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Arts in the age of Coronavirus: we’re here to help

Please note: Our Saturday Hub meet-up has moved from YouTube to Zoom. We’re sorry for any confusion. Go here to join.

Not much makes sense at the moment.

Most of us are allowed one excursion outside a day for exercise. Supermarkets are pretty much the only shops still open. Loo roll and pasta have become our most prized commodities.

And it’s happening across the entire planet.

And it’s all been caused by a variant of the common cold.

It’s part dystopian fiction and part Jonathan Swift-esque social satire.

In the flux and confusion though, one of the things that I’m sure of is this: art is more important now than ever. And that means artists are more important now than ever.

You may not be on the government’s list of key workers, but if you’re an artist, you have a unique opportunity to serve our society at this time. You also, I imagine, have some pretty significant challenges too.

Therefore, amidst all this craziness, we at Sputnik want to do our best to encourage you to take this opportunity to use your gifts meaningfully, while also helping you in the specific challenges that you may well be facing.

In a sense, despite all the changes, it’s business as usual. You see, Sputnik supports Christian artists by profiling, funding and connecting them. That’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’re going to keep on doing. We’re just going to do it a bit different. Here’s the plan…

1. ‘In the Rough’ Art Project

Such unusual and testing times as these provide profound artistic stimuli. Combine that with the fact that, for some of us, we may have more time on our hands than we normally would. Combine that with the fact that many of us are feeling the pressure to curl up into a ball and give in to a crushing sense of purposelessness. Combine that with the fact that we, as artists, are uniquely skilled to give everyone else perspective on the present pandemic.

In short, it’s the perfect time to get you involved in an art project. Once the Coronavirus has done its worst, we’re going to put together an exhibition/installation (in some form) of work created by artists in and around our network that was created in/around the time of the virus.

In the meantime, we are going to provide a platform to showcase this work in its various degrees of completion. We have put together a simple Tumblr gallery and we want you to submit work to it that you are making at the moment.

Go to to see more

We’re not expecting high production values. We don’t all have a multitrack studio in our loft and we may be struggling to keep our palettes stocked up with our favourite shades of paint. It might be rough, and not all of the work may even be finished, but we’re looking for work that authentically captures how you’re doing and what you’re feeling and how you’re responding to this unprecedented moment in our human experience.

Then, as work accumulates on this page, we’re going to be highlighting pieces that particularly resonate with us through our social media.

You may have lost your normal platforms to showcase your work. The exhibitions, theatres and performances may be called off, but we want to present you with a new way to profile your skills. Just make stuff, go to and submit work.

We’re looking forward to seeing what you all come up with.

2. Sputnik Emergency Artist Fund

Professional artists are surely one of the groups that have been hit hardest by the recent turn of events. For some, your sources of income may well have disappeared almost overnight.

This is huge, and we’re really praying for you and would love to connect with you if you need someone to reach out to. However, we also want to help financially.

Sadly, we don’t have the resources to help all of you, but we definitely want to do what we can, and also gather anyone else with a similar sense of concern for the well being of artists. Therefore, we’re re-routing the money that we’d allocated to artist grants for this term and sending out the SOS wider through a crowdfunding campaign.

For some of you, your sources of income may well have disappeared overnight.

Our goal is to raise £4,000 that we can then distribute to artists in need across the Sputnik network. We would be looking to typically distribute these funds in small gifts of around £200 each, although each case will be considered individually.

So, if you’ve got a bit extra at the moment, why not contribute to the Fund? And if you’re in need, get hold of us and we’ll see what we can do. All the info is here on GoFundMe.

3. Online Meet-Ups

PLEASE NOTE: Due to tech issues with old laptops and folks self-isolating (it’s complicated) we’ve decided to move the Saturday afternoon meet-up to a Zoom conference.

You’ll be able to find the meeting here.

Finally, whether we’re struggling to pay the bills, battling to keep our heads above water or buzzing with creative energy at the moment, we all still need artistic connections.

Usually, we do these in our hubs in Birimingham, Edinburgh, Falmouth and SE London. This term, we were also looking to gather artists in Bournemouth and Bristol and even more widely through our national Gathering.

It looks like we won’t be able to do those things anymore, but we’re not giving up. We’re going online.

On Saturday 28th March, we’re hosting our first online event and we’re already actively exploring how to multiply these in the future as well as hosting more interactive artist meet ups and workshops.

Even if you’re in total lockdown, you don’t need to be alone. We want you to keep connecting with comrades, collaborators and co-conspirators.

So, that’s the plan. We hope there’s something there that serves you. If you’re up for it, let’s overcome the present obstacles and seize hold of the present opportunities together in the coming weeks and months.

May God protect you and do you good.

