Art for the Consumer Masses; Mass for the Consumer

Essays, Featured — By on June 29, 2011 at 6:29 am

When art is not flourishing, religion languishes . . . the two often wax and wane in tandem.” Earle Jerome Coleman.

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.

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  • H. Brown says:

    Brilliant commentary. I’m struck by the emerging theme here of surface vs. depth, i.e., “an incomplete and inadequately engineered system of values substituted for a waning cultural heritage.” It seems we are more concerned with parading those “values” and creating behavioral checklists than we are with profound and deeply-rooted, inexpressible ways of being with each other and interacting in community. In the same way the tangible product for us now trumps the intangible mysteries of religious and artistic experience. We would rather possess than experience, which is to say we only want what we can comprehend consciously and on the surface, and hence we control it rather than it controlling and guiding us. Thanks for this necessary conversation!

  • Michael D. Bobo says:


    I teach Humanities at a community college and I am struck by how ill-educated our youth are about the great works and their value to being truly human. Thank you for this piece. Your analysis is spot on.

    My wife and I don’t attend church regularly because we are sickened by the show. We as American Christians have bought a cheapened form of the mystery of Christ that is personally repulsive. So I’ve found a spiritual practice in nature and in art that few Christians I encounter would consider sacred. I love the spirituality of art and I write about it on Burnside since this is one of the few Christian communities that have an opened mind and a desire to appreciate art. God given gifts of artistic expression are worshipful when given opportunity. Unfortunately most people settle for the consumption versus the mystical apprehension. They want to be entertained not engaged in worship.

    Oh that change would come and that quickly to arouse a spirit of worship in the body of Christ!

  • Keith E says:

    I’m not necessarily in complete agreement with your argument. The fact that they collective church has lost its taste for good art and obviously its desire for good art is indisputable. Making the jump from that observation to saying that worship is therefore less than before takes the authority of Jesus and the Holy Spirit and throws it out the window. It would be a great misinterpretation of history to say that Christians “back then” worshiped deeper and more meaningfully than our generation. I don’t think any generation necessarily has a deeper faith than any other as a whole, but God’s kingdom is ever on the increase. Christians around the world are pining for Jesus every day and every hour, despite a significant lack of art. You cannot dumb down the significance and impact of the gospel that works itself out as worship in millions of lives by an intellectual argument that even at some level makes sense. It’s an incomplete picture; think correlation but not causation.
    That being said, I’m endeavoring, as director of the Art Syndicate of Yakima, to bring art to a community in Central Washington that seriously lacks corporate interest in the arts, and I’m doing so as an act of worship! I know that God is The Creator, and being creators of art ourselves is being in His image and taking part in true worship (not the only true worship, though). Be careful in who’s hands you put the authority of worship, not ours, but God’s.

  • “Do we prefer sipping the welcome table coffee than savoring the wine of Christ’s blood?”

    Great line.

    • EmilyTimbol says:

      Agreed! I loved this line!

    • Jared says:

      Either way it’s consumerism. One might say that consuming coffee *as* coffee is less consumeristic than assuming we’re consuming ‘Jesus himself’ as a chalice of wine.

      Maybe we shouldn’t mock consumerism at the same time as promoting the eucharist – the ultimate act of the consumer. Some might say that one is more legitimate than the other, and that one has a mystery to it over the shallowness of ‘coffee with friends’, but is that really what Jesus promoted when he spoke of the ‘Lord’s Supper’? Or is coffee with friends exactly Jesus’ point, but we (the church) are making it something magical and special for its own sake?

    • Thanks for the comments! In response to Jared’s thoughtful comment:

      Perhaps the main point I tried to make has not been very clear. Judging behavior is a tricky business and not the intent of the article. However, behavior often points to deeper things. The act of consuming is not what I hope to challenge, but the heart and motivation behind it. Whether it be art or worship or what have you, when we consume for a quick fix, for self-gratification, for self-glory, I believe it has a profound effect on our culture and our religion. In worship, if we engage as this kind of consumer, the question arises as to whom we are truly worshiping – God or ourselves?

    • Jared says:

      Right, we must examine the motivations for our consumerism. Whether that be the coffee we drink, the ‘worship music’ we sing to, or the bread and wine we eat/drink. All of these things are commodities, objects we take for ourselves, which can promote a selfish response. Basically because it’s an act of consuming an object.

      Often those objects are ‘more’ than just objects to us, we assign something extra to them. Like ‘coffee is what gets me going’ or, ‘worship music gets me closer to God’. These things are simply what we project onto the object so that it becomes an excess of what it is.

      The Eucharist is one such experience that the Church has historically assigned more value to than just a meal, but I wonder if we’re assigned the objects too much value at the expense of the subjects involved. Isn’t the whole point of doing it the togetherness of the thing, not the ‘specialness’ of the objects themselves? Are not the subjects (people) the true ‘objects’ to consume (connect with)?

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