I will admit that I have never been an art gal. In an art museum I rely heavily on the little signs explaining what makes a piece of art “good” or special, or in the case of a lot of contemporary art, what I’m even supposed to be looking for. I don’t scoff at abstract or modern art, I fully believe that those artists are talented and hardworking and that what they create is adding value and beauty to the world, I just don’t understand it, just like I don’t understand how computers work or what sommeliers are tasting for.
So when I heard James McNally speak from a panel last week (after a very intimidating introduction that included phases like “reimagining civic structures toward generational change”) and he opened with the assertion that most people found visual art, and contemporary art in particular, intimidating and difficult to access, and that “the doorway into the museum was too high a barrier to cross” – he had my attention. He got it. As a person deeply in the art world, he could still hold and honor the perspective of a person who wasn’t. And then what he said next blew me away, and could change the way all of us think about how we lead churches. He said,
We at Counterpublic seek to bring art into the places where people already hang out – soccer stadiums, ferris wheels – anywhere people are already spending time, and create art that tells the story of these underserved communities around them.
His work at CounterPublic was to create 30 art exhibits, in public, around the city of St. Louis, that told the previously untold stories of the area. There were pieces focused on the Osage Nation that once lived in a city the size of London where St. Louis now sits. There were pieces focused on Black futurism. But most importantly, the focuses of the pieces, the stories told, weren’t selected by James, and people who looked like him, but the neighborhoods where the pieces were going. His team spent a full year talking to the people who lived in the area to learn to hear what history had been missed. Those conversations were the inspiration for the pieces that now live in those spaces.
I’ve been thinking a lot about James and his work; not just because of its inherent value, but because of the posture it was created in.
The basic assumption wasn’t that people should be visiting the art museum, or that people should know more about contemporary art, or even that people should be interested in art at all. The assumption was that it was the art world’s responsibility to meet people where they were without judgment, prescription, or agenda. James fundamentally viewed art as a tool for changing perspectives, for enacting justice – its beauty, its culture, its academic legacy – was all a secondary effect of art, not its purpose, and therefore could be easily set aside to allow art’s real work to be done.
Needless to say, those of us in Church World have a lot to learn from James. Are we capable of the same perspective? The same radical de-centering of our own institution? What if we could believe, like James, like this ancient, beautiful thing we shepherd – with thousands of years of history, millions of pages of writings, cultures and sub-cultures and traditions that we hold so dear – was simply a tool for bringing the Kingdom of God closer? And what if we were called, therefore, to be willing to set everything else aside in pursuit of that end?
James was willing to drag the art of its cathedral to bring it to the people who needed to see it most. He was willing to let people kick a soccer ball around it, hide from the rain underneath it, or ignore it completely, because he believed that the art was doing what it was designed to do even if people didn’t respond to it the way the institution says they are “supposed to.” CounterPublic isn’t meant to draw people into art museums. It exists because it believes what it offers is inherently good and healing.
I don’t need to spell out the parallels for you. We get sucked into the mentality that even if we do work that sets Jesus outside the church’s walls, that we should always be angling to pull people back in. What if everyone once in a while, we could forget the funnel, and just trust that God is at work? That bringing Good News out into the world was good enough, even if people don’t respond to it the way we think they are “supposed to” and even if they never set foot in a church. As we enter Advent, and we consider a baby born in a manger, and angels appearing to shepherds in a field, may we be encouraged that the church walls never held God back anyway.