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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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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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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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The Renaissance had us fooled. We were always ‘post-truth’ people

Renaissance Post-Truth Politics Sputnik Faith Art
Renaissance Post-Truth Politics Sputnik Faith Art

At the tail-end of 2016, the Oxford Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ their new word of the year. If we’d needed any further proof of the mood that was spreading through politics at the time, we had it – the post-truth era was in full swing.

I’d find it hard to deny that recent years have felt like a new low in politics within my lifetime; there have been scandals that came close, but the freewheelin’ buffoonery, shifty evasions and straight-up lies going unpunished daily does feel like a new ‘era’ of sorts.

But there are some things that get bundled together under the ‘post-truth’ umbrella that I’m not so convinced are new phenomena at all. Amidst all the casual dishonesty is the idea that now, suddenly, people’s opinions are not shaped by competing, logical arguments, but by pure gut instinct. Throwing logical arguments at people is like water on a chip pan fire, they say; opposition only strengthens people’s resolve to double-down, encouraged by the cheering-on of their like-minded tribe.

This isn’t new behaviour, and in fact, I think we know it. The bottom line is this: humans form our worldviews as much from stories, relationships and emotional attachments as we do from cold, hard facts. Meanwhile, it’s hard-wired into the Western mindset to deny that we have any ideology other than reason alone: and it’s that misconception, rather than some new unruly way of thinking, that left us singularly unprepared for the apple-cart-upsetting blowouts of the last two years.

The myth of the Renaissance

The West has long been on a mission to convince itself that rational, empirical thinking is the only valid form of thought; true and false the only measures of value. This is the legacy of the Renaissance – Europe’s rediscovery of ancient Greek thought, which led us to the Enlightenment and the onset of the modern age. The Renaissance reignited the idea that rational insight was a higher form of ‘knowing’ than other forms of thought, including actual experience, or imagination.

Thereby ‘myth’ became an ugly word, something that needs to be ‘debunked’. Ironically, that attitude is the very myth – the story –that the Renaissance gave us. And, in the way that stories do, it became woven into the fabric of everyday life; it was the engine that drove incredible scientific discovery, but it also re-energized the European monarchies in their colonial conquests.

Nowadays it echoes in Douglas Adams (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”) or in Richard Dawkins: “we don’t have to invent wildly implausible stories [because we have] real, scientific investigation”. But I was pleasantly surprised to see Dawkins’ friend Philip Pullman distance himself from this:

“On the contrary, I’d rather say that there are times when we have to keep our reason in line. I daresay that [imagination] is in fact where a good deal of scientific discovery begins. In the old expression, reason is a good servant but a bad master, and its powers are limited.”

And even this is to make it seem like ‘reason’ and ‘imagination’ can be easily separated. But as Pullman rightly says, earlier in the piece: “Everything that touches human life is surrounded by a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown.”

It’s a common knee-jerk reaction in Western societies to think a ‘knowledge gap’ is the issue; that problems will be solved if we give people enough facts. But it doesn’t stand up, as Sarah and Jack Gorman conclude in Denying to the Grave. No matter how well-educated, humans are capable of maintaining wrong beliefs for a lifetime, even beliefs which harm themselves. To try to persuade humans to behave totally rationally is a lost cause.

Sputnik Faith Post-Truth Politics Renaissance Matt Bosford Art

Faith and art are ahead of the curve

This is the artist’s home turf, though. Or not just artists, even; as an avid reader, I know that my worldview isn’t based on cold facts alone. Stories like The Grapes of Wrath, Brave New World and Infinite Jest genuinely changed my opinions and rewired my thinking. It doesn’t bother me for a moment that they’re not ‘true’ stories.

And while I’d obviously disagree with Philip Pullman when he puts faith in the exact same bracket as magic or imagination, it is true that a faith tradition like Christianity, because of its Hebraic roots, is already in touch with a pre-Renaissance (or pre-Greek) form of thought. So you would hope that Christians are ahead of the curve by being comfortable with how stories shape worldview – mythopoesis, as Alastair McIntosh calls it. After all, we constantly make decisions based not just on facts, but on faith.

Christianity in the modern age has spent a lot of time making factual arguments like the historical case for Christ, or the scientific case for God. Far be it from me to criticise any of that, but in the end, I suspect it is typically experience – subjective, emotional, personal – that makes the difference in creating lasting faith. I don’t have any stats to prove that, but I think Francis Spufford is quite right to argue that Christianity makes emotional sense in a way that even watertight philosophical arguments can’t match.

So as Christians should know, and as artists certainly know, we all draw inspiration from stories that we can’t entirely explain or quantify in a rational sense. The value of a myth simply doesn’t lie in being true or false. It has value if it points us in a good direction, and that direction affects how we make rational decisions in the future.

