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Spontaneous Performance Jesus Painting … huh?

August 16, 2010

I’ll admit it.  I’m  skeptical of live painting in churches.  Like sticking a square peg in a round hole, it often makes for an awkward fit with the worship service.  But, whatever one’s knee-jerk reactions may be, it cannot be denied that spontaneous performance Jesus painting (SPJP; or whatever you want to call it) is popular within the contemporary Christian church.

What is SPJP?  Quite simply it is a live painting in front of a church or Christian group made for the purpose of leading others in worship.  Typically, there is a worship band (or some kind of music) accompanying the painting.  From start to finish it usually lasts about 5 minutes, and the finished product is often a portrait of Jesus (though sometimes other images are painted).

It must be said that the ‘theology and art’ conversation is not always as aware as it could (or should) be of what is actually happening in contemporary churches.  Not only can one find videos of these performances at dozens of venues (see links below), but one can also visit the websites of artists who regularly paint live during worship services (see links below). SPJP may never be discussed in an academic journal, but it is still worth our consideration.

What exactly is the appeal of SPJP?  I have three suggestions for your consideration.  First, the ‘point’ of these paintings is the process and not the product.  Sure there is often applause when the painting is finished, but the main interest is watching to see ‘how’ the artist paints.  Second, the dramatic tension of SPJP often relies upon either a gimmick (such as making the painting upside down) or the artist’s unusual and baffling skill.  In both cases, the expected response when the painting is finished is surprise and wonder.  Third, the emphasis upon the unexpected and spontaneous process (esp. when coupled with dramatic lighting and music) suggests to me that SPJP relies upon Romantic notions of artistic inspiration and genius to achieve its full effect.

There is certainly more that could be said, but I want leave you with the question: is there a place in Christian worship for SPJP?  I think there probably is, even though it makes me cringe a little.  There is actually very little new about SPJP.  People have been using visual aides in Christian worship and teaching for ages, and I wonder if these are really little more than sunday school felt board stories dressed up in modernist robes.  It could be easy to write off SPJP as insignificant or as more ‘Christian kitsch.’  But, instead, let’s take it seriously.  What do you think about live painting as a part of Christian liturgy?

Websites:

Worship Artist Ministries

David Garibaldi

Jesus Painter Ministries

Videos:

Jesus Painting (over 3 million views on YouTube)

Jesus Painting at Vineyard Community Church

Six Boxes (this one has a unique twist)

He Reaches For Us (with Michael W Smith)

David Garibaldi Jesus Painting

Glow in the Dark Nativity

Image Credit: Worship Artist Ministries

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    August 16, 2010 8:44 am

    I should say thank you to Anna for originally emailing me a video of the David Garibaldi performance of Jesus painting. I had seen live painting in church before, but nothing like SPJP.

    • Anna permalink
      August 16, 2010 9:54 am

      I was just thinking about how glad I was that you’d written a post on something facing the church right now (in theology and the arts)… (ie: i’d forgotten and you’re welcome).

      My question about this is how much of it is performance and how much is worship? and why “in front” of the church? Like musical accompaniment I think it is possible for any form of art to be liturgical and be an act of worship, but i wonder if the guiding principle should be whether it is an act of service in assisting in corporate worship? if not, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with it, but that maybe it should be done at another time. This may give way that I have some issues with the rock band/choir in front of church “performing” rather than leading/participating/guiding contemplation and praise in worship.

      For me liturgy and worship are not about my “performance” but, i’m being persuaded by Wes here, about participating in the theodrama. It is collaborative performance art, as it were. The improvisational model is apt I think, but the performance of art wherein the artist is central and not God is problematic for me.

      I haven’t seen SPJP – i’ve only seen the videos and I think they may skew the presentation somewhat seeing as the focus is naturally on the artist and not the worship or liturgical context. Has anyone? I’d love to hear from some artists involved in SPJP.

  2. Ben permalink
    August 16, 2010 9:54 am

    I watched a couple of the videos (David Garibaldi and Six Boxes) and my initial thoughts are this: as you said, the focus is definitely on the process, which means this is really more of a drama or performance art than painting as traditionally understood. I think the latter of the two videos I watched is more effective because rather than just having a gimmick, it also has the performance element of thrusting knives into the portrait, which makes us think about how we are responsible for Christ’s pain.
    Whether this sort of performance belongs in liturgy or only in events outside the worship service, I don’t know.

  3. Jim permalink*
    August 16, 2010 12:48 pm

    Anna, I think you are definitely right to call attention to the perfomative nature of SPJP. In the hopes that Wes (and others who have thoughts about the relationship between performance and worship) will jump in, I won’t say much more. I also want to affirm your observation that the video format skews our sense of the importance of the artist, although in some of the videos it is hard to imagine that the artist’s performance was not the center of attention. In regards to the performative nature of SPJP, it might be interesting to compare and contrast the videos I have labelled “Jesus Painting” and “David Garibaldi Jesus Painting.” They are quite different performances.

