So, on the back of our church’s Big Story art project going live online, I’ve decided to share some lessons I’ve learnt from this and a few other church art projects. In the last post, I covered the importance of working out what you’re trying to achieve and also the thorny issue of how you actually engage the church without alienating the artists themselves. To finish off, one more thing:
Which work do you include?
Practically, here is the absolutely killer question and my suspicion is that it is this question that stops most church art projects ever getting started.
If you set your bar too high, you end up being seen as elitist, offending loads of people whose work you reject and driving a wedge further and further between the artists and the rest of the church. If you don’t set a bar, you end up with exhibitions or events that reinforce the idea that art is a waste of time. You’ll also alienate the actual artists who won’t want their work, the product of decades of blood, sweat, tears and often considerable skill, to be indistinguishable from someone who has just picked up a paintbrush because they were a bit bored!
As kind, inclusive, open hearted Christians, we usually err towards the second mistake and it may be one of the main reasons for the artistic and cultural malaise deep set into the culture of most of British Christianity. It may be a slight detour from the topic in hand, but take for example the practice that has become popular over the last few years of having public art in church services. Worship art that serves its purpose in a church meeting needs to fit several criteria to be effective, but quality is not necessarily one of them. Therefore if there are dancers, painters, rappers or poets performing from the stage in a certain church who are communicating with clarity, purity and prophetic insight but not meeting the basic requirements of their genre in terms of technical proficiency, those in the church who practise those art forms to a high standard may well be left feeling sidelined, misunderstood and neglected (even if the art is fulfilling its purpose of building up the rest of the congregation),
Therefore, it is important to have a benchmark of quality. I find this a really difficult balance to strike in a church art project and though I definitely don’t think we’ve cracked it, I think we’ve done okay. We try to find a way to exhibit all the work that is submitted, but try to make it clear that we value some work more than others. So, this can be done in how the work is presented (eg in an exhibition- the main pieces can get a large space, while other work can be grouped together) or which work is presented in which context (some images don’t go in the public exhibition but are included in some way at the carol service, some songs are included on a soundcloud stream but don’t make it on to the CD, some poems or stories make it on to a free online anthology but not into the printed version, etc). With that said, this has been harder to do with this project than with others, so I’ve just made sure that I’ve written on all write ups about the project that the project contains work from people at very different places on their creative journey.
Now, you may of course be more forthright, gentle and affable than me and can simply dish out rejections to people without massively offending them. However, if our churches are going to become communities that nurture developing artists as well as celebrate more accomplished individuals, we need to be really careful with this, and I’d recommend thinking this through as carefully as you can.
However much thought you put into this though at the end of the day sometimes you just have to roll with it. On occasion you approach someone and what they produce doesn’t quite fit what you had in mind- either in terms of quality or style. My principle is, if I asked you and you put the work in, I’m going to include your work (except of course if someone submits a picture of the devil with boobs or something like that). If I see people who are willing to give it a go and ask for help as they go along, whatever the final product, I feel like it has been a worthwhile exercise as they have grown through the project. If others have not really put any effort into their work, I will use it in the way I committed to, I just won’t ask them to contribute in the same way in the future.
The other thing that we’ve found very effective is to rope in friends outside of the church who can add to the value of the project. An artist of any merit will have work on all sorts of themes in their back catalogues and as far as exhibitions go, as long as the theme is not too specific, this will mean that they can really enhance what you’re doing. This is obviously particularly helpful if there are not that many people in your church producing artwork of a high quality, but even if your church is thriving in this regard, pulling in work from outside from artists that are one or two steps ahead will give them something to aspire to in the future.
So, how do I rate our Big Story project? I am annoyed that it took so long to make it public as it would have been more effective at engaging the church with the sermon series fresh in their mind (but then again, the Bible’s been around for a while now and hasn’t got overly dated, so we’ll probably be all right). As previously mentioned, I stumbled over the online format too. I’ve got it working (as long as you don’t mind waiting about 2 minutes for the page to load) but the theme had so many unexpected quirks that it took the fun out of it a bit (hence the delay). With hindsight, I should have delegated this to someone in the church who knew how to use online platforms like tumblr, wordpress or the like and could have worked with me on this.
Anyway, I’m sure that some of you guys are well ahead of us on this and I’d love to hear about stuff that’s worked for you in meaningfully engaging artists in your church communities. I’d be especially interested to hear which online exhibiting formats others have used and what worked. For the time being, have a look at our Big Story project and if you think it may help anyone that you know to find a way into the Bible, share it around.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.