the day to meaningfully do this minidisc marathon. I persevere. 15 minutes here, a couple more tracks there, but I’m lagging. Despite the seams of sonic gold, I’m increasingly less motivated to listen to songs that Radiohead, given the chance, would’ve hidden away forever.

Thom writes on the Bandcamp site about the leaked collection, ‘it’s not v interesting’. He’s looking forward to the moment when ‘we all get bored and move on’. Sure enough, most casual listeners and culture vultures do get bored and move on. Some fans will continue to cherish these recording as part of their complete Radiohead archive. Me? I’m in neither camp. I didn’t get bored. I got uncomfortable.

The need for hidden processes

I never made it to ‘MD128’. The Bandcamp download deadline passed without me downloading it and I decided not to ask other fans for a cheeky zip file. And I’m content.

As someone lamented after the publication of Kurt Cobain’s journals: ‘Private thoughts should remain private thoughts’. Unpublished sketches have a purpose within the creative process. They exist as a reference often for an audience of one. As a society we’ve developed a weird gluttony for the unheard, the unseen, the unpublished, the unfinished, the alternate version, the leaked edit, the ill-advised DVD bonus feature and in doing so, we’ve trampled on delicate artistry and diminished its ineffable glow.

Unpublished sketches have a purpose within the creative process. They exist as a reference often for an audience of one.

I get it. We’re human. We’re stubbornly curious creatures. The creative process can be interesting. We somehow hope that some of that magic will rub off on us, or that we’ll discover some brilliant, otherworldly technique or that we’ll find a distilled form of the creative elixir the artist draws from before offering it to the public.

We want to feel like insiders. We sense that the creative process is what many artists most love, therefore we want to get a glimpse or him/her/them mid-composition. Ironically for many of us this isn’t about completionism, it’s about feeling an ephemeral moment of intimacy with an artist we’re drawn to.

PJ Harvey Dog Called Money Seamus Murphy Sputnik Faith Arts
PJ Harvey recording. From Seamus Murphy’s ‘A Dog Called Money’

PJ Harvey recorded her 9th album in a recording studio with one-way glazing, allowing visitors to watch Harvey, her band, producers and engineers make the song. Most musicians would find this terribly distracting. If in 1995 I’d been sitting there next to Thom Yorke as he stumbled through his new song No Surprises, he’d never have finished it.

I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet. For me the mystique of this band is still intact. Their ability to create transcendent moments and lyrics that speak my own thoughts is wonderful and baffling. During the Minidisc bonanza, we were just a few days away from the release of Anima, Yorke’s new solo album, a fully realized work he actually wanted people to hear. Right now I’m listening to the song Not the News and my whole body is tingling. Woah.

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Apocalypse is Really About the Revealing of Hidden Things

The word apocalypse always conjures up a sense of disaster and violent catastrophe in the popular mind. The nuclear war, the dreadful deluge, the defeated ruins and the smoking wilderness.

I won’t say this is wrong, but it is interesting because it is not really what the word itself means. The word is greek, made up of kalypso – meaning, to cover or veil – and the prefix apo – which negates whatever follows. Apo-Kalypso: to un-cover.

Apocalypse in the Biblical imagination

There’s a preoccupation toward the uncovering, unveiling and revealing of things right through the biblical imagination. The sons and daughters of God are waiting to be revealed. The anger of God against the evil that mars the world is being revealed. The earth itself will be uncovered. Everything seems to draw ever toward the uncovering of what is very much there, but as yet unseen. What is among us, but hidden. All history moves toward the revealing and liberating of things, in their truest presence. 

The term apocalypse is of course most readily associated with the writers of those most mad and frightening biblical texts: Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Revelation. And whatever else may be claimed about these texts, we may truthfully say that they are works of literature. They were crafted by remarkable writers and poets, very much for the purpose of revealing the veiled truths of their own moments of history.

They undo the common human work of hiding the truths which seem dreadful and strange to us (or, to some of us, at least). We might expect it to be the merciless rationalist who goes about bursting the illusions and pointing to the facts – and sometimes it is. But often enough, this task has fallen to those who appear to be fantasists and flaneurs of the imagination, to bring within reach the truths that fester strange and obscure under our neat systems, and structures and fabrications.

The apocalyptic Biblical texts were crafted by remarkable writers and poets, very much for the purpose of revealing the veiled truths of their own moments.

When the apocalypticists wish to speak of what is hidden under the “Roman Peace” they give vile images of many-headed dragons. When they wish to speak of what is hidden beneath Roman economics they give images of pale horses of poverty and famine. When they wish to speak of what is hidden beneath Roman cultural imperialism they give images of bodies forcibly tattooed with marks of allegiance.

We can hear facts and figures all day about the men, women and children killed in other lands on the other end of the arms sales that keep the British economy “healthy”. We can hear facts and figures about the period of mass animal extinction we’re presently living through. Our resilience to terrifying facts is amazing. It will often fall to the work of artists and prophets to create spaces in which the hidden realities may really be felt, known, and grieved. 

Tearing holes in the social veneer

I recently learned that in medieval times the word discovery meant something more like treachery. It meant to dis-cover (or un-veil, or reveal) what was really going on. To uncover the truth that everyone would really rather remained unseen. (Only after Christopher Columbus kicked off a century, and more, of mass genocide in the Americas did the word pick up its present optimistic resonance). And the apocalypticist is indeed the traitor. Their art is an act of cultural violence against the present order of things. It tears holes in the carefully woven veneer. Whether the work is writ large or small, its message to the powers that cover over and dominate tends to sound something like, “not one stone shall be left upon another.” If the word apocalypse is associated with catastrophe, there are reasons. No wonder the prophets and the artists tend to situate themselves on the edges of things… free enough from the demands of the centre to commit their dreadful and treasonous acts of unveiling.

There are many reasons artists work. One of these (and just one) is the work of treachery – the apocalyptic impulse, to reveal what it hidden and to hold space where those things might be seen, heard, smelled, touched and tasted… where they might become known, and re-integrated, toward the healing of all things.

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What’s So Interesting About the Reverse of a Painting?

When perusing the TATE Liverpool’s permanent modern art collection, I love to think on how the paintings are hung. A number of famous paintings are sandwiched in a clear acrylic, bordered by a steel frame. These paintings (see George Grosz’s Suicide, 1916) are suspended in the middle of the gallery spaces rather than being fixed to the white walls.

This display method presents the works, not as two-dimensional portals or windows to look through, but as sculptural works: an object in itself, to be examined in its materiality. In this we see something of the philosophy of the modernist movement; an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes in response to the new landscape of modern life. The canvas is not a window into another reality, but a surface to be acted upon.

Examining the unseen face

George Grosz’s Suicide is one such image. Disturbed by the horrors of the first world war, Grosz turned to political and satirical cartoons that ‘expressed despair, hate and disillusionment’.

George Grosz’s ‘Suicide’ at TATE Liverpool.

Unlike the canvases held fast to the wall, one is able to orbit the work and examine the physical properties of the pictorial and non-pictorial areas. For someone who is quite fond of Grosz’s work, I feel like a fan, enjoying all the unseen details that we are not usually privy to. The age of the wooden frame, the stamp of the manufacturer, the tickets of the auctioneers and the markings of careless manhandling all add to the mystique of masterpiece.

Having examined Suicide numerous times in books and catalogues, I find myself so much more interested in the unseen face of the painting, the reverse. This ‘unseen’ is what gets us geeks going. Whether it is Drake’s old lyric notebook selling for more than my salary, or Nike releasing a series of Air Max 1s inspired by Tinker Hatfield’s original schematic sketches of the shoe, the art viewing pubic thrives off the restricted initial sketches of an artwork in its infancy – or as Nike have shrewdly branded it ‘NOT FOR RESALE’.

In the second half of the 17th century, the fantastically named Flemish painter Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, an old-school trompe-l’oeil master, depicted the reverse of a painting in 1670 (appropriately titled, Trompe L’oeil: The Reverse of a Framed Painting). Though this painting does not specifically address the charm surrounding the celebrity object, it does certainly draw our attention to the unseen support – the artistic underbelly of almost every famous canvas.

‘Trompe L’oeil: The Reverse of a Framed Painting’ by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts

Picking up on this, in recent years artists and curators alike have turned to the unseen painting as an art piece in its own right. In 2015 contemporary artist Paul Litherland created a series of photographs showing the reverse sides of artworks drawn from the collection of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery, Concordia University. The images reference the trompe-l’oeil tradition which depicts objects in an incredibly lifelike manner as to cause the viewer to question what is real and what is illusion.

Litherland’s official webpage explains,

“He [Litherland] shares in an overarching interest in the gesture of elevating the mundane material support of an artwork to the status of art, and thus flipping the normal status of the front and the back. He also engages with the trompe-l’oeil tradition, which confronts viewers with the pleasures and questions that come from mixing up the “real” and the “representation” of the real.”

The photographic reverse of a painting plays the part of the pictorial window, portraying something which is not really there. One 2016 Milanese exhibition titled ‘Recto Verso’ focused solely on the power and allure of the reverse of the painting in both traditional and contemporary art. This exhibition brought together a range of works that look at the unseen support and structure of the painting, questioning how the art object carries its celebrity status and how the spell can be broken when the vulnerable substructure of the canvas is exposed.

From the ‘Recto Verso’ Exhibition

Revelation and Disillusionment

When one finally encounters their idol, in whatever form it takes, there can often be a sense of disappointment and disillusion and yet for others an intensification of their delight. Whether it is releasing that the Mona Lisa is not much bigger than an A4 piece of paper, or the reality that Lady Gaga is only just an inch over five foot, when a person or an object fails to meet up to our expectations we can be left feeling bereft. On the other hand, when we have a sense of sharing or partaking with something which is exclusive and unseen, our enjoyment of an object or person can increase.

Have you ever been hit by one of these contradictory reactions? Enamoured that the often unobserved is laid bare before you or disenchanted as the magician’s secrets are all revealed?

So what about George Grosz? In viewing Suicide and other works, I felt the privilege of seeing the side of work that often only the gallery handlers get to see. To imagine the story behind the artefact. Where did Grosz buy the canvas? What was his mental state like when beginning? Did he have to return to the work when struggling with his ill health?

Yet, as with Grosz (and much European art of the period) there is a sense of defeat in seeing the artefact in its entirety. No magic, no mystical allure, just some wood, staples and canvas.

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Don’t Forget, Your Collaborators are as Important as Your Audience

Kingdom Artist Initiative Sputnik Faith Art

Art only works if it has an audience. It is necessarily public. People can creatively express themselves in private, but for that creative expression to be a genuine artwork, it must communicate, which means that it must be read, watched, heard or seen. Therefore, it is no surprise that in our art practice, our focus is on the public face: the stage, the page, the exhibition, the release.

However, in all of this there is a danger. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against giving to the needy, fasting and praying in a very public way and to be admired by others, but instead to do these things ‘…in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.’ (Mt 6:4,6 and 18).

Of course the context is very different, but the warning still carries some force for artists. If our attention is overly drawn to the public we may well miss the things behind closed doors, that God may well view as most important. Lying beneath and behind our artwork are all sorts of private things that God not only sees, but rewards, and I sometimes wonder whether it is in these secret, unseen interactions and practices that God often does his most long lasting work in us and, even through us.

One of these private things is the relationships we make through our work.

Loving others throughout the artistic life

When we make a piece of work, we endeavour to establish a relationship with an audience, but there are plenty of relationships that go into the production of the work itself. This may involve the collaborative relationships that help bring the work to life, or possibly the relationships with those you work with along the way (with the event promoter, the publisher, the person behind the sound desk, etc).

My conviction is that our primary calling in our art is the same as our primary calling in our lives in general: to love others.

Roger Scruton, the aesthetic philosopher, put this excellently regarding our artistic output:

It is certainly a failing of a work of art that it should be more concerned to convey a message than to delight its audience.’

I don’t think that all work should aim to ‘delight’ people in the short term (work could be concerned with immediately provoking, warning, shocking or consoling its audience) – however if we take his general point to mean that our work should be made with a desire for the increased well-being of our audience, then I fully agree. In other words, our work should be done in a spirit of love and kindness.

Perhaps, though, it is even more important to live this calling out behind the scenes of our work.

I had direct experience of this in a band I used to be part of. We recently released a remastered version of our debut album, to mark its 20th birthday. I’d not listened to the album much in the last decade, and spending some time with it again caused many unexpected reactions.

It was strange hearing the voice of my 20 year old self again, and to reflect on ways in which I’ve changed or stayed the same. It brought back to mind the events that surrounded the recording and release of the album (the feeling of total joy to find out that DJ Pelt was willing to work with us, overloading on Tetris during recording sessions, arguing about which vocal takes to include… that sort of thing). It also compelled me to think about the value of the work. What did it matter? Was it time well spent, writing, recording, releasing and gigging this album?

I wonder if one of the most important parts of our legacy happened away from the stage or the recording sessions.

I loved being part of Michaelis Constant. It is genuinely one of the highlights of my life, and I thought we did a pretty good job. Our music got reviewed well in the hiphop magazines I grew up reading, we got to play live with most of the bands I most enjoyed listening to and I was pleased, listening back to the album, that I still like listening to it, and I know there were other people who did too. However, I wonder whether one of the most important parts of our legacy happened away from the stage or the recording sessions.

When we started the band, my friend Rich, who was a producer and rapper in the group, wasn’t a follower of Jesus. By the time we broke up, he was. I still remember the time we were praying together during a band practice and Rich, I think for the first time, chipped in by praying himself. ‘God, thank you that I can thank you,’ he said. It was a simple but deeply profound prayer.

If all Michaelis Constant ever achieved was that prayer, I think it would have been enough.

Achieving the Unexpected

I saw something similar to this recently while watching a live video of Kanye West’s Use this Gospel. I’m sure you’ll know the headlines by now: Kanye West releases gospel album, talks to anyone who’ll listen about his conversion to Christianity, sends critics scurrying to admire or decry his new direction. It’s all very brash, very public, very Kanye.

But there are unseen stories going on behind the hype, and in this video you get a tiny glimpse of one of them. This song is notable because it is the first song that the lauded hip-hop group Clipse have appeared on since 2009. Clipse is/was comprised of two brothers, Pusha T and Malice, but after the release of their third album, Malice became a Christian (soon after, changing his name to No Malice) and the band broke up. No Malice and Push continued to release music, but they were clearly no longer on the same page, with No Malice wearing his newfound Christianity on his sleeve, and Pusha T’s content continuing to be unrepentantly ‘street’, often revolved around drug dealing.

Since the group broke up, Push has worked extensively with Kanye West. In 2015, he was made president of G.O.O.D Music, the label that Kanye had founded.

Fast forward to now. Kanye has become a Christian himself and is releasing gospel music. It is the perfect opportunity to unite the two brothers and bring Clipse back together. Thus: Use this Gospel.

So, you up to speed? Good. With all this in mind then check out the video. Kenny G does his sax thing then the music kicks in, and it’s all pretty immense and spectacular. Push fumbles his verse and there are some mic problems and then No Malice steps up and raps, with Push vibing along and providing the overdubs. Then at 3:53, No Malice puts his arm around his brother and closes with the line “hold on to your brother when his faith’s lost”.

Maybe it’s in these unseen interactions, conversations and friendships that God really wants to work.

I’ve got to be honest, that’s a tears-in-the-eye moment right there. For all the Megachurch performances, Apple Music interviews, over 200 million streams, worldwide number 1s, there is an almost unseen story of two brothers who have found a way to reconnect and make music again together. If that’s not enough, one of them can use this new platform for collaboration to tell his bro about his affection for him and his desire to see him come to faith in Jesus.

Please, don’t forget the relationships behind your work. Don’t get so focussed on the audience that are out there, that you forget to love those around you in the process of making. Maybe it’s in these unseen interactions, conversations and friendships that God really wants to work.

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The Notre Dame fire: How precious should we be about things we’ve made?

Photo: Thierry Mallet, AP

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called architecture ‘the mother art… without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization’. As humans we naturally feel a connection with things we have built – not just personally, but collectively. We even travel around the world to marvel at the greatest achievements of our species, from pyramids and castles, to temples and skyscrapers – seeing these great structures as testaments to our collective ability and ambition, imbuing their walls and towers with our own memories, our own hopes, our own ownership.

It is something marvellous that buildings can hold multitudes of our individually precious moments, or that one architectural achievement can be called ‘mine’ or ‘ours’ by so many through the decades and centuries. Like all good artists and designers, those who make our greatest skylines and landmarks don’t think merely functionally, but create vessels for our wildest imaginations and our most personal experiences.

A world in two minds

Yet the world seems split in its attitude towards architectural art – and I think one recent event brought this out in stark relief. Watching the spires of Notre Dame engulfed in deep orange flame, as smoke poured into the twilight Parisian skies, it was unsurprising to see the international outpouring of grief. The personal connection to its presence could be seen just scrolling through our own social media feed – people we knew shared their heartbreak at the loss (or even partial loss) of such an undeniably beautiful, historic, creatively artistic building: memories of first kisses, of treasured trips, of meeting old and new friends under the shadows of its bell towers. Its place in the cultural canon of French literature – or maybe better yet, in Disney films – as well as its place in the heart of an island in the heart of a river in the heart of the city, means we understand what it means to Parisians, and admirers from further afield, and join with the sadness in its loss.

Then, almost as soon as the news had broken, we saw something like a backlash. Were bricks and mortar and timber worth having songs of worship and prayer sung over them? There were justifiable complaints about grieving a casualty-less accident in a Western, city-centre landmark as opposed to the entirely avoidable loss of life in an inferno in a West London suburb, or even the countless treasures and buildings raised to the ground in Mosul or Palmyra as ISIS destroyed lives and cities. As the rebuild project for Notre Dame raised unbelievable sums of money in mere days, the inevitable questions followed about where those funds might be better used.

What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

Considering the disparity of privilege, opportunity, and diversity between Parisian arrondissements, and in wider France, they’re crucial questions to ask; and they raise alarming, broader issues about the world’s rich – Carl Kinsella’s honest and challenging response on this is worth reading in full. But beneath the questions of wealth, there’s a different tension that artists will recognise: what kind of luxury is art, anyway? What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures that may have some limited functional use, but are more often pursuits of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

The split in the world’s opinion says that either we should move mountains and millions to ensure that the best of our artistic endeavours or architectural wonders remain as pristine as possible for generations to come, or instead they should be treated as the bonus at the end of the list once we have sufficiently and rightfully ensured mouths are fed and families given shelter.

As artists, as much as we value art, we can surely see the argument from both sides. Most of us will have felt the pang of guilt at some point when sitting next to doctors, nurses and fire fighters, trying to describe what our next album sounds like after their stories of lives saved and hearts kept beating. How do we constantly and consistently decide to press on and to know for sure the value of what we do, when what surrounds us are situations that often make what we do or what we have feel like at best small drops in the ocean, or at worst frivolous pursuits?

Does what we build matter to God?

Like so many of these questions, the answer that we can find in the Bible may not be one extreme reaction or another, but something more delicate in the middle. As a starting place, we know that God himself time and time again plans to have a building or a structure that is to be used by His people to glory Him both in its appearance and in its function. Through the tabernacle and the temple and then finally in the new city described in Revelation, we know God recognises the need for a place and the sense of home that provides, but also that God loves good interior design and excellent architectural planning and desires the skill of all the best craftspeople to make it happen.

I think that God understands our very human connection to places too, that goes beyond just spaces built for or consecrated to Him; taking care to put us in specific places at specific times that He knows will be to our good. We even know that the people of God wept when they remembered the home they had and the buildings that they thought were unshakeable that now laid in rubble and ashes – and in fact, Jews still mourn the temple on a specific day now, thousands of years after its destruction.

A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; maybe what is more beautiful still are the meetings and memories that were shared about the place.

Yet God also seems to have a forward thinking nature about these things, not wanting us to sit in mourning or become too precious about the way things were. The physical spaces and places are certainly important to Him, but perhaps more important is what they represent or what they give the opportunity to do. A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; its flying buttresses and stained glass are undoubtedly works of immeasurable skill; but maybe what is more beautiful still are the aforementioned meetings and memories that were shared about the place over the last week. Each time a choir lifted their voices in worship, or each time the familiarity of home’s landmarks made someone feel more settled, or each time it became the focal point for friends or lovers or families or fellowships to meet and share.

Hold on to artistry, hold loosely to artwork

In the Bible, each time God’s own house is taken down, or destroyed, or goes up in flames, or even goes up on a cross, it is rebuilt in a way more glorious that the last and more unexpected. Jesus himself seemed to have a pretty clear idea on what would be left of the temple, and God repeatedly brings down structures that are put up out of either self-ambition or become too precious.

From tent, to temple, to Christ to new Creation, God constantly remakes anew rather than rebuilds the old, and with each remaking the people that are invited in gets wider and wider and the focus becomes more on intimacy and relationship than it does on recapturing any former glories. We get closer to Him, and in doing so get closer and more understanding and more welcoming of each other.

Battersea Arts Centre by Morley Von Sternberg

In 2015, I was privileged enough to have a job in one of my favourite venues – Battersea Arts Centre – when a fire took hold in the roof. Much like Notre Dame, the rest of the structure was saved through the skill and quick response of firefighters. Within hours the community had mobilised; and 24 hours after the fire, BAC was continuing its normal programme through the assistance and help of those who had come to see it as ‘theirs’. For years the building had been at the centre of community life, as well as having run groups for families, young people, those in need, those without money, and those who wanted to work in the arts but didn’t know how. The community decided in those hours after the fire that this was too much to lose, and sprang into action, paving the way for a rebuild project that was completed earlier this year.

Yet to walk through the building now you will find the scars and marks of the fire; scorched walls still blackened and sooty, melted glass and twisted metal, all brought together and held together by a brand new imagining of what the space and the building could be. They didn’t seek to rebuild as was; they sought to think what they needed now, how best to serve their community. For future generations, seeing each mark of the fire upon the Great Hall tells a story of the passion and importance it had for a group who decided not to give up on it. Even other great cathedrals have shown a precedent for creating a new space out of adversity: Coventry’s integration of its war-torn edifices is a living story of history, for example, or Barcelona’s decision to hand parts of its sublime Sagrada Familia over to new artists and architects – meaning it is an amalgamation of styles and perspectives that remains unfinished almost a century after breaking ground.

So can we hold on to the artistry, but hold loosely to the artwork? Can we prioritise what our work is there to do, and not what it means to us – and in doing so, widen up the doorway to invite in different communities and groups who we usually wouldn’t commune with? Can we be less precious about the physical thing itself (how it is experienced, how it is perceived, how it comes across, or even if it gets destroyed) and instead find joy in if it points anyone to the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy things of the world? If so, then I think our art is a discipline worth defending and pursuing even in the most pressing times.

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Protests, prison & poetry: Jeremy Cronin’s revolutionary past

Jeremy Cronin Protests Prison Poetry Sputnik Faith Art

Lex Loizides is a song writer, pastor, poet and historian. He’s one of those people who is always up to something, and, more often than not, that particular ‘something’ is far more noteworthy than what you happen to be doing. Therefore, it was not a massive surprise to hear that he’d conducted an in depth interview with the South African Deputy Minister for Public Works and the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party! The interviewee in question is Jeremy Cronin, who, apart from his political activities, is a renowned poet in his homeland and beyond. New Contrast, South Africa’s leading literary journal commissioned Lex to conduct the interview – first published in Issue 180, Volume 45, Summer 2017. It is reproduced here with permission.

Poet and politician Jeremy Cronin has been a key player in both crafting and steering the Restitution of Land Rights Act through Parliament and has been a tireless campaigner for democracy and justice in South Africa. He could easily have retired by now, but continues to serve the young democracy with energy and dedication. He has written three collections of poetry: Inside (Jonathan Cape, 1987), Even the Dead (David Philip Publishers, 1997), and More than a Casual Contact (Umuzi, 2006).

