Tue 26 Apr, 2016

SERIES: Dissent and Protest

Part 1: A Response to ‘Artist & Empire’

Why it's important for Christian artists to express dissent in art

Luke Sewell / #dissent, #empire, #Tate

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

One-time archaeologist interested in vegetables, history, photography and decolonising everything.

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More from 'Dissent and Protest' Series

Part 3: The Responsibility to Dissent

Dissent is more popular than ever, and the church needs to lead it

Luke Sewell

Part 2: Me Against ‘The World’

Civil disobedience and dissent are not necessarily the same thing

Luke Sewell