    Ben, I think we definitely need to remember that these are more like dramas than they are like paintings. Although, I wonder to what extent SPJP reflects a particular way of thinking about painting. It could be, then, a dramatization and representation of the painting process. Some of the blogs I have listed are informative in regards to the underlying assumptions about artistry that may be at play behind these performances. My personal favorite is the “Six Boxes.” I think it is the most novel and the most interesting to watch. Though it is quite unique in comparison to other examples of SPJP that I have seen.

    BTW, just so that everyone knows, I have made up the phrase’ SPJP’ for the sake of convenience. So far as I know, there is no official term for these performances.

  4. August 16, 2010 12:57 pm

    Jim,

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve witnessed several SPJPs over the years and I desire to be generous. While I have very liturgical beliefs regarding church services, I know that something like this could potentially be very memorable and effective in conveying certain theological realities.

    Still, as a visual artist I can’t help but feel as if this sort of thing is somewhat fraudulent. The gimmicky element that you pointed out as well as the emphasis on performance rather than the actual product add to my suspicions. Without getting into the whole discussion of process vs product (as a painter I know that process is absolutely critical and enriching), these paintings do not typically result in any great artistic achievement. If something is painted in five minutes or over the course of an hour-long worship service it does not reflect the meditation and conscientiousness that I believe these sorts of paintings (religious/representational) demand. In the end the congregation might have been enthralled through witnessing an unusual event, but do they actually come to a greater appreciation of either subject: theology or art?

    God may be able to speak through this, like he can speak through Balaam’s ass, but the Church should aim to avoid being the ass in this situation.

    • Jim permalink*
      August 16, 2010 2:43 pm

      Elijah, thank you for your comment. I, like you, am somewhat concerned about the way in which SPJP ‘represents’ the process of painting. It seems to value spontaneity over hard and disciplined work. But perhaps some of these artists would simply say that they only work this way in Church — that their studio painting is an entirely different kind of thing. Perhaps it is possible to look at SPJP this way, but then I wonder about the theological implications of doing so. SPJP seems to suggest that painting in this way allows the artist to work in a worshipful manner, and possibly even opens the artist up to artistic inspiration. By contrast, then, is the studio work not worship? Is God not working alongside our hard and disciplined work? Or might SPJP make artists feel compelled to incorporate a more spontaneous process into their ‘regular’ creative practice in order to feel that they have worshipped in their studio work?

      On the question of the artistic quality of the resulting painting. It seems to me that SPJP assumes that, regardless of the outcome, the quality of the product is secured by the character of the process. I think that this means-end relation is, in general, a wrong assumption to make about artistic creativity. What do you think?

      • August 16, 2010 3:10 pm

        Jim,

        In response to your first question, ‘is the studio work not worship?’, I suspect that you empathise with me when I write that one of the reasons why I know that it is part of my calling to be a studio artist is because of the communion I share with God during that intimate process. I’m fairly certain this communion would actually be interrupted by seeking to incorporate the process of painting into a worship service. I tend to shy away from hyper-individualistic devotional spirituality, but studio art (setting aside conversations and critiques on a particular work in progress) is one of those rare things I feel called to engage with alone.

        Like you, I believe that the assumptions made by the SPJP folks might be rather unfair or at least not widely accepted in the art world. In such a way the SPJP would not count as valid art. I believe in trying to make worship more of a consumeristic experience of God—a very forced and potentially inauthentic thing—those who promote this form of ‘visual worship’ are really doing a disservice to church worship and painting.

  5. August 16, 2010 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the fascinating post, Jim! My gut reaction is that worship should not be a performance in the sense of many people (the congregation) watching one person produce art (of course, worship is always a performance in another sense of performing a ritual or performing our role in the theodrama). One might say that in watching the art being produced the whole congregation is involved, but I think this is a stretch. Stephanie and I are involved in leading worship at our church, and our main purpose is not to perform, but to lead the congregation in worshiping TOGETHER.

    Do you know of any examples in which a large group of people collaborate on a work of art during a worship service? This movement away from individual performance to corporate collaboration seems to line up with the purpose of Christian worship.

    • Jim permalink*
      August 16, 2010 8:08 pm

      Wes, thanks for this response. There does seem to be something very individualistic about these performances. I do know of examples (apart from music) where the arts are employed to encourage collaborative and participatory worship. But, I really should let Sara answer this one. Sara are you out there?