Jeremy was educated in Cape Town and became a lecturer in Philosophy at UCT before being imprisoned by the apartheid government for seven years for distributing anti-apartheid literature. I met with Jeremy in his rooms at Parliament during the course of September 2017.

LL: Jeremy, all three of your collections of poetry are so intricately bound up with your amazing life story. Can you tell us something of your background?

JC: I was born in Durban but grew up largely in Cape Town. My father was a naval officer, so until the age of ten I was living in Simonstown and Simonstown features in some of my poems. I have a sensuous memory of a coastal place with all of its contradictions. My father died when I was ten years old and we moved to Rondebosch where I attended a Catholic School. In 1968 I went to  UCT where I studied Philosophy and Literature. I had a vague sense of what I wanted to do, but it had something to do with being a poet, perhaps.

LL: When did you first start writing poetry?

JC: Probably adolescence. I was reading a lot of TS Eliot and reading eclectically. It was less what I was getting at school and more independent reading, as I was going to the Rondebosch library. I was attracted to what was then called the ‘Creative Writing’ section. My first out-of-school publication was with English Alive, edited by Robin Malan. Apparently, I was in the first edition of it. But the poetry was a bit pretentious.

LL: There was presumably a fairly narrow range of topics about which you could be published, in the school magazines.

JC: Well, you’re right, but there were some interesting ‘defrocked’ priests who were among the more interesting teachers.

LL: And being published both at school and in English Alive was presumably an encouragement.

JC: Yes, exactly. It was a huge encouragement and that’s the critical thing. And it’s so important. Some of my poems are set for Matric [high school diploma] so I do some class appearances, which are very interesting. At school I had even contemplated going into the priesthood, but I had seen a contradiction between some of the Catholic thinkers I was reading and the local parish church. There was a disjunction between white suburban life and the stimulating stuff I was hearing from the ‘defrocked’ priests. But my parents had warned me not to get into politics. After my father died, we were quite poor, but living in this kind of white welfare system. We didn’t own a car but public transport was good, there was a swimming pool in Newlands, and we had the library. So, I grew up privileged, but we were at the lower end of the scale in a place like Rondebosch. I was aware of class discriminations and I began to buck against that a little bit.

LL: Were you aware of black South Africans around you? Were they always at the periphery?

JC: I was aware, and aware that they were peripheral. I think that dawned quite early; an awareness that there were huge inequalities, and a kind of smugness in the place that I was staying. In the Criterion Bioscope in Simonstown, the Africans had been moved out and they weren’t allowed into the cinema, but in the upstairs balcony, the coloured audience were allowed to go in. That was fairly standard at the time. During a matinee, watching cowboys and Indians, and of course the Indians would be winning half way through, to great cheers from upstairs, and then when the finale came and the US Cavalry rode over the crest to the rescue, we were showered with popcorn, at best, and sometimes less mentionable things.

Ernest Cole Magnum Photos Pretoria South Africa
A segregated bridge at Pretoria railway station. Pretoria, South Africa. Circa mid-1960s. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos

So quite early on, I was aware there was something wrong. There was this discomfort. And there were big removals happening in Simonstown while I was there. I was kind of aware. I think that’s why my parents said don’t get involved in politics. We were told it was the Afrikaaners who were messing it up and that was very much my outlook. My mother wanted me to have a good professional career. 1968 was the year of the global student uprisings, and the distant echo of that came to South Africa. At UCT there weren’t any African students at that time, very few people of colour. A small group of left-leaning white students began to gather. There were mass meetings and the occupation of university buildings. I was feeling uncomfortable with the privileges. I had a bursary. I was white. ’68 was a period of intellectual ferment in Europe, and Mexico. There were large youth uprisings.

LL: There was a sense of entering something much larger?

JC: Yes. It wasn’t sympathetic to established communism though. But I then began to receive underground literature and we formed a small reading group. During the sit-ins, they employed Stellenbosch University students to come and beat us up, and then the police intervened. And what was launched out of that was a radical students society and we produced a magazine, which I coedited, called Radical. Then we started to get deep underground and illegal pamphlets and so on. And also literature. Books would be smuggled in, and people would make precious photocopies of this or that. There was a great deal of respect, which has since been lost, for the book – smuggling them in, getting them into the country and so on.

There was a great deal of respect, which has since been lost, for the book – smuggling them in, getting them into the country and so on.

LL: At some point you were involved in the production of illegal pamphlets. Were you writing these?

JC: I was recruited into the Communist Party in 1968 and our first task was to develop an address list of progressive students. I was running the film society at that stage, so I went into the admin building and said we needed to write a newsletter. We were able to access the residential addresses of a few thousand students, which, along with other lists of addresses, we smuggled out of the country, so that the production units of the Communist Party had address lists.

LL: What was the content of the pamphlets?

JC: At that stage we were mainly using the magazine, but trying to hegemonise the content of the publication, presenting quasi-academic articles on the history on the Communist Party and so on. I was also using the Film Society very actively as well. It was kind of cultural and ideological activity.

UCT Student Protests Jeremy Cronin Sputnik Faith Art
UCT students protest Archie Mafeje’s dismissal in the 1960s

LL: In your poem A Step Away From Them, you describe delivering these pamphlets.

JC: I completed an honours degree at UCT and worked briefly for the Argus. I received a bursary to go to France and study at the Sorbonne, and I had more formal contact with the exiled communists, mainly in London. I would go to London and get training. London was quite central. There were lots of people in London. And, through a circuitous link I was set up with a person called ‘Frank’. He gave me a pile of books to read, which were all about horrific torture that people had undergone. The idea was to say, ‘we’re getting serious now and are you serious?’ And then there was lots of training in counter-surveillance techniques. How to make sure you’re not being followed and so on.

LL: So you’re moving forward with increased awareness of the consequences. The further you progress, the more you realise how dangerous it all is. And they’re wanting to know, are you with us?

JC: Yes, there were two things. Firstly, am I not a plant? So they were checking on me. But I had a bit of a track record. The specific task is to come back here and become a production centre for underground pamphlets. I was trained in secret ink communication and dead letter drops and was in communication with London. Mainly, they would send in the copy, which we reproduced on the old printing machines and then posted.

LL: So it wasn’t random leafleting?

JC: Well, the random thing was the bucket drops. We’d stuff a bucket full of pamphlets and put a small explosive underneath and plant them by black bus queues or train stations with a five minute delay and let them poof! They’d go up and there was a lot of excitement. We were saying, ‘We’re with you!’

LL: So this poem where you’re carrying the OK Bazaar plastic packet, going to post-boxes, and your heart is in the packet. What’s going on there?

JC: Well those were to mainly township addresses. It was using the postal system. I had developed a fetish for post boxes. Some have got larger mouths than others. Some you can post quite easily with a gloved hand, because you didn’t want to get fingerprints on them… it was fairly discreet. So we would stuff twenty or so at a time into a post box. I had a pretty good sense of every postbox in the greater Cape Town area.

There’s a poem called that
by Frank O’Hara, the American,
it begins: It’s my lunch hour so I go
for a walk… I like the poem, sometime
I’ll write it out complete, but just for now
I’ve got this OK Bazaars plastic packet
in my left hand, and my right
hand’s in my pocket (out of sight),
how else to walk lunch hour
summertime Cape Town with
one gloved hand? And now
I’m going past The Cape Clog
– Takeaways, it says it’s
The Home of the Original
ham n’ cheese – Dutch Burgers,
past the unsegregated toilets on
Greenmarket Square. A cop van’s
at the corner. On a bench
3 black building workers eat
from a can of Lucky
Star pilchards. They’re
in various shapes & sizes. It’s a fact.
Though you’d think
post boxes’d be all
just one size. I’m sweating a bit,
heart pumps, mouth dry, umm
Gone one, I say slipping
past the Groote Kerk when
an Iranian naval sailor asks
What’s the time? IRANIAN? – yessir,
it’s 1975, the shah’s
in place, the southeaster blows,
there’re gulls in the sky,
two cable cars are halfway
up or down (respectively) and
outside the Cultural Museum
an old hunchback tries
to flog me 10c worth of unshelled
nuts. He’s been here
since I was 15
trying to be Baudelaire, I’d maunder
round town watching women’s legs, but now
I’ve only eyes for postboxes and
my heart’s in my packet: it’s
one thousand
illegal pamphlets to be mailed.

A Step Away From Them

LL: Then you get arrested. Was that a raid?

JC: I was working with two others, whose names I didn’t know. They didn’t have the same leftist profile that I did. I was now lecturing in political philosophy at UCT. They got arrested through effective sleuthing over many years. A couple of weeks before my colleagues were arrested, we had a received a secret ink communication from London, which looked a bit different from the normal ones. We think they had developed and read it, but couldn’t un-develop it and then conveyed the same communication themselves and posted it from the UK.

LL: So you were arrested and pled guilty. Was that a nerve-racking thing?

JC: Well, it wasn’t pleasant getting caught! I was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to seven years. They had us absolutely. I was in Pretoria Maximum Security, which is where the white male political prisoners were interred.

LL: So it was Afrikaans prison guards and predominantly English inmates?

JC: Yes, almost entirely.

LL: And your wife, Anne-Marie, died quite soon after that?

JC: Yes, within a year. That’s all pertinent. So in prison, I began to write.

LL: So during your actively political period you hadn’t written much poetry. Your creative energies had gone into that work. And now you’ve come from a lot of activity and suddenly there’s space?

JC: There is space actually and time! As a political prisoner, one of the things they gave us was the prisoner’s handbook which said all the things you’re not allowed to do, and it said, interestingly, if I can remember, ‘singing, writing poetry and any other unnecessary noise is forbidden’. One of the earlier titles of Inside was Unnecessary Noise.

LL: You’re not allowed to write poetry. Are you allowed to write anything? Letters?

JC: You were allowed to study through UNISA so we did have writing materials, but, in theory, you couldn’t write poetry.

LL: So how did you?

JC: I’m not an oral poet so I had to write it! And rework, and rework, and rework a great deal. So it was disguised as draft letters or assignments. But Dennis Goldberg, who was a Rivonia trialist, was also with me. He was an engineer and was good with his hands, so I could get the stuff out. I would write the poems on thin strips of paper with a tiny 0.5mm pencil and then – I might still have it here [he hurries off to a cupboard in the corner and brings out what looks like a shoe box].

It’s a filing box. I was working on a thesis on South African poetry and had this old box –and buried into the layer here [corrugated edges of the box] were little slithers of paper containing the poems.

Protests Prison Poetry Sputnik Faith Arts Cronin History
The filing box Jeremy used to smuggle poetry from prison.

LL: So that was allowed out?

JC: Yes. This one came out of prison. And I had a couple of other boxes too.

LL: There is something in us, as humans, that needs the word; and needs the word communicated to others. It’s a primal drive.

JC: Absolutely. Subjectively, the poetry I had written was quite self-indulgent and quite lyrical, because I tend to be attracted in that direction, and therefore about subjective emotions. And so, as a young, relatively privileged white, I felt there was a certain lack of authenticity or meaningfulness in adolescent love affairs. And so, in a curious way, becoming a minor victim of the apartheid system made me feel the emotions that I now needed to express, connected to a wider reality.

Funerals and social rituals provide spaces, structure and discipline to bereavement… Poetry became an important space to explore emotion, but also to give it a rhythm and a discipline.

And I think quite a lot of the poems reflect that: I’m not alone. Some people, who might not even be in prison, are having it a lot worse in a squatter camp and so it kind of liberated lyricism for me. Clearly then, the death of my wife gave rise to a deep need to deal with an overflow of emotions. You suddenly realise why bereavement and funerals and social rituals are very important to provide spaces, structure and discipline to these issues. Of course I didn’t have them. I couldn’t go to the funeral and I couldn’t burden my fellow comrades. They were supportive, but we were a small number. And they all had their own emotional challenges. So the poetry became a very important space to talk emotion, explore it, but also to give it a rhythm and a discipline.

LL: Were you aware that she was unwell?

JC: No.

LL: Not at all?

JC: Not at all! So the one poem about the visit, I Saw Your Mother.

LL: So that is the first moment you even knew anything?

JC: That she was unwell? Yeah.

LL: Was your wife visiting regularly before?

JC: As regularly as she was allowed, which was once a month for half an hour.

LL: And did she miss one or two towards the end?

JC: No.

LL: Wow. That’s brutal.

JC: It was, yes.

I saw your mother
with two guards
through a glass plate
for one quarter hour
on the day that you died.
‘Extra visit, special favour’
I was told, and warned
‘The visit will be stopped
if politics is discussed.
Verstaan – understand!?’
on the day that you died.
I couldn’t place
my arm around her,
around your mother
when she sobbed.
Fifteen minutes up
I was led
back to the workshop.
Your death, my wife,
one crime they managed
not to perpetrate
on the day that you died.

I Saw Your Mother

LL: Walking On Air, the poem about fellow-prisoner John Matthews, has a kind of defiant, triumphal ring at the end. Inside was published right in the thick of the apartheid era and yet they are resounding resistance poems. So you have both a suffering and celebratory note in these poems.

JC: I was released in 1983 and it was a very different climate. There was a resurgence of unions and organisations and I went back to the underground and was active in the broad front of social movement type struggles. There were lots of rallies happening, typically around funerals. And so I got to read/perform quite a lot of the poetry. But I hadn’t really had a sense of an audience. I was writing for testimony. What was very interesting in the 80s was a huge cultural flowering: street art, t-shirts with wonderful designs, Zapiro was producing fantastic posters and teaching others in Salt River. There was a kind of cultural revolution happening.

Apartheid Protests 1980s
Apartheid Protests in the 1980s

I was wheeled out as a veteran of the struggle to rallies. I got into political education and journals but I was active as a performing poet. It was a time when the genre was called ‘protest poetry’. I always wanted to defy that genre, firstly, because the academy located that poetry as protest poetry and didn’t look at its craft, and often it was quite well crafted. But also the poets themselves were often oral. So it was oral crafting, which the academy couldn’t recognise. I wrote some pieces at the time arguing for the skill that was involved, the poetics. I wanted to insist that poetry could be political but lyrical, aesthetic. And my aesthetic wasn’t quite the same as the performing poets. I quickly discovered that some poems didn’t work in a larger audience. And, particularly, it wasn’t a poetry audience, it was an audience there for a funeral and helicopters were watching us, and kids running up and down. It was exciting but the irony in some of the poems didn’t carry.

LL: Were you aware that there was a burgeoning new style of poetry happening?

JC: I had been aware before going in to prison. I wanted to connect to the largely white South African poetic tradition but also to connect with the emerging mainly English, and brilliant Afrikaans poetry.

A poem about a sunset is never politically innocent… [you] can’t observe the sunset without understanding that the sunset is going to be observed from different places.

LL: Do you feel that protest poetry is less relevant now? You use a phrase about the struggle of ‘trying to make the too good to be true be true’. Are we there yet? Is there space for South African poets to write about sunsets? Or would that feel like we’re a bit off-topic?

JC: I wouldn’t like to be a policeman about what is legitimate or not. Mainly, because I want the poetic licence for myself. But I think a poem about a sunset is never politically innocent. That was what was interesting in looking at Roy Campbell and Plomer and so on. I love landscape. But the way in which the South African landscape is perceived – it’s quite interesting to trace the development in South African English language poetry. The early writers – Thomas Pringle, who wrote some wonderful poetry – it’s seen as a non-European exotic terrain, and it’s beautifully crafted, but there is a framing: exotic, savage, barbaric. The Plomer, Campbell generation, assert their South African-ness, but lurking in the landscape, is a ‘the barbarians are coming’, the drums. There’s formal structure, and effective poetry, but the version of the landscape is unsettling. The natives are out there. Plomer is sympathetic to the natives but troubled by it. So talk of a sunset is not neutral.

But to this hard category of the protest; the political: I’ve always wanted to say the personal is political. I think a lot of the agony and the problems in South Africa have to do with the unresolved subjective issue. There’s a lot of post-traumatic stress. The factional behaviour, the moral decline, have profound unresolved subjective issues surrounding them. The South African project has suffered quite a setback. There’s a disconnect between the subjective and the political project. And the poetry that I tried to write was making the connections.

LL: In all three collections of your poetry, the social context, and the incidents arising from within them are so immediate and powerful. Is there still a need for passionate, rallying poetry?

JC: I don’t want to give a definite answer. Out there, in the non-poetry world, there’s a lot of protest happening, and anger, and turmoil. I don’t want to prescribe a role. Writing, narration, means we have a responsibility to try and connect with that anger and also to lead it out of its angst, out of the vicious cycle.

LL: Towards something more constructive?

JC: Yeah. I’m not saying a poem can do it, but the poems I’d like to see and to write, would… well, hopes were raised after 1994 and there were real achievements. And the last great aesthetic moment, arguably, was at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And some great poetry came out of it, Antjie Krog, and Ingrid de Kok, in particular. It was an extremely powerful cultural intervention, but that was seeking to find reconciliation in truth-telling about the past. But the present failed to resolve the deep structural problems. which are obvious: continued poverty, racialised spaces in urban settings and, hence, pent-up frustrations.

For me, protest is around in any case. Poetry that is going to be meaningful in South Africa can’t ignore the reality of this protest; can’t observe the sunset without understanding that the sunset is going to be observed from different places. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the sunset and celebrate the sunset. I do think that the aesthetic disciplines are important to bring to bear in that space, and poetry that is just a poster or a string of slogans is OK (I’m still writing headlines for pamphlets) but poetry has the ability to go a bit further. I see a continuum between the pamphlet and the poetry but the poetry isn’t a pamphlet and would be selling itself short if it was.

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When good intentions create bad art

A while ago, I hosted a retreat with a group of Christian art students. I taught at a number of sessions, showed them some art I liked, and we spent lots of time discussing questions we had about our faith and our art practice. One of the most common of these revolved around why we make art.

Sometimes this was asked directly, but more often it came out in explanations of the intentions behind individual pieces of work or certain areas of practice. The assumption that several of the students had was that the primary purpose of their work was to communicate the gospel.

This was mostly due to a creditable evangelistic zeal, which I in no way wanted to dampen, but when one student shared her feelings in a time of open Q&A, I couldn’t help myself. This student expressed her frustration that her tutors kept telling her to stop making art about Jesus and asked me what she should do.

Now, please understand that my response didn’t come with a completely clear conscience and I’m sure I could have phrased it better, but whatever my internal wranglings, what I said probably wasn’t what the room expected.

My answer: Perhaps you should stop making art about Jesus.

I have reflected on this answer at length since then, and this post in a way is an attempt to flesh out this answer a bit more helpfully than I did at that event.
You see, while I should have said more, I broadly stand by this answer, and would encourage more Christian artists to get hold of the sentiment behind it.

I’m of the opinion that it’s exactly the kind of good intentions that those students had that hamstrings so much artistic output by Christians.

Why do we make art?

So, let’s zoom out a bit: Why do we, as Christians, make art?

No, that won’t do, let’s go a bit further: Why, as Christians, do we do anything?

Followers of Jesus have a worldview that provides a foundational answer to our ‘why?’ questions. In our cultural setting, this is both one of Christianity’s most attractive features and its most controversial claims. Jesus leads us to believe that our lives have a fundamental and objective purpose and we can know what that is.

So what is our purpose? Now, the phrasing may be slightly different for different Christians, but ‘for the glory of God’ will probably cover most angles (Ephesians 1 seems to be quite a handy touchstone here, particularly verses 6 and 12).

Okay then, we’re alive to delight God, to enhance his reputation, to glorify him. But what does this look like in practice?

Well, this is a little more contentious, but for many of us, I guess we’d say that an important reason we’re alive is to help people follow Jesus more closely and particularly help people who don’t know Jesus to become his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). This is certainly where the students I mentioned earlier were coming from.

Now, I reckon that this, while possibly a tad reductionist, is a pretty decent reference point when it comes to purpose. I wholeheartedly believe that a life lived purposefully and deliberately to lead more people to become disciples of Jesus is a very good life, very much in line with what we were created to do.

So, if you agree with me, have we answered our question then?

Why do we, as Christians, make art? To encourage people to become Christians.

Well, in a sense ‘yes’ and in a sense ‘no’, and which way I’d lean at a given time will probably depend on how quickly we move from this ‘why?’ to the all-important ‘how?’

The Purpose Driven Life

To see what I mean, consider the difference between someone who has a purpose and someone who has an agenda.

A purposeful person is motivated, enthusiastic and makes good use of their time. A person with an agenda is often seen as sneaky, driven and calculated.

We, as Christians, should relish our purpose and the meaning and direction that God fills our lives with. However, I don’t think we should therefore become coldly utilitarian and robotic in how we live out our purpose.

Salt and light have a purpose, but they couldn’t be described as having an agenda.

This is, I think, why the New Testament’s teaching on evangelism is not just about how we speak, but also about how we live.

Jesus told his disciples to ‘preach the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:2) but he also said that they were the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. Salt and light have a purpose, but they couldn’t be described as having an agenda. Peter puts it slightly differently in his first letter:

‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, although they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

1 Peter 2:10

Being salt and light

When I was a secondary school teacher, I found out pretty quickly that while your typical good deeds (honesty, kindness, patience, etc) were important here, another one was simply taking my job seriously and working hard at it. In fact, if I’d chosen to intentionally shoehorn the gospel into my lessons or pastoral care in a way that was to the detriment of me being a good teacher, I would have lost the respect of my colleagues and probably caused very few people to glorify God.

This is generally understood when it comes to most professions and disciplines. To use another example, a plumber could live out their evangelistic purpose in their job without carving Bible verses on every U-bend they fit. By doing a consistently good job, probably unthinkingly most of the time, they are potentially speaking volumes about Jesus’ ability to cause his followers lives to flourish.

If I chose to shoehorn the gospel into my lessons to the detriment of being a good teacher, I would cause very few people to glorify God.

But when it comes to art, we seem to get this all muddled up. I am living proof of this. Time and time again, I have overthought artistic projects and dwelt for so long on ‘why I should be doing this?’ or ‘how should this song communicate the gospel’ or ‘how can this story glorify God?’ that I’ve created work that didn’t communicate anything and only glorified God to those who were willing to overlook the clear inadequacies of the work (ie., Christians).

Purpose driven lives are to be commended. Purpose driven art doesn’t work.

Making art should be like making friends

It sounds kind of twee, but I think that making art should be like making friends. I’d imagine that most of us are friendlier people because we are Christians, and at least part of this is because we believe that we have something good to offer other people. Our friendliness is purposeful. However, friendliness that has an agenda is a totally different thing. If we set out to make friends purely to convert people, it would quickly become something quite ugly. Our ‘friendships’ would be conditional, one sided and somewhat inhuman.

If you recoil from the idea of such an approach to friendship, consider the similarities with our role as artists. Hopefully, in both cases, we’ll have opportunities to explain ‘the reason for the hope that we have’ (1 Peter 3:15), but both as friends and as artists, our default position is to show people love and serve them the best we can. As artists, we do this by creating the best work we can, not by advertising our worldview to them.

Stop making art about Jesus?

So maybe if I’d had more time, I’d have put it a bit more like that on that student retreat.

I definitely don’t think we should all stop making art about Jesus. I’d hope he is the subject who fascinates, excites and invigorates us most, and if so, we won’t be able to keep him out of our work. Nor should we.

But for anyone who is overthinking their work and finding that their good evangelistic intentions are stopping them from creating work that is authentic, generous spirited and full of life, it might be a good place to start.

Let’s glorify God together in every way we can, and my prayer for many people reading this would be that one of the ways we’d live out our God given purpose is by creating the very best artwork that we possibly can.

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Hey, Artists: You Don’t Need to Justify Your Desire to Make Things

In Sputnik circles, some things go without saying: but occasionally, we ought to clarify those ‘unsaid’ things for people’s benefit. One of those is that artists don’t need to justify their desire to make things.