Facing fears in the new post-truth era

As I said at the start, ‘post-truth’ can mean many things. And whichever way we look at it or define it, we are still feeling the weight of irreconcilable differences between tribes in the West. It’s also true that some of the deeply-lodged stories in people’s hearts are actively harmful to others, and that’s a real issue.

So I don’t want to conclude this by seemingly sweeping things under the carpet, like necessary protest or much-needed justice. But I will say – if Christ’s call to love your enemy means loving the person that you hate to think of as human, then in my case, I have to admit that includes right-wing politicians. The way I talk and think about them implies they’re “not even human”. And I need to give that consideration.

I do think politicians in particular have a responsibility to learn, and look outside their experience; I do think that, in practice, our government sorely lacks empathy. But should I really respond by dehumanizing them in turn? Looking across the table at my ‘enemies’ I have to choose to see humans, shaped by stories – rather than faceless ghouls. It’s not enough to complain they “won’t listen to reason”.

Because we’re all post-truth people. We all have stories that tell our hearts what to believe. I hope, in a strange way, that this gives us less reason to despair, or at least helps us to face our political adversaries with humility. Changing the hearts of a people is not just an artistic, but a spiritual task that it’s up to us to embrace. There is no easy path; it turns out Christ’s challenge is harder than most of us can imagine, and in an age of absolute division, the narrow road is the road filled with empathy, contradiction and nuance.

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Lost Da Vinci becomes most expensive painting ever sold

Leonardo da Vinci’s long-lost ‘Salvator Mundi’, a painting of Jesus Christ commissioned over 500 years ago, has become the highest-valued work of art ever sold at auction. Unusually, the painting was sold as part of a contemporary art sale, and has a back-story of theft, amateur patch-ups and scandal worthy of a Donna Tartt novel.

It’s a buzz-worthy story for a number of reasons, but it also gives us a lot to unpack. Yes, someone paid over $400 million for a painting of Jesus – but it’s safe to assume they’re paying for da Vinci, not the subject matter. And of course it’s not exactly Jesus, anyway – it’s another unhistoric portrayal of the much-misrepresented rabbi. Is it just a valuable asset for a rich buyer – or does it really hold some kind of special substance and mystique? Does any of this matter? Let us know, below.

Leonardo, as you may know, had a long and prosperous career thanks to his rich patrons, so this seems a good moment to say joining Sputnik Patrons might help the next $400m masterpiece get made.

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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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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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Embrace Of The Serpent

There’s a bunch of critically acclaimed films that have gone under many of our radars. In response I started gathering a few friends on occasions to watch a movie with me and then spend time afterwards arguing whether it merits the praise. Our last film was Ciro Guerra’s ‘Embrace of the Serpent’.

Embrace of the Serpent

Director: Ciro Guerra

Summary: A drama set in early 20th century Amazonian rainforest

Released: 2015

Certificate: 12A

Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis


cover.aiRating system:  I consider 3 aspects of the film: the script, the whole production and finally how strongly the film impacted me and provoked powerful ideas and intense conversation. In each category I give marks out of 10.


‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a stunning, thought-provoking, psychedelic and refreshing piece of South American cinema. Shot in black and white, it tells two stories and interweaves them. In 1909 a German ethnographer seeks the help of an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate and together they embark on a dangerous quest to find a rare healing plant. 30 years later an American botanist approaches this same shaman, now worn out and losing his memory, to be his guide on the search for the plant.

Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar, the 2 actors that play the young and old Karamakate are outstanding. Torres’ beauty, intensity, clarity and wit grabbed me right from the start. This is his story, not the story of some explorer from the northern hemisphere. In fact even the way the two intertwining tales are edited expresses the Amazonian people’s non-linear perception of time.

There’s a nuance to each of the main characters. No one fits neatly into their designated stereotype boxes. Roles are subverted and this film artfully exposes the brutality and spiritual hypocrisies of colonialism.

Every decision Karamakate, who is the last surviving member of his tribe, makes has the added weight of him being the sole representative of his people. Two of the key questions the film asks are: if you forfeit your very essence can it regained? What is lost when God’s creation is systematically destroyed and the people who can read Eden’s maps have been killed?

Martijn Schirp of High Existence writes: ‘Watching this story unfold, a deep longing awakens to return to what we have lost.’

I was struck by the moment Karamakate hears European music for the first time via botanist Evan’s phonograph. The piece is Joseph Haydn’s classical Bible-inspired masterpiece The Creation. Karamakate immediately recognizes within the music something Evan probably doesn’t recognize: a deep, authentic spirituality and an aural portal to something transcendent. ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ vividly depicts both culture clashes and connections. If you’re up for an epic, invigorating, disturbing rainforest adventure then I recommend this film.

