Art as a bridge between cultures & what this means for the Church

This post has to be the winner for “Longest Title” among all of the entries I’ve made to this blog so far. From Bloomberg, this is an interesting article about American collectors being called on to purchase Muslim art. Most of the writing focuses on the business aspect of a venture by the al-Shroogi family, who owns the Cuadro Fine Art Gallery in Dubai.

More interesting, however, than the article’s discussion about marketing Islamic art to Westerners — and the fact that there are indeed modern Muslim artists — is some very brief commentary about art and culture:

    “Imagine, Muslim artwork hanging in Naples [Florida],” al-Shroogi says through a radio headset. “We need to do more of this,” the Bahraini banker adds as the aircraft laden with modern and contemporary Islamic art makes its final approach on a family expedition to convince Americans that the Middle East is more than a terrorist hatchery . . .

    It’s an undertaking born from the al-Shroogi clan’s passion for art, the patronage of Bahrain’s royal family and the conviction that the Islamic nation a few miles off the Saudi Arabian coast has the muscle to build a genuine cultural bridge between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

Can art actually bridge cultures, and what exactly does that mean? Will Westerners think differently about the Middle East if they look at a few paintings by Muslim artists? The possibility exists for this; remember my February post regarding a Jewish atheist deeply moved by a 600 year old altarpiece.

Painting by John Torreano exhibited at the Cuadro gallery in Dubai.

The tactile arts are important to culture and communication, despite the anaemic attitude towards serious artistic endeavors in the American Church, generally speaking. Significant new paintings and sculptures created by artists of faith intently pursuing careers as artists, engaging the culture and furthering their craft, are needed in the Church as an intentional witness to culture here and abroad.

I remember hearing a story at conference in Portland a few years ago about a couple who went into the desert of Africa as missionaries. The wife served as a doctor, and the husband worked as an artist. He set up a studio in a shipping crate and made art for a year or so. At the end of the year he held a show for the community. I don’t know how many pieces there were, what the media was or what they looked like. My impression, if I recall correctly, was that they weren’t simple Sunday School drawings. They were more likely contemporary works. Regardless, the media reportedly conveyed the Gospel to that community in an effective way.

Take note, pastors. Take note, Church leadership and parishioners. What can you do to help make the name of God better through the arts? First off, make certain your own attitude is positive toward the arts. Educate yourself as to the importance of art in culture and Christianity. You don’t need a degree to appreciate art. Understand that it is OK if a person wants to create abstract paintings that aren’t about Bible verses; understand that it’s OK if someone wants to be a full-time artist. This is not a cop-out, it’s not laziness. Yes, it’s hard to make a living at times, but if society changes how it thinks about art and artists this won’t so often be the case.

Further, encourage aspiring or practicing artists in your congregation, and make sure they know there are others like them. Organize exhibits of paintings and sculptures; organize small groups so creative people can encourage one another. Allow the artists you know freedom to push your own boundaries. Yes, there are appropriate limits, but creativity begs new ideas and reminds us of how we are created in the Creator’s likeness. Don’t poo-poo something just because it makes you uncomfortable or isn’t your own taste, and feel free to engage in significant and witty critique in order to better understand such works.

I have to laugh every time I glance in the youth room at our church, where a mixed media work I donated hangs. When I first saw it there — instead of in a more public space such as a hallway or foyer — I wasn’t in the least surprised, but I was disappointed. It’s well crafted and blatantly Scriptural. My hope was that it would be hung in a place visible to anyone in the church at any time as something to meditate on.

Moth Mend, 2006. Moth-eaten sweaters, new red silk, paint.

I can laugh at the typographical triptych’s placement within my own church because I expected it, sadly, but I hold no grudge and hope that the kids who see it on a weekly basis are encouraged by it. I also hope, however, that the American Church soon comes to realize that segregating the palpable world from the spiritual world is just bad theology. It is OK to be “in” the world, even if we aren’t supposed to be “of” it. It is OK to be a part of culture in a non-pious context — in fact, it’s good to be involved in this way. How else are we going to show the love of God to the skeptics, to the people averse to church or Christianity?

I originally saw the Bloomberg article on Iconia.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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