We’re taking you at face value. We take your artistry seriously, in and of itself. Some of you may shrug, but we so often have conversations with artists who feel the need to place their art in a ‘worthier’ context, like social justice, mental health, worship, or of course, evangelism. The conversations at our gatherings so often seem to revolve around permission.

I fully endorse having a good framework behind our art. But maybe we need a mental palette-cleanser from time to time: to be reminded that art is a human good, and that it has a function without being pseudo-spiritualized.

Art is a Simple Good

On one very simple level, as Christians we are free to enjoy making art. Think of it like food: God has created a vast map of gastronomic variety, and we’re free to combine things, roast things, explore things and to enjoy the delicious outcomes. He didn’t have to make food to be good; it could have just been functional. Similarly, there is a vast spectrum of visual and sonic possibility in our world, and God allows us to mess around with sound and light and enjoy the outcomes, simply because they are good.

Our favourite Scottish hyperrealist painter Ally Gordon puts it like this:

Creativity is the first thing God chooses to record about his character: “In the beginning God created” (Gen 1:1)… From the beginning God is interested in the aesthetic dimensions of living, declaring that the trees are not only “good for food” but first, “pleasing to the eye” (Gen 2:9).

As those made in God’s image, the act of good creativity is merely a very human experience and the artist should not feel a need to justify his art by scribbling bible verses in the bottom right hand corner of her painting or crow-barring a gospel message into his script.

And like anything that is good, art is good for sharing – or as Ally puts it in Beyond Air Guitar, “gifts are given for communal benefit and not just for individuals”. It seems to me a fitting part of the Christian life, to make things that deepen our experience of God’s creation, and share them with people. I was avoiding saying ‘beauty’ here; but, assuming we see beauty as more than a superficial aestheticism, it is a good thing to bring out the beauty and the mystery of life. Not just a good thing – it’s part of our call to stewardship of the world.

Yes, if we concentrated on this to the detriment of all else in our life, it might be unhealthy. Yes, art can be much more than this too. Yes, we will have other things we’re hoping to provoke or accomplish through our art. But on the other hand, we can take simple joy in making, the same way you can take joy in eating (and sharing) food that you’ve cooked, or grown.

Art has a Function Already

So the act of good creativity is a very human experience. And if you put humans together in the same space, the fruit of that human creativity is culture. We don’t even have to try to make it; we just can’t help ourselves. Practical needs lead to cooperation, and then BOOM: dancing, football, metaphysics, whisky, architecture. These things are all our way of figuring out what we mean to each other, rituals of belonging, a yearning for the oneness of the Godhead; our way of digging deeper into this weird thing called existence, and community.

Some churches love to talk about being counter-cultural, drawing the battle lines between us – the exiles – and ‘the culture’. But those lines can be incredibly unhelpful, too, because we are part of our culture, no matter what we do. Culture isn’t a top-down, passive enterprise. It’s the sound of neighbourhoods, of contribution and collaboration and compromise. And we are not outside observers. If we dislike what we see in our culture, we are complicit.

Good creativity is a very human experience; and culture is simply the fruit of human community.

No group of humans alive has ever not made culture, even when the immediate needs are still pressing, if cave paintings are anything to go by. Culture, and art, is far from peripheral. After all, ‘belonging’ is bang in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and in practical terms, that means shared culture. Dutch art historian and jazz critic Hans Rookmaaker puts it this way in the spectacularly on-the-nose Art Needs No Justification:

Just as plumbing is totally indispensable in our homes, yet we are rarely aware of it, so art fulfils an important function in our lives, in creating the atmosphere in which we live, in giving us the words to speak, in offering us the framework in which we can see and grasp things… even without our noticing it.

If we need to talk about the function of art, it already has one. What art means to us is not really found in the individual maker, the auteur or the prophetic genius. It’s found in the receiving of art, in the shared cultural experience. There may well be a ‘message’ that comes through it, but that is not in the artist’s control. As Rookmaaker puts it, “even the best art makes for bad preaching.” I might equally say, good preaching makes for bad art.

Art Works, No Matter How Small

At most Sputnik events, aside from those who are longing for permission, we also meet people who have discounted their own gifts altogether, or feel they don’t know how to pick up their craft again, or who are discouraged that pursuing art won’t lead to worthwhile success.

Many of us set high standards for ourselves, ultimately doing nothing rather than risking something mediocre. Maybe we’re aware that, if there are elements of Christian faith in our work, we won’t be taken seriously in the wider world unless we’re ferociously good.

Sputnik exists for these people, who want to pursue excellence in their craft. But sometimes we need to ditch the weighty expectations and loosen ourselves up to just create. Making culture is what we do. The only ‘wrong’ way to approach art is to not make it, or to keep it entirely to yourself.

I keep coming back to the food analogy, but you don’t stop cooking food just because you won’t get a full-time chef gig out of it. Don’t deny yourself the joy of making, and don’t deny other people the chance to be blessed by it. Even if it’s just for your friends, even if it’s never commercially viable, art does what it’s been created to do: it announces we’re alive, it expresses joy in God’s creation, and it reminds us we belong to each other.

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Kintsugi and the Art of Embracing Failure in Your Artistic Process

Kintsugi pot ©

We are constantly under pressure to succeed and do well, to meet expectations and standards- at school, university, at work, in sport and in relationships. When we don’t meet up to our own or others’ standards, it can be hard to handle and can lead to low self-esteem and a lack of self-worth.

As an academic high achiever, I have always set the bar high for myself. The flipside of perfectionism is that I’m never fully content with what I’ve achieved and have a tendency to get frustrated with myself when I make silly mistakes or forget something. Becoming aware of my own limits and acknowledging that things don’t always go to plan has been difficult. I’d always wanted to be an artist, but a period of full-time dedication to this endeavour resulted in disappointment, isolation and a lack of creative drive and motivation. It’s taken time to start accepting that maybe being an artist, for me, doesn’t look the way I thought it would, that a change of direction is not a failure.

God has been gently challenging me lately about all this — reminding me that he expects nothing more of me than surrender. That academic or professional success are not targets He has set for me, that He is only interested in my heart. It’s only when I stop trying, give up and let go- when I admit defeat and reach the end of my abilities — when I well and truly fail- only then am I really where he wants me. Only when my pride in my own endeavours has been properly broken apart can I really accept and understand his love and grace. Knowing that my value in His eyes is as high as it’s ever been when I’m as low as I’ve ever been, and letting that shape the way I see myself, I am slowly learning to be gentler towards myself and to forgive my own mistakes more readily. Where my natural response is shame and frustration, I am trying to be more accepting of imperfection.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9–10

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:26

I have been trying to explore some of these thoughts creatively- so far my experiments are unresolved, inconsistent and unfinished. But I have decided that that is ok, and perhaps appropriate. I am exploring what a difference it makes if I give myself permission to do things badly or at least imperfectly. To not worry if my work is sometimes mediocre, amateurish or unoriginal. Surely it is better to be creating something unexceptional than to do nothing out of fear that it won’t be good enough? The practice and process of creating is the only way to develop these skills.

Kintsugi pot ©
Kintsugi pot ©

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Similarly, Christ’s redemption increases our value, his grace and mercy being the gold repairing our brokenness.

Surely it is better to be creating something unexceptional than to do nothing, out of fear that it won’t be good enough? The practice and process of creating is the only way to develop these skills.

With this as my inspiration I am currently working on a series of canvases, which I am calling ‘Riven’, as a way of exploring the themes of failure and acceptance, damage and repair, beauty and brokenness. Each canvases’ surface has been cut or punctured in some way, some I then ‘repair’ using materials such as silk and gold thread to accentuate the value and beauty of the healing process. Others I am leaving broken, allowing the cracks and fissures to stand alone as my artistic impact on the canvas.

Sarah Ann Davies Riven
Element of ‘Riven’ canvas series, Sarah Davies

Kintsugi poem:

I’m a broken pot,
cracked and shattered
Unable to contain, to hold

You gather me up
Reassemble and repair
Fusing my fissures with gold

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The Financial Insecurity of Artists Debunks the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

Sputnik: The Financial Insecurity of Artists Debunks the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

An artist can lead something of a hand to mouth existence. The stereotype is the starving artist, labouring on their work until their fingers stiffen up completely from cold or malnutrition. Perhaps Von Gogh springs to mind, dying in poverty, having only sold one painting, as something of a necessary prelude to his post-mortem acclaim.

I hope that few of you who are reading this would identify too readily with poor old Vincent, but behind the stereotype, there is a grain of truth in regards to the often uncertain financial position many artists find themselves in, if they are looking to pursue self-initiated projects for large portions of their working week.

I’m constantly impressed by the innovative ways that artists find to fund their work. However, even when these methods are successful, this is still a difficult path that will often make it unclear where the next paycheque is coming from.

Financial insecurity is a fact for even the most skilled artists

Duncan Stewart touched on this in his excellent presentation at Woodside Church last week. Duncan is a painter and sculptor from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and he talked to us about one of his most successful projects: an exhibition inspired by and put on to coincide with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was an exceptional project full of nuanced spiritual challenges, provocative calls for justice and an intimidating level of craftsmanship and skill. It was also very successful, gaining national media interest and, importantly for the Stewart family, proving itself financially viable. He sold the entire exhibition on the opening night. For many artists, this is the stuff of dreams.

Piece from Duncan Stewarts Football: A Dialect of Hope Exhibition

However, he ended by observing that this was now 8 years ago. Subsequent projects have not reached this level of success and he admitted to finding this frustrating. He, like so many other artists, lives without job security or a guarantee that this will pay the bills month on month. Duncan vulnerably shared the difficulties of this situation. This causes worry. This causes tears.

It was revealing to see that even those of us with exceptional skill and great determination can still find ourselves in this position. If you are pursuing your art as a means of income and finding that this is not leading you to Damien Hurst/Kanye West levels of prosperity and financial security, be encouraged! It doesn’t mean you’re not any good. It doesn’t even mean that you’re doing something wrong. This goes with the terrain. Obviously, we do need to listen to our circumstances and adapt accordingly but it is very worth noting that this way of living is shared by the majority of artists, even artists who would be regarded as very successful.

Painting from Duncan Stewarts Football: A Dialect of Hope Exhibition

Financial insecurity carries an unexpected lesson with it

This is encouraging on its own but Duncan ended his presentation by completely flipping our perspective. This was not an unhelpful drawback of the artists’ predicament, he told us. He considered it a huge blessing. Why? Because it led to a greater dependency on Jesus.

It would be easy to write this off as a trite platitude. The kind of thing you have to say to keep getting church gigs. However, it wasn’t a throwaway comment; Duncan had modelled this dependency all through his story. On his artistic journey, at every stage, he had been listening to God for guidance, praying earnestly for help and obeying what he felt God was telling him to do. This was not just at moments of crisis either, but this lived-out dependency on God was built into his everyday life.

Those of you who don’t have a regular 9-to-5 contract have got something to teach the rest of the body of Christ

Most telling for me was a moment in the Q & A. Duncan mentioned something about his ‘quiet times’ and then commented that setting aside such time was a challenge as he has four children. I joked that, in that situation, quiet times wouldn’t just be a challenge but impossible, taking the phrase literally (ie., it is impossible to be quiet in a four-child household). Duncan immediately struck me with a pretty stern glare, and clarified that this was not the case. Quiet times (ie. devotional times of prayer and Bible reading) may be challenging, but they certainly weren’t impossible, and he made sure that he had them daily.

For those of you looking to earn a living from your art, who don’t have a regular 9-to-5 contract, I want to encourage you. You’ve got something to teach the rest of the body of Christ as you navigate the insecurities of your daily life. For most people, myself included, the security of a contract and set amounts of money deposited monthly into our bank accounts, is seen as a blessing, and in many ways it is, but it certainly means that we are less likely to fall back, desperate and needy on Jesus to look to provide for us. This arrangement can often trick us into thinking that we are the ultimate providers for ourselves and our families, and that we’ve got it sorted. I’ve got to work hard to remember that this is a lie. The Bible tells us that all we think we own has been loaned to us from God to use for his kingdom, and our security is always in his hands. This reality is much more readily accessible for a freelance graphic designer, say, than a shool teacher.

Security can trick us into thinking that we are the ultimate providers for ourselves and our families

So, whatever schemes you are cooking up to make ends meet while still aiming to maintain your artistic integrity, Duncan’s model is a great one to follow. Acknowledge and embrace your dependency on God, and demonstrate that dependency in bringing it all to God in prayer. Jesus said this:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ (Mt 6:25-34)

What do we do instead? ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (Mt 6:33). Duncan told us that this was one of his favourite verses. No surprise there, then.

Sculptures from Duncan Stewarts Football: A Dialect of Hope Exhibition
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Making Work That Requires Work

A few months ago, a much publicized national survey revealed Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ to be Britain’s most loved artwork. Firmly beating the Lowrys, Turners and Hockneys of this world, the result caused much eye rolling and consternation, particularly from newspaper arts correspondents.

This was the evidence they’d been looking for that artistic taste is finally dead and that Britain, culturally speaking, has well and truly gone to the dogs. It must be noted that a lot of the outrage was pretty reactionary considering that the survey in question was carried out to promote a Samsung TV and comprised of only 2000 participants. However, an interesting trend emerged among the various critiques: ‘Girl with balloon’ is simple and obvious, but art should be more than that.

‘Girl With Balloon’, Banksy

Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian put it like this:

‘Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult. Actually, remove that qualifier. It is always difficult.’

Now, I’ll stay out of the Banksy argument, as I have no strong feelings either way about that particular cheeky Bristolian scamp. However, I would tend to agree with Jones’ description of ‘real art’. In fact, this has been one of my main gripes with a lot of the typical output from within the Christian subculture. ‘Christian art’, as it is known in its modern sense, is often one dimensional, easily readable and instantly reducible into a simple sentiment or teaching point. Whether anyone can declare authoritatively that something is real art or not, this stuff does often seem less like a deep exploration of the nooks and crannies of existence, and more like a car advert or a party political broadcast.

As we conclude our series on the Old Testament prophets then, I find it heartily reassuring that there are at least hints in biblical art practice of Jones’ ‘real art’. It’s true that Isaiah et al had pretty didactic intentions, and they were certainly not locating the meaning of their work in the mind of their audience. However, their performances were deliberately ambiguous and as they drew their audiences in, they gave them considerable work to do. As mentioned earlier in this series, Jesus was just the same in making his parables difficult and, to some, completely opaque. The Bible records many people in both cases, who simply didn’t get it. And this wasn’t a failing of Jesus or the prophets.

A Justifiable Desire For Clarity

As Christians, we hold certain truths about the world so dear and we consider the stakes so high in other people understanding and subscribing to those truths, that clarity of communication is very important for us. In a Sunday service, everything must be clear. The sermon must be clear. The notices must be clear. Even the worship songs must be clear. Therefore, it is no surprise that this tendency is transferred to the church’s expectations of its artists.

Paul asks the Colossian church to pray for him ‘that I would make the gospel clear, which is how I ought to speak.’ (Col 4:4) And so the concensus has been that it’s not just Paul who has such an obligation. It’s how all Christians should speak. All the time. Even if they happen to be film makers or poets or photographers or dancers.

But Paul is not the only model of communication found in the Bible. God understands that clarity is key if you are talking to people who want to listen, but if that desire is lacking, it doesn’t matter how clear you tell people something, they simply won’t hear it. This is the situation that both the Old Testament Prophets and Jesus found themselves in. It’s also where we find ourselves if we want to communicate something deep and significant of the Kingdom of God to ears tuned to the frequencies of the kingdom of the world.

For us then, making work that requires work from our audience is not evidence of us being obtuse or obscure. It’s biblical.

Communicating through ambiguity

But surely we can’t just leave our audience to come to whatever conclusions they want to. How can we make difficult art that still nudges people closer to Jesus? Well, once again, Ezekiel helps us out.

In Ezekiel 12, Ezekiel acts out Israel’s journey into exile, with God providing the stage directions. It is, in many ways a simple performance, but its meaning is kept hidden from the casual observer. There was to be no running commentary (a peculiarity of Ezekiel’s calling was that he was to be silent except when there was a divine command to speak- Ezekiel 3:26-27) and no programme with explanatory notes. In fact, as Ezekiel went to bed after his successful opening (and only) night, his audience had absolutely no idea what he was up to. It was only the next morning that God told him what to do:

12:8- 10- ‘In the morning the word of theLordcame to me:“Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, ‘What are you doing?’

“Say to them…’

God didn’t care too much about the onlookers who grabbed 5 minutes of the show, ate some popcorn and went on their way. He designed the whole show for the questioners- those who would let themselves be drawn in. Ezekiel wasn’t delivering a sermon, he was starting a conversation.

For us, we must be prepared to make work like this. Work that can’t be digested in one gulp. Work that may befuddle, frustrate or even offend. Work that requires work. But we must also be prepared to pick up the conversations that our work begins.

And here lies the challenge. If we are to take the Old Testament Prophets seriously as artistic role models, we have to take on board that we do have a message to communicate. God has a way of seeing the world that he wants us to share and encourage others to adopt. Not every piece we ever make will do this, but, if we’re to take our prophetic calling seriously, some of our work will. We don’t need to straitjacket our work or blunt its edges to make this happen, but we probably will need to be prepared to enter into conversations about our work with people who ask ‘what are you doing?’

Fortunately, Joel (Wilson, that is, not the son of Pethuel) has already written a brilliant, concise post on this already, so I’ll direct you towards that if you’d like some tips on how to do this.

Let’s close this series though by switching testaments. In 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul writes:

‘Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy’ 

Yes, he was speaking mainly in the context of Christian meetings to Christians looking to communicate God’s word to other Christians or to seekers. However, as we’ve seen, in the context of the whole Bible, it wouldn’t be unfair to take the gift of prophecy a bit more broadly than that.

Are you eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy? Are you prepared to take up the call to be a prophet to your generation and culture?

I think the world needs some more Ezekiels, Joels, Isaiahs and Jeremiahs right now. Perhaps God wants you to be one of them.

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Interpreting The Times

Some of the Old Testament prophets dabbled in the performance arts, that’s for sure. However, not all of them.

For most of these guys, it was a matter of delivering a message to the people with good old fashioned words. Spoken or written. When we hear of prophets today, our minds often drift to the Nostradamus mode of prophecy- predicting the future, and that type of prophecy was certainly in the biblical prophets’ repertoire. However, they were often just as concerned with revealing God’s character to people, reminding them of God’s commands and promises, and also interpreting present events in the light of these.

One key aspect of their ministry was seeing layers of meaning behind the very natural events that were unfolding around them or even happening to them. So, Hosea’s wife’s adultery was seen as representative of the unfaithfulness of the entire people of Israel. Similarly, Joel witnessed a devastating locust plague and saw it as symbolic of the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord’ (Joel 2:31) and therefore presented the crisis as a call to repent.

Jesus expected all his followers to keep their eyes open and see what was really going on behind what was really going on (e.g. Luke 12:54-59). But this expectation must be even more pronounced for his followers who make art. After all, artists are always opening up new layers of meaning to the subjects they attend to. It’s kind of what we do.

As I was reading through Joel in my Bible reading plan this summer, I was reminded of all this. Unfortunately, there weren’t any ravenous grasshoppers munching their way through my city, for me to muse on. However, there were a few hiccups with the bins.

As my fellow Brummies will be fully aware, the bin men went on strike this summer. Bin bags filled pavements all over the city as one of the most basic expectations of first world civilisation, regular refuse collections, fell by the wayside for the best part of 4 months.

It was funny, because I hadn’t thought about any deeper meaning to all of this (rather that is was a massive pain), until, in a church leaders meeting, two of my friends were discussing the symbolism of this whole fiasco. Not to be outdone, I put my mind to penning a verse or two. It probably won’t be pored over in 3000 years and it certainly isn’t God’s infallible word, but I’m pretty pleased with the outcome, which I’ve included above (thanks to Chris Donald for video and sound work).

What’s going on in your life/family/community/city/nation/world that God may be enabling you to interpret to your audience?

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The School Of Prophets: Reflections On An Arts Manifesto

“This is a book about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived…” So begins Abraham Heschel’s paradigm shifting book The Prophets. He continues:

“The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends. [. . . ] The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretentious.” *

In truth, I had adopted the biblical prophets as my guides long before I ever sat down to reason out why. I met plenty of Christians in the early noughties who were uncertain and anxious about what a Christian artist ought to look like; I ignored such discussion and dived after Ezekiel (my favourite) in his wake of woe and madness.

It was the end of the noughties when I decided to sit down and sketch this sort of approach out into a manifesto. I did this partly because others found the approach compelling, and I thought describing some principles might be helpful. But the greater reason was that the idea of the school of prophets had taken hold of my mind. The biblical prophets were not all loners. We often read of prophetic communities (eg 2 Kings 2:1-18) who together sought mystical experiences of YHWH, and embarked together on their strange prophetic activities. I had a notion that perhaps some like-minded artists of faith might similarly work together and create jarring public spectacles to interrupt the numbing rhythms of the broken present.

And so we did. There was performance art in front of the giant screens and coercive advertising campaigns. We played music on buses to disrupt the public numbness, and on monuments to call the images and powers into question. The manifesto kept us very much focused on aesthetic actions in public spaces (such as the prophets seemed to do). It was, on the other hand, very much against the safe containment of art in the abstract echo-chambers of cyberspace, or the domestication of art into the capitalist lounges of record shops, art galleries and billboards, and the mythos of the aspiring artist. It was also against art as a thing prescribed by empire for introspective moments, to sooth unsettled emotions while the world itself withers. Certainly not! Our art was to be offered directly to the everyday public in a manner that promoted immediate public discourse.

All this finally culminated in our participation in the No More Page Three campaign, which – after several years of slogging – finally succeeded in persuading The Sun to remove its soft porn images from the paper.

After this (or even before, really), the loose collective dispersed. People got married, had children, moved to other cities, and so on. I, who had been the chief organiser (and quite unsuited to organising anything), collapsed exhausted. And the manifesto went on the shelf, where I still occasionally glance over and wonder about dusting it off.

To reflect on this brief experiment: it was hard. Doing subversive art in public space is emotionally draining. Taking a public stance on an issue is costly. Aiming art exclusively at public life, to the exclusion of inner life, is unwise – as Jeremiah would have told me if I’d listened. Although others sometimes took the initiative, I was mostly the driving creative force. I was hoping to create a structure within which others felt empowered to thrive and speak with their own voice, and launch their own creative actions. This happened occasionally, but was pretty rare.

On the other hand, it was fun. We bonded. We lit up spaces with discussion and merriment that were otherwise numb and atomised. We saw small changes in response to our actions. We made new friends and connected with new people. One pair connected, got married and now have a third child on the way. We were all somehow enlarged and changed, and various people were, I think, positively influenced.

If I were to re-ignite such plotting, rooted in the example of the school of prophets, I suppose I would work harder at two things: first, a slow, sustainable pace. And, second, a prayerful common life.

I don’t think it entered our minds that one ought not to emulate the prophets. It never occurred to me to think of the Hebrew prophets simply as verbatim mouth-pieces for God (like Mohammed, say). I think if we try to capture a sense of them in their own moment, we find social, cultural and political activists working out of their Yahwist faith, and toward their Yahwist hope. They had no idea that they (or their disciples) were writing canonised religious texts. They were faithfully responding to the world as they found it in their own day. If someone decides to canonise your babblings in a few hundred years, that’s their business. Ours is to speak faithfully into the hope crisis of the present. God help us if we don’t.