I’ll finish with a quote by the film’s Colombian director Ciro Guerra: This knowledge (of the indigenous tribal sages) has been passed on through oral tradition, it’s never been written, and from my personal experience, trying to approach it was kind of humiliating, because it is not something you can aspire to understand in a short time like you do in school or college. It is related to life, generations, natural cycles; it really is a gigantic wall of knowledge that you can only admire and maybe try to scratch its surface.


Your chance to respond: 

Have you seen Embrace of the Serpent? What did it make you think about? How did it make you feel?


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Has Art Ever Been All About Beauty?

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an opinion article titled Remember When Art Was Supposed to be Beautiful with the subheading Contemporary art is obsessed with the politics of race, gender and sexuality. This rant-like post has elicited quite a response through social media, many sharing the article as authentication of their struggle with (or outright rejection of) forms and themes within the umbrella term ‘contemporary art’.

Though there are many holes in the argument to unpick (for example, there is a place to answer the author’s context-less side swipe at identity politics), I would like to simply respond to the assumed generalization that, once “art was supposed to be beautiful”.

The attitude often comes across a little like this: long before the 20th century, the Holocaust, and Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death, art was concerned with ideals such as beauty and truth. Having divorced oneself from the philosophical base for a hegemonic western culture, the post-modern being is now purely concerned with their own identity in a disenchanted and empty universe.

The sentence reveals a hidden philosophy that divides art history into two time spaces: the good old days and our current decadent situation.

Despite author Sohrab Ahmari citing many examples of current exhibitions that major on themes of gender politics, there is little historic weight to the assumption that art was once supposed to be beautiful (other than an unrelated image of Michelangelo’s David beside the text). My mind wonders: when exactly was art ‘supposed to be beautiful’? Who were the ‘supposers’ that required all art to be beautiful? And let’s not even get into questions around the nature of ‘the beautiful’!

To assume that the weight of art history was conducted as a pursuit of ‘beauty’ as found in Neo-classical art is ignorant to say the least. First of all, it assumes a Eurocentric worldview that sees the heights (or purest forms) of art in Titian, Raphael, and other white male celebrity artists from our retelling of human history that unifies and codifies the spectrum of human existence and expression into our time and culture bound understanding of the world. No doubt ‘beauty’ in art is defined within the limits of referable depiction of three-dimensional reality. The argument seldom looks to other cultures and periods of history and what others ‘supposed’ art to be about. In this sense our throwaway statement reveals itself to be colonial at heart for it assumes the unity of history as a progressive story that reaches its peak in our time and in our lands.

Let us journey to some 15,000 years ago to the cave paintings found in Western Europe. The paintings that adorn the cave of Lascaux in France are filled with illustrations of bison and other animals. Our books and theorists inform us that such images were created, not simply as decoration but as powerful symbols in an animistic world. We refer to the artists as ‘primitives’ and attempt to pin down their intentions in creating these images. Gombrich in his The Story of Art comments that we must not think of these images as something nice or beautiful to see but ‘as something powerful to use’. How would the early people use these images? In order to avoid speculation, I am content to simply state that the leading theories have very little to do with concepts of ‘beauty’ but rather as a means of influencing nature.


Or consider the pre-colonial aboriginal art of the Americas. All we have left of the indigenous central empires is their (loosely defined) art. The totemic structures (totem poles) of the northern peoples embody an approach and attitude towards both life and the arts that understands significance in terms of spirit hierarchies, tribal identities, and mythic stories. At first look the bemoaning western critic may only see a jumble of animal masks lacking in ‘beauty’ and truth to nature, but for the artists within their cultures it was a community identity project with many totemic structures involving the entire male population of any one tribe in their creation.

image by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
What about the Egyptians? Was the period that is considered the origin of our current civilization solely concerned with the pursuit of ‘beauty’ in their art? Our typical images of the ancient world help us understand the concerns of the Nile people in their art making. Both pyramids and the mummification process were creative preservation projects. Egyptian art didn’t just seek for longevity but eternity: one Egyptian word for sculptor actually translating as ‘He-who-keeps-alive’. The (in our eyes) rigid depiction of animal life appears to correspond to this attitude, for the artist was required to preserve everything in utmost clarity and uniformity: that nothing would be lost. Gombrich puts it “What mattered most was not prettiness but completeness”. Three dimensionality was left in favour for characteristic angles that captured the subject’s distinctiveness.


To turn to a more recent example within our own lineage, Hieronymus Bosch was a 15th to 16th century northern European painter who depicted many subjects but is infamous for his extraordinarily macabre hellscapes. Bosch is an art history enigma, his work too impasto and earthly for the category of pious ‘religious medieval art’ but far too imaginative and surreal for the Northern Renaissance (I marvel as I consider how Bosch’s closest contemporaries would have been the likes of Albrecht Durer and Jan Van Eyck). It would be incredible to claim that even in 16th century Europe ‘Art was supposed to beautiful’ when stood before Bosch’s otherworldly altarpieces.


