A Ruskinian conversation: conference report

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Visual Theology‘s second two-day conference took place this month at Marlborough College, and in what follows I draw on the report penned by Madeleine Emerald Thiele. Madeleine and I have envisaged new places where art and theology might intersect, very much in a plane of contemporary relevance and interest. I was delighted that this weekend offered new ways to bring John Ruskin into conversation with worship, art history, and contemporary art practice. His words continue to inspire, and I’m prompted again to draw on what feels like a wisdom tradition of sorts that he started – one for modernism and arts in particular.

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni’ was part of the international John Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. The event was held in Marlborough College’s Chapel, overlooked by a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the artist, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and beneath an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. Amidst a tightly choreographed programme of 15 papers (from open submission and by select invitation), there were 2 keynotes, 1 ‘special conversation’, 1 installation of video art, 1 church service, 1 exhibition, and 1 musical concert. 

Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, thus reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, and our carefully considered shaping and design of the event. The voices who contributed to our conversations represented leading academics in Art History, Literature, and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican tradition, curators, and an award-winning artist. Our speakers were international, with five being based Stateside, and the rest either Europe or UK based. 

The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here) visions of church reflected in Edward Burne-Jones, the visual theology of angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in colour and sound, the sacred in social contexts for William Morris or Mary Watts, Ruskin’s reception on the continent, and theological reflection on icongraphies of leaves and dirt. We were delighted also to hear from Professor George P. Landow and Professor Colin Cruise as keynote presenters, and through a special conversation between curator Christopher Newall and the Bishop of Salisbury: all four brought questions about aesthetics to bear on responses of faith.

Day Two saw an intimate reimagining of the original 1886 Service of Dedication, with a video installation by Reverend Mark Dean. Visual Theology had commissioned Dean, and we were delighted with his impressive angelic themed visual and musical pieces which were in response to the opening theme of the original service: ‘This is a dreadful place’, and the Stanhope cycle. Dean had brought ideas about both worship and the practising or making of art into close contact with liturgical expression, in this case through a sensitive reflection of the building’s dedication and subsequent history.

Hosted here at Marlborough College, with a conference dinner at the town’s well-known Polly Tea Rooms, and including a private view of the Richard Sheridan exhibition for our delegates, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. Our delegates had the opportunity to access a display of Marlborough College’s rare books with Dr. Simon McKeown. These included architectural books on Pugin, Millais etchings, and most significantly, a copy of William Morris’ Aeneid translation, signed by Morris himself and given as a gift to Burne-Jones’ son, Philip. We also invited three talented young musicians from Wiltshire, who played in the Chapel for our delegates prior to the Sheridan exhibition visit. Significantly for us, the holistic reach of the event was felt further afield, through well-received engagement online with our live Twitter feed #VTRuskin. Increasingly these expanding spheres of engagement are reflective of our hope that Visual Theology finds footing and connections with communities beyond church and academia.

We had a total of just over 50 people register across the event, with a heavier mix of academics than clergy or artists than we have had previously. We had a slightly greater number of women than men (both presenting and attending), but we achieved a broad range of ages from students to those in retirement. We continue to believe this is vital to both our own events, and to academia generally. We remain grateful to Marlborough College for underwriting some of the event: without their financial support we would not have been able to achieve what we did, nor allow our delegates to present in such an impressive and special venue.

We feel two aspects of the conference – the quality of the research in the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the Chapel setting – were key in making this a successful event. Inevitably, as with any event, there were some difficulties – such as a power cut in the town and some audio issues. However, included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have now received were a number of comments that welcomed our sense of ambition, our shaping of a new style of academic event, our interdisciplinary conversations, and our overall achievement without institutional backing. We have received much generosity post the event both from those that attended and also those who were unable to. This event has been a complex one to organise, and we are grateful for such feedback and encouragement. 

Pastiche Mass with Mark Dean

Credo, film by Mark Dean, 2008/16

On a Thursday in Lent, I found myself at Chelsea College of Art, in their Banqueting Hall, for an evening performance/service by Mark Dean, Pastiche Mass. Supported in his position as Chaplain at the College, Mark presided over a service that included the invitation to receive communion, as well as the traditionally sung elements such as the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Sanctus’. In each case instead of communal singing at these points, Mark played 5 videos with sound whose references to tradition were reflected in some way through the choice of appropriated and manipulated footage – of music performances and their dissected visualisations. Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, The Human League, The Revolutionaries, and the singer Ade Bamgboye (seen above) were all part of the liturgical mash-up. As such, Dean was leading a service with a nod to the mixed-repertoire concert performance of the mass, as much as to its congregational setting in worship.

