Christian art in a post-Christian society

‘If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.’

The only really surprising thing about these measured, thoughtful words is that they were spoken by Rowan Williams, poet, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways it seemed – and was greeted as – a statement of the obvious. Dr Williams’ interview was followed by quiet murmurs rather than controversy, as if he’d said something everyone knew but was too embarrassed to say.

The consequences of European Christianity’s decline in authority are vast and unforeseeable. They affect individual and social life not just here but also across the world, because elsewhere religion is replacing political theory as the principle territory of ideological struggle. And the results may be seen in the dirty religious wars now poisoning Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and so many other places. It is naïve to celebrate the passing of Christianity without knowing what may fill the vacuum it leaves, or to assume that its decline will not be reversed in future: history is long.

On a smaller, local scale, though, this change also challenges our artistic and cultural life. So much European art is not just Christian in culture and sensibility but dedicated to articulating Christian theology. What does it mean if we do not share its beliefs? What is it worth?

Master of Moulins, Nativity

One approach has been to treat the subjects and narratives of Christian art as puzzles to be decoded. In this conception, a 14th century nativity or a Bach Passion can be approached in the same way as a play by Euripides or the Parthenon sculptures. If you learn the myths and symbols that animated their creators’ imaginations, you can understand their intentions and assess their performance. But is this more than an indulgence of privilege? It’s hard to believe that Bach, who annotated his own copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible, would understand or approve of music he’d composed for a sacred church service being performed out of season in a public hall to people with no interest in its meaning. Perhaps he’d rather be forgotten than remembered like this.

There are other problems too. The struggle for creative freedom pursued by artists since the Enlightenment, and which is so central to Romanticism and Modernism, has made individual integrity an article of faith. We have learned that no true artist would make work to order, and especially not to serve an ideology they do not share. The artistic quislings who lived comfortably serving the Soviet state are anathematised today: we rightly admire those, like Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn, who became martyrs to the system. But what then do we think of 20th century artists like Jacob Epstein who produced so much religious sculpture without sharing the beliefs of those who commissioned it? Those charged with the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral paid for a remarkable body of post-war religious art without needing to investigate the beliefs of the artists.

Coventry Cathedral

And then there is the problem of quality. If an artwork is valued by the faithful in supporting their worship, prayer or meditation, do aesthetic considerations matter? It’s easy for believers and non-believers both to value an icon produced by an Orthodox master, albeit for different reasons. But the art to be seen in the new churches built in post-Communist Eastern Europe would, I suspect, be dismissed by critics, though it may be of profound importance to those who attend the services.

I have spent much of the past three months thinking about these questions as I’ve met people who use and care for the beautiful churches of the Lincolnshire Fens. Now, as that part of the process draws to a close this week, I am thinking of how to make sense of and do justice to this world. As so often with the Regular Marvels, an idea that seemed manageable has simply grown in scale and complexity as I have worked on it. The Light Ships book is due to be published by Transported in October: I have a busy summer ahead.

Can you see beyond the tent?

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Nicole & Martin live in a caravan: it may be the least interesting thing about them.

People who live settled lives – most of us nowadays – have always regarded those who don’t with a mix of fascination and fear. Life without (apparent) ties is easily romanticised from the comfort of a property-holder’s armchair: think of Toad, abandoning the comforts of his stately home for a gypsy caravan. So it is not surprising that Nicole and Martin’s story is often told in reviews, film and even in the company’s own publicity, principally as the story of a travelling circus. It is, after all, such a quixotic tale – the Swiss family crisscrossing Europe to perform their spellbinding acrobatics in a big white tent before an unending parade of passing audiences.

It’s a good tale but, as I watched Nicole & Martin’s two performances in Oxford a few days ago, I wondered whether its familiar tropes weren’t obscuring a better one: that of highly-gifted, imaginative and rather brilliant artists. The white tent pitched on a school playing field, surrounded by red trucks and wooden caravans, banners and awnings looks like everyone’s idea of a circus. But what is offered inside is theatre, not circus, and very good theatre too.

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Nicole et Martin are the only performers (except for their son Samuel who, aged seven, performs a cameo with unselfconscious professionalism). For 70 minutes or so, they tell a familiar story – Hansel and Gretel and the Fisherman and his Wife, in Oxford – through music, acting, mime, juggling, acrobatics and more, with simple props: a bamboo cane, a silk cloth, a couple of boxes. They smudge the boundary between stage and audience, conscripting children to play roles where they sit when more characters are needed. The moment in Hansel and Gretel where the children share pieces of the gingerbread house with the whole audience typifies their generous stagecraft: who, in childhood, did not want to taste that miraculous treat?

This is not ‘children’s theatre’. It belongs to a tradition of storytelling older than such distinctions, capable of captivating a whole family, community or tribe. Laughter, fear and wonder are conjured up for all by actors who draw the circle of spectators ever closer without the aid of microphones. The performances are subtle. A stare, a raised eyebrow, a word, each delivered with precise timing, is understood by the youngest children and appreciated by everyone. The physical theatre is expressive, not slapstick. When the Fisherman’s Wife, whose insatiable ambition drives the story, stands on her husband’s head as Empress surveying her lands she is also literally crushing him with her demands. Hansel juggles as part of a lovely evocation of childhood play with his sister. It doesn’t stop the audience applauding virtuosity, as they did in concert halls before they became so stuffy, but the showstoppers never stop the show.

Though setting, skills and stories are all familiar, they are woven together with such craft, imagination and humanity that the result is entirely personal – an artistic experience of complete integrity. It could only have been created by these two people because it is a true reflection of how they make sense of the world and themselves in it. That they make theatre and offer it to audiences by moving from place to place with an auditorium and living space is just another aspect of that integrity. So is the education of their sons into and through their craft. None of this is a style or even a way of life: it is the only way they can be the artists they are.

How challenging that can be was evident in my conversation with Nicole, Martin and their artistic advisor, Kate Higginbottom, who’d invited me to see their work. The company tours eight months a year returning to Locarno, in Switzerland, for the winter to work on shows, repair material and organise the next year’s tour. They have financial support from the Canton of Basel and a few other sources, but have never secured regular backing from arts funders in Switzerland or elsewhere. Their applications are declined for being ‘circus’, or ‘not contemporary’, or ‘for children’, according to whatever criteria may be currently in vogue.

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But it is not because you live in a caravan and perform in a tent that you are a circus. It is not because you stand on your head that you are an acrobat, or because you can make a ball appear in your fingers that you are a magician. You are not a clown because you make people laugh. All that is surface – forms of expression, means to an end. It is the end that matters – the creation of memorable and moving theatre experiences that people go away from with an enriched sense of life’s possibilities. And that Nicole and Martin can do standing on their heads – literally – day after day after day, in eight languages, for people of all ages and cultures.

Over the centuries, the art world has created concepts, taxonomies, definitions and policies, all in the hope of understanding the endless complexity and variety of human artistic practice. It’s a worthy goal, insofar as it helps support the better work, but when it prevents people from seeing beyond those artificial ideas, it becomes pointless.

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Nicole & Martin live in a caravan and perform in a tent. So? What matters about them is that they create beautiful, truthful, captivating theatre in a world where artistic mediocrity is too often applauded. Like all artists, they deserve to be considered for what they create, and not what surrounds it. Fortunately, audiences seem to have no difficulty doing so and at each performance, Nicole & Martin make three hundred new friends who will remember their stories for years.