It is interesting that the modernist departure from the neo-classical norms of ‘beauty and truth’ comes as the dominance of our first world vision is brought into question by a growing awareness of the marginal and minority perspectives of what art is ‘supposed to be’. As the 20th century brought about an explosion of interdisciplinary activity, many art schools were born, each in their pursuit of what art was ‘supposed to be’. Many agreeing that beauty could no longer be a viable pursuit following the horrors of the Holocaust, with philosopher Theodor Adorno even stating “There is no poetry after Auschwitz”.

But let us take a quick look at the most radical departures from a traditional western aesthetic as found in Picasso. A seminal artist, Picasso has helped shape our current world of art; his influence cannot be overstated. Between the years of 1906 and 1909 the Spanish artist deliberately engaged in created art inspired by African art forms that had found their way to Europe. His interest became known as his African Period and was ignited when fellow artist Matisse presented to him a mask of the Dan people, Picasso later describing the event as ‘pivotal’ in his evolution as an artist.

Though these tribal works had became known through colonial exploitation and the indigenous significance of the art was not fully understood, early modern art was marked by the stylistic influences of the African craftsmen and culture. It was becoming widely acknowledged that the traditional formulas of ‘beauty’ in western art were failing to sufficiently depict the world in which the 20th century artists found themselves. Picasso’s 1907 oil painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resulted from many studies of African composition and mask-work and has become a poster image of the school of Primitivism, an art movement that is marked by its borrowing and appropriating of pre-colonial folk and aboriginal motifs.


I will not pretend that the 20th century brought about a golden era of respect and appreciation for pre-colonial people and culture, but something in western art did shift. ‘Beauty’, which was never the sole qualification of Western art (as we have seen), was toppled. Not by gender politics, macabre fantasies, or even the birth of photography but by a wider perspective that encouraged study of historical and contemporary orders and movements outside of the dominant European mind.

Though we may ‘remember when art was supposed to be about beauty’ from our armchairs, the fathers of contemporary art were the ones who questioned this assumption and looked beyond Titian and Michelangelo to ‘remember when art was supposed to be about’ a number of things: totemic order, the spirit world, and eternity being a few examples. To imagine that there was a uniform past era of beautiful art that has been usurped by today’s political art is naïve for it fails to recognize heritages outside of our own, many of which then contributed to the change in what ‘art is supposed to be about’.

(For the previous post in our ‘Beauty and Art’ series, simply click here. For the next one, try here)



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How To Respond Creatively To A Year As Unsettling As 2016?

I’m not sure many people will miss 2016. It’s been bizarre and consistently troubling and I’m sure the phrase ‘annus miserabilis’ may well be dusted off a few times in end of the year reviews. But how do we respond to such a year? Luke Sewell has found a somewhat more constructive approach than plastering social media with gifs of Donald Trump ‘dancing like a dork’ or earnest armchair rants. I’ll let him explain.

On January 10th 2016, David Bowie passed away. As someone who had profoundly enjoyed his music since childhood, I was emotional.

Little over 10 months on, if you check in with the global echo-chamber of social media, you can be quite easily convinced that Bowie was single-handedly holding the space time continuum together. People are going nuts about how apocalyptic 2016 has been so far.

I have to admit that halfway through the year, I got rather caught up in this. Laid low by the appalling level of public dialogue surrounding Brexit, made miserable by the monotonous dehumanisation of African-Americans across the Atlantic and then thoroughly stunned by the death of Muhammad Ali a week after I finished reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight, I could have been convinced that 2016 was the worst year on record. And the US election was 5 months away.

It was at this point that I started doing some research. I studied History at school and Ancient History at University, so I was aware that tumultuous periods of change have happened before. I was also frustrated (and in all honesty Harambe was responsible for this) by the level of outrage and emotion at the deaths of celebrities and animals when terrible things happen to humans every day on other parts of the globe.

In July, quite by chance, I began reading into the Congo Crisis, which took place after the Congo won its independence from Belgium in 1960. It is a long, painful and fascinating story which cannot be done justice here. But parts of the story reminded me of a Malcom X speech I had read the previous summer. Indeed, Malcolm had directly referenced the crisis.

I realised that this whole crisis would have intersected a fundamentally vital time in the movement for Black Civil Rights in the States. And that this must have overlapped with the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam. And the start of Beatlemania. And the establishment of the African Union.

And suddenly, a 12-month period in the early ‘60s began to bear some resemblance to ‘2016: The Dumpster Fire Of A Year Without Precedent™’. People had just forgotten.