It’s a moot point as to what kind of balancing act was achieved with this pastiche. In print, the form of the order of service gave structure and rhythm to the event: in front of me I had a sheet of paper taking me through what was happening, coordinating call and response within the familiar enough format of the Church of England’s Common Worship for this service (even down to the colour coding and typeface), interjected with images of stills at the relevant moments. I rather like the illumination here, the idea of a breakaway flash of revelation that is yet included in the programme. Dean has referred to the ‘pre-existing form as a discipline’, within which other ties to religious expectation fall away, such that author-controlled or viewer-controlled inferences are disbanded through something received as a given. The best liturgy has that liberating effect, the knowing of its pattern by rote and the repeating of its cyclic themes through the church calendar becomes a trigger for a bigger expanding experience, connected to the consecration of our human experience of time. I’ve no doubt that Dean’s ideas for his work grew from this feeling for liturgical performance, partly because it is itself pastiche – creative reshaping and returning to sources that is far more than interpretative commentary. Partly too of course because he is a priest by training.

In fact the wealth of the Christian tradition within which Dean practices derives from re-interpretation understood via imagination as much as via intellect. The Bible’s New Testament reimagines the Old in various ways, in Jesus as prophet, a new Adam, a light to the Gentiles, etc. Metaphor and imagery ricochet off the pages, and its pastiche language becomes something used to bring ‘affective sense’ to the fore – a deepening of human knowing through a kind of intuitive connecting (cf. Richard Dyer, Pastiche, 2007; and Michelle Fletcher, Reading Revelation as Pastiche, 2017). Readings during the service could have been part of this homage to image-text spiritual connection, but were instead, as read by invited others, an interruption of slightly awkward relational ‘live action’ to the otherwise more scripted performance. In fact, the delicate suggestiveness of word play, image, and sonic concept as a whole was undermined by moments of jarring reality happening outside the linguistic frame (or ‘discipline’): adjustments of the microphone, Dean standing in the projector’s light, apologetic accompaniment to the starting and stopping of the films, the moving across/between readers. I also felt the incongruity of the Banqueting Hall rather strongly, to something I had come to as a service first, performance second. To others I spoke to who had come with performance in mind first, it was the service element that was incongruous, a perpetuation of odd ritual to be viewed askance in the name of art.

Unusually perhaps, this inside/outside discomfit was telling of genuine middle ground. An out-of-place awkwardness in a church building, while felt by many today who find themselves there for a baptism or wedding, is usually set against the ‘known’ ground of the congregational faithful. Similarly, the out-of-place awkwardness of religion in a gallery is increasingly set against the ‘known’ ground of art world intellectual engagement. A no-man’s land lies between – except perhaps for what Dean has stumbled upon in his church-supported context for art and art-supported context for church (Dean was engaged by the Arts Chaplaincy Project and Art+Christianity). Where I think he succeeds in exploring this space is in the film Credo, the only one incorporating Dean’s own direction in its making. Here, Bamgboye sings the apostolic creed, singly at first, then at interval with himself a second and third time. The setting is, to all appearances, a church, and the performance is in the physical place of congregation: a doubling and tripling of sound from a reality in which we are implicit. This surely seems the closest to liturgical resonance, to something demanding affective response, in Dean’s piece as a whole.

A Financial Picture of Self-employment

The recently published report (Dec 2018) from the Arts Council, Livelihoods of Visual Artists: 2016 Data Report, found that 90% of visual artists in the UK don’t make enough money to live on. Across the 2,000 artists surveyed, the average income from art practice was £6,000. This is further skewed by a small number of higher income artists raising this representative average, where in fact two-thirds of artists earn less than £5,000 (see p.9 of the report).

I’m taking the opportunity to review and present my own self-employment practice in the interests of transparency here. I’ve worked part-time in art practice for nearly twenty years now, at first in an ad hoc way during and after graduating, then registering as self-employed in 2007. The bar chart above summarises my Shospace business for the 10-year period since then, with income and expenditure shown side-by-side for each year. It’s probably safe to say I’m reaching mid-career stage now, but one of the consistently hard issues to deal with is that my practice income is not remotely self-sustaining (the greyed-out income shows earnings from additional employment after tax: firstly in libraries, then as a grant during PhD studies, more on supplementary income below). Of the 10 years represented in my chart above, for 6 of them I declared a loss with regard to Shospace, since direct costs for making the work exceeded the income. Even in 2011, when I sold nearly every print and numerous catalogues from a solo exhibition of 25 works (making Bristol Through the Lens my most ‘successful’ exhibition), the costs of printing and gallery hire just overtook the sales.

