Did you notice the trees at the royal wedding this month? Lots of people did. As Jonathan Jones puts it, “They opened our eyes to the grandeur of a medieval building that might otherwise have struck television viewers as just a dark, lofty old bulwark of church and state.”
Jones points out that the idea of adding the trees to the setting of the abbey is typical of resurgence of religious art in England. It’s not the sort of art you tend to imagine though. It’s trees in the abbey. It’s high tech plasma screen displays at St. Paul’s. It’s modern expressionistic sculpture.
There’s a problem though. Artists like Bill Viola (who’s behind the plasma screens) aren’t all that common.
“Viola is the high priest, as it were, of the new religious art. In 1996, he created The Messenger for Durham Cathedral; it went on to tour other religious venues in Britain. He does not need to adapt his work to fit into holy settings. His films are always religious, using simple images such as water, candles and the human figure to portray spiritual crises and profound moments poised between life and death. He is one of the best artists of our time.
But how many Bill Violas are there? Perhaps it is troubling that, in searching for a great new work of religious art, St Paul’s Cathedral has commissioned the same man who drew attention to the power of new religious art with his Durham commission 15 years ago. Don’t get me wrong – they are right to do so. But perhaps the move also reflects a recognition that modern religious artists are not exactly two a penny, and that putting just any piece of contemporary art in a cathedral is no guarantee of a powerful aesthetic or spiritual experience. Cathedrals are sublime works of art in their own right, and it takes an incisive and at the same time respectful piece to genuinely add to their glories.”
How is this playing out in the states? Do we have enough artists with the right sort of touch in our cathedrals and great spaces? Do we have enough vision on the part of the leadership of those communities to support the artists we have?