So at the start of August, I began putting together a plan to re-tell these stories. It was in part aimed at showing that periods of apparent chaos and destruction have happened before, but in many instances they bore good things. This wasn’t an effort to diminish wrongs that have happened in 2016 or any other time period. I simply wished to tell stories that had been forgotten, or stories which are remembered out of context.

In the same way that people mourn a gorilla but forget garment workers today, we are prone to remembering iconic pieces of history but forgetting their context. Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech is remembered as a triumphant moment in the Civil Rights Movement, as if President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into being before the applause had even died away.

In reality, less than a month after the speech, four little girls were killed in a terrorist attack by white Klansmen on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I imagine that at the time, the situation would have seemed hopeless and Dr. King’s speech redundant.

And that’s important to remember when we feel despair today.

I’m also taking a course in Museum Practice at the moment. I am passionate about underrepresented or forgotten storylines. Akala touched on this in a video on ‘British Values’ this year, pointing out that some of the narratives most essential to our nation’s history are often the most easily forgotten.

I love a good story; the quirkier the better. Underneath all the fear, change, violence and chaos, you will always find these where you least expect them. In my life this year I have profoundly enjoyed some alternative narratives; the breaking of a 108-year-old goat-curse, Ava DuVernay’s 13th and an 8-year-old neighbour who cycled 12 miles to help others halfway around the world.

Orbital, which will go live on December 1 this year, is a blog that will sometimes look like a museum exhibit, or a newspaper article, or a non fiction storybook. It will cover one year of history over the same relative time period, finishing in November of next year. I hope it will be interesting, enlightening and fun, and I hope you will visit it as we move from 2016 into whatever stories 2017 holds.

The blog goes live on 1st December at:  and you can keep updated through twitter or facebook

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When Christian Art is Pagan (And Pagan Art Becomes Christian)

We as the Western Church have our own brand of art. It is relatively safe, clean, and historical. Though often kitsch and sentimental, it draws from the giants of western art history like Giotto, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. A brief survey of art history according to any well-known publisher reveals Biblical scenes and gospel illustrations aplenty.

With this established history behind us it is tempting for both the Christian artist and art-viewer to refrain from engaging with creative culture beyond our little world. Anything outside of the church’s output can be considered ‘worldly’ and ought to be avoided: all the more so if it contains themes or motifs that are distinctively ‘non-church’.

As an example, for many Christian communities Harry Potter is an absolute no-go. Despite the narrative following the chosen one who overthrows the illegitimate rule of the dark Lord, Christians will often complain that there is too much ‘darkness’ in the series. All that realistic talk of magic and ritual is too close to the reality referred to (ED: I wonder whether the same thinking is behind some Christians’ negative reaction to Doctor Strange).

In this post I want to look briefly at the origins of some of the Church’s ‘safe’ art motifs. As we’ll see, ‘Christian art’ is not quite as ‘Christian’ as we often think and this raises some important questions for Christians making art today.

The early church and the artists who laid the foundations for our brand of Christian art were an eclectic bunch of folk whose unity was found in their faith alone. The first artists in the church found themselves in a cultural Babylon. Naturally, styles and attitudes towards art varied greatly, and with no uniform Jewish art source to draw inspiration from, ‘Christian art’ drew heavily from pagan influence.

Though today we as Christians can prefer work that is sanctified by our particular publishing houses or church record labels, the first Christians had no ‘clean’ art before them. All surrounding and indigenous artistic culture was ‘pagan’: it didn’t represent the monotheism they had inherited from Judaism, and yet as the church began to meet in a increasingly pictorial world, murals and icons soon emerged in their communal places.

The early artists didn’t shy away from the pagan art around them but selectively chose elements from the Roman and Greek world to appropriate into their own in order to effectively communicate the new truths of the Gospel through the old systems. I imagine that the norms of the art world were the letters with which the early artists began to write new words.

Many of our current ‘Christian’ motifs actually originate from this early cross-cultural borrowing. The halos we expect to see enshrining the heads of Christ and the saints seem to have been created in ancient Egyptian times to denote Ra as the sun god and found their way into the Middle East through depictions of the Roman sun god Apollo (there is no mention of haloes in the Bible).

The Egyptian god, Ra (with solar disc)

Another interesting appropriation by the early Christians is the Good shepherd motif. Though we can affirm with certainty that Jesus would have been an almost middle aged bearded Jewish man at the time of his ministry, the earliest ‘good shepherd’ images saw a clean-shaven Yeshua in Roman clothing carrying a sheep over his shoulders (even equipped with pan-pipes on occasion). The now certified-Christian image borrows heavily from the legend of Orpheus and possibly the Moscophorus Calf-bearer image, but within its own system of meaning, it referenced the young King David from whom the Christ King descended.

