Viewing artwork in situ

Theme & Purpose

The 2016 Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar for College Teachers looks first at a period of European cultural history when religious and civic communities of every sort engaged the arts to give shape and purpose to the activities that embodied their identity and mission. Then, with this pre-modern consensus as a foil, we will probe the modern conditions that have typically discouraged interaction among faculty in studio art, art history, theology, and Christian ministries in Christian liberal arts universities. Finally, we will brainstorm how art and Christian ministries departments might better cooperate and collaborate in equipping their students to integrate the arts and service to church and society in their vocations.

Renaissance Connections

During the period of Italian cultural history (roughly 1250 to 1550) that provides the historical ground of the seminar, works of art were almost always commissioned and designed for the use of a particular community in a particular place. The artwork always did its work in situ, assisting that community in the performance of those actions that defined its work and identity. To ensure the relevance and adequacy of artworks to their purpose and setting, the production of art typically involved collaboration among what we might call the four parties of art: the artist and his workshop, a commissioning and paying patron, advisors who articulated the thematic matter to be given visual embodiment by the artist, and representation from the community for which the artwork was made.

Communities were involved in making the art because they were the people served by the art. Monastic communities ate their suppers in front of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, frescoed on the end-wall of the refectory by artists whose skill in perspective merged actual with fictive space. Town councils, such as the committee of Nine in Siena, debated and decided policy under the frescoed gaze of images of the sources and effects of good and bad government, providing a constant reminder to the councilmen of their duty to seek the common good. People received the Eucharist before altarpieces that clarified precise aspects of the Real Presence of Christ to be embodied in the lives of the faithful as in His mother and in the saints of the past. Hospitals, orphanages, ducal palaces, confraternity clubhouses, sacristies where the clergy vested for the Mass, baptisteries and bell towers: no zone of religious and civic life was alien from the desire to decorate with imagery able to instruct, to prompt memory, to inspire (the three purposes of art repeated over many centuries in defenses of art). The sophistication with which complex topics in theology, ethics, philosophy and politics were given visual elaboration is the product of expecting artists to work with scholarly advisors – making connections across the academic disciplines, as we might say. (Luca Signorelli’s contract to fresco a chapel in the Orvieto cathedral with scenes from the End Times and the Last Judgment required him to work closely with the theology faculty at the local Dominican monastery – where Thomas Aquinas himself once taught.)

The briefer history belongs to the Romantic-modernist paradigm for art-making with its privileging of the Artist as counter-cultural figure, unconstrained by bourgeois conventions, free to make what he wants in the privacy of his own studio. The focus on the artist and the jettisoning of the relevance of the other three parties served the art-for-art’s-sake movement with its desire to liberate art-making and art-viewing from all utilitarian purpose. The display of art shifted from places used by communities to gallery settings that displaced art from external influences, to be viewed with an aesthetically-disposed eye that excised the relevance of references to anything outside the frame.

Modern Disconnects

One might speak of the several separations – divorces – that came as effects of the Modern framing of art. Artists became admired for their creativity and originality (their breaking from tradition) but were distanced from community (whose identity is inevitably framed by tradition). Definitions of Fine art typically distinguished it from craft or functional art. And, in the arena of education, the technical training of artists in studio courses became dissociated from the academic study of art history.

These separations—the legacy of Romanticism—still mark how Christian liberal arts institutions deal with the visual arts. They infiltrate the organizational structures, pedagogical methods, and vocational goals by which we train students in the arts.

Curriculum and departmental organization (and hiring practices) often separate studio art from art history. And in studio art programs themselves, lines are drawn between Fine art study that prepares students for the gallery system, and applied art curricula in graphic design and illustration and other marketable skills. And often none of these three zones of visual arts training are given linkages with colleges’ curricula in church history and theological studies and other areas of Christian ministries.

In the view that informs this Summer Seminar for College Teachers, these degrees of separation can interfere with the very kind of formation for vocation that most of our church-related colleges seek to provide—in this case, to prepare young artists of Christian faith for vocations in a visually-oriented society, and to equip young people seeking vocations within the church for versatile and sophisticated use of the arts in the various areas of Christian life.

We can point to several cultural and social arenas in which the usefulness of art is again being recognized and practiced, aided by the waning of Modernism.

The most obvious of these is the powerful role of visual design in our strongly-commercialized contemporary society – to which art departments in Christian liberal arts colleges have had to respond in one way or another. Tech-savvy graduates with practical degrees in graphic design, illustration, and digital media, can expect to find jobs in advertising, in branding, in product design and web-design, and so forth. Their peers who dream of succeeding as independent studio artists working the gallery system face an up-hill battle.

Art Therapy is another growing area where art is precisely useful, a vocation with special attraction in the world of church-related institutions because of the natural orientation towards the healing professions among young Christian believers. Community Art represents another emerging area of public practice, recognized for its therapeutic effect (as we might say) at the community level in restoring at-risk neighborhoods and inspiring solidarity, civic pride, and individual responsibility.

Art departments cannot ignore these new zones for the work of art as they develop and modify their curricula. But all these new dimensions of education in the arts require an interdisciplinary eye precisely because they involve connections with other sectors of the academy: art and business, art and psychology, art and sociology and related programs in urban renewal and sustainable development. When art is actually useful in helping people do their work, then the artist has to gain real understanding and knowledge about that arena of work.

Hence it is peculiar – one might say shameful – that the least developed of these cross-disciplinary conversations in our church-related institutions is often that between faculty in art departments and their colleagues in theological studies, church history, and Christian ministries.

Purposes & Outcomes

The first purpose of the Seminar will be to reconnect teachers in the four areas of Christian ministries, theology, studio art, and art history, with a period in Christian-cultural history when the visual arts were valued as intrinsic instruments of practicing faith.

The benefit of revisiting an earlier period of European culture is that it can loosen the grip that the modernist paradigm has on how Christian educators think about the role of art in the community, and help Seminar participants realize that the various divorces are not inevitable.

The second purpose is to foster interdisciplinary exchange among professors whose paths too seldom cross on campus; to provoke new collaborative thinking about the work of art in Christian ministry, and the work of theology in art; and to brainstorm new practices in pedagogy that prepare students in both sectors of the curriculum for lives both in the church and from the church to society.

The following sorts of long-term outcomes will be the true measure of the Seminar’s value:

  • changes in the curricula of Art departments and Theology/Christian Ministries departments that reflect interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty and more arts-rich community involvement among students and graduates,
  • development of new courses or internships or practica that address the church-and-community based work of the arts,
  • involvement of Seminar participants and their colleagues in workshops and presentations at conferences,
  • substantive essays published in both guild and popular journals,
  • projects and collaborations beyond the church-related academy to the churches related to the academy, such as commissions and church and civic activities that bring together artists with scholars and patrons and communities who use the art,
  • involvement in sophisticated use of the visual arts in the worship, liturgy, spiritual formation program, devotional life, and evangelism and catechism work of a church or Christian community.