In individual art-making, this is an emphatically different situation regarding the administration of one’s job – employment in other sectors rarely costs the worker this kind of expenditure. And further, it’s often a vicious circle: you need money to make the work, and to get money you need to sell things you’ve made. Further still, according the to survey, mid-career female artists are the group facing the biggest expenses (p.31, below, with childcare unsurprisingly being a feature). In my case, despite the support of generous tax credits for childcare, and despite the low overheads caused by working from home in church-managed properties, it is the inflexibly-coupled linking of work and expense that has most specifically inhibited my business’s growth, which I’m sure is the story behind many unmade, unrealised, artist projects universally. Even where a full-time artist would probably show greater progression or expansion over 10 years, I don’t believe there is gradation or drop-off in this linking of income with expense – a friend of mine whose photographic career you would describe as ‘taking off’ says the achievements are illusory, because she’s spent more than she’s ever spent on prints, books, exhibitions etc. Unless your work reaches the world of the super-rich in the upper inflations of the art market, there is no stable business model here.

From Livelihoods of Visual Artists, published by Arts Council, 2018, p.31.

Now why am I highlighting this? I’m not getting the violins out, this isn’t a woe-is-me lament, nor a presumption of money growing on trees. I’ve been self-righteously sad and angry in turn with previous projects, and in trying to get that element out of the way, I’ve learnt that one’s perception of ‘earning’ has to reckon with a personal burying of entitlement. It’s a familiar enough life lesson that one has to learn to deal impersonally with rejection, or unrealised potential. But the modelling of artistic practice as a livelihood (if not necessarily a career, as we note the careful choice of the report’s title) does have to reckon with this mode of production (if not necessarily profit) and its viability. The pursuit of art practice is one choice amidst a wealth of choice in our Western educationally privileged society, and it is almost inevitable that we are schooled into comparative career assessments, charting what we do against what we can get out of it, often through the aspirational language of business development and the capitalist dream – but such assessments misrepresent the kind of delimited, grass-roots existence that such de-institutionalised practice is. Supporting structures for other livelihoods involving practice, such as medical practice, or agricultural practice, tend to offset the costs or the direct carrying of costs by the practitioner: there are centralised pay structures (such as the NHS), or governmentally-ratified policies and investments (such as farm tenancies and quotas) and such large-world structures contribute to (and legitimise) less direct mediation of and accounting for ‘craft’. But artistic practice is very much up against its small-world individual binding of cost-to-production, which while it assumes the same vocational circuitry as some of these other practicing professions, is far less equipped, mediated, or measured through societal or institutional organisation. Or even talked about in these terms.

So what are the options? The most obvious is seeking supplementary income, as recognised in the report (p.81ff, 7 out of 10 artists have other jobs, nearly half of these having 2 or 3), and in my own experience. The effect is often double-sided, however, the report acknowledging that time and energy spent elsewhere necessarily diminishes time and energy for art practice – I well relate to the feeling of living two lives with my earlier jobs in administration, or in council and university libraries. Over time this is a false economy, and the splitting of self can become detrimental to mental and physical health, though I don’t doubt that for some there is little choice in the need to earn. More recently for me, a change in the nature of my business, stepping sideways into research rather than practice, and finding thereby a contract for services (rather than raising money through sales of art work) has taken my income over the £5,000 mark for the first time. Coming from the church (specifically the Bishop Otter Trust), it’s not that far from an old-fashioned model of patronage, which would have been an option in earlier times of societal/institutional organisation for artists. It certainly reflects my inclination of wanting to find work in related forms, and in my case this is a move towards the top type of secondary-income job held by artists according to the report – that of lecturer/academic (closely followed by teacher, see p.84).

The troubling extended consequence of seeking income elsewhere is the likelihood of artistic practice diminishing and even ceasing. Indeed, stopping is another option; the report’s data depressingly suggests that of those considering stopping, mid-career women married-with-kids are pretty much at the top (p.66ff). Further, by art form, photographers experience lack of financial return as the greatest barrier to developing practice (p.106), despite being at the top of the list for total income (which includes non-art-practice income. At the top of the charts for average practice income alone are craft, sculpture, ceramics, illustration, and community projects, p.13). This wouldn’t be the first time I have considered stopping, and in fact I think I did once decide to leave it behind, only to find I couldn’t not do it – I couldn’t stop dreaming up and tinkering with visual ideas.