One of the curious and marvelous outcomes of the experiment, for me, was the very mixed group that formed around it: some Christians and some not. I think one of the reasons (besides canonical anxiety) that people aren’t sure of how to emulate the prophets, is that their religious paradigms are quite different to ours. The prophets didn’t really try to “convert” people in the religious sense. They certainly called people to right living and authentic worship, but the Ninevites, for example, didn’t convert to Judaism, as such, neither did Nebuchadnezzar, or Naaman. As I reflect back on our little collective, it occurs to me that those who engaged most deeply with the Manifesto itself, were not Christians. And indeed, they helped shape and refine it. Non Christians took part in our actions, and we as a collective threw our weight behind secular movements (such as No More Page Three). Meanwhile, it was sometimes Christians who criticised us most fiercely. How did all the boundaries get so jumbled?

For now I’ll just reflect that that was how it went: being salt and light in this sort of paradigm felt a lot more like a mutual discipleship with others toward God, than the usual sorts of images (us in a boat, holding a hand out to the drowning folks in the water). In this respect, it chimes with my experience that Chris Donald might point to Kate Tempest as one of the most authentically prophetic voices in the present. The prophets so often jarringly critiqued the ordinary, ubiquitous, and systemic evils, in which all are enmeshed. And so the dividing line is, as Paul might say, abolished. All have sinned, and all – prophets included – are called to change, to metanoia, to repentance. No doubt, this raises questions, but it was, on reflection, very refreshing to engage the world this way.

*If I may recommend two books to read on the prophets, these would be The Prophets by Abraham J Heschel, and The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

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Ezekiel – The First Performance Artist?

One day. A long time ago. In Babylon. The exiled Hebrew prophet Ezekiel put on a show. In front of a diorama of Jerusalem (etched on a clay tablet) he enacted a siege, with props ranging from ramps to battering rams to iron pans. Then he lay down on his left side for a year, then on his right side for another month, keeping himself alive by eating food cooked over cow dung.

Then he shaved his hair and beard with a sword. He set fire to a third of the hair, distributed a third of his hair round the city and threw a third to the wind. He tucked a few remaining strands in his pockets, and to finish things off, he burnt the last bits.

An audience was (or presumably lots of different audiences were) present throughout and I’m sure as the stench of burnt hair filled their nostrils for the last time, they clapped and cat called in equal measure, and the local papers went wild with conjecture about this bizarre but oddly compelling artistic event.

The precise account can be found in Ezekiel chapters 4 and 5, and while I have put my own spin on it, I don’t think I’m overly embellishing what the text describes. We know Ezekiel today as a prophet, but I think that if he was alive today we’d give him a different title. Ezekiel was a performance artist.

Avanting the Avant Garde

His performances (of which the Bible records at least 5) seem to be pre-emptively in the mould of artists like Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys, Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono. In the 20th century, these artists were seen as broadening the boundaries of traditional art from paintings, songs, plays, and the like to ‘happenings’, in which the ideas become paramount, and the audience’s interaction with the artist becomes part of the work itself.

Consider for example Abramovic’s ‘The Artist is present’ in which she sat immobile in a museum’s atrium for 736 hours and 30 minutes, completely silent and still, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Basically a more comfortable (and fresher smelling) version of the main body of Ezekiel’s previously mentioned work!

And Ezekiel wasn’t the only one. Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah made and wore a wooden yoke, which another prophet broke (and there could be an implication in the text that he then returned with a new yoke made of metal) (Jeremiah 27-28). For these prophets, while they wrote and announced their messages (usually in carefully arranged poetic stanzas, but that’s another post), they were also known to use highly symbolic actions to communicate what they felt that God was saying. Their performances were striking. The audience were often active participants. They always had a particular point to make, yet they drew people in by raising questions. This was avant garde artistic practice that avanted the avant garde by almost 3000 years.

Now, if you’re still with me, and you’re willing to look at the Old Testament Prophets at least partially through this lens, a couple of conclusions follow. Firstly, there are some examples of artistic practice in the Bible that many of us have overlooked. And secondly, those of us who make art have some new biblical role models to potentially educate our practice.

Not Just Bezalel

Potentially then the Bible’s whole teaching on the value and place of the arts gains another dimension. You see, when Christians go to the Bible for artistic inspiration or even validation, they usually bring up all the old chestnuts: Bezalel, Oholiab and the crafting of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-11), the design of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 2-4) and the Psalms usually being pretty prominent. Now, all of these artistic endeavours have similarities. On the whole, these works are created for the faithful people of God to encourage them in their worship (admittedly the Psalms don’t all fit that description, but it is true of the main body).

Therefore, as aids to worship, for people who presumably already quite want to worship, they have some shared features. They aim at beauty in their appearance (or composition), clarity in what they are communicating and they are largely safe pieces of work (by this I mean, Moses and Aaron were not having pastoral meetings about whether Bezalel was corrupting the minds of the children. Again, there are huge exceptions in the psalms, to which we will return forthwith).

Two types of Biblical Art

However, once you consider the Old Testament Prophets in your survey of biblical art practice, you see that an entirely different type of art exists in the Bible to an entirely different audience. As we’ve seen, these guys are not making art for the faithful, but for the unfaithful. And because of this, their art is not beautiful, clear or safe. It is dramatic and attention grabbing because people didn’t really want to engage with what they were saying. It also has a tendency to be ugly, ambiguous and risky.

When we see this, another thing happens. Suddenly, those awkward psalms that talk about killing babies and languishing in the pits of despair aren’t a strange exception to the rule that all Christian art should be nice and happy and optimistic. Now they find themselves fitting snugly into a tradition of art that runs throughout the Bible that seems to operate in a whole different way to Bezalel, Oholiab and David (on a happy day). In fact (sorry if I appear to be getting carried away), couldn’t we add an even more prominent character on to the roster of difficult biblical art?

Jesus’ parables operate in a very similar manner to the aforementioned prophets. Jesus uses this particular creative mode because of his audience’s likely antipathy to his message (Mt 13:13-15, quoting Isaiah!) and again his work is at times ugly (Lk 19:27), ambiguous (the parable of the dishonest manager, anyone?) and risky (plucking out eyes, hating wives, etc).

In summary, once we start seeing the Old Testament prophets as performance artists, we see more clearly than ever that there are two very different types of art in the Bible. Art that inspires people to worship and art that questions why they’re not worshipping. Art for the faithful which is beautiful, clear and safe and art for the unfaithful, which has the potential to be ugly, ambiguous and risky.

The church has become very comfortable with the first of these and has been ploughing time, money and resources into creatives who practice in this way for some time. I think we need to start becoming a bit more uncomfortably comfortable with the second and raising up and supporting a whole load of modern day Ezekiels.

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What Do We Do With The Old Testament Prophets?

Following on from Chris’ post on Tuesday, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into what it means to make prophetic art. We’ll get to the art in the next post, but to give some context, I wanted to focus today on the thorny issue of prophecy.

I am what could fairly be described as a charismatic Christian. I am aware that, if that label means anything to you at all, you will now see me as anything from a faithful adherent to New Testament Christianity to essentially a snake handler. Well, I’m in no rush to fill you in on exactly where I would sit on that spectrum, but hopefully, whatever your theological tribe, there’ll be something in this post of interest, amusement and maybe even of value.

Charismatics, as you may be aware, are very fond of prophecy, and picture God as a very chatty father, who loves to speak to his children. But, someone might object, what if you get the wrong end of the stick? What if you just have a vivid imagination or happened to eat a lot of blue cheese before bed or just downed half a pint of adder venom or whatever? Well, of course, that’s a possibility, and for that reason, all prophecy should be weighed, as per 1 Corinthians 14:29. The image that’s always stuck with me regarding this process is someone weighing a lump of what appears to be gold, to work out how much of it is actually gold and how much is accumulated dross. So how do you weigh prophecy? Well, you recognise that we’ll always be slightly faulty receptors of God’s word (we prophesy in part- 1 Cor 13:9) and therefore listen carefully, hold on to what seems valuable, and graciously reject what seems a bit ‘off’, always using God’s revealed word (The Bible) as the gold standard.

But, what about Deuteronomy 18:20-22? I hear you cry! If I’ve misheard your particular cry on this occasion (probably something to do with the cobra fangs latched on to my right forearm), Moses says in these verses that if a prophet prophesies something and gets it wrong, they should die. This seems a far cry from giving an encouraging pat on the back and gently suggesting that, after all, there are other gifts of the Spirit.

Now, here is where we get close to the actual focus of this post, because at this point a certain move is made. In my opinion a good move, but a move that perhaps needs looking at again. In answer to this very reasonable objection, the modern charismatic would tend to draw a line between the gifts of prophecy in the Old and New Testament. Yes, in the Old Testament, there was a weight that was expected of all prophets (total infallibility), but now that the Spirit is freely available to all, and all ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17), there is more grace available to those wanting to communicate God’s will to people (and presumably also an expectation of more wisdom in those who are listening).

And so, with this line drawn, all the teaching I’ve heard on how to prophesy has been taken from the New Testament, with very clear instruction that we should not look to emulate the Old Testament prophets at all. The concern is that, if this is not underlined, we will open the door to the ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’, ‘I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger’, ‘sackcloth and ashes’ brigade. And we can’t have that.

But the result is that we no longer know what to do with the Old Testament prophets, except to discuss their theology. The bit about the suffering servant is great, but you obviously shouldn’t lie around for three years, eating food cooked over poo (Ezekiel 4). Agabus (Acts 21:10-11) may be a fine role model, but not Isaiah. And, if in doubt, (because let’s face it, Agabus seems a bit on the spectrum himself!) 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 help us out. In these chapters, Paul tells us exactly the purpose of prophecy for the modern day Christian, especially in 14:3-

‘But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.’ (1 Cor 14:3)

So basically as a brief summary of the teaching I’ve had on prophecy over the years: God still speaks. We should listen. If I’m going to share what I think He’s saying, I must make sure it’s a) in line with what the Bible says and b) is potentially strengthening, encouraging and/or comforting for people.

Now, just to underline what may have been lost in my slightly flippant tone, I like this stuff. I’ve hugely benefited personally from listening to God’s voice and from accepting what God is saying to me through others. I also love being part of a church that listens to God and encourages the use of the gift of prophecy.

However, at the same time, I do think that we need to reassess the role of the Old Testament prophet in this whole scheme. I think that the ancient Hebrew seers, both major and minor, have things to teach us about how we should communicate God’s truth, not just about how we should think about God.

And I don’t think that we need to make a huge shift here, but simply to do what this particular blog is adamant that Christians need to do in all spheres of our lives: we need to remember that we’re not just called to speak to the church.

1 Corinthians 12 and 14 gives instructions for the use of the gift of prophecy in a gathered meeting of Christians. Yes, there are allowances made for guests to the meeting who are not followers of Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), but the focus of this teaching is upon how we communicate God’s word to people who already have a certain openness to that word. The Old Testament prophets on the other hand spend most of their time speaking to people who are very resistant to God’s word.

God makes it clear to Isaiah that this will be the context for his whole ministry. As the prophet faithfully puts himself forward to serve God, God spells out, in Isaiah 6:9, what his message is to be:

‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;

Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

For Ezekiel, his call is very similar:

‘Son of Man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebeliious nation that has rebelled against me… the people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.’ (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Now, of course, these prophets were mainly ministering to those who were seen as God’s people (although not always, eg Jonah), however, God was making very different assumptions about the group these guys were addressing, than Paul was about the audience that were receiving prophetic input in Corinth.

In short, the teaching I’ve received (and often given) on the prophetic seems to have assumed that we are communicating God’s word only to Christians who need encouragement, or to people who aren’t Christians but have come to Christian meetings. If, as this website regularly asserts, the church needs to learn how to communicate much more effectively with people who don’t already follow Jesus and have no intention of coming to our meetings, I think we need a new model. And by a new model, I mean an old model. And by an old model, I mean the model of often eccentric, outspoken and unpredictable Hebrew prophets who brought God’s messages of hope and judgement to Israel and the surrounding nations between about 900 and 400 BC.

Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that by following their example, we should have a different message from what we communicate in our church meetings. It’s important to remember in all of this what the Old Testament prophets actually did: they pointed people towards the Messiah. That is still the goal. In one sense, ultimately, it is the only valid goal. And my motivation behind this encouragement would be that this is so important that we shouldn’t neglect a method of achieving this goal that God gives over such a large chunk of his word to.

The reason why I am examining this topic on our arts blog is that I reckon that a helpful way to view the Old Testament prophets, at least at times, is as forerunners to the performance artists that began to emerge in the 20th century. When seen through this lens, I think we start to see who may be able to step into their shoes in our times, and how they could do that. We can also pick up some very important lessons for all artists who wish to strengthen, comfort, encourage and perhaps also dramatically confront those outside of the church who are presently hurtling happily towards disaster and trying to take the rest of us with them. Just like the Old Testament prophets, an artist has the ability to cause people to stop in their tracks, think about their present direction and ultimately turn towards Jesus.

So let’s look at that more in the next post. In the mean time though, where did I put my flaggon of poison?

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Kate Tempest and the Voice That Won’t be Silent

Prophecy, in the Biblical sense, is not usually about telling the future: it’s about re-framing the present as seen through God’s eyes, with encouragement or dire warning as appropriate. The future part is implicit, perhaps, but primarily God speaks to what is happening now.

Many of the Old Testament prophets were performance artists, active demonstrators of the message that God wanted them to deliver. Isaiah preached naked and barefoot as a warning that Judah’s allies would become similarly stripped. David sang songs that became signifiers of Jesus’s life and, in some cases, actual words that Jesus spoke. In fine oral tradition, prophecy was a thing performed, proclaimed, in real time and space.

Because prophecy addresses the state of now, it’s socio-political: not party politics but the deeper stuff, the interrelationships of communities, the misuse of power and resources, the contents of people’s hearts towards each other. Nowadays, Christians are deeply involved with matters of justice and social action in the charitable sector – implicitly prophetic work, you might say. But what about the art of explicit prophecy?

While there are Christian artists doing it well – our man Benjamin Blower comes to mind – I’d like to suggest that there are a number of more agnostic artists who have taken onto themselves a mission that’s best described as prophetic. Kate Tempest would be a good example. (Contains dangerous language.. and one F-word):

Above all else, Kate Tempest’s poem carries a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness of everything, the ‘web of being’ as David Dark calls it: the environment, capitalism, the arms trade, social isolation. Yes, it’s a hugely broad sweep, but that’s exactly the point: while “the myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost and pitiful”, comprehending the real state of the nation requires a bird’s eye view. Old Testament prophets dealt in broad sweeps too, and one theme that recurred ad nauseum was that the greed of nations leads to social wreckage and death.

Tempest ends with a plea to “wake up, and love more”, which may be too ambiguous an ending for those who favour clear, didactic treatises of faith (and generally throttling artistry) but watching it again, I don’t disagree with any of it – in fact, I think the poem’s message is something God is crying out for us to hear and understand. You might say it’s not the ‘whole’ truth, but it’s part of it, and powerfully, incisively delivered.

I’m not suggesting that the role of the prophets has somehow moved on to those outside the faith (though there is Biblical precedent for that). Only that there are artists we can learn from who unflinchingly grasp the prophetic nettle. Perhaps the spectacle of sandwich-board-wearing street preachers shouting about hell has scared us from the idea of protest. Yet Tempest, in her way, preaches hell: the hell we’re in, the chaos we’re headed for. I don’t doubt she faces her fair share of deaf ears, doubters, haters, cynical eye-rolls and gleeful misinterpreters. But the prophetic voice in the world will not be silent.

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Does Our Work Have A Future?

I have a soft spot for a little story of Tolkien’s: Leaf by Niggle. It strikes me as a piece written by someone who is engaged on creative projects which he knows some people question and others despise; creative projects which seem to be futile and fragmentary.

Niggle is a painter, continually distracted from his painting by the demands of his neighbour, Parish (who, in his name conveys the ever-present demands of social obligation – and, I think, going further back, the law itself: and is Niggle’s own name a hint at that creative itch, that desire to make which keeps coming back, however often it is suppressed?) He finds himself become obsessed with painting a great tree; he works on each individual leaf, making it as detailed as possible, but finds that even using all his skill he cannot make the tree match his vision. Eventually, with his painting unfinished, Niggle dies. He spends some time in purgatory, and then finds himself creating a garden, which has as its main feature an enormous and beautiful tree, rich with birds and animals. It is also the true embodiment of what he was attempting to convey in his paintings.

As someone firmly in middle-age, who has many more creative dreams unrealised than realised, Leaf by Niggle gives me hope: hope that my creativity is not wasted, that things attempted on this earth are not wasted.

And there, apart from noting the latent platonism in the story – which is also there in Lewis’ Last Battle, I left it. Until this evening. I was continuing my theological equivalent of swimming the Atlantic, pushing a few pages further into N. T. Wright’s Paul and the faithfulness of God, when I came across this, in a section on Paul’s re-definition and re-working of Jewish worldview and praxis:

The only time in Galatians that he specifies the content of this klēronomia, it is ‘the kingdom of God’. I suspect it is the subtly false reading of this in the whole western tradition (where ‘kingdom of God’ has been flattened out into a synonym for ‘heaven‘, and ‘heaven’ has been thought of as ‘the ultimate destination of God’s people’) that has thrown readers of the scent. For Paul, God’s kingdom is not a non-material, post-mortem destination, but is rather the sovereign rule of the creator over the entire created order, with death itself, which corrupts and defaces the good creation as the last enemy to be destroyed. In other words, the final ‘kingdom of God’ is the whole world, rescued at last from corruption and decay, and living under the sovereign rule of God, exercised by the Messiah’s people. [PFG 336-7]

While the main thrust of Wright’s argument is the inheritance of the land and Paul’s re-thinking of the Jewish land of promise to the promised inheritance of the whole world, it was not that which caught my eye, rather it was that flattening out of kingdom of God to post-mortem paradise, and the implication of a reflated kingdom for Niggle.

Niggle was in a platonic universe, perhaps not as overtly platonic as the one Jill Pole and Eustace Scrub found themselves. He lived in the Shadowlands, where the great realities were only manifest in the dark outlines cast onto the cave wall. After he died, he found himself recreated and face-to-face with those great realities: a tall tree and brightly-coloured birds. The small things he attempted in this life were lost, forgotten and destroyed (astonishing to note how different the fate of Tolkien’s own work has been, with carefully curated editions of his myths and stories, and now his translation of Beowulf); they were unimportant, because they were only the shadow.

Paul, although sharing the Eastern Mediterranean with many real-life platonists, did not live in a platonic universe. Paul could not have envisaged the death of Narnia, the blowing of the great horn and the closing of the door. If Paul had written The Last Battle Aslan would have come roaring out of the stable and put Narnia to rights; more than that, made Narnia what it was fated to be from the very start of the song before the beginning of time.

If Paul had written Leaf by Niggle those little leaf paintings of Niggle’s would not have been fragments lost in a nineteenth century civic art gallery; they would have been transformed, taken up, with their promise and their heart fulfilled in a new and astonishing way. Paul’s story gives me even more hope than Tolkien’s. Paul’s story teaches me not that my work is a faint penumbra of something great, but that it is the start of a greater thing: a thing which will – when Christ has returned to claim his inheritance and put everything under his feet – grow, like the mustard seed into the biggest of shrubs, with the birds of the air roosting on its branches. In Paul’s story, the work of creating the garden is already in hand.

(And if you’d like to read the actual story, ‘Leaf By Niggle’ is available to here)

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Patronage in Practice

As we continue our series looking at arts patronage and all the hows, whats and whys thereof, we thought it would be good to give a concrete, practical example of patronage in the 21st century for those of you who don’t happen to have Charles Saatchi’s expendible income. Therefore, I asked my friend Adam Haywood, from Woodside Church, Bedford, to share how he became an arts patron.

I’ve been to a lot of gigs, seen a lot of bands. Most of them now I don’t remember too much of; just a loose memory of what happened and a lasting resonance of the emotions stirred at the time. Some great. Some good. Some bad.

I remember seeing Green Day at V98, when the band set their drum kit alight as Bille-Joe closed out their set with ‘Good Riddance’. I remember the next band (The Seahorses, I think) trying really hard to follow it with their slow melodic brit-rock, whilst trying to coax the audience into creating some semblance of an atmosphere. They didn’t. And their attempts were joyously hilarious. Me and my friend Rob were still laughing as we made our way back to our tent. That was a good memory.

I remember watching Gomez in Leicester in the early 2000s as I stood bored for 2 hours whilst they refused to play the songs which everyone loved (‘Tijuana Lady’, anyone?) Why? Because they were now loved songs. And that meant they couldn’t play them anymore. Musicians, huh? That was a bad memory.

But a great memory? One of the best? Well, watching ‘The Augustines’ take their post encore-encore (muscians, huh?) outside of the venue, on to the high street in Oxford because the curfew at the venue had passed. That has to be up there. Standing there on the pavement, singing along with 100 other people as pedestrians slalomed around us in to the oncoming traffic and watching then, as the lead singer, aware of the increasing likelihood of an imminent fatality, took the sing-along to a low-lit, real ale serving, traditional pub, not 10 feet away- which my friend Dan got a back-row view to by clambering through a half-open window – yeah, that was a great memory.

Thing is, maybe a year after that, the band broke up.

Now bands break up all the time: band members can’t get on, the trappings of rock and roll decadence, the inability to write any good new songs, but this wasn’t that. It was financial. The lead singer posted a very honest explanation of the situation which ultimately said that because of the current state of the music industry, with content being consumed through mediums such as Spotify, Music Unlimited and what-not, people are not buying albums like they used to. When this is coupled with the increasing challenge of touring and making money- financially it just wasn’t viable for them as a smaller band. Therefore for them, breaking up was the only option.

When bands that I’ve enjoyed have broken up previously, even for those reasons named earlier, it’s got to me a little. But to have broken up because of financial challenges, whilst making sense, felt really unjust- like I’d been robbed of something unfairly. These bands we listen to are a part of our lives; our childhoods, our teenage years onto adulthood and beyond. These bands who write these songs spark memories of events, people and personal feelings that really are a massive part of you. And as such, they’re priceless.

I often checked in with the band’s online profiles, just in the hope that something would change- and after about a year the lead singer of the band posted that he was going to try something different; a new way to try and release music again that might be more financially viable. It was through something called Patreon.

Now, at 38, and not being on the digital graveyard quite yet, I was already aware of what this was- an online method of personally supporting artists financially so that they can make their art for others to continue to appreciate. So this is what I did- I supported him financially. I signed up for a monthly amount simply because this music is something that is important to me. And it feels good knowing that I’m part of continuing to keep this music going.

Two months ago, at Bush Hall in London, me and my friend Dan saw the lead singer again; we got a grossly overpriced Mexican meal prior and caught up on all things ‘life’; stood in one of the most impressive venues around as the lead singer told stories which we laughed at and sometimes pretended to laugh at; sung at the top of our voices to new and old songs and tried at the very end to steal the set-list that was stuck to the stage (unsuccessfully). The beer was overpriced. The journey back overlong due to roadworks. A great memory. And one I can genuinely say I had a part in making happen.

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But What Exactly Is Arts Patronage?

So, we’ve just started our patronage scheme, and hopefully we’ve filled you in on what it is and how it works. However, I recognise that it may be worth taking a further step back and delving a bit more into patronage itself.

We’d love to encourage the church to take up a significant role in art patronage again, and when we get a handle on what patronage is and why it is important, it should become clear that this is not just a call for the more creative part of the body of Christ to get our day in the sun. This has potentially huge ramifications for the whole church and for the world we’re called to be salt, light and yeast in.

What is patronage?

The arts have always been underpinned by a system of patronage. In short, this means that artists have traditionally not just received financial support through units sold, but certain individuals or organisations have taken it upon themselves to personally back artists, providing them with opportunities, encouragement and also financial support.

In the Middle Ages, artists were seen essentially as skilled labourers or tradespeople. Patronage then would often take the form of an artist being commissioned to produce a piece of work to certain specifications. So a rich 14th century noble man may have commissioned a portrait, a fresco or a sculpture in a similar way that today we might order a bespoke bed or a birthday cake for a special occasion.