      To take up the other side of this question, I wonder if there is a way that watching and contemplation can be recovered as an act of worship? It seems strange (but not impossible) to think of SPJP as a corporate act of worship, and there is certainly a long history of visual art of all sorts serving as an aide to devotion. I wonder if the way that some contemporary churches use movies allows space for seeing as an act of devotion. I would be interested in knowing how we could encourage people to incorporate paintings (I am thinking more of the finished product) into their devotional practices.

      • August 17, 2010 2:58 pm

        Good thought, Jim. Yes, I do think there is room for contemplation as an act of worship, just as long as this is not always an individual act. In other words, I think it could be very meaningful to have a time for contemplation and then have several members of the congregation share what the painting means to them, or something more communally oriented. Do you think this is feasible?

  6. August 17, 2010 1:54 am

    Very good, stretching conversation here. I’m in general agreement with both the caveats/criticisms, as well as the important questions posed in a spirit of grace and generosity. Jim, you are very good at patiently asking questions that would seek to give a benefit-of-the-doubt to artists and issues that so easily become theological punching bags for a group of somewhat like-minded folks. That spirit of grace is important.

    As I’ve read and thought about the post and comments, I’ve realized that when it comes to SPJP (which I have often been openly critical of), I tend to use the performance/work itself as a means for actually critiquing peripheral ideas that I disagree with in general, and utilizing those ideas to delegitimize the specific act or work. However, if I’m honest, I don’t think there is anything at all intrinsically impossible about a one individual’s or a group of individual’s “front-and-center” action (whether in music, drama, dance or visual art) directing a community of people in worship. Both Anna and Wes have touched briefly on this.

    So the things that I think I’m usually actually critical of when I poo-poo SPJP (et al.) are actually:

    1. That particular artist’s theology of art. Often times I’m so appalled by what these artists write or say about themselves as artists (tons of effusively romantic, God-ordained-genius stuff), the purpose of art in general (extreme instrumentalism), and their theological framework under girding these things (or lack, thereof, generally), it’s rare for me to look objectively at how a worshiping community might experience their act of painting. I’m particularly sensitive to this because it actually does negatively influence the way that communities of faith come to understand art.

    2. Skewed theologies of worship. These types of performers seem to tend to seek out and find congregations that will uncritically embrace what they are doing. In my experience these churches lean toward being non-connectional in their ecclesiology, and generally post-modern in the sense that the worship experience is individualized, and subjectively oriented around the individual’s taste. This inevitably seems to slide toward an understanding of worship centered on the pleasure of the worshiper, rather than the pleasure of God.

    So while I think it is possible to appropriately integrate this kind of performative visual art into a rightly focused liturgy, I’d be hesitant to do it without first carefully educating a congregation as to how this is to be received in light of the overarching purpose of our corporate worship, and without an artist who undertakes this leadership role understanding the same.

  7. August 17, 2010 2:55 pm

    I have another question related to the practice of SPJP: what if the artist produces something that is theologically aberrant, offensive, or even blasphemous? Would there be an opportunity for leaders in the church or members of the congregation to call out this error immediately? Have there been examples of this?

  8. August 17, 2010 3:19 pm

    Amazing, literally, athough at my RC church we witness little white wafers (baked by the ‘Red nuns of Dublin’) mysteriously turn into the body of Christ at the tone of tinkling bells and whispered incantations (just what is he mumbling up there anyway) by frilly dressed men in floor length skirts and comfortable shoes. So, I reckon I am in no position to criticize other churches (and whatever marketing professionals or ‘church building strategists’) invent to keep us invested and entertained. The artists in the three videos I watched sure have a bunch of talent and I like their pictures. Maybe speed-painting Jesus in church is to ecclesiology, what speed-dating is to courtship and romantic love. obliged.

  9. August 17, 2010 5:46 pm

    I ran across this book today, co-edited by your own Trevor Hart, through a reference of Jeremy Begbie’s to Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite, who contributed a chapter to the book: “Faithful Performances: Enacting Christian Tradition”

    Amazon description: The metaphor of performance has been applied fruitfully by anthropologists and other social theorists to different aspects of human social existence, and furnishes a potentially helpful model in terms of which to think theologically about Christian life. After an introductory editorial chapter reflecting on the nature of artistic performance and its relationship to the notions of tradition and identity, part one of this book attends specifically to the phenomenon of dramatic performance and possible theological applications of it. Part two considers various aspects of the performance of Christian identity, looking at worship, the interpretation of the Bible, Christian response to elements in the contemporary media, the shape of Christian moral life, and ending with a theological reflection on the shape of personal identity, correlating it with the theatrical metaphors of ‘character’ and ‘performing a part’ in a scripted drama. Part three demonstrates how art forms (including some technically non-performative ones – literature, poetry, painting) may constitute faithful Christian practices in which the tradition is authentically ‘performed’, producing works which break open its meaning in profound new ways for a constantly shifting context.

    Might be salient to this conversation.

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