So I think I’ve accepted the impulse, but I’m seriously questioning the model, and in particular the viability of material production. It’s one thing to say I have a body of new work on the theme of motherhood ‘on the go’, it’s quite another to pursue its realisation in print or on the wall. The reality is that I need more than £20,000 to produce it, and that I’ve sought funding since 2014 on 3 separate occasions which has been unsuccessful, despite committed institutional support for its display and promotion. There is potential to crowdfund or patron it, or even to commercialise a lenticular process that I’m exploring with it, but even then its reach wouldn’t extend to income. It’s also possibly publishable as digital content, minimising production costs significantly, but again, income and impact would be correspondingly small – a reflection of the ‘shallow’ online market, with its fast and devaluing dissemination of digital visual culture. It doesn’t seem like a winning situation. In truth, the cold reality of costs here pushes me to scope and think and pray for a return on my effort in different ways: the waiting for a ‘right’ fit with an as-yet unimagined context for the work, expecting/seeking relationship out of it instead of money, shifting the value of productivity to something seasonal and organic (rather than black or red columns), and as a Christian choosing to trust God’s model for growth through kingdom and character rather than through economy and numbers. I don’t find it easy to accept, but then it’s a good reminder that we’re all ultimately works-in-progress aren’t we?

Steiner’s light

Floating III, Sheona Beaumont, 2010

I’m in endurance mode with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989). What pitted, articulate, ranging, poetic depth he brings to present-day understandings of the arts. At my sense of it, he says we need a reckoning with the undisputed ‘life of meaning in the text, in music, in art’ (p.50) because our world is doing away with having to face mystery, immediacy (even ‘the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death’, p.50) in what is a society in thrall to positivist accounting for the humanities or cheap journalistic thrill. We’d rather write about the arts, and screen their effects, than face their ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (p.10).

Everything about the journalistic-academic burgeoning of commentary and reflection and endless publications about the arts, the tsunami of talking, the preoccupation with inflated argument is ‘bustling pretence’ (p.48), ‘caring mediocrity’ (p.23), a ‘narcotic’ against interpretation as lived and felt (p.49), articulating ‘an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality’ and ‘novelty’ (p.26,27). When some interpretative mode-du-jour fails, ‘when the zero-point of trust and of felt meaning is reached’ it’s more a sign of general decay and overinflation in ‘the mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon’, not of reckoning with ‘real presence’ and the humane (p.49). Rather than shooting down such malaise (as Baudrillard would), Steiner asks ‘how can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’?’ (p.40), and proceeds to elaborate what is a declaration for hermeneutics as imaginative, transforming, event; hermeneutics as ‘defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension’ (p.7); hermeneutics as ‘a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows’ (p.9). Actual encounter with the arts precipitate this – for Steiner, especially music.

Amongst the hermeneutic approaches he discusses is the Jewish midrashic circling, retelling, and reimagining tradition towards Scripture. It deliberately brings the text into ‘palpable presentness’ (p.42), being ‘indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life’ (p.44). Not so the Christian (‘Catholic’) tradition, which works to extract fixity over and through the specific testimonies of Jesus and the disciples (so ‘dogma can be defined as hermeneutic punctuation, as the promulgation of semantic arrest’, p.44). It is these more legislative and systematic programmes of Christian theological interpretation which the humanities largely inherit today, combined with positivism and carried in the US by a wider non-canonical (‘democratic’), ahistorical ‘egalitarian ideal’ (p.32). But over and against each of these which might notionally stand for or accommodate theological-metaphysical interpretation, Steiner spends the bulk of the book (the 2nd of 3 chapters) elaborating on why modernism radically counters and annihilates such theological possibility.

Since the 1870s, Western consciousness has ‘moved house’ (p.94), effecting a fundamental break between word and world such that the ‘covenant of reference’ (p.96), or the ‘mystery of consonance’ (p.105) which supposes meaningfulness in representation/discourse is gone. Meaningfulness in language (or the linguistic, understood to describe all art) is, according to deconstructionism, a delusion, a ‘lazy dream’ (p.124) exhibiting ‘sclerotic remnants of religion, of metaphysics, of gross positivism’ (p.125). So the death of God, of the author, of intentionality, of logocentrism, etc. ‘Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, …and instinct with sadness. For the dancers know that the Ark is empty’ (p.122). It feels like a devastating indictment, like Steiner himself accepts nihilism, from which there is no recovery. And yet, because the project is about the living, ever-returning, responsibility-inducing experience in front of art (where we feel ‘the talismanic quickening of our being’ p.63,64), in the final instance Steiner says the reckoning with deconstruction is limited by its theory, its dependence on logic to refute logic.