The sarcophagus of Cyriacus, detail of the good shepherd

As the early Christians looked at their surrounding culture they didn’t just see a debauched world in need of salvation but a whole realm of images that could be used to better communicate their message to all nations. It can be argued and has been argued that Roman and Greek art forms were heavily borrowed under times of persecution so that the early Christian congregations would not be betrayed by their catacomb arts. However, even after Constantine’s conversion, pagan motifs were being assimilated into the church’s oeuvre: for example, winged angels only appear in Christian imagery after 313AD.

But the likenesses didn’t just stop at the visual. The early artists were also theologians who found similarities in the Christian, Jewish, and Pagan stories. In Greek mythology Endymion was a youth who perpetually slept under the protective love of the goddess Selene. Depictions of Endymion soon became the prototype for images of Jonah lying under God’s protective gourd: this then evolved into a reference to Christ’s descent into hell and his story of salvation for the Gentile world.

One of my favourite works of the early church is found on the floor of an early Basilica in Aquileia (Italy). The image sees the whole story of Jonah depicted as one scene, the prophet lay under the gourd while simultaneously being spewed out of a mythical creature’s mouth. The seascape is alive with realistic fish of all kinds, octopi, ducks, and even some fishing cherubs. The vast work would have required great forethought and planning, and though we may not understand all of what has been handed down to us, I can still marvel at this design as a work of brilliance. It is both fully Christian yet fully ‘pagan’ (not-Christian in our understanding of historic Church design).


You may now be wondering where I am going with this. It is not my intention to discredit the early church artists, but quite the opposite. I believe that the versatility of the craftsmen and their openness to the neighboring world helped them envision a universe where all people could find the Christ in all things. It is not universalism or heresy to see the type of Christ in creation and humanity’s interpretations of it.

In fact, C. S. Lewis argues that this is exactly the type of world we should expect to find, writing,

“We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christ’s’- they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.”

Lewis argues that the myths of pagan cultures (and we could add the stories of superheroes and villains of our times) could have acted as a

“preparatio evangelica, a divine hinting in poetic and ritual form at the same central truth which was later focused on and (so to speak) historicized in the Incarnation” (from essays Myth Became Fact and Religion without Dogma).

My questions are:

Is there a place to borrow the contemporary ‘pagan’ images found in the arts in order to more effectively communicate what we have received?

If so, how can we as Christians appropriate from the world around us in order to create words that rightly convey the mystery of the Christ?

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A Tale of Two Crucifixes

For as long as I can remember I have always been a bit ‘picky’ with art. I do not claim to have great aesthetic tastes (my bedroom resembles a charity shop more than a peaceful sleeping space), but as I grew up I found myself strongly attracted to certain artistic styles and equally repelled by others.

This disposition and lack of exposure to much of the world of art led me to see all ‘Christian art’ as tacky and kitsch. Paintings of baby Jesus and his porcelain Mother didn’t register with my experience. I preferred the grittier sounds offered to me by Limp Bizkit and the visual world of Mark Eckō’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure (2006) on PS2.

As I became a Christian aged 15, there was no real convergence between my love for art and my newfound passion for Christ for quite some time. I trawled through my school’s art books for something ‘interesting’ as my GCSE’s drew to an end, and there I found Mathis Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-16). Looking at his crucifixion I was shook by the rawness of this image, appearing so ancient and yet, contemporary.


The altarpiece originally created for St. Anthony’s Monastery (an hospital specializing in skin treatment) depicts Jesus gaunt and plagued, agonizingly stretched across the bent crossbeam. An interesting historic detail is that the Messiah’s blighted flesh has been painted to register with the patients suffering from the plague. This is our Christ, like you and I, suffering as we do.

Mary is no longer a porcelain doll, but a haggard old lady, almost fainting into the arms of the distressed disciple at the sight of her brutalized son. The world has fallen apart and the terrors of human injustice have won. Our God has been slain and we are witness to the dark reign of blind and pitiless cruelty.

Soaking this up from the glossy pages of history, this picture appeared far more divine to me than Titian’s Noli me tangere (1510-15) that sees a resurrected Christ evading the earth-bound pleas of Mary from Magdala. Grünewald had painted a Christ that I could register with and one that met my expectations and my existential experience.

From this point I began to have a growing interest in German expressionism. The next crucifix I will focus on is Otto Dix’s War Triptych (1929-32). Painted to show the true horrors of war, the work lost Dix his respected position as a professor at Dresden’ Art Academy. Dix’s exhibiting of this Grünewaldian passion was a stark rejection of the absurd heroism that had begun to glamorise trench warfare.


