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Cathedral opens doors to art, but not to Jesus

Contemporary churches that constantly take the pulse of the times can’t be accused of missing many trends. One of these is the current near-hysteria over the environment and the attendant politicizing and pontificating frenzy it feeds. Lectures and art shows featuring environmental concerns are showing up in many churches, notably one of our most prestigious, New York City’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world.

“The Value of Water: Sustaining a Green Planet” is an exceedingly ambitious show, far beyond anything done recently in U.S. churches in both scope and quality. It is really quite dazzling and imaginative in its presentation and in the individual pieces of 41 artists such as famed Kikki Smith, Teresita Fernandez and Gregory Amenoff.

The cathedral is a beautiful and welcoming backdrop of stone, lights and solidity, perfect for the presentation of art, film, music, dance – and it’s all there. Every nook and alcove is relegated to art: bays, nave, choir and even the outdoors. And with the visual, Cathedral Church also presents performance and scholarly programs, social advocates, poets – you name it. It is a truly massive effort, but is all the glory for H2O alone?

I would rate “The Value of Water” an enormous success as an exhibit; but as a Christian outreach, as a spiritual message or authentic action, or even an attempt to reconcile strained relations between the art world and the church, this show is an utter failure.

Normally I would be doing cartwheels in the kitchen over something like this. Churches finally taking art seriously enough to spend huge sums of time and money – and in New York yet! This was only a dream not long ago as churches and artists frequently snubbed each other.

Cathedral Church’s curators brought in important works and world class artists. They commissioned new works for the exhibit, all laudable and noble efforts for the people of New York and the church; or one would think.

Why the pan? Let me count the ways, beginning with the sub-title, “Sustaining a Green Planet.” Is this an important activity of the church? Although it may warrant a few sermons a la “stewards of the earth,” it is a much more oblique theme than say, God, existence, eternity and more pressing and biblical subjects. Apparently Cathedral Church thinks that’s way too threatening to the PC throngs the welcome signs are beckoning to in uptown Manhattan.

The first clue to the vast spiritual insignificance comes from their press release describing water as an element on which “all life depends, creator and destroyer of cities and the most powerful metaphor in art.” Absolutely astonishing language coming from a church. In Western tradition “all life” in literature and art is generally attributed to God (or gods if you were Greek or Roman). Let’s skip Darwin, he was a late party crasher.

I won’t quibble that water is absolutely necessary to survival, but it was never even in the running for “most powerful metaphor in art.” Even non-believers and anti-Christians acknowledge that as they attack or variously refer to God, Jesus, life, death or hell in caustic or mocking terms and in much of their art. They don’t curse acid rain or ice cubes, because they inherently know that material things are not really running the show in this universe. Artists don’t pen poems about smog or ionizing radiation or attribute all power and might to the Caspian Sea. Not in their right mind anyway.

The rhetoric surrounding this exhibit and others like it is all specious nonsense that probably no one really believes anyway, but it’s acceptable as a good cause, and it brought the press out.

What is missing is in this exhibit are references to God, Jesus or general Christian theology. His absence is striking considering so many artist are at least spiritual and some openly Christian. I saw no evidence in statements or artwork that any of the artists commissioned by Cathedral Church had a passing interest in anything Christian, although a few may be. It’s hard to find such a large group of U.S. artists who are spiritually neutral, but Cathedral Church seems to have managed.

This isn’t an issue with a secular gallery, but I feel it’s disingenuous at least to hold an art exhibition in a cathedral, use words like “holy” for PR and intentionally avoid all religious imagery. It’s also kind of weird.

One possible exception may be work of Mark Tobey, the only dead artist, and thereby not available for comment. His work was extremely abstract, and people read all kinds of spiritual messages into it. His “Untitled” is a very darkened set of blue rectangular shapes, which could stand for anything, as is true of some other pieces in this exhibit.

An installation that you encounter at first, a circle of Pronghorn antelope skulls on fence posts, caused one writer to ponder if it was part of a satanic rite. “The Council of Pronghorn,” according to its creators Terry Tempest Williams, Ben Roth and Felicia Resor, is to “bear witness to environmental degradation.” Whatever.

Some pieces are attractive, visually exciting and also related to the theme. Fredricka Foster, who is also the main curator, continuously uses water as a trope in her work. Her paintings appear as close-ups of undulating surfaces of seas or larger bodies of water.

Pat Steir creates energetic, brilliantly colorful work that generally seems to be flowing or following gravity, much like water. Her large, striking, oil-painting “Waterfall of the Fundiments” is especially fitting as jets of water-like brightness appear from the gloom or are being swallowed up by it.

"Waterfall of the Fundiments" by Pat Steir

Installation artist Winn Rea is a favorite of visitors and critics with her strangely beautiful work made of 350 dismantled plastic water bottles, which she cut into spiral pieces and suspended from the ceiling. The piece resembles a frozen waterfall with lights glittering from the translucent plastic pieces.

"Fountain" by Winn Rea

There are several light-projected installations through water that are interesting to view, but once again bear no connection to the church unless it’s a memorial to a drowning victim.

I was excited to see a scheduled “Evening of Witness,” assuming it may be related in some way to Christianity but found instead it was a generic “response” to tragedy and disasters that did not include prayer in its description. They did have vigils, stories and presentations, however, which they will weave into a “larger narrative about the effects of climate-related disasters” somehow.

The Cathedral Church’s literature helps clarify why the “religion” is missing from their otherwise impressive exhibit. Their mission is stated as “bringing disparate groups together in conversation” with the public, art and “the space.” That’s it. No Bible, no salvation – even generic transcendence doesn’t make the cut. It is a post-Christian cathedral (if that is possible), as revealed by their pan-religious statements.

Fredericka Foster calls this exhibit a “a beautiful convergence of holiness, water and artistic endeavor,” but holiness is never mentioned nor invited in an obvious way. Instead the sponsors ask visitors to consider the “sacred nature of water” and ponder “sacred architecture” and space (that would be the cathedral itself I assume).

If the former lists of artists and events weren’t enough, the Cathedral Church produced a “Digital Documentation Installation” on 39 other artists whose work specifically explores water in some way. The video hopes to promote appreciation of the “range of aesthetic approaches to water.”

With such a grand backdrop and the personal talent of so many artists nearby, the management of Cathedral Church could have created a significant art exhibit or taken the opportunity to change spiritual dynamics in New York and the art community, but they did neither.

Resurrecting unrelated art made 10 years ago (the case for some pieces) and placing it in a church doesn’t make it holy. It just makes a good photo background. Art galleries in Topeka, Houston and Seattle have done water and the environment, but few churches are requesting world-class artists to consider biblical narrative, and neither did Cathedral Church, unfortunately.

At the end this show is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the church and popular culture. The Church restrains its truly revolutionary and confrontational message and meekly begs acceptance from society, which rightly finds it dull.

My advice if you’re thinking of using water as a theme for your art? You might reconsider as that field seems to be quite flooded right now.

“The Value of Water” runs through March 25, 2012, at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, New York City. For more information, including bios and images, click here.