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The politics of space

How the church can respond to controversial public art.

Though COVID-19 dominated headlines for most of 2020, prominent monuments were in the news a few times throughout the year as the statues of historical figures all over the world were vandalized. Both Christopher Columbus and Sir John A. MacDonald were beheaded, as Roland DeVries wrote about for CC in September. Perpetrators protested Columbus’ connection to colonialism and MacDonald’s participation in the violence against Indigenous peoples that taints Canadian history. A statue of King Louis XVI is almost beyond repair in Kentucky, Melville faced protests in Edinburgh, and apartheid rulers in South Africa have been defaced. 

Why does some public art cause such a stir? How do public art protests and conversations impact communities? These questions are at the heart of my doctoral research at McMaster University. My research uses Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz’ bronze sculpture Homeless Jesus to investigate the relationship between public religious art and public dialogue.

Public art can signify, promote or challenge the concerns, values and histories of the communities in which it is displayed. In diverse communities, public art can be a political statement about who belongs in that space. It matters whose history, concerns and values are presented and whose are left out. Christians seeking to model the Gospel’s open invitation to all people should pay attention to these public art dialogues.

Three responses to a statue

The contentious nature of public art is not unique to 2020. In 18th century Montreal, for example, a monument to King George III served as a site for the political tensions between English and French Canadians to play out. In the 1960s, a large painting of a Black Jesus by artist Ronald Harrison had to be smuggled out of South Africa to keep it safe. When a public artwork sparks controversy, communities have to decide whether to keep, discard or alter the art. Steven Levinson provides a lucid account of these three responses in his book Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies.

Many people argue that keeping monuments is a necessary way to remember and learn from the past. On the flip side, communities opting to discard contentious public art often make a compelling case that these pieces only exhibit one version of the past, as sociologist John Evans says. It is a version that likely privileges some people at the expense of others. When city officials in Victoria, B.C. removed a statue of Sir. John A. MacDonald, it was seen as a nod of respect to Indigenous peoples.

Communities may also choose to compromise by altering public art. By doing so they recognize the value in remembering the past while also working towards an inclusive, diverse and equitable society. At a grassroots level, graffiti artists may accomplish this by using their alternative artform and its counter-cultural messages to contrast the contentious art. To shift its meaning, they alter the artwork or add additional works to the surrounding area. Timothy Schmalz recently created The Monument of Oppression for this exact reason. His small statue of hands reaching through bars is intended to sit on the ground beside historic monuments, highlighting an alternative history. Schmalz has suggested that it accompany statues of John A. MacDonald. “It creates very powerful visual theatre. It provokes a creative conversation . . . . You can’t destroy the whole idea of history. Instead of removing it, you have to face it and learn from it,” Schmalz told the Vancouver Sun

Tensions around these monuments can prompt Christians to reflect on the art within their own churches and, if needed, to have conversations about whether to keep, discard or alter it. 

Public art and the church

Art is important to both church life and the church’s public engagement. As part of my doctoral research, I am examining how faith-based organizations use and engage with Schmalz’ Homeless Jesus. This sculpture depicts the figure of Jesus on a street bench, identifiable only by his wounds and wrapped in a blanket that covers his face.

Faith leaders have described it as a vehicle for teaching about their faith, for prompting deeper introspection, and for encouraging prayer and connection to God. When asked about why their church chose to invest in a Homeless Jesus replica, one pastor said, “it explains why this large Victorian gothic building is here. It’s about engagement with those who are rejected by society, marginalized, that’s where Jesus likes to be.” 

Religious art can also, however, be reflective of the dominant culture. A church that only displays a white Jesuses with chiseled abs or a white-washed nativity scene may be sending a subtle message about who belongs or does not belong in that space.

An aspect of Homeless Jesus that both secular media and faith leaders appreciate is its shrouded face. The unidentifiable face of Jesus may guide viewers into considering how a person who is homeless is dignified (like Jesus) regardless of their housing status or any other parts of their identity.

While controversies over the statues in our public spaces continue, churches can take this opportunity to examine our own art. Does each piece communicate the beauty of the Gospel?

Further Reading

Evans, F. (2019). Public art and the fragility of democracy; an essay in political aesthetics. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Gérin, A., & McLean, J. S. (2016). Public art in Canada: Critical perspectives. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Harrison R. (2006). The Black Christ: A Journey to Freedom. New Africa Books; 2006.

Levinson, S. (2018). Written in stone: Public monuments in changing societies. Durham, NS: Duke University Press.

Minty Z (2006). Post-apartheid Public Art in Cape Town: Symbolic Reparations and Public Space. Urban Studies. 2006;43(2):421-440.

Nora, P. (Ed). Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past (Vol. I: Conflicts and Divisions). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Senie, H & Webster, S. (1998). Critical issues in public art: Content, context, and controversy. Smithsonian Institution.

  • Kaitlin is a PhD candidate in the social sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Her doctoral research examines the relationship between public religious art, public dialogues and perceptions of homelessness.

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