Modern patronage

But times have changed. Since the Renaissance, the image of the artist has shifted dramatically. No longer simply craftspeople, artists have become seen as important thinkers and innovators within society. However, systems of patronage have continued.

Of course, things are now a little different. In modern times, a more diverse range of artists operate under this sort of system. Whereas painters and cathedral builders would have been the main beneficiaries of patronage in days gone by, now there are grants and subsidies for a far wider range of artists- from poets to DJs, fashion designers to documentary makers. Arts funding today is not just given to commission specific pieces of work either, but to develop the arts more organically, for example, helping young artists to develop their potential or developing programmes to help specific groups to express themselves creatively (eg people with disabilities).

The government is probably the major arts patron in the 21st century.

Another key difference (and I’m sure you’ve seen this one coming) is that the Christian church are no longer at the forefront of arts patronage.

The government is probably the major arts patron in the 21st century. In the UK, the Arts council intends to invest £1.1 billion of public money (plus £700 million of lottery money) between 2015 and 2018 ‘to help create art and culture experiences for everyone, everywhere’. However, the role of individual rich patrons is also important. Charles Saatchi was a key patron of the Young British Artists from the late 1980s, and was largely responsible for the rise to prominence of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al. Going back a few years, Paul Durand-Ruel did a similar thing for the Impressionists. ‘Without him, we wouldn’t have survived’ was Monet’s verdict.

Why should the church patronise the arts again?

So, the arts still get patronised. Art still gets funded. What’s the problem? Is the church simply sour that it isn’t needed as it was in days gone by?

Actually there is more at stake here than prestige. Patrons directly affect the content and tone of the work that is produced from their support.

Historically, this has been taken to some reasonably silly extremes. For example, patrons in the Middle Ages often liked to be included in the paintings they commissioned. For example, in Jan van Eyck’s ‘The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’, the titular canon is depicted kneeling on the right before the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

However, it is easier to miss the more obvious way in which patrons affect the work they patronise. Take Van Eyck’s masterpiece above as a case in point. Canon Van Der Paele was a clergyman. The painting he commissioned as a memorial may have shoehorned himself rather anachronistically into the scene, but he is far from the main character! When the Christian church was the key art patrons on the scene in Europe, the paintings tended to be very heavily focused on biblical content and the tone of these works would have shown a deep respect for this content. I suppose it’s common sense that if you pay for artwork, the artwork will likely reflect your values.

To use a simple example, imagine I was to commission someone to paint my portrait. It’s unlikely (though admittedly not impossible) that my painter would go out of their way to accentuate the size of my nose, my receding hairline, or the bags prematurely congregating under my eyes. They shouldn’t ignore them, but it would be fair to expect that there would be a measure of generosity they would show me as the one who is footing the bill.

This may seem a little off to you. Some may accuse this kind of arrangement as stifling artistic freedom. However, it’s important to recognise that this situation cannot be avoided.

In our day and age, people often cherish the view that they are totally objective and biases and prejudices are things that other people have. This is especially likely to be the case for those who would have no religious or political commitments.

I remember when I was training to become an RE (Religious Education) teacher, and a friend of mine reacted dismissively, bemoaning the fact that I wouldn’t be able to give the students a balanced take on religion because of my own personal faith. I doubt that he would have made the same complaint if an agnostic (or probably even an atheist) friend had chosen such a career path – and this is where the blindpsot lies. Everyone has a set of values and philosophical commitments, whether they are a Christian, a Buddhist, an anarchist or a typical post modern agnostic. And these worldviews will affect how we live and how we interact with others, whether we acknowledge them or not.

This is true of every artist, and it is true of every patron of the arts. I think that for some, they look back in horror at how the church influenced the art it paid for years ago, as if poor old Michelangelo would have much preferred to have decorated the Sistine Chapel ceiling with obscene imagery, mythical creatures or even just a simple vase of marigolds, but was forced to tow the line by the man paying his bills. Now who knows what the great man would have done if the chapel had not been a chapel and Pope Julius II had not been a Pope. However, we can say with some certainty that if Michelangelo was around today, he wouldn’t be getting Lottery money for decorating the Bristol docks with pictures of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel either!

It is not only the artists of yesteryear who produced work that reflected the worldviews of their patrons. It is how it always works. In Britain nowadays, art is largely patronized by a government that operates upon secular humanist principles. And what kind of art is in the ascendancy? James Elkins professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art, put it quite bluntly in 2004, when he wrote:

“Contemporary art is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been and that might be its most singular achievement.”

What a coincidence!

Now, I know that I am simplifying things hugely. There are plenty of other non-financial factors at work in this whole picture, but with that said, if you ever want to find out why people do things, ‘follow the money’ is never a bad place to start.

So what?

What do we learn from all this then?

Well, perhaps it shouldn’t have taken 1,500 words to come to this conclusion, but the main thing I glean from all of this is that if the church would like there to be more art that reflects the Christian worldview, then it’s probably going to have to pay for it.

Or let me put it another way. Think of the effect of Charles Saatchi’s patronage. Whatever you think of dissected sharks and unmade beds, through his financial support, he propelled an entire art movement into the public eye that otherwise would have fizzled out completely. Think of Paul Durand-Ruel. Without his patronage, we would never have heard of Monet, Degas or Renoir.

If the church would like there to be more art that reflects the Christian worldview, then it’s probably going to have to pay for it.

Patrons don’t just get to support artists. They can shape entire arts movements. And as we keep underlining on this blog – art shapes life.

Now, I know that very few readers of this blog would have the expendible income of Charles Saatchi, but the church would. The church would have it many times over. In fact, if every church in the UK gave £10,000 to the arts each year, we could match the Arts Council funding goals.

I know that sounds like a lot, but it would only mean about £200 per year per Christian.

Is that likely to happen any time soon? Not really, no. But we’ve been out of the game for quite some time and I’m very interested to see what happens if we get the ball rolling again.

Perhaps you can join us in doing just that.

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Introducing Sputnik Patrons

Christians are very generous people.

This is widely acknowledged by those inside and outside of the church, and rightly so when you consider how much God has given us.

But for most Christians there would be some forms of giving that are seen as more appropriate than others. Giving to your church seems to get a universal thumbs up, as does giving to foreign mission. Supporting individual evangelists is very much par for the course in some circles, while planting churches gets people to reach into their pockets elsewhere. And of course, nobody would question someone who gave in response to a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.

But as for the arts? Well…

Most Christians have some sort of appreciation for the arts, but in the church in the UK as I’ve experienced it, it would be rare for anyone to put the case for giving financially to ‘the arts’. Funnily enough, I’d like to make such a case here and in the following few weeks, and as I do,also provide a practical way to apply all of this.

How we use our money highlights what we consider important. We’ve been making the case since Sputnik began that the arts are important. We’d now like to join the dots from theory to wallets. So let’s kick things off with three simple reasons why we think Christians should give to the arts…

Art does people good

The arts play a far more important role in our lives than we often realise. The arts are one of the main ways that a culture comes alive. A thriving arts scene sets the tone. It can be the difference between colour and black and white. The arts point towards a transcendence and an otherness in the human experience that has the potential to bring joy and hope, even if the practitioners involved don’t believe in such a reality.

Whether it’s through your Spotify playlist, your Kindle library or the pictures you choose to decorate your living room with, for almost all of us, the arts add significant value to our lives.

Therefore, as we respond to human need in giving our money to relieve suffering (a noble cause), shouldn’t we also give it to attending to general human flourishing and building a foundation for life and vitality in our communities?

Art shapes culture

The arts don’t just bring colour to life though, they also play a vital role in fashioning and shaping the values, presuppositions and ideas that are cherished in a culture. Artists take the big ideas of the thinkers, and they make them accessible to the masses, not just by communicating information to our minds but resonating with us emotionally, so that we are warmed to ideas, whether we agree with them or not.

For a worldview or philosophy to take root in a culture, it needs the arts to prepare the way, otherwise, for all its good ideas, it may well find itself shouting loud, but going completely unheard.

Perhaps that sounds a bit close to home, as Christianity is a case in point here. While many worldviews and ethical positions have engaged with the arts very effectively in recent times, the church has systematically withdrawn from this field.

We need to help a new generation of Christian artists to make art of excellence that has the power to speak subtly and authentically into our culture. To do this, it will take a number of things. One of these will be money.

Artists need patronage

So far, so Sputnik. However these two reasons alone won’t necessarily motivate someone to support the arts financially. I mean (the thought goes), why should we fund artists, when they should be able to fund themselves? Teachers and doctors don’t ask for handouts to help them do their jobs- if artists can’t make a living from what they do or make, surely they’re just not good enough.

This way of thinking isn’t helped by the fact that many people see artists through the lens of celebrity, and therefore assume that to be a successful artist it doesn’t just mean to make a living, but actually to become rich.

While, of course, this may be true for a few, they would be the tiny minority. The reality is that most artists who are producing interesting self-initiated projects are operating in a very similar way. These projects (particularly the ones that may shape culture in the way discussed) are not making them any money. On the contrary, they are trying to fund these through their day jobs- which are often much more mundane.

To put it quite simply, artistic excellence doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid, and artistic integrity often very specifically means not getting paid!

This is why systems of arts patronage are so crucial to the development of the arts. In the past, the Christian church has been a key patron of the arts, but in modern times, the government has taken on this role through grants, lottery funding, etc. Of course, the government is presently finding this burden too great to bear and is slashing arts funding left, right and centre.

artistic excellence doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid, and artistic integrity often very specifically means not getting paid!

I think that all of this may be telling us something: it’s time that the church took up such a role again. And we have a suggestion of how practically you can get involved in that.

Join us as an Arts Patron

In response to all of this, Sputnik is starting the Sputnik Patrons Scheme.

This is a fund set up primarily to help Christian artists get specific projects off the ground: from art installations to book publishing, theatre events to music releases. Each year we’ll commission several of these projects with the help of our network of Patrons, who donate monthly.

Who are in this mysterious network you may ask? Well, potentially, you! Next week, we will be kicking off the patronage scheme and if you’d like to support the arts and see more quality art out there made by Christians, we’d love it if you could get involved.

Sputnik Patrons will receive back benefits for their support, at three levels, gold, silver and bronze. These benefits will be outlined further when we launch the scheme, but in short, the more you pledge each month, the more you receive back.

For 2017-18, we have selected 4 projects that we’d like our Sputnik Patrons to invest in. We will give you more information of these in our next post, after which we’re going to explore this topic more on the blog, especially what patronage is, why it’s necessary for artists and what it looks like in the modern world.

So, we think that the arts are important enough for Christians to support financially. If you agree, why not become a Sputnik Patron and let’s see the church start to step back into its role as a patron of the arts.

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The Case of The Magical Statues

So they have pulled down a statue in the United States of America. Benjamin Harris asks whether we should be worried about a destruction of a work of art: is it vandalism or iconoclasm? These are good things to think about, but let me begin by asking why weren’t we having these discussions fifteen years ago when statues of Saddam Hussein were being pulled down in Iraq, or ten years before that when statues of Lenin were being removed all over Eastern Europe? Is it because ‘we’ associated ourselves with the ‘winning side’, or that we identified these as tyrants whose images therefore deserved to be obliterated?

Let me park that question while we consider the broader matter of what those statues, and the United States examples represent. Are they, in fact, art?

In his book The Principles of Art R G Collingwood comes up with three categories to hold what is commonly referred to as art (this is after separating works of art from works of craft). Aside from art proper (which I have touched on here and here), there are two categories that fail to meet his criteria for art.

First, there is amusement art, which is as the name suggests is produced primarily for amusement. A key characteristic of amusement art is that it is designed to raise and then dissipate emotions during its consumption, leaving the audience unchanged at the end of the experience. The commonest examples of amusement art when I was growing up were Mills and Boon romances, which were read and almost immediately forgotten as the reader moved on to the next one: amusement art is frequently formulaic. If you want a case study of the workings of amusement art in Hollywood watch Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, and more generally, The Truman Show.

Collingwood’s second category is magic: he uses the word in the sense familiar to anthropologists rather than that of Dungeons and Dragons. Magic encompasses activities, rituals and products that are designed to evoke a specific emotional response which is carried forward into everyday life. It is important to note that magic is not a pejorative term but a functional one: there will be many occasions – including public worship – where generating certain emotions is appropriate.

What sort of things does Collingwood put in the category of magic?

 I refer to such things as the prose of the pulpit, the verse of hymns, the instrumental music of the military band and the dance band, the decoration of drawing rooms, and so forth … Equally obvious, or hardly less so, is the case of patriotic art, whether the patriotism be national or civic or attached to a party or class or any other corporate body: the patriotic poem, the school song, the portraits of worthies or statues of statesmen, the war memorial, the pictures or plays recalling historic events, military music, and all the innumerable forms of pageantry, procession, and ceremonial whose purpose is to stimulate loyalty towards country or city or party or class or family or any other social or political unit. (The Principles of Art, pp72-3.)

This is the category to which statues of Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Confederate generals belong. It also contains L’Arc de Triomphe, statues of Churchill (with or without a grass mohican), and statues of Union generals. They are not art, they are magic. We may therefore ask what emotions are these statues designed to evoke?

For the statues of the Confederate generals we may say they were, at best, designed to stimulate loyalty towards the defeated Confederacy and the slave society it sought to protect. There is also the flip side: to demonstrate to former slaves and their descendants that despite its military defeat the spirit and power of that slave society continues. (For an analysis of the timing of the erection of the statues see here).

To my mind, removal of those statues (and the Lenins and Saddams I mentioned at the start of this post) is not about the destruction of works of art, but about the removal of works of magic by people who no longer wish to evoke the patriotic (and fearful) emotions intended by the those who erected them.

The deeper question about the destruction of works of art (which hopefully will look at the Chapman brothers defacing Goya prints, Robert Rauschenberg erasing a William de Kooning drawing and maybe Lady Clementine Churchill’s destruction of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston) will have to wait for another time.

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Is It Ever Right To Destroy a Piece Of Art?

At roughly 7:10PM on Monday the 14th of August 2017, protesters in North Carolina toppled and destroyed a confederate statue. The video of this act become viral with over 110,000 likes and 58,000 retweets on twitter. Within two days, seven campaigners had been arrested on the charges of inciting rioting, damage to public and private property, and defacing a public monument. These self-styled anti-racist/fascist protesters had taken to the streets in response to a white-nationalist gathering in Charlottesville two days previously in which one person tragically lost their life.

But, why all this fuss around a statue?

On the one hand, the protestors confessed to destroying this icon in order to symbolically “smash white supremacy”. The argument goes that these monuments celebrating the heroes of a pro-slavery past implicitly support white supremacy and instil it into the symbolic landscape of the United States.

However, many would disagree with this point of view: the president of the United States being one of them, tweeting,

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.

Surely to destroy public monuments, donated by philanthropic organisations, is not a legitimate form of protest. In regards to the law, public image-smashing is criminal. (Ed: It is also interesting to ask whether our reaction would be different if another form of art was destroyed- burning books for example.)

So, what are we to make of all this? Are the seven image-breakers champions on the right side of history or senseless vandals who simply got up on the wrong side of the bed? Are we right to break art that we disagree with?

Iconoclasm vs Vandalism

Throughout the ages art has been smashed, slashed, dashed and destroyed for many different reasons: we Christians have played a significant part in the history of the ‘destruction of images’ (particularly in the Byzantine ‘Quarrel of images’ and the Protestant Reformation). In the Church’s internal spats about images and icons, two terms were frequently used: iconoclasm and vandalism.

Those who supported the image-breaking antics of the revolutionaries branded the actions as ‘iconoclasms’ (icon = image, clasm = breaking). The perpetrators of these violent acts were celebrated and labeled iconoclasts. Now, iconoclasm implies the reasoned and purposeful destruction of images from what is usually assumed to be rightful moral/religious indignation.

Vandalism on the other hand (from the Latin ‘vandalus’, a pejorative term relating to barbarous peoples of Germanic origin) is conceived as the deliberate destruction of public or private property, usually in a mindless manner with no particular purpose. Vandals smash and destroy out of barbaric instinct and an inability to appreciate what they either do not own, or cannot understand. In common perception, vandals do not wear suits but hoodies and masks. Vandals attack telephone boxes and masterpieces alike: with no rhyme or reason.

The distinction appears to make sense. One would not call (at least not from where I am sat) reformer Zwingli’s denunciation of idolatrous images of Mary and the subsequent smashing of public pilgrimage sites as mere vandalism. Nor would we be willing to label a brick thrown through a car window as intentional iconoclasm.

Many groups have taken to destroying art as a symbolic protest against the current order. In British history the Suffragettes used this tactic to shock the world into listening. When Mary Richardson infamously slashed the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914, she was portrayed in the press at the time as a vandal and labelled “Slasher Mary” -a title usually reserved for the worst of murderers. When questioned on why Richardson would attack such a treasured artwork she referred to her fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who was under arrest at the time, stating,

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Others have argued that her motives may have stemmed more from her frustration with men fawning over the Venus all day, but whether the attack was against lust or a political demonstration demanding an activist’s release, it was certainly to make a point. Should we then consider this action vandalism or iconoclasm? At the time, it was considered vandalism. But today, I have no doubt that many would label this art destruction as a deliberate iconoclasm, an assault on patriarchy.


The binary categorisation of vandalism/iconoclasm can be unhelpful for it implies that all iconoclasm is good/rightful/correct and that all vandalism is bad/immoral/wrong. There have certainly been instances of bad iconoclasm, where images are wrongfully destroyed for a message that assumed a greater significance than it ought. No doubt there have also been good vandalisms where property has been destroyed for the purpose of a greater good.

Surely though it is not the individual actions/destructions in and of themselves that are to be regarded iconoclasm/vandalism but the whole series of events and situations both before and after the property-destruction that come together to determine how we classify art-destructions.

In my mind, the key to this question of iconoclasm/vandalism lies first in context. The situations and environment surrounding an incident of art-destruction is far more useful in helping us understand the motives and intentions of the iconoclast than the act of breaking itself. Regarding North Carolina, one could argue that if the white-nationalist rally had not taken place a couple of days before in Charlottesville then this episode would not have happened. Equally, supporters could point to the President’s seemingly protective statements released following the Charlottesville aftermath as provoking this kind of reaction to the recent rise in neo-Nazism in the US.

The second factor key to separating iconoclasm from vandalism is consensus. If the consensus of history writers, reporters and experts agree that an art-destruction is justified, it will go down in history as an iconoclasm. However, if the consensus disagrees or misunderstands an art-destruction (as in the case of “Slasher Mary”) then the act will be recorded as vandalism. The blanket slur ‘vandalism’ is an important tool in bringing the opposition into disrepute. Equally, the cry of ‘iconoclasm’ is important in legitimising violent and illegal actions.

If we are to make any sense of last month’s events and learn anything from this we need to wisely interpret both the context surrounding and the consensus reporting the impromptu art-demolition. Reporters on every side have something to gain from this story: the vilification of their political enemies. In order for us to make any judgments on a case of vandalism it would benefit us greatly to probe deeper into the event, to garner more details before we condemn or praise the individual as either a revolutionary or heretic.

That reminds me of another question…

It’s funny because this discussion seems to touch on much deeper questions about the nature of art itself.

Just as acts can be designated as vandalism/iconoclasm through a consideration of context and consensus so objects are defined as art/not-art in exactly the same way. Perhaps we should look at art itself in a similar way, not asking ‘what is art?’, but instead, ‘when is something art?’, the answer being when context and consensus agree.

“Anything can be art nowadays”, people often bemoan. Well, yes and no. Anything can be art if a) it is considered within the frame of the art world (context, e.g. put in a gallery) and b) people agree to its art-status (consensus e.g., it wins the Turner prize).

Or is that all just far too subjective? Well, that throws us back to one of our favourite discussions on Sputnik, so if you’re interested, I’m sure Huw and Ian can get you started.

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The Art Of Not Knowing: Embracing Discomfort and Nuance in our Work

The tension that can sometimes exist between the ‘Christian’ world and the ‘art’ world is something which will doubtless be familiar to readers of Sputnik.

It’s no secret that the art that many Christians prefer and expect of their artists does not always correlate with the art those artists end up creating. Often, there is an expectation from Christians for work that is easy to understand and interpret. Christian art, in the minds of many Christians, should have a clear evangelistic or worshipful bent – delivering transparent messages about the goodness of God or denouncements of evil and thus reflecting reassuring truths and a sense of certainty. Behind it all, there is a genuine need to ‘know’.

Our discomfort with uncertainty

Granted, a preference for certainty is not unique within the Christian sphere. Guardian writer Jonathan Jones recently published an article decrying the selection of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon as Britain’s best-loved piece of art – the key criticism being how immediately ‘readable’ the image is, how it lacks subtlety and depth of interpretation. Jones comments:

“Banksy makes art for the media age, particularly the social media age – art you can share in a second because it gives up its entire meaning immediately. He has invented the artistic equivalent of a tweet. You see it, you get it. (…) This is what scares and depresses me about Banksy. The very lack of art in his art is what makes it popular. Real art is elusive, complex, ambiguous and often difficult.”

While the need for reassurance through certainty represents a barrier to engagement in complex and nuanced art generally, I have been wondering whether the issue has particular relevance within the church. Which is to say, within the protestant church tradition especially. At least, this is the view taken by Stephen Proctor of the Illuminate podcast. He argues that in the wake of the reformation “mystery was excommunicated from the church”, leaving a “purely didactic religion that fed black and white information to the mind”, a change which followed the removal of artwork from churches as they now represented a ‘distraction’ rather than a legitimate form of spiritual engagement.

The need for reassurance through certainty represents a barrier to engagement in complex and nuanced art

Although I would not describe my own protestant upbringing as “purely didactic”, I do recognise in myself a desire to have answers and ‘be right’ when it comes to spiritual matters, something which has caused internal conflict when faced with the realities of living out a religious faith.

As an example, a couple of months ago my church small group were studying the tricky Bible passage regarding Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). It was interesting to reflect upon how the passage raised difficult questions for us and that our immediate urge was to scour the text and commentaries, in the hope of gaining definite answers to these questions and therefore ease the discomfort associated with our uncertainty.

The conclusion of that evening was that perhaps the sense of unease the passage engenders within us is an important thing to ‘sit with’, rather than something to be explained away.

The implication and tension for artists

If there is some wider truth to my observations, this will no doubt pose a problem for the Christian artist. As Jonny has previously noted, artists are often the type to question everything and sometimes these questions don’t lead to clear answers. As Keats famously said, a key characteristic of an artist is their ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, something which he termed ‘Negative Capability’. The presence of such individuals and their work is no doubt going to rankle those members of the church for whom questions are useful to the extent that they provide answers, and doubt is useful to the extent that, in time, it serves as a catalyst for greater certainty.

Of course there is a balance to tread. We cannot go the whole way and embrace post-modernism. If an artist calls themselves a Christian, they are making claim to a certain number of presuppositions that they choose to believe (if not ‘know’ in the absolute sense). If we chose to believe in the existence of God, this initial belief will colour our world-view with a number of assumed absolute truths and certainties pertaining to God’s nature and character. However, we must also acknowledge that, due to our limitations as humans, our abilities to understand and engage with these truths and certainties are, for now, somewhat unsatisfactory.

Wrestling with questions, ‘being with’ uncertainty and discomfort under a lack of definitive answers are challenges the Christian artist can, and must, embrace

Philosopher Albert Camus talked about the absurdity of life – for him as an atheist, this represented the tension between our need for ultimate meaning and purpose and the inability of the Universe to provide this. Although this particular tension is more easily recoiled for a Christian, we too will have to struggle with certain ‘absurdities’ arising from our understanding of reality.

