Art for the Consumer Masses; Mass for the ConsumerEssays, Featured — By Deborah Gregory on June 29, 2011 at 6:29 am
There seems to me a mysterious metaphysical connection between aesthetics and religion, art and worship that I find myself hesitant to explore. Each subject on it’s own is daunting, yet I am intrigued by one familiar and alarming cultural point of intersection: consumerism.
This concept was sparked when I recently watched the documentary film, Art of the Steal, about the conspiracy-theory riddled billion-dollar heist of the famous Barnes art collection. Barnes, a self-made millionaire began affordably acquiring thousands of Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses and other late-19th and early-2oth-century works of art when they were still considered crude and primitive by the elite American art circles. Barnes specified in his will that he wanted his collection, now worth billions, to remain in its original location in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, never to be sold, loaned to museums, or opened to the mass public.
Barnes believed that the setting in which art is viewed is part of the art. He put considerable thought into the aesthetic display of the collection and made art education rather than art consumption a prerequisite for his appointment-only visitors. He despised the “depressing intellectual slum” of the urban art circles and the whitewashed, sterile walls of elitist museums that encouraged artistic consumption rather than wonder. Their version of viewing art mirrored a crowded shopping mall and pandered to the consumer. And so, he created a place set-apart from the masses; a place designed to reflect the value of the art more so than the value of the viewer. Matisse famously said that the Barnes Foundation is the “only sane place to see art.”
According to the film, after Barnes’ death, his will slowly unraveled in the hands of politicians and elites finally culminating in the impending relocation of the collection to a center city location better fit for herding the cellphone-picture-snapping masses through the priceless exhibit. The court ruled against the Foundations appointment-only policy and required the doors to be made open to the public in order for the foundation to keep their non-profit status.
“Paintings, money, tourism—that’s what people see when they see art,” laments one former Barnes Foundation student. PA Gov. Ed Rendell confirms this notion by pursuing the collection in order to boost tourism and calling the move a “no-brainer.”
As I watched the film, I was sickened by those on both-sides of the debate. Power, money, and acclaim had muddled the intellectual will and testament of Dr. Barnes. The languid pang of disgust that I felt was a familiar one. For me, this film was not just about art but also about worship – for what we have done to art, we have also done to worship.
Where worship was once designed to reflect the value and nature of God, we have made it into a talent-show. The center of focus is no longer the alter, which trained our attention on the glory of Christ’s great sacrifice but rather our attention is pulled to the American-idol stage blazing in the glory of LED wash lights. We have traded the complex design of the cathedral, cruciform in shape and axised toward the coming of Christ, for a white-washed, shopping complex layout better suited for the masses than for mass. Worshippers partake of individual sized communion snack-packs rather than stand in line to sip from the common cup of Christ’s blood.
We have made the evangelical church a seeker-friendly place of enjoyment striped of the mystery of Christ. While Christ made his message accessible to all, he held the deeper things at arm’s length, speaking in parables and shrouding his meaning in a cloud of ancient symbolism that pointed to profound spiritual concepts. Again and again he called out, “He who has ears, let him hear.” But we like spectators, gather in contentment to watch the show and hear a motivating message stitched together from quoted Christian-bookstore best-seller finds.
In the art-world, there is an age-old debate: for whom is art created? Art for art’s sake or art for the spectator?
In some ways, I don’t feel pulled to either extreme in this debate, but I do cringe when art clearly become a shrink-wrapped commodity; when the gift shop becomes more popular than the art displays.
R. Cronk, a prominent muralist and art essayist warned that “while consumerism offers the tangible goal of owning a product, it lacks the fulfillment of other cultural mythologies . . . it exists as an incomplete and inadequately engineered system of values substituted for a waning cultural heritage.” He argues that consumerism not only appeals to the drive-thru fix of ego-gratification but ultimately damages our language, art, and cultural traditions, weakening their ability to inspire metaphysical truth.
I resonate with Cronk’s sentiments and believe they also apply to consumerism within the American evangelical church. So often the Sunday service affords a quick-fix of ego-gratifying worship experiences peppered in pop-culture Christian slang. This raises some difficult questions like, how pervasively has consumerism seeped into the fabric of our gatherings? Are we losing the language that delves deeply into spiritual mysteries? Have we abandoned the traditions and sacraments that have historically bound the global church together through the elements of Christ and his teachings? Why have we traded stained-glass windows and icons of faith for exposed warehouse ceilings and massive LCD screens? Do we prefer sipping the welcome table coffee than savoring the wine of Christ’s blood? Have we favored a hallow rhetoric of absolute truths over the difficult pursuit of metaphysical and epistemological understanding?
I was struck by this comment following a NY Times article entitled “Museum going as compulsive consumerism?”:
“The majority of the public only goes to museums because they think that somehow they are ‘supposed’ to, and beyond that, it affords some status to say that one has been to the Louvre, or wherever. Most museum goers do not engage with the art objects or pictures because they simply don’t know anything about them, and don’t make an effort to prepare to have a meaningful experience by informing themselves. The roots of this, in US culture especially, come from the notion that arts are merely a pleasure, a distraction, and not a necessity or something worthy of intensive study.”
As I read the comment, my mind replaced the words “museum” with “church” and “art” with “worship” and came to the same conclusion. Earle Jerome Coleman keenly referred to the mysterious connection between art and religion with this statement: “When art is not flourishing, religion languishes . . . the two often wax and wane in tandem.” I would add that when consumerism is flourishing, both art and worship languish.