The full, indisputable freight of deconstructionism is not to be denied or denounced as untrue (within its own postulates, it is true), but it stands apart from the fact of the creative effort, and the fact of interpretative encounter with art. Steiner says he has never met an artist who is a deconstructionist. So with the serious encounter with art, to which everyone can testify at a kind of universally experienced level, even if not articulated through the privileged educational setting of high art. Both describe the human ‘wager on transcendence’ (p.214), the looking to meaning expressed and received beyond or above the immanent, manifest plane of our world. Whether the meaning is there or not, whatever the ‘style of designation’ for the otherness of encounter (p.211, which Steiner himself posits as the reception of an unknown guest knocking at the door), whether it exhibits confirmation or challenge or disruption to our sense of knowing, we enter into it. And it needs theological language, however foolish or embarrassing that is felt to be, to describe it. Steiner stands by this, though ends finally, melancholically, with uncertainty in the face of cultural rejection of the transcendent (which he says is understandable politically, morally, and linguistically) – will art, he wonders, become an archaeology when ‘the verticalities of reference to ‘higher things’… drain from speech’? Will general sentiment follow, or will it ‘aspire to religious fundamentalism and kitsch ideologies’? (p.230) It’s a supremely timely question.

Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine

Sara Mark’s Lavant at The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester

Visual Theology Conference Report
19th-20th October 2018
The Bishop’s Palace, Chichester; The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester; in association with the Diocese of Chichester

Our two-day conference explored ‘Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850-Now)’. Together with Madeleine Emerald Thiele, we put on a programme of 17 papers from open submission, 2 keynotes, 1 roundtable, and 2 installations/performances of art work. Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, amongst whom were represented leading academics in Art History and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic traditions, and award-winning artists. The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here):

• The Visually Discursive Bible
• A Theology of Installation with Maciej Urbanek
• Contemporary Visual Theology in Performance and Participation (including an artist-in-residence programme at St James’ Weybridge, sound/dance performance at St Paul’s Cathedral, and the community engagement through Beyond in Brighton)
• Institutional and European Commissioning
• Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image (keynote 1, Professor John Harvey)
• Sacred Symbolism as Discursive Theology
• Inherited Visual Theologies and Cultural Cross-Currents
• Pre-Raphaelite Theologies and the Victorian Imagination
• Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Medieval Cathedrals (keynote 2, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine)

Hosted at the Bishop’s Palace, with a conference dinner at the Chapel of the Ascension (Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester), and including a tour of Chichester Cathedral’s artworks, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. This included the performance of Sara Mark’s piece ‘LAVANT’ with Compline after the conference dinner, the invitation to Prof Gill Clarke to talk about the Otter Collection in situ, the recognition of the Alight app for Chichester Cathedral, and the installation of my own work Scriptorium in the Bishop’s Chapel (which also hosted Sara’s shroud by the end of the conference). The visually rich, printed programme also served to highlight the range and multi-disciplinarity of the conference (available to buy here), as well as our significant online presence both through our website (www.visualtheology.org.uk) and on Twitter (@Visual_Theology).

We feel these two aspects of the conference – the strength of the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the settings – were key in contributing to an extremely successful event. Included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have had were a number of comments that convey the sense of grace and generosity felt by those attending. This has been truly humbling, and beyond what we expected. Also on this level, 5 local hosts put up some of our long-distance guests (including a very generous response from St Pancras, Chichester), which was deeply appreciated. We had a total of 70 people attending, with a fair mix of clergy, artists, and academics. Of these, 61 attended the first day, 45 the second day, with 37 attending the conference dinner. We also had an equal proportion of women/men (both presenting and attending), and a range of ages from students to those in retirement.

We remain extremely grateful to the Bishop Otter Trust for underwriting what has been an intellectually, spiritually, and socially engaged event. Visual Theology will go on to deepen and develop these relationships with future events, as a formal entity between myself and Madeleine. We have a vision for that which we felt blossoming at Chichester, for the generosity of collective conversations that can happen between church leaders, academic researchers, and artists. It is in no small part down to the original vision of Bishop Otter himself that we have felt able to take this step.