One example of this, and  perhaps the most obvious, is the problem of evil – much time and effort has been engaged in providing theological justification for the existence of suffering, but for the Christian who has both compassion and a firm belief in the benevolence of God, this is likely to be something they will have to wrestle with for the rest of their lives. And ‘wrestling’ with questions such as this, ‘being with’ uncertainty and discomfort and bearing up under lack of definitive answers are challenges which the Christian artist can, and must, embrace.

The fulfilment in not knowing

As a final point, one example of such ‘wrestling’ is found in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky uses the text to grapple with a number of questions regarding the nature of morality, religious faith and the existence of God. Furthermore, despite being an Orthodox Christian, The Brothers Karamazov contains one of literature’s greatest arguments against the traditional Christian faith, delivered via the character of Ivan, a compassionate and atheistic intellectual. One of the reasons I read the book was because I was told the rest of the text contains an ‘answer’ to Ivan’s challenge.

Yet whereas the beliefs and actions of Ivan’s brother Alyosha provide something of a counterpoint to Ivan’s challenge, nowhere in the text does he provide a logical, knock-down counter-argument to Ivan’s reasoned critique. Dostoyevsky portrays the actions and interactions of his characters and then allows the reader to draw their own conclusions without providing any definite answers. This is no doubt one of the reasons the book had become lauded by believers and atheists alike – like all great art (and unlike Girl With Balloon), the text is open to multiple and nuanced interpretations.

Yet despite the lack of clear answers, the book overall is emotionally satisfying and shows that sometimes there is a paradoxical sense of fulfilment that arises from not knowing.

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Show respect for your discipline, and nurture your craft

Sputnik Influencing Culture Faith Art Respecting Discipline

So, we’ve spent 4 posts exploring the question of whether Christians are called to influence society and, if you’ve missed it, you can catch up with the discussion, starting here. Today then, we finish things off by focusing in on how all of this affects our art practice.

There’s no getting round the fact that our lives outside of our art are vital if our art is going to have a significant positive impact, but we mustn’t neglect the work itself either, and this care for our craft, and respect for the disciplines we work in, is actually in itself a very practical way of loving and serving people who engage with our work. It’s also a key way in which we make ourselves available to be raised to positions of influence through our work.

Sloppy practice is unlikely to profoundly bless anyone, but even worse, a slapdash approach to the artistic culture you inhabit actually communicates a lack of love and care.

When an artist produces work they step into a tradition. It’s a bit like moving to another country, and for a Christian making art with a concern to serve others through their work, it’s a bit like doing so as a missionary. It’s generally understood that the colonial way of doing mission is deficient. To go into a country with nothing but distaste and condemnation for the traditions that are cherished in that culture is highly disrespectful and arrogant. As the prominent 20th century Christian leader John Stott put it so well:

‘The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is that God has taken ours seriously’ (Coote and Stott 1980: vii-viii)

God had some pretty major issues with human culture, yet he came down into that culture to serve not to be served, to save not to condemn, he came down with a call to repent, but at the same time he had a clear respect for us and our strange practices and traditions.

Therefore, in the light of Jesus’ example, someone may have the opinion that Jesus is superior to Mohammed as a spiritual guide (at the very least), but if they don’t know anything about Mohammed or actually, if they know about his life, but have nothing good to say about him at all, it’s probably best that they don’t move to the Middle East or give their life to try to reach Muslims. Respect is a form of love and because all people are made in God’s image, all human cultures will contain things that are good and right and true, however obscured they might be.

So to return to our practice as artists, Jesus’ model is very relevant to us as well as we step into our different artistic disciplines and traditions. As a rock musician then, as soon as you start making art in that discipline, you step into a tradition. The tradition of rock music. Therefore, to do this without knowledge of its key practitioners and history, or even if you have this knowledge, to enter the tradition of rock music simply taking the moral high ground over the individuals who are cherished in that culture, is genuinely disrespectful. If you really have nothing good to say about Kurt Cobain, James Hetfield, Kerry King or artists like them, I’d go as far as saying that you shouldn’t put yourself forward as a practitioner in that genre. To use another example, if you can find nothing good in the work of artists like Cindy Sherman, David LaChapelle or even Robert Mapplethorpe, you probably shouldn’t try to be a fine art photographer. You could apply this to any artistic discipline.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go away from this blog and stream Slayer’s Reign in Blood while checking out Mapplethorpe’s body of work in google images (seriously, I’m really not suggesting this. No, seriously!) And you don’t have to have a thorough knowledge of the work of artists with this level of ‘edginess’, but if you can’t at least see some things to praise in the heroes of your discipline, however much else there is to condemn, then to put yourself forward as an artist in that discipline is unloving, uncaring and not practicing ‘faithful presence,’ however nice you are to the people you engage with through your work.

Nurturing your own craft then is a form of serving people and respecting the discipline that you work in is a way of loving your neighbour. Funnily enough, doing these things also enables God to use you to influence people more widely. As Solomon wrote:

‘Do you see a man skillful in his work?

He will stand before kings;

he will not stand before obscure men.’ (Prov 22:29)

Love and influence. Win win!

So to round off our series, a summary: When I read the Bible, what I see is that God is regularly on the look out for people to raise to positions of significant cultural influence. We’re not all going to be those people, and those people are not more important than everyone else, but we need him to do that in our society today.

For all Christians I think this means that we should live in such a way that we make ourselves available to being used in this way if God sees fit. As artists, with the opportunities that lie before us, this is especially relevant, and as a result of this whole discussion, my encouragement would be for the artists among us to look to be a faithful presence in the world, through how we live, how we practice our art and through our art itself.

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Living with integrity makes for great, influential artists

Walking Integrity Influencing Culture Sputnik Faith Art

Should Christians look to gain influence in society? Well, yes. But, of course, also no. How do we tie all of this together?

To conclude our series on influence I’ve got two more posts thinking about how all of this practically relates to us as artists? Should we as artists look to influence our culture and if so, how?

To summarise what we’ve looked at in the last 3 posts, I like to put it like this: I don’t think we should chase after influence, but we should make ourselves available for God to raise us to positions of influence if He sees fit. Our priority is not to change the world but to live obediently and faithfully to Jesus right in the thick of our culture. While that is worthwhile on its own, it is Christians who live like that who I think God is keen to raise to cultural influence to enable him to show his kindness more widely.

As James Davison Hunter puts it, we should seek to practice ‘faithful presence in the world’.

Or as Jesus puts it, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:15)

Or Peter, ‘ Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’ (1 Peter 2:12)

Or Paul ‘… Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands,just as we told you,so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…’ (1 Thess 4:11)

To break this down even further for us as artists, I think this should affect our lives and our work. Let’s start today with our lives…

Your Life Outside Your Art Matters

As artists we often focus on our work, and rightly so. Our work is important to us and we want it to be important to others too. However, as artists who want to follow Jesus, we’ve got to show at least the same care for our lives.

We can often bemoan the lack of Christians making art that is widely respected in our culture. However, perhaps this is not the problem. There are artists who self identify as Christians in most art forms operating at the very highest levels, many of them skillfully presenting aspects of the Christian worldview through their work. However, very few of them seem, at least on the surface to be living lives of radical submission to Jesus and his wisdom.

Just as a preacher’s words ring hollow if the congregation know that he is not living out his message, an artist’s influence does not just depend on the content of their work (and the skill that lies behind it). It also depends on their lives.

To use a personal example, one of my all time favourite artists is Chuck D, the front man of seminal rap group, Public Enemy. When I first heard PE, I was impressed by their overall sound and also by the urgency of their message. This impression was greatly enhanced as I found out that Chuck D was not just some rabble rouser, crafting a unique selling point out of anti establishment rhetoric. He lived out his message with integrity. He is tee-total, has never even experimented with narcotics and, most impressively, has been married to his wife for at least 30 years (as far as I’m aware). I don’t share all of Chuck’s convictions, but my respect for him as someone who practices what he preaches has caused me to look into even some of his more extreme political and theological views and actually I have warmed to some of these ideas, that otherwise I would have dismissed out of hand.

You could push this too far, and none of us are going to represent Jesus perfectly. However, if we in any way aspire to have a positive influence for Jesus through our work, we have no other option but to take seriously the call to be disciples of Jesus. To die to ourselves daily. To resist temptation. To love our spouses. To parent our kids faithfully.

It is no coincidence that many Christian artists in the public eye who have struggled to live out the teaching of Jesus consistently in their lives have also become disconnected from a local church. I am in no way implying that this is solely these artists’ fault, but the whole tenor of the Bible seems to be that we cannot follow Jesus in isolation, we need to do it knitted in tightly to a community of Christians who encourage each other in our faith. Churches need to stop unnecessarily alienating artists, that’s for sure, and I think there’s a slow dawning on church leaders like myself that we need to change our ways in this area. However, at the same time, I’d urge all artists to persevere with their churches and if you’ve stepped out of church, to trust Jesus enough to trust his body again. (If you’d like to think about this some more, check this post out too).

Love and serve others as you practice your art

I remember playing gigs in which I had my mind so set on the audience as a whole or my overarching goals as an artist, that I showed no care to the actual individuals who were there. Performing from a stage is one thing, but how you act beforehand and afterwards is also incredibly important if you want to serve God in your artistic practice.

Sometimes it was because of insecurity and vulnerability, but often it was simply arrogance. And so I could present a certain allegiance to Christ on the stage (in rap, you’re often able to be a little more blatant than in other art forms) while being dismissive and surly with crowd members, sound men or promoters.

This is one of the key dangers of seeking influence. If our minds are always focused on the masses ‘out there’ that we could be influencing, it is very likely that we will neglect the people who are under our noses- our neighbours- who we are called to love. Wherever you land on all this influence stuff, one thing we can surely all agree on is that if it’s a toss up between ‘influence society’ or ‘love your neighbour’, the Bible is reasonably clear on which one should take preference.

Sometimes, then, we love those we connect with through our art by having a humble attitude when people come to us, but we also serve others by overcoming our insecurities and starting to proactively engage with individuals about our work itself. (By the way, Joel’s advice on this a few months ago is still pure gold).

In short, we’ve got to remember that the way we live our lives is important. As artists, we don’t get a pass on this. We may well live out the wisdom of Jesus slightly different to other Christians, and this isn’t a call to simply tow the line. However, if we think that we are serving Jesus in our work when we’re not really serving him in our lives, I think we’re making a bit of a blunder.

With that said, we do need to apply all of this to our work as well, and to that we will turn next time. Until then, some questions to consider:

  • Are the same values that are visible in your work also visible in your life?
  • Are you mainly looking to influence people you’ll never meet, or people who are physically present when you practice your art?
  • What steps can you take to make sure you’re not going it alone in your art practice as a Christian?
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Francis Schaeffer identified a very real phenomenon, that is still with us

It’s been over thirty years since I last read Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There. Given that Schaeffer’s views and the book are part of the founding mythos of Sputnik I thought I should give it another read.

I was interested to see whether the book was still relevant fifty years after it was first published. As I have had some unexpected time on my hands I have just finished my re-reading of The God Who Is There and the two subsequent ones: Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent (see footnote). So, how does it read now?

It is, fundamentally, a book with one idea: philosophy from Aquinas onward has resulted in a de-coupling of the human understanding of man, the world and the universe (‘below the line’ in Schaeffer’s terminology) from questions of meaning, purpose and morals in human life (‘above the line’). The line that separates the two is ‘the line of despair’. Different aspects of human activity come under the line of despair at different points: philosophy going first, then the arts, music, writing and at last general culture: that stepped descent gives us Schaeffer’s staircase, so beloved of Jonny Mellor.

Because the book was written in the 1960s it doesn’t get any further than the existentialists and their attempts at self-realisation through a final experience or authenticating experience. There is no treatment of any of the post-modern thought that we have been living with since then, but much of what we have seen over the last thirty to forty years – for example, deconstructionism and suspicion of grand narratives – is a further outworking of the initial crossing of the line of despair. I am clear Schaeffer identified a real phenomenon; one that is still with us.

As an example, shortly after I had finished the book I read a review of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. After a couple of columns of positive remarks the reviewer, Steven Poole, homed in on Sapolsky’s determinism: he does not believe in free will as ‘every human action is inescapably caused by preceding events in the world, including events in the brain.’ Yet, Sapolsky still urges his readers to think carefully about their actions, and is optimistic for the gradual improvement of humanity.  As Poole concludes:

Yet the question remains: if human beings are simply reactive robots, slaves to natural law who are causally buffeted by a zillion factors of biology and circumstance, why would we have any say in whether things will get better? Either they will or they won’t, but on this magisterial account it seems that we can’t really choose to do anything about it.

If Schaeffer had read that he would have given a sad sigh of recognition, as it is almost a textbook expression of the consequences of the decoupling of the ‘upper storey’ (human meaning and purpose) from the “lower storey’ (finite knowledge of nature) produced by the line of despair.

That is the big picture. There were two other, smaller things that struck me; first, at the end of chapter 4 of Escape from Reason, he comments on the role of philosophy:

The interesting thing today is that as existentialism and, in a different way, “defining philosophy” have become antiphilosophies, the real philosophic expressions have tended to pass over to those who do not occupy the chairs of philosophy – the novelists, the film producers, the jazz musicians, and even the teenage gangs in their violence. These are the people who are asking and struggling with the big questions in our day. (p244 in the single volume)

As artists we do not have to limit ourselves to addressing the questions of the philosophers or to wait for them to come up with answers we can propagate: we are commissioned to do our own thinking.

Secondly, Schaeffer takes the view that Christian faith frees us in the realm of the imagination:

The Christian may have fantasy and imagination without being threatened. Modern man cannot have daydreams and fantasies without being threatened. The Christian should be the person who is alive, whose imagination absolutely boils, which moves, which produces something a bit different from God’s world because God made us to be creative. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent, chapter 4, p340)

For me, that is an absolutely liberating thought, a call to make and create. Let’s get on with it.

Footnote:All three of Schaeffer’s books referred to here are available in a single hardback volume – Francis A Schaeffer Trilogy –  with the revised text from Schaeffer’s complete works, from  Crossway, for under £10 from a certain on-line shop

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Reading and Writing (The Second Bit)

In the first part of this mini-series I explored something of how reading can connect us into earlier writers, who may well be making their own contribution to a conversation that has been going on for a while. In this second and concluding part I want to consider how we can make use of that in our own writing or creative practice. (Again, I’m writing about writing, because that’s what I know: you can cross out ‘writing’ and put in ‘my practice”.)

One recent example I came across was W E Gordon’s collection of poems The Shining Path, which he read from at last year’s Catalyst Festival. The poem Taking Leave begins:

‘Less than halfway through

my tempestuous life I awoke

to find myself far off the beaten track…


I was all alone …


I quickly lost my bearings

and wandered into a

forest so strange and dark …’


Does that sound familiar? Yup, we have an echo of the opening stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy (here in the Sean O’Brien translation):

‘Once, halfway through the journey of our life,

I found myself inside a shadowy wood,

Because the proper road had disappeared.’


When Bill Gordon wrote his poem was he just wanting to increase his quotation score, or wanting us to think he’s a brainy kind of guy because he’s read Dante? No, he’s using that phrasing to tell us something about what he is writing. Dante narrates a journey from earth, through Hell, up Mount Purgatory and then up into Heaven: a spiritual journey which confronts sin and redemption. As you read on in The Shining Path you find that this is also a spiritual journey: he is not simply bolting Dante on, but joining the conversation to speak of his own experience of spiritual crisis.

The power of a conversation of this sort is that just a few words can conjure a mood, an event or an entire story which we read alongside, with and under the actual words on the page. (If you are a particular sort of academic reader you will find all this talk of authorial intent either distressing, passé or hopelessly naive: do I care? I do not.)

Of course, like any artistic strategy, there’ll be people to object (some people wondered why Dante was writing in Italian, instead of using Latin, like all good poets before him). The main objection to this conversational approach to reading and writing is that your reader (viewer, audience) may not be familiar with the work you are referencing? Surely if you put all this clever clogs stuff in then you are just being elitist?

No, we are not being elitist (although we might be being a bit difficult – and why should everything in life be simple?) Do you really want every book to be at a Janet and John level? (That’s Biff, Chip and the magic key for younger generations.) Should every film be like Transformers or a rote recitation of Campbell’s hero’s journey? By no means.

Think of it like visiting a really good garden. If it’s done right you should be able to go in and enjoy it, without knowing the name of any of the plants, or their preferred habitats (the kids will enjoy balancing on the edge of the pond, and they know zero about gardening). But if you know a little bit about plants and garden design you’ll get a bit of a kick from identifying hostas (we’re reaching my limit here) and understanding how the gardener has selected and deployed plants to get a certain effect. Knowing a bit more enables you to get more out of it.

There is, though, a more hidden danger: you can stuff your work so full of allusions, hints and nudges that it becomes a rag-bag of fragments and no complete THING emerges. There are so many parts, shooting off in so many directions, that none of these conversation partners can get a word in (that for me is a subset of the writing problem labelled ‘too many ideas’: that is perhaps worth an explore in another post).

So what to do? It’s easy really: find out who are your conversation partners. Odds are, they will be the writers you read and respect. Writers who speak to you, who make you want to speak. The writer who stops you short with wonder, revelation and insight, who brings you joy (and also the sense of despair embedded in ‘I’ll never be able to write like that’). Also, don’t limit yourself to artists in your own discipline: there’s no reason a writer shouldn’t speak with a composer. (And don’t listen to the ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ crowd, they probably don’t understand dancing or architecture: trust me, dancing about architecture would be a brilliant thing to do.)

Once you’ve found out who your conversation partners are, talk to them.


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Reading & Writing (The First Bit)

My artistic practice (and yes, I can just about write that without laughing myself off my chair) depends on two things: reading and writing. Reading, because what I write is connected with what has gone before, and writing, well, because I mainly write. (And before you filmmakers, musicians and visual artists turn off, you can substitute other pairs like watch and make, listen and compose, look and paint.) In this two part post I want to poke at each of those in turn to get a better understanding of how they interact: let me start with reading.

In my haphazard way I read the second Bridget Jones book before the first one. I was ambling through Bridget Jones – the Edge of Reason enjoying the diarising and the self-disgust  when I came to this passage in which Bridget is stuck, kneeling down at a party with a small boy clinging to her neck and refusing to get off:

‘Then suddenly William’s arms were released from around my neck. I felt him being lifted away … I turned to see Mark Darcy walking away with a writhing six year old boy under each arm’

I stopped reading. I had recognised something else in there. I was not just reading Helen Fielding, I was also reading Jane Austin’s Persuasion at the same time:

‘In another moment she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his sturdy little hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was being resolutely borne way, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.’ (Persuasion, Chapter IX.)

Two hundred years apart, two different authors, but the same scene at the same structural point in each story, as the heroine rescued from an annoying boy by the man she has been/is still in love with. Identifying that incident unlocked the book for me. I read on with more attention and found other pieces of Austin’s plot and fragments of her characters under Fielding’s twenty-first century clothing (although Bridget Jones is no Anne Elliot). The trip to Lyme Regis and the fall on the Cobb became a weekend house-party and a foolish jump into a shallow lake. The books which drew two lovers together were no longer the romantic poets, but self-help books.

As I read, my familiarity with Persuasion (which for personal reasons is my favourite Austin novel) coloured and deepened my enjoyment of Bridget Jones. By drawing on Persuasion Helen Fielding put Bridget Jones into the continuing conversation among the other romantic heroines of lost, and sometimes recovered, love from Ophelia onward. I had travelled from Kansas to Oz. From black and white to colour. Or perhaps it was the difference between hearing someone whistle the tune of Ode to joy and hearing that same melody embedded in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

We need to read: it is a courtesy we owe previous writers, in the same way we should listen to other people in a conversation, and not just selfishly formulate what we are going to say next, irrespective of what they have said. We don’t need to read everything, just as we don’t need to to listen to every conversation going on at a party, but we do need to pay attention to the conversation we choose to join: it will make our writing better.

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How Should The Church Patronise Art? A Thought Experiment.

Let’s imagine together an undesirable, unhealthy but intriguing situation.

Let’s imagine that Christians temporarily stopped paying artists to make art for the church and ploughed all this money into artists who are making art for those outside the church. I’m not suggesting this money would go to any old Christian artist making art outside the church (many would be getting paid for this already in their jobs). I’m imagining the church diverting funds from resourcing artists who are making art that blesses Christians in order to patronise (providing patronage, not condescending) artists who are creating provocative, engaging, high quality art that is likely to stimulate conversations about faith and warm people towards Jesus.

Okay, parentheses and convoluted sentences out of the way- do you get the thought experiment?

Well, assuming that you do, the first thing to say is that there would be a pretty healthy stash of cash freed up by this. I have heard several artists recently calling for the church to re-establish itself as a patron of the arts as it did in bygone years, but I actually think that the church is still taking on this role today, investing healthy amounts of resources into creative projects and practitioners. It is just that it is only patronising Christian artists who are making art within the church community.

This came home to me recently when a friend of mine went to check out one of the largest Christian worship organisations in the UK. It puts on training opportunities for people who’d like to develop as worship leaders specifically- training days, courses, internships, that sort of thing. He asked the guy who was running it how they helped musicians who wanted to make music for people outside the church and he simply replied that they didn’t cater for them at all. Now, in a sense this was always going to be beyond the scope of the organisation in question which is focused on developing the worship life of local churches (a thoroughly decent aim of course). However, the problem is that there are loads of organisations like this, but very few (as far as I’m aware) seeking to help Christian musicians like my friend who wants to engage with people outside the church.

So, in my crazy thought experiment, let’s imagine all of these musical, worshipful organisations are suspended for a period of time. So, all full time worship pastors are given a hiatus and all the money that churches give to improving the quality of their gathered times of sung worship (smoke machines, lighting rigs, etc) is put on hold. While we’re at it, let’s suspend activity in the whole contemporary Christian music scene as well. Rappers who rap theology. Rock bands who aren’t quite as angry as their secular contemporaries. Dance groups who replace references to illegal stimulants with references to Jesus. All given a break for a few years. (I know it’s a stupid suggestion, but bear with me).

But why stop there as I’m building up a bit of a head of steam! What about the performance arts? Well, this may not be such a significant pot of gold, but there are a good number of Christian dramatic companies who put on plays largely for churches. Let’s free up a few quid there. And writers? I suppose that fiction writers would be the ones to get the chop. There are a few Christian publishing houses you could asset strip, so let’s throw them in too.

As regards the visual arts, we’re not going to save a lot of money from the professional fees of banner designers, flag makers and church hall interior designers, but there may be some cuts we could make to communications budgets. Graphic designers and video makers who make sure that our internal comms are up to date and eye catching could be replaced by amateurs who’ve watched a couple of youtube videos on Photoshop or Final Cut Pro. Again, this would add to the general pot.

Okay, as I’ve been at pains to emphasise, I’m not saying that this should happen, I’m just asking you to imagine if it did. Well, what would happen? As I’ve noted, lots of money would be saved. Harry Enfield quantities of money in fact. The church does have a budget for the creative arts when it comes to creativity towards Christians. But obviously there would be a cost to this madness.

Here’s the question though: what would that cost be? What would be the negative impact of these draconian measures? Would Christianity crumble in the western world? Would our churches fall into apostasy, heresy and idolatry?

Or would Christians simply be less entertained?

Would we have to put up with a few slightly older songs in our worship times for a while?

Would people just have to do a bit more work to find things out about what is going on in the church programme?

Thank you for indulging me for this long everyone. Much appreciated. I’ll leave you to think that imaginary one through in more detail as it is not impossible that I’ve missed a couple of things. However, as you’ve made it this far, I’ll just throw one more crazy, awful, distressing, imaginary world at you.

What if, on the other hand we took all of our resources away from those artists who are both highly skilled and wanting to create work to subtly and authentically turn our society back to Jesus and reach into people’s hearts and minds to soften them to the Christian worldview? Imagine we cut them completely. What if we refused to give any resources to such artists and just left them to make culture shaping art in their spare time, off their own backs, paying for it all from their own pockets?

