The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[I first starting investigating the career of Walter Hussey some nine years ago. He has appeared in several of my articles so far, but the book I always intended has been put back. Now, though, a proposal for that book has been accepted is currently under consideration by a publisher. Here’s what it is about.]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life.  The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man.  Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

What good are the arts ?

I note an interesting debate on Radio 3′s Night Waves on the history of understandings of what the arts are capable of achieving; a debate that can’t entirely avoid the religious nature of that claim until at least the nineteenth century, and arguably beyond. Participants included John Carey, Edith Hall and Jude Kelly. It’s available on the iPlayer service.

Roger Scruton on beauty

I note some reviews of Roger Scruton’s recent On Beauty (OUP). Jonathan Ree reviews it in Prospect (March 2009), noting the tendency in Scruton’s work towards the jeremiad concerning contemporary culture, in which there is an implicit historical narrative of decline.

A review has also appeared in the Observer, and an extract in the Times, dealing with the ‘kitschification’ of religious art in particular. See also Scruton on the ‘flight from beauty’ in Axess

See also an earlier post on his Culture Counts

Andrew Motion on the Bible

Two recent things of note from Andrew Motion:

The first was a piece in the Guardian Education supplement, on the centrality of the Bible to understanding English literature. His comments, from a professed atheist, will set heads nodding among those who have tried to teach religious history, even in a university context.
It provoked a number of responses, including that of Andrew Brown, also in the Guardian.

The second thing was another Guardian piece, this time reflecting on the role of Poet Laureate, which Motion is about to relinquish after ten years.

Youth Culture in Modern Britain

I note Ian’s new review of David Fowler’s new study, published today in Reviews in History. Issues relating to the relationships between generations and the growing cultural prominence of youth are never far away when considering ‘pop’ church music, and this study provides valuable background.

See also another review, in the Times Higher. Fowler himself appeared on Radio 4′s Thinking Allowed programme in February.

Art, culture and the credit crunch

I note a recent spate of articles dwelling on what effects the credit crunch might have on the arts, particularly in connection with the recent BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. They are all interesting in their various ways for the views they take of the relation between art/culture and the economic ‘base’, as it were, as well as for their various takes on the virtuousness of thrift more generally. See:
(i) a Guardian review article by Colin Burrow, on the idea of indebtedness in literature from Milton to Martin Amis
(ii) George Walden in the TLS – After the credit crunch – the arts crunch ?.
(iii) A.S. Byatt on Little Dorrit, also in the Guardian.

The Language of Things

I note the appearance of a new study of design in the twentieth century by Deyan Sudjic, director ot the Design Museum. From the reviews, it looks to contain all sorts of interesting material on changing ideas of permanent value, design obsolescence and the contemporary love affair with shiny things; all of which issues have significant quasi-religious contexts to consider.
It is reviewed by Fiona MacCarthy in the Guardian and by Stephen Bayley in Building Design.

Post-1945 war memorials

I’m bound to draw attention here to my own article on the Church of England and war memorials after 1945, which is now available online (to subscribing libraries), ahead of print publication in the Forum for Modern Language Studies. I’ve tried to explore the debates that took place between planners, artists, architects and clergy between 1940 and 1947, and the differing emphases on beauty and utility. Despite the relatively small number of new memorials that were actually built, there seems to have been a much livelier debate than was often supposed; the question was not at all settled in favour of new village halls or social clubs, and against new lumps of ‘useless’ carved stone. It also in passing suggests that the war had not been a straight-forwardly ‘secularising’ influence on elite discourse.

The next stage in the enquiry is to conduct some local research into the processes by which the advice coming from the ‘establishment’ is received and enacted or ignored at a local level. I shall be presenting some initial findings from Sussex to the IHR Locality and Region seminar at the beginning of May.