We can see the similarities between the triptychs immediately. In the central piece, John the baptizer’s hand still points to the suffering servant while the remains of his body is impaled on the beams of a shelled building. The Christ-figure is slumped upside down, his dismembered head crowned with barbed wire, a viridescent hand paralyzed in mid-air, and his skin dashed with the contemporary plague of gun spray.

Dix doesn’t show us a world in which we see Christ simply struck with our infirmities but one in which we bombarded the image of God in the likeness of man into nothingness. Certainly, more can be said about the details of the two paintings, and I invite the reader to pick them out and comment on them.

When looking upon Dix’s crucifix for the modern man, I knew that this work meant far more than I could articulate. Though many argue that War Triptych is a godless blasphemy to the image of Christ in a post-Christian world, I cannot but see a deeper truth in Dix’s horror. If the German expressionist is guilty of besmirching the image of Christ, how much more are we guilty of that same charge? It is not a blasphemy to dare to paint Christ in this desolate world, but a blasphemy that we have created this desolate world, and by extension, painted Christ into it.

Otto Dix’s triptych comforted my tormented mind in the same ways Fra Angelico’s resolute The Mocking of Christ (1441-3) may have done to many a contemplative saint. But in my home where our hymns were more Nothing Else Matters (Metallica, 1991) than Nothing but the Blood of Jesus (Robert Lowry, 1876) these two German crucifixes spoke to me about a Christ who had truly descended into my world.

It registered. It is, of course, not the complete picture but it was a picture that I could start from. Which artists, movements, or media first caught your attention and imagination? Do you still revisit these works, or have they lost their magic?

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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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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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Suffering and Healing in Arie A. Galles’ Fourteen Stations

Arie A. Galles’ (1944-) Fourteen Stations drawings take a radical departure from the customary representations of Christ’s Passion stations. Traditionally, viewers meditate upon a series of works that trace Christ’s physical and mental agony from condemnation through to resurrection. I would like this post to open a dialogue into how unorthodox approaches to the Passion can deepen our understanding of people, place, suffering and healing.

Station 7 – Dachau” 1999 47”1/2” X 75” Charcoal and Conte on Arches

Galles’ painstakingly mimicked aerial photographs of Nazi concentration camps based on Luftwaffe and Allied reconnaissance film. The meticulous drawings reproduce the mechanical photographs in incredible detail; the stations that were to be the final stations of millions of transported prisoners. There are four theological themes in this work I would like to contemplate.

Firstly is the theme of Kaddish; the Jewish burial prayer exalting God and yearning for the establishment of his Kingdom which is embedded in Hebrew and Aramaic through the series. Galles himself confesses, “The most sincere and honest way I know how to pray is through my work, So many people died in these camps, and there’s no one to say Kaddish for them.” In this we find a paradox; how can these depictions of the some of the cruelest and most heinous places in history come together to glorify the seemingly all-too-quiet God? The burial prayer reads, “May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life upon us and upon all Israel”. The charcoal sketches proclaim a sense of immovable hope in death; quite characteristic of the historical Jewish faith, and the hope in the cross; possibly an aesthetic theodicy?

The most similar Biblical source to this enacted/embodied Kaddish would be book of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah. The dirges and final psalm in the book are exemplars testifying to the marriage of craft and passion; of spontaneity and preparation. In both the Fourteen Stations and Lamentations, the laborious process involved in the works’ creation only intensifies the emotional turmoil portrayed. The artist-mourner writes, that the project “has been the most intense endeavor I have ever undertaken”.

Identification is also big theme in this work. It is most notable that some of the artist’s relatives died in Belzec, one of the camps drawn. The artist identifies the suffering and attempted annihilation of the Jewish people of last century with the crucifixion of Christ almost two thousand years ago. Is this to be read as a theological or simply art-historical theme?

The suffering of Jewish people today is therefore not isolated from the Jewish and Christian biblical accounts, and subsequently our minds are drawn to the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations, and the similar atrocities the people have survived. The ground of Jerusalem on which Christ (and many other patriarchs) suffered, the lost homeland, is somehow identified with these horrific places of utter desolation.

Finally, it is interesting that Galles spoke of a particular feeling of objectivity. Galles says he experienced the feeling of being “strapped to the belly of a bomber, looking down.” The aerial, God’s-eye view portrays an apparent scientific objectivity through which the viewer can leave with a haunting feeling of corporate responsibility. The atrocities are evident, and the passion is factual. The height and dislocation of both the photographic method and the birds-eye geographic view stand in tension with the intensely intimate reality of both the creative method and the on-the-ground systematic massacre.

Galles’ alternative stations come together in the creation of a distinct Passion narrative, one that prays, laments, identifies, and objectively condemns an irrefutable yet unthinkable period of recent history.