Just imagine!

We’d risk removing a compelling Christian voice completely from the heart of our culture.

We’d risk only ever being able to reach out to people who are already on the verge of faith, because most people would have no credible Christian voices speaking into their lives from their music collection, from their gallery visits, from their Netflix viewing list.

We’d risk our worldview (and in turn, Jesus himself) being discredited as being lifeless, dull and impotent as we’d be unable to produce more than a handful of people who can create art that expresses spiritual vitality, depth of thought and an honest appraisal of our human condition.

Seriously, just imagine…

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What comes first – your cause or your art?

Photomontage is one of the lesser known skills and disciplines of the artist, within the public eye at least, however it is a skill and discipline that has inspired and influenced me personally far beyond any other specific genre of art as a whole.

The use of images holding multiple meanings, a cut in that chosen place, the position of one image against the other has always brought an instantly accessible depth to the art form that has a force to bring powerful comment and narrative to the audience.

Peter Kennard’s exhibition ‘Off Message’ is to me a bold reminder of this and a nudge to artists with driving force and passion for a cause far greater than themselves.

Kennard is a London based artist whose practice as a political artist and photomontager has spanned nearly 50 years. His work has been published extensively in newspapers and magazines and has been used by activist groups such as CND and Amnesty.

Within a moment of entering the current exhibition at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham you’re looking up at ‘Crushed Missile’ (see above) one of Kennard’s most famous images. Even the most inexperienced of art appreciator couldn’t fail to get the gist! The work is not subtle, and Kennard never intended it to be:

‘It’s important to me as an artist to be like the canary down the mine. Sniffing out danger and coming back up with images that act as a warning. My images are deeply critical of all the status quos that condemn billions to live in poverty while making billions off their backs. It’s art as an ‘early warning system’ or a ‘late early warning system’… we’ve got to hurry.’ 

Art critic John Berger describes Kennard’s ‘terrain as that of the human conscience’ and his themes ‘as nuclear weapons and poverty’ and the underlying arguments behind his work do seem compelling. However, as a great appreciator of Kennard’s work I left the exhibition with another appreciation and in fact a commission.


I went to the exhibition with my family and we chatted through the works on display and as with any good exhibition it caused discussion and debate. My oldest son announced (soon after seeing Kennard’s piece where a soldier is kicking the globe on a football pitch) that he has now decided that when he becomes a famous footballer he will in fact use his huge salary for good and stop to give every homeless person he sees at least 40 pounds! My other half on the other hand felt that the work, although visually arresting, was at times too basic and repetitive in its investigation of the themes.

I however was struck by the sense of a whole life lived for a cause.

Kennard’s cause and not his art comes first. His passions influence all he does and the decisions he makes in his work, from his choice to pursue montage, his production and distribution of his work for free or his lack of change of course or evolution within his work. These are all because he sees his cause as greater than himself as an artist.

As a follower of Jesus, I have a cause that is greater than me as an artist and as a person. I am a way off it yet (which is good because I think I have a bit of catching up to do) but when I get there, will the 50 years retrospective of my life work show such a passion for my cause?

How about you?

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How do you make challenging art without causing people to stumble?

The Bible is very pro-art. Throughout the books of the Christian Scriptures, there is much praise for artists and exhortation for artistic practice in all sorts of disciplines. Not only this though, the Bible is art! God communicates to the world artistically, whether it’s in some of the most beautiful language that human culture has ever produced or in striking narratives that retain their power thousands of years later.

However, there are some passages that have been seen to set such tight parameters on artistic practice that some Christian artists have found themselves unable to operate in certain fields according to biblical teaching. Many have given up entirely because they’ve felt that creating art in an authentic and powerful way clashes with what God says in his word.

Just to be clear, if this is true, I’d go with God’s word over our right to self expression every time (and even over our calling to communicate to people effectively). As my friend Ally Gordon once said to me, success for the Christian artist is obedience, and if obeying God means holding back in certain areas of our work, we’ve really only got one option.

Having said that, I’m not sure that we’ve often been that clever when approaching ‘proof texts’ on artistic practice, and I’d love to start raising some of these on this blog as I’m increasingly convinced that the Bible isn’t quite as restrictive on radical artistic practice as some may think. I’d like to start today with a passage that I’ve scratched my head over for a long time. Romans 14:21 says this:

It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

What does Romans 14:21 have to do with artists?

In this passage, Paul is addressing disagreements in the Roman church between Christians who have quite strict rules about what they should eat and drink (and whether they should observe certain holy days and things like that) and others who are a bit more chilled out. Paul makes clear that we are free as Christians to go with our consciences and we shouldn’t go about turning our noses up at one another. However, at the same time, everything we do should be done out of love. It’s no good appealing to our right to eat meat or drink wine, if by doing so it offends other people or worse. That’s not acting out of love (14:15).

The classic example would be if I went to the pub with a recovering alcoholic. I am free to have a beer, but that may not be entirely helpful to my friend, who does not share my sense of freedom in this area. Therefore, it may be best to order a soft drink.

But let’s now apply this to artistic practice. You may not be seriously tempted to be a potty mouth. You may not have anger issues or get frightened easily or find the nude human form massively problematic. However, someone in your church will, so there may well be elements of content or even style of almost any piece of work that could potentially cause someone somewhere a problem.

And this is no small issue either. Jesus puts it a little more bluntly in Matthew 18:6

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Gulp! You can probably see why many have urged artists to tread pretty carefully on this one!

The general direction for Christian artists has often been then to try not to offend anyone. Ever. In anything. However, I think this approach is a little problematic.

Two problems with trying to avoid offending anyone. Ever. In anything.

The first problem with this approach is that art usually carries the potential to shock in its very nature. Artists aren’t necessarily just being obtuse when they provoke and annoy- they are simply making art. Art should challenge us. It should get under our skin. It should confound our expectations. Of course, some artists just offend for the sake of it and it’s often quite painful to hear a flagging pop artist trying to sound edgy by peppering their choruses with f-words or a desperate art student resorting to getting naked to try to pass their degree. However, think of the art that you initially reacted negatively to that, for that very reason, drew you in and then encouraged you to see the world differently. For me, Everything Everything’s recent album ‘Get To Heaven’ would be a case in point. As would David Foster Wallace’s brilliant ‘Infinite Jest’. Both offended me in different ways, but ultimately have proved very rewarding. (For what I think is the best example of this, check this link. Warning- you MUST read to the end. And have a strong stomach.)

Now, I recognise that this alone is not enough. Just because Christians have applied verses like Romans 14:21 in a way that has led to a proliferation of dull, safe, neutered art, it doesn’t mean that they’ve applied it wrong. Perhaps that’s what God wants us to do. Perhaps the Christian artist who wants to actually have an impact on the world is on to a loser from the outset. However, there is a second problem with the ‘never offend anyone’ position and it is more fundamental- the heroes of the Bible are constantly offending people to communicate a message.

Take Paul wishing he could castrate the Judaizers in Galatia (Galatians 5:12) or Isaiah wandering around naked for 3 years (Isaiah 20:3) or Ezekiel eating food over poo (Ezekiel 4:12). Or (sorry to do this, but here’s the trump card) Jesus telling people to cut off their own limbs. Or hate their parents. Or basically anything he happened to do on a Saturday. The Bible sets a precedent of offence as a potential end of our communication.

What to do?

As always with the Bible, we should never play one bit off against another in a way that nullifies it all. I think we should feel the force of all of this wisdom from our creator and apply it to our practice. Here then are some thoughts on a way forward:

We must always create out of love– there’s no way of getting around this, this is basic Jesus following. In our work, the most important question is not- ‘is it any good?’ but ‘is it loving?’ If we’re deliberately trying to wind people up just to make ourselves look clever or to sell more units or to grind our particular axe of choice, it’s not justified biblically.

We are free to provoke and challenge and even offend in some circumstances– The Bible doesn’t tell us that we should never offend anyone ever. It simply tells us to be careful. If we are acting out of love and we submit our work to God and, in good conscience and following biblical teaching, conclude that it is righteous (even if a little earthy) we can go ahead. But it cuts both ways I guess. We need people who’ll provoke, challenge and offend us too! I’d thoroughly recommend finding Christian friends who get what you’re doing who you let speak into your life and your artistic practice. There’s an incredibly fine line here, and for those who feel called to produce work that treads very close to ‘the line’ (as Isaiah, Ezekiel and even Jesus did) we may get it right one day and wrong the next. We won’t always be the best judge of that on our own.

We must consider our audience– When we consider the context of both of the verses quoted, we see something interesting. The group we shouldn’t make stumble are clearly Christians. Neither verses seem to say anything of how we relate to people outside the church. In fact, if we take Jesus’ example, we need to make people who aren’t Christians stumble in some ways to help wake them up to the reality of God (Romans 9:33). Therefore, I’d suggest that if you are making work primarily for people outside of the church and you feel free (conscience and Bible considered) to delve a little deeper into the darkness than many of your church pals may be comfortable with, just keep it for the audience it’s intended for. Don’t plug it on your church Facebook page or flog your albums/books/comics/pictures/etc on a Sunday morning. If you’re really worried, use a pseudonym, so they’ll definitely not find out about it (although of course, point 2 above). This isn’t being sneaky, it’s simply being wise. We don’t want to stir up temptations that some of our church friends may struggle with but we do want to start conversations with people outside of the church in a visceral, provocative and attention grabbing way. I think that it could be possible to do both if we don’t feel the need to seek validation and boost likes from our Christian friends.

And I wonder if here we hit a difficulty. For many Christian artists, we really want our Christian friends to ‘get us’ and to appreciate our work. However, I’m not sure we can have it both ways. If you make art mainly for Christians, people outside the church probably aren’t going to appreciate your work fully, if you make art mainly for people who aren’t Christians, Christians probably aren’t going to appreciate your work fully. If you try to please both, you will probably fail to please anyone! And apparently, if we get this wrong we could end up in a situation that’s worse than swimming with the fishes gangland executioner style! For all of these reasons, I think a bit of wisdom wouldn’t go amiss in how we promote our work to our Christian brothers and sisters.

As always, those are just some of my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours. I’ll try not to take offence 😉

I’d also love to hear how you interact with the Bible. What are the Bible passages that most affect your artistic practice? Which ones give you most freedom and encouragement? Which ones do you find most restrictive?

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So, What Do You Think Of My Work?

I realise that creatives come from every degree of the personality spectrum. Regardless of our temperament, our level of self-belief, our raw talent, our techniques or our oratory skills, as artists it feels risky and vulnerable asking people to talk about or evaluate our work. You might well have issues or misgivings about one of your own art pieces, songs, designs, poems, short films etc. but hearing someone else critique it can feel like a dagger to the soul.

Perhaps artists will balk at what I’m about to suggest but suggest it I will. When the opportunity presents itself ask people what they think of your work.

As I wrote and shot my short film ‘The Quickener’ I tried to strike just the right balance between mystery and revelation, rap lyricism and medieval instrumentation, sorrow and hope, grit and grace, hip-hop culture references and arcane quips. After the gruelling months of post-production I was still wondering ‘Does this work?’

Despite having numerous opportunities after screenings of ‘The Quickener’ I often felt unable to ask viewers what they made of it. I’m frustrated that I didn’t have more face-to-face conversations about the film. I want to get better at asking one or more of the following simple questions about my work:

  1. Did you like it?
  2. What did it make you think about?
  3. How did it make you feel?
  4. Can I tell you some of the story behind it?

And if you and a friend are responding to the work of someone else you can also ask:

05 What do you think the artist wants to say through this? 

Are you able to ask people about their perspective on your art? When I’ve asked the right question and got a well-considered or simple, honest gut response it’s made my day. People reveal things about my work I didn’t even recognise while I was making it. Moreover I’ve actually started friendships in those ‘what do you think of my work?’ conversations. And yes, I’ve also had some ego-bruising (and at times baffling) critiques.

I know that some art is made for quiet engagement and prolonged reflection. I’m not saying that an intense conversation is the indicator of success. What I am saying is that much of our work has got something prophetic, transgressive, provocative, evocative, satirical, hopeful, melancholic, autobiographical, surreal, biblical, beautiful we genuinely want people to respond to. If you’re keen to get people talking you’re the one whose probably going to have to get the conversation started.

Just ask one of those 5 ridiculously simple and completely natural questions.

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Re-presenting our Communities

In my community there is an owl called Perry Chocobow Swanet. It was commissioned as part of Birmingham’s ‘Big Hoot’ in 2015, which aimed to celebrate the diversity of Birmingham and its different communities through giant customised owls, as well as celebrating a kind of civic unity. Without the paint, the owls were essentially uniform.

I have mixed feelings about Perry Chocobow Swanet. All of the different motifs depicted on the owl are explained on the Big Hoot website. I understand the references, but I don’t feel that Perry the owl represents them. When I chatted to the artist, who’d visited different parts of Perry Common to come up with the design, I found that he had similar frustrations.

In visiting so many different groups within the community, who all had very strong ideas about what the owl should represent, the final design ended up looking like ‘something that could belong in any park anywhere’. In attempting to satisfy the diverse outlook of a community, the owl said nothing distinctive. The intriguing name, which was apparently chosen by children at a youth group I volunteer at, was quietly ignored on a local press release about the owl, which referred to it simply as ‘Perry’.

As part of a collective of artists, and as part of the community of the church, I find the challenge of representing a people fascinating. It sounds really difficult.

A couple of years ago, I came across an artist whose body of work accomplished this really well. KC McGinnis is a friend (and a photojournalist) from America. Hailing from Iowa, in the Mid-West, KC’s work frequently represents communities in the States in a way that is striking, unique and incredibly reverent; three words that probably couldn’t be used for the Big Hoot project. I sat down with him over Skype to ask some questions about how he looks to represent communities through his art.

Most of the communities KC has photographed are local to him, but different. These include Iowa’s Iraqi and Roman Catholic communites, as well as what one might view as a more ‘traditional’ picture of rural America.

I ask how KC approaches a community as a photographer, and how he goes about being an ‘outsider’. KC says that accepting you are foreign is an important step. Photography is inherently autobiographical. You are present and so people are different. KC embraces this autobiographical element, attempting to be fair in what he represents, but not trying to blend in. Having some knowledge of the community helped, though. Knowing how mass worked, or learning some Arabic enabled small talk and engagement.

Representing is a good verb, says KC, because he aims to re-present. Although he wouldn’t identify as a ‘representative’ for these communities, KC instead aims to say ‘this is what I interpreted with the tools available to me.’ He then asks ‘is this voice fair?’ A photo can be stylised and effective, but for KC, the fairness of the voice is a deciding factor. He references a series of photos he took of a GOP rally with a harsh flash that made the most of a gathering storm in the background. The image was striking, the symbolism clear, but KC and his editor decided they were unfair. And so the photos didn’t get published.

My thoughts turned to PJ Harvey, whose album The Hope Six Demolition Project, released in April of this year, attempted a cross between song-writing and journalism in documenting housing projects in Ward 7 of Washington D.C., a city KC incidentally moved to shortly after our interview. Ward 7 was a community to which Harvey did not belong, and though the album drew generally positive critical reviews, it backfired spectacularly in the projects it attempted to document, where PJ Harvey was accused of desertion, described as ‘inane’ and worst of all, as ‘the Piers Morgan of music’.

I ask KC if strangers have ever reacted negatively to his work. ‘Oh yeah’, he says. There was an Iraqi man whose hair was receding. When this was made evident in a photo of KC’s, the man objected, believing the photo was taken to make him look bad. We live in a snapshot culture, says KC. Intentionality is unexpected, and so people can be annoyed if a photograph is not overtly formal or spontaneous. People think photography exists to either make you look good or exploit you, and as a result the photographer is themselves both trusted and distrusted.

I’m also intrigued to understand KC’s identity as an Iowan. Though worlds apart from Birmingham, Iowa is often dismissed in familiar disparaging tones. It is renowned for its corn, and when I tell Americans that I’ve been there, most respond with an incredulous ‘why!?’

For KC, Iowa is home and he says that the best storytellers are always the locals. Preconceptions about Iowa generally include corn, farmers, and weirdly, food on a stick. I ask KC if he tried to combat these assumptions. He says that he can be a bit defensive, but that ultimately stereotypes are there because elements of them are true. He instead sees Iowa as a microcosm of the United States, with sustainable energy, agriculture, faith and the loss of rural life all important national and local themes.

KC is currently working for USA Today in Washington D.C. You can have a look at some of the work described here on his website. Hopefully this can provide some insight into how we re-present our city, the church, our neighbourhoods, whichever community you are a part of. How can we tell local stories in ways that are striking, unique, beautiful and fair?

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Political Posters and a different kind of kingdom

Earlier this year Wolverhampton Art Gallery played host to a V&A collection titled ‘A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution’. The exhibition chiefly looks at posters that have contributed to historical and perceptive change in the general public.

The power of many of the posters lies in their ability to combine text and image in a way that brings about a powerful message that elicits some form of response: many beginning and ending with a shift in ideology, others often calling for a radical and concrete commitment to the cause.

The exhibition did require a small amount of reading (all essential information was provided in the exhibition itself, no real understanding of political history was necessary), but if one really engaged with the work, A World to Win was a weighty marvel. By no means attempting to answer questions about the relationship between art and protest in the abstract sense, the exposition did have a nice little feature that explored the transformation of ‘protest posters’ into a viral phenomenon.

The Church has more than played its part in this history. Having both stood in the position of the authoritarian oppressors and the dissenting revolutionaries, we have played the game, and arguably, we mastered it in its earliest forms!

Was not Protestant Reformer Martin Luther one of the first to fully utilize the power of print technology to “mobilize, educate, and organize”? Luther also used cartoons and caricatures created by Lucas Cranach in his pamphlets, books, and posters

Has not the book of Revelation often been interpreted as the polemic of an aging and imprisoned apostle against the tyrannical Roman Empire? The apocalyptic literature was certainly not created to legitimize the contemporary order: its symbols and images utilized popular emblems in the subversive story of the imminent downfall of the powers and principalities (as it is still today!).

Before print, Jeremiah was creating some radical political statements against Ancient Israel’s corrupt government using very physical means. Soiled loincloths, broken flasks, and wooden yokes are all part of the prophet’s oeuvre in his protests against the nation’s immorality.

Though these are not all examples of ‘posters’ in the strict sense, they are certainly the supporting media of a type of ‘campaign’, not purely ‘religious’, nor purely ‘political’.

I am not suggesting that our art should now all become poster based and illegally pasted on the side of governmental buildings, no less that my post on Cildo Meireles’ Ideological Insertions is advocating printing bible quotes on Coca-Cola bottles. But what I am suggesting and asking is how much should a Kingdom inspired art practice seek to couple image and text, word and flesh, to mobilize, educate, and organize people, not ‘into the Church’ but ‘in step with the Kingdom in our midst’?

Where advertisements have the power to lull an unsuspecting public into a position of continual and mindless mass-consumption: I do not believe it is our role to be publicizing a nice religious product to purchase. Rather, how can we, learning from the history of campaign call out for an unwavering commitment to a different kind of kingdom?

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Michelangelo, Character and Community

At the age of 72 Michelangelo began work on a pietà (a work depicting Jesus dead after being taken down from the cross), probably for his own tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.


Unlike his previous pietà which depicted Mary holding the body of Jesus across her lap, this one showed Mary and Mary Magdalene on either side of the dead Christ. Behind Jesus, passing him down from the cross was the hooded figure of Nicodemus, his bearded face based on Michelangelo’s own.

Michelangelo never finished the sculpture: after eight years’ work he took a hammer to it. (There are many theories about the destruction: it might have been frustration at flaws in the marble block, or concern that the identification with Nicodemus would result in problems with the newly established Roman Inquisition). The fragments were gathered and reassembled, and now the unfinished pietà is displayed in the Opera Duomo Museum in Florence  together with two marble panels carved with Michelangelo’s sonnet 65 in Italian and in English.

Here’s the English version:

On the Brink of Death

(To Giorgio Vasari, Sonnet LXV)

The course of my life has brought me now

Through a stormy sea, in a frail ship,

To the common port where, landing

We account for every deed, wretched or holy.

So that finally I see

How wrong the fond illusion was

That made art my idol and my King,

Leading me to want what harmed me.

My amorous fancies, once foolish and happy

What sense have they now that I approach two deaths

The first of which I know is sure, the second threatening.

Let neither painting nor carving any longer calm

My soul turned to that divine Love

Who to embrace us opened His arms upon the cross.

It was the middle stanza that caught my attention: how wrong the fond illusion was that made art my idol and my King, leading me to want what harmed me. This is Michelangelo acknowledging the tension between total dedication to his art and the working out of his faith. For me, those lines set out the distinctive challenge for any artist of faith: to create the deepest, strongest work, putting our whole selves in, but at the same time to acknowledge that art is not ‘it’, is not everything.

How do we do that? Let’s get two small things out of the way. First, religious subject matter doesn’t get one off the hook: Dante spent a lot of his Divine Comedy getting back at the people of Florence. Secondly, neither does an attitude of ‘oh that’ll do.’ As if somehow the fact that art is not ‘it’ excuses the half-hearted, the half-baked and the half- … yes, well. It does not.

So what will help? The exact answer is going to be different for every artist, but there are two things which I think move towards an answer: character and community.

Character, because that is the internalised result of the lived life of faith, which enables the artist to make good judgements: at a minor level, to make the proper choice between a poem and a prayer meeting (some days it may be the poem, some days the prayer meeting). At a higher level, for example, to acknowledge that a particular project needs to be shelved or abandoned or radically refocussed.

Community, because that brings the accountability beyond the individual conscience and raises questions beyond the immediate concerns. I know that I have benefited from reading and considering some of the posts on this site. And preferably a community of artists, as they will understand the specific issues better than a community of, say, management consultants. Outside of a community we are thrashing about on our own in a very large sea.

I’m not saying those two on their own will makes us as good as Michelangelo (I wish), but they may help us produce our best possible work without messing up ourselves or the lives of those around us.

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Art is the product of thought, practice and years of dedication

One of the explicit goals of this year’s Sputnikzone at the Catalyst Festival was to show something of the work behind the work.

This emphasis was specifically to clear up the common misconception that artistic works of value simply materialise out of thin air. They are products of thought, practice and usually years of dedication. We wanted to help upcoming artists just starting out to know what lay ahead of them- the responsibilities and the joys- and also for churches in general to understand that if they want to value the finished product, they must also value the dedicated labour that will necessarily precede it.

This is especially important in churches like those in the Catalyst sphere of Newfrontiers (our gang!) When I reflect on my experience of charismatic Christianity, I recognise that so often, there is a love for the spontaneous and an expectation of God’s dramatic, instantaneous intervention, but this can lead to undervaluing the necessity of putting in the work, of perseverance, of the hard slog. I mean, if the gifts that we value most highly can simply be deposited on us by the Holy Spirit at any given moment and entirely by grace (gifts of the Spirit like those listed in 1 Corinthians 12 for example), there is surely limited point in putting time into developing other skills and talents. If our hope for the turnaround in our nation’s spiritual climate rests squarely on Revival, why bother working hard to get involved in every area of our society to slowly and patiently influence and transform? Although these conclusions do not automatically spring from the premises, this thinking seems to be quite common. I personally think we should value the gifts of the Holy Spirit more than we do, and I regularly pray for a dramatic and sudden intervention of God in our times. However, as with so many things, this is not an either/or, and as one side of this equation has been promoted so vigorously in our churches, I’m more than happy to redress the balance somewhat.

The mindset creeps in: if our hope for the turnaround in our nation’s spiritual climate rests squarely on Revival, why bother working hard to get involved in every area of our society to slowly and patiently influence and transform?

