Hendrickson had the pleasure of interviewing John Skillen about his new book Putting Art (Back) in Its Place.
In Putting Art (Back) in its Place, Skillen offers readers a compelling call to foster a vibrant culture of the arts by restoring and cultivating active and respectful relationships among artists, patrons, scholars, communities and the art they create. The book equips laity and clergy to think historically about the vibrant role the visual arts have played—and could again play—in the life of the church and its mission. Skillen also directs the Studio for Art, Faith & History at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and oversees several programs in Europe administered through Gordon’s Global Education Office.
1. What first prompted your interest in the idea of art in situ?
Particularly while working with a group of artists in Florence in 1993, I was struck by the enormous number of “famous masterpieces of Renaissance art” found not in museums—although the Uffizi Gallery sure has its share—but in the places where these works of art were commissioned for a particular community’s purposes. Statues representing the patron saints of each of the trade guilds installed in niches all around Orsanmichele, the chapel used by the guilds collectively; famous Last Suppers in the dining halls of monasteries, which only the monks would have seen; Ghirlandaio’s altarpiece painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds just sitting there, unprotected, in a side chapel of a functioning parish church; and so on and on. Initially I wasn’t so much interested in the “idea” of art in situ as I was simply bowled over by the fact of artworks once doing their work as physical objects in a real, everyday life situation, rather than being abstracted from everyday life in museums and galleries.
2. What are some your ideas of tangible steps that could be taken to try and return artwork to its original location?
If by “returning artwork to its original location” you mean taking artworks out of museums and re-locating then in the places they were originally made for, well, that just ‘ain’t gonna happen’! Museums that have legally purchased or been given those artworks aren’t going to give them up, and many of the original locations aren’t there anymore, nor can such artworks be sufficiently protected even if they were restored to their place of origin.
But if you mean the process of recovering the value of artworks made for a “real” location, then I confess that this will not be an easy, or straight-line, process. I think the place we have to start is by helping groups (by which I mean gatherings of people who see themselves as a ‘community’ with a shared purpose and identity):
- to take conscious notice of where they do their work
- to define that work clearly
- to consider the various purposes that artworks once unashamedly bore (often as the three-fold job of instructing, remembering, and inspiring)
- to consider what purposes, beyond serving as pleasing objects of aesthetic looking, art could perform for that community
- and to accept their responsibility to the artist for making art—making worth his or her time, labor, and training.
At the same time, we need to encourage artists to be willing to rub shoulders with those communities, and to give up the considerable autonomy that they enjoy and expect in making whatever they want to in the privacy of their own studio.
3. Do you have a favorite piece of artwork in situ that you’ve come back to again and again or that has a lot of meaning for you?
You bet! But I guess I have to speak of favorites, not of a single artwork. I’ll name four that I have visited dozens of times, whose beauty and sophistication I am nowhere near to ‘plumbing’ (and which figure prominently in my book): Piero della Francesco’s fresco cycle in the Franciscan church in Arezzo that narrates and explores the fascinating “legend of the Cross”; the cycle of scenes from the life of St. Peter frescoed by Masaccio and Masolino in a family chapel in the Carmelite monastery in Florence; the scripture-based scenes frescoed by Fra Angelico and his team on the walls of the individual cells in the monastery San Marco in Florence; and the depiction of the End Times and the Last Judgment frescoed by Luca Signorelli (who completed work begun by Fra Angelico) over every square inch of the San Brizio Chapel in the cathedral in Orvieto—which I’ve had the good fortune of visiting, worshiping in, and attending concerts in hundreds of times over the last 18 years.
4. Your story of having a performance of the Nativity in Orvieto prompts the question: Do you think there are ways to participate in in situ art in the United States? If so, how? Do you think it’s possible to have programs similar to that of the Nativity in the U.S. for secular art without some religiously bonding element present?
The Nativity play you