As Christians, we must be those who are willing to give our lives for the kingdom. Please excuse the non-artistic digression, but take the gaining of wisdom as an example. In James 1:5, James instructs his readers that if they lack wisdom, they should ask God and ‘it will be given to you.’ I’ve often heard this Scripture used as a foundational verse about how to to get wise. How do you do it? Ask God, and he’ll give it to you. Bish bash bosh! Microwave wisdom that springs from a moment’s prayer, rather than a lifetime’s labour.

Proverbs gives a very different picture. How do we get wisdom according to the book of Proverbs? Well, it starts when we’re children, at which point we need training in which way to go (Prov 22:6). From that point, we give careful thought to the paths our feet should take by learning how to control our tongues, our attitude to money, to work, to how to get ahead in life. The key word is ‘learn’ (1:5, 24:32, etc) . We learn at first through ‘the rod’ and then as we become wiser, through rebuke (25:12), advice (12:15) and instruction (1:8).

And of course, learning takes time. James 1:5 points us to the fact that God in his grace can help us when we’re in a tight spot as an exception to the general rule, but the rest of his letter, which is basically a remix of the Old Testament proverbs, points us back to the same foundation for wisdom. Wisdom is learnt through a life lived pursuing it, not received on the back of a moment’s prayer in an intense spiritual experience.

This really shouldn’t take us by surprise. Nobody would advise a student preparing for an exam- if you lack knowledge of your subject, simply ask God and it will be given to you. The same would go for a sportsperson who wants to get into the olympic team. We revise, we practice, we prepare, we learn. And funnily enough, the same is true for artists.

Therefore, at the festival it was great to highlight artistic motivation through the exhibition and reveal what drives people to make work in the first place. I was also delighted to have two seasoned craftsman, Rob Cox and Chaz Friend, creating live pieces throughout the festival, so that people could see in real time, the work involved. The most instructive thing in this regard though was Rob’s ‘A Walk Through Isaiah’ exhibition. Rob had created a print for every chapter of Isaiah and for the first time ever, at the festival, the whole body of work was exhibited.

Rob is no hobbyist! He is a man who has given his life to developing his art practice, and his passion for his art form and expertise in his field spill out of him in even the most fleeting of conversations. Hopefully, walking round his exhibition, people will have discerned the dedication, blood, sweat and tears that went into this fabulous project. In case this went below the radar, myself and Phil Mardlin paid Rob a visit just before the festival, to try to capture something of the process that goes into creating a Rob Cox print. Here is the result, which we showed in the madebymotive exhibition.

So, if you’re just embarking on your creative journey, please take note that you’ve got some work to do! It is a genuine joy to learn your craft, but there is a responsibility to dedicate yourself to this pursuit. To become an expert in your field. To experiment with different techniques and identify which ones you will master. If you’re serious about becoming excellent, formal education may be helpful (depending on your discipline). There are no short cuts and I’m afraid praying for ‘anointing’ won’t get God to do the work for you. Please do pray. Pray for the strength to persevere. Pray for wisdom to know your capacity and how you should be using your skills. Pray that God would keep your eyes on him as you navigate the potentially perilous waters that most art forms present. But then learn, prepare and practice. Put the work in! And have fun while you do it!

And if you wouldn’t consider yourself an artist, but would like to see more excellent artists in your church, give artists the space to do this. I’d give a special plea to church leaders:

  • Don’t try to fill your artists’ timetables with church activities and responsibilities and understand when they say they can’t commit to this group or that serving opportunity. This won’t be true for everyone, but it is very possible that those people who are spending their evenings and weekends reading, writing, painting, drawing, acting, or generally ‘being creative’ are not engaging in a frivolous hobby, but learning a craft.
  • Don’t overly emphasise the bubble of Christian culture- excellent authors will not grow out of Christian paperbacks, songwriters will not develop the expertise necessary to speak into our culture from a diet of contemporary worship albums.
  • Be careful about platforming instantly accessible art in your meetings and through your church communications that is made by people who have not sufficiently learnt their craft. There may be short term benefits from showcasing such art, but if the artists we exhibit on the walls of our buildings, in our Sunday meetings and through our evangelistic events are full of the Holy Spirit, but don’t have a depth of experience and expertise, we are actively downplaying the importance of craftsmanship and those in your congregations who have spent decades on their art will feel devalued and misunderstood. And they will probably leave. Or get grumpy. Or both.

For previous reflections on the festival, try this link. Next week, I’ll explain why we try not to talk too much.

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The Responsibility to Dissent

In my last post we looked at how dissent relates to Romans 13, checked out some of the legacy of dissent in the Bible, and how today’s meme-based, Facebook-bound efforts seem a little disappointing in comparison.

The modern trend of ‘social media dissent’ is a reflection of a world where dissent is becoming more and more popular. People seem angrier than ever with the way things are, and seem to be exploring more and more extreme avenues in order to realise some kind of change. It’s created something of a crisis, as protest movements claim power. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Corbyn within the Labour Party, Trump in the States. Even the so-called Islamic State must be seen as the most twisted and perverse kind of protest movement. It is a statement of dissatisfaction, an attempt to create what its members would view as a better reality.

Why the political recap? Because I believe that what all of these people are looking for has already arrived. The Kingdom of God which forcefully advances and which forceful people lay hold of. As Christian artists who, following Francis Schaeffer’s imagery, aim to carry big, mysterious ideas down the staircase to the majority, our role at this point is more profound and important than it has ever been. It’s perhaps a little damning of the church that so many people are turning to completely unhinged methods of dissent. For too long we have betrayed the Kingdom by mingling too closely with the spheres of power, offering nothing different to the prevailing narrative other than the prospect of a personal conversion and individual holiness.

Jesus is the model Christian artist when it comes to the Kingdom of God. It’s very difficult to find an occassion where He tells you what His Kingdom looks like without incorporating a short story or some kind of visual artistic device. We can do this too. We need to present to people the beautiful, radical Kingdom to which we belong. I genuinely believe a lot of people are getting pretty sick of The World, but the alternatives they are turning to are terrible.

I really don’t want that last statement to be seen as unsympathetic towards these protesters. Supporters of Trump and members of Isis are seeking desperate measures because of difficult times and horrific environments. I also don’t want it to come across as a bourgeois call to moderation. This whole piece is about why I think dissent is important. Dissent is dangerous because it can lead to evil (if appealing) options. As members of the best, and ultimately only, alternative movement against the powers and principalities of this dark world, our responsibility to communicate that Kingdom to people is enormous.

This isn’t always smooth going, and sometimes bad things have to be broken in order for something better to be birthed. This isn’t all that comfortable, particularly if it comes into conflict with that earlier stuff about breaking the law. However, Jesus’ episode with the money changers in the temple seems to show us that on occasion the destruction of something bad and old is necessary to bring about something good and new. I think it’s more an exception to a ‘don’t break stuff’ rule rather than a justification for breaking things we think are bad, but it’s an important exception.

So, then, after three posts on this important topic, here are some of my conclusions:

  1. Submission is the most important part of dissent. Submission to the authorities, submission to the consequences of our actions, but most importantly submission to the Spirit as we seek to be part of God’s creative story.
  2. Within the church we should foster and encourage healthy dissent. The political dynamic of ancient Israel was to have Kings with power, and prophets who reminded them of their calling when they strayed from righteousness. One of my favourite protest figures, Benjamin Blower once told me that he didn’t want to rebel in a way which meant his children would rebel against him. This is spot on. We need to continually be open to dissent; not for dissent’s sake, that we might swing from one extreme to another, but that we would be continually reminded of our calling.
  3. The most profound way we can artistically advance the Kingdom against the forces of The World is to make things that are better. Kingdom art should be more beautiful than the world because the Kingdom is more beautiful than the world. ‘Be the most excellent’ is particularly patronising advice, but we don’t have to aim at provocative art. The excellence of the Kingdom, when compared with the World’s offering should surely be offensive enough.

And now, once again, over to you:

  • How do we as Christian artists do dissent well?
  • How do we most profoundly combat The World in our art?
  • Do you know of any Christians who excellently practice dissent?
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Me Against ‘The World’

In my last post on the role of dissent for the Christian artist, we looked a little bit at the definition of dissent and why it might be a good thing for us to get involved with.

One of the biggest theological obstacles when thinking this through is the place of authority. In saying ‘no’ to the prevailing opinion, in disrupting ideological circuits, we often come across states, governments and law enforcement – those who might protect the status quo for the sake of order, or for their own security or profit.

Whatever our political persuasions as Christian artists, we have to acknowledge that all governmental authority is appointed by God and so deserves our respect and submission, as Paul makes clear in Romans 13. In many situations though, Paul’s instructions here don’t seem easily applicable and it’s worth giving them some careful thought in their own right (here’s a short resource from Jonny Mellor or a more extensive examination in this four-part John Piper sermon series- ‘Subjection to God and Subjection to the State’).

The relationship between dissent and civil disobedience is an important one to explore, because the Bible and more recent history shows that civil disobedience does have its place and must be used very carefully. However, civil disobedience is not really the kind of dissent I’m trying to get at here. A while back I conducted a poll among some Sputnik artists. Only one artist recognised that when they dissented, it was against civil authority. The most popular adversary was the biblical concept of ‘The World’. The World is what we as Christians should be continually dissenting against, because Jesus commands it. We are compelled to be non-conformists when it comes to the patterns and cycles of The World. It is the kingdom that is not God’s. It is the gate which the forces of heaven will prevail against. It the strong man who must be bound up that we might raid his house.

And sometimes it is ‘the principalities and powers of this dark world’ (Eph 6:12). The World and the systems of government therein often collaborate. Under these circumstances the subject of our dissent might be the government. The message of submission in Romans 13 is rightly emphasised. The idea that all authority is appointed by God, especially in the realm of an Emperor whose power was in part derived from his claims to divinity was also an incredibly bold statement of dissent. Other examples of civil disobedience litter the Bible. It might be when the state commands us to do something God forbids, in the case of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. It might be when the state forbids something God commands, in the case of Daniel praying towards Jerusalem. Don’t even get me started on Jesus. In each of these stories, the dissenters submit to the punishment the state sanctions against them.

The majority of modern dissent against the state in the UK is a lot less inspiring, creative, or costly. Largely it is formed by our own worldly political convictions. Some Christians dissent against abortion, equal marriage and ‘political correctness’ but pretty much nothing else seems to bother them. Plenty of other Christians will rail on social media against everything the Tories do, particularly in regard to the poor, without their dissent getting any more creative than contributing towards a culture of memes and puerile name calling. At different points in my lifetime I could have been seen in both of those stereotypes.

So, before we conclude this discussion next time, a few questions to consider:

In your art, are you often aware of the tension between ‘being all things to all men’ while ‘not being conformed to the patterns of this world?’

How far can we go as Christians in our dissent against human authorities? Is there a line over which we shouldn’t go?

In your art, do you focus your dissent against ‘The World’?

For the last post in the series, try here.

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A Response to ‘Artist & Empire’

Dissent, mass noun, pron. (dɪˈsɛnt), The holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.

I’d initially wanted to write a blog about the place of dissent in art after visiting an interesting and at times bemusing exhibition about the legacy of the British Empire through the prism of visual art at the Tate Britain.

Jonny, Sputnik’s equivalent of the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson, sent the piece back and asked me to flesh it out into a longer exploration of this general theme. So, here begins a series of re-reflections on the art of dissent; why it is no vice, how it fits with Romans 13 and why it is really important that Christian artists are doing it well.

There are a variety of reasons why Artist & Empire at the Tate raised thoughts and questions about dissent. Myself and Benjamin Harris, who accompanied me, were frustrated by how placid the entire production felt. It looked upon the effect Empire had upon colonised communities, at spaces like Bristol which are also indelibly changed by the profit of Empire. It also reflected on the narratives of those who have transcended and traversed the boundaries of Empire; stories of civilised savages and the concept of ‘going native’. And then it ended. There was not one angry afterword; not a single piece of art which communicated so much as a ‘No!’

A lot of my frustration with the lack of vitriol in looking back at Empire comes down to the fact that as a white, middle-class man, I like best to reflect on Empire with as much anger as possible to cover my back. I genuinely hate what the British Empire did, but infuriatingly I also benefit and very much enjoy the comfort these outrages have afforded me, and frothy rage is the way I best process the ensnaring nature of this hypocrisy.

The final, retrospective part of Artist & Empire drew on a variety of narratives and in hindsight was incredibly dignified, for which it deserves credit. The British Empire has gone, in its sprawling physical and legal sense, and I think it is good to embrace peaceful and forgiving narratives in relation to it. It was the lack of dissent, not polemic, which was disturbing.

Though the Empire might not spin the same grand myths we were sampling in the Tate’s many rooms, it’s still there. It’s there in the fact that the Tate Britain, a gallery of paintings from the collection of a Victorian Englishman who made his fortune refining sugar, exists. It’s there in the fact that spending a Saturday afternoon wandering round a building looking at the story of the British Empire is something Britons can just do.

I believe that ‘godly dissent’ treads something of a middle ground here. It should tell a positive, creative story, pointing to a better way of life – the Kingdom of God. It also needs to call out the bad stuff, particularly the subtle, pernicious bad stuff that we quite comfortably live with without having to think about it. I think this is where invading ideological circuits, the subject of Ben’s article the other week, is a vital discipline.

Under this definition, movements of godly dissent need Christian creatives – people with the eyes to see the sin that so easily ensnares and with the imagination and gifts to forge something which helps the rest of us see this and helps us do better. I think this is why so many of the protest movements ‘out there in the world’ begin with artists and carry creativity at their heart. Think Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Think Jazz in churches in East Germany. Think, erm, The Proclaimers and Scottish independence. Maybe not. But it is significant that so many creatives came out in support of the ‘Yes’ vote for Scottish Independence in 2014

There’s often been an assumption, particularly within the Church, that creativity gives birth to rebellion; that art and deviancy are intertwined. I would argue instead that good defiance requires creativity, which is why artists and creatives are so often at the heart of those protest movements.

So from this initial response to Artist and Empire, I’m going to explore this topic in a bit more detail in my next few posts, exploring whether it is a virtue or a vice, how it fits into a biblical worldview and why it is really important that Christian artists are doing it well.

In the meantime, what do you think…

Does dissent involve breaking stuff or making stuff?

Does this go against what God says about how we honour those in authority?

What are your favourite dissenting moments from history?

For the next post in the series, click here

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If art has a function, it is much broader and richer than the church imagines

At our last Birmingham Sputnik hub gathering, we had the pleasure of a visit from Ally Gordon. Ally is a highly respected contemporary artist and the co-founder of Morphe Arts and after an invigorating afternoon, I instantly wanted to share his wisdom to a wider group than those who could fit into the Wilsons’ living room! This article seemed like a good place to start- originally posted on the Evangelical Alliance website a few years back, and reproduced (and very slightly abridged) with permission…

The story of art is rich with those who have glorified God through excellent art from the painterly genius of Rembrandt and Cranach the Elder to the musical magnificence of Mendelssohn and Bach. There is no shortage of believers who wrestled with the significance of what they made before the glory of their Creator yet today there are few Christians of evangelical faith on the national arts platform. One can’t help but ask why?

James Elkins, professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art writes, “contemporary art is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been and that might be its most singular achievement.” Why do so few Christians enter the arts today? Why don’t artists like coming to church? Perhaps we are still experiencing a cultural hangover from the Enlightenment or still working out our reformed theology of images. As people of God’s Word we might feel a bit sheepish when it comes to pictures. We value clarity, especially in preaching, but art is anything but clear, often mysterious and at times a bit emotive.

The Dutch art historian and jazz critic, Hans Rookmaaker, suggested two possibilities in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (pub. IVP 1946), “The artist who is a Christian struggles with great tensions. An artist is expected to work from his own convictions but these may be seen by his atheist contemporaries as ultra-conservative if not totally passé. On top of this he often lacks the support of his own community, his church and family.”

Rookmaaker wrote over half a century ago but his words are still prophetic to our times. Since artists often find themselves on the cutting edge of philosophical and critical thought, those who confess faith in Christ swim dangerously against the tides of prevailing worldviews in mainstream society, perhaps most severely against the thinking of militant atheists such as Dawkins and Jonathan Miller whose influence is felt as sharply (if indirectly) in the arts as it is in the sciences. At the same time, many artists feel unsupported or unappreciated by their church family. Art is sometimes considered to be an unnecessary decadence or indulgence. One art student told me her pastor asked how she would feel if Jesus came back to find her painting pictures of daisies – what, after all, is the value in a painting of flowers when there are millions yet to hear about the gospel? In my experience, such extreme discouragement for young Christian artists is rare these days but there is still a great need for encouragement.

God’s Word is rich in its instruction and example to those who make art. In the broadest sense of ‘art’, the bible is a magnificent artistry in its own right, bringing together creative writing from a plethora of writers, each bringing their own style yet representing generations of culture and historical insight. The bible is unique art in being rendered by human hands yet divinely inspired (breathed-out) by God’s Spirit (2 Tim 3:16). Consider the great art in the erotic poetry of Song of Songs, the captivating stories told by the prophets and Christ himself or the apocalyptic imagery of John’s Revelation: images of catastrophe to rival any Hollywood epic. Think of the deep poetic despair and joyful elevation expressed by the Psalms and lyrics that inspired Bono of U2 to describe David as “the greatest blues writer of all time”.

In the bible, creativity is the first thing God chooses to record about his character, “In the beginning God created” (Gen 1:1). God’s creation was “good’ and “very good”. From the beginning God is interested in the aesthetic dimensions of living, declaring that the trees are not only “good for food” but first, “pleasing to the eye”(Gen2:9). As those made in God’s image the act of good creativity is merely a very human experience and the artist should not feel a need to justify his art by scribbling bible verses in the bottom right hand corner of her painting or crow-barring a gospel message into his script. Biblical artists such as Bezalel and the Psalmist David were recognised by God for their artistic excellence and Bezalel being chosen by God for his “skill, craft and knowledge” (Ex 31:3) in design.

The Christian is free to make art in whichever discipline, medium or genre he chooses and there really is no such thing as “Christian art” just as there is no such thing as ‘Christian medicine’, ‘Christian food’ or ‘Christian plumbing’ for “the earth is the Lords and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1) The diversity of subject matter available to the Christian is as rainbow rich as the creation itself. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected” (2 Tim 4:4). There may not be “Christian art” but there are Christian approaches to making art. A good starting point is the question, “how does art function in the Kingdom of God?”

The apostle Paul writes, “In whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23). We graft hard for the glory of God in whatever arena of the arts he leads us to. As with every act of service to Christ, making art requires prayer, study and the renewing of our minds through the power of God’s Spirit and his word.

When we ask how art functions in the Kingdom of God we are assuming art has a function (and beyond making walls look pretty, although there is much benefit simply in this). Art can open a window for the viewer to see the world in a way they have yet to experience. The artist can show us something of God’s creation or the fallen nature of the world. Artists can build bridges with those who don’t know Christ by exploring ideas and themes that are common to our daily experiences and the gospel.

Contemporary American artist, Betty Spackman writes, “we make art to remind us of the invisible and to heal our forgetfulness”. Art serves as visual signposts towards what lies beyond peripheral vision or to the realm of ideas and concepts. A painting is more than a collage of pigment and chemicals on canvas but also a window to reveal how the artist sees the world. As such, art is a good vehicle for exploring the Christian worldview. In a similar way, art is well suited to help us document and remember the past, art can help us grieve or lament and it may trigger the memory of important events, people or conversations.

Artists can tell stories through their art. All stories fit into the greatest story of the gospel and some artworks will explore grand and profound themes such as the existential questions, “why are we here?” and “what is the purpose of life?” Others will explore more modest ideas such as “look at that fading flower”.

For pastors wondering how to encourage artists in your church perhaps a good starting point would be to ask them seriously about their work. Ask them how their art functions in the kingdom of God?” Ask them what ideas inform their art and who inspires them. Avoid questions like, “do you do landscapes or portraits”, “what are you trying to say” or “tell me what its about”. An artist takes much time deliberating on the aesthetics of their work to help you engage with their work sometimes in a non-verbal way. Quite often the greatest Christian encouragement for an artist is when other believers appreciate their work enough to buy it. This may be the single most helpful act of support you can offer.

If you are a Christian and an artist may I point you towards the writing of Dr. Francis Schaffer and Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture was a breath of fresh air to me as an art student and I still return to Schaffer’s “Art and the Bible” when I need a little spiritual encouragement. More recently writers such as Calvin Seerveld, Steve Turner, Betty Spackman, Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin have also written well on the subject (most their books published by IVP or Piquant).

You can also check out what Morphe are up to here or more specifically, Ally’s book- Beyond Air Guitar. To understand that this guy doesn’t just talk the talk though, check out Ally’s own work. 

Finally, these two posts were originally posted on the Evangelical Alliance website (here). Thanks for the permission to reproduce.

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Lamentation: Should Heaven Know I’m Miserable Now?

Probably 40-50% of the songs, raps and poems I’ve written are melancholic. My 2002 album Gondwanaland with Michaelis Constant has the theme of lamentation running through the whole album.

Like many of you, I also connect deeply with other people’s melancholia expressed in songs, poems, classical compositions and raps. These engage a hidden, vulnerable part of my spirit. The catharsis of weeping/praying/raging as I listen to, for example Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, is important to my spiritual, emotional and mental health.

However there’s a distinct lack of acknowledgement or dialogue amongst modern-day Christians about the potency and human necessity of lamentation.

Why aren’t lamentations, which make up the bulk of numerous biblical books, part of our ecclesiastical life? I’m not exactly suggesting a discontinuity-creating a dirge in the middle of an up-beat Sunday morning service- but I am suggesting the need for creative engagement with the unspoken shadows that are a part of everyday human life. A friend of mine observed: ‘the depression of Psalm 88 is given voice rather than cut off and not heard. Why don’t psalms like this make it into our corporate worship?’

Some assert that lamentation has been rendered unnecessary, a part of the old pattern that has been swept aside. I disagree wholeheartedly

I said a few paragraphs ago that lamentation is a necessity. Can I back that up? Some Christians would assert that since death has been defeated and we have found what the prophets and patriarchs were searching for, lamentation has been rendered unnecessary, a part of the old pattern that has been swept aside. I disagree wholeheartedly. Look at what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:

For indeed while we are in this tent (meaning earthly bodies), we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.

A part of our melancholy is the recognition that though some time in the future God’s Kingdom will be fully realized we only get little glimpses of it now. Essentially this sort of lament is not unbelieving despair but rather the visceral pain that believers experience precisely because they believe.

Lamentation is the oil that massages the sore muscles of the Body of Christ. Although I’ve been drawn into the recorded melancholia of David Eugene Edwards, Nick Cave, Radiohead and Chelsea Wolfe, the place where that lamentation oil has been most effective is within a local community context.

I have been fortunate to have friends who have shared their beautiful, sad songs and sound art within living room gigs, local festivals and other community settings. We come together for a moment to lament the loss of innocence or the sins of our nation or the death of a young mother or the loneliness of depression or the ‘Sehnsucht’ in the soul for the fully realized Kingdom. This, I believe, is an underappreciated way we bond as believers and as communities. I also sense that when people who aren’t Christians see Christians lament properly it invites them to approach Jesus honestly.

The band Everything Everything have written some incredibly sad songs. Recently I’ve been meditating to their song The Peaks. It embodies the violence, destruction and sorrow of the age we’re living in and at the end appears to ask a judge/observer/God-type character for answers. It is a song, which echoes the horror and desolation witnessed by the prophet Jeremiah. Laments are a prayer language. You see ‘The Peaks’ leads me to sorrow and anger AND vulnerable, tearful dialogue with God.

And I’ve seen more villages burn than animals born,
I’ve seen more towers come down than children grow up…
Come now, Decider, sit down beside me
Tell me my world is gone

Do you spend time lamenting? Should lamentation be a normal part of Christian life? When we neglect it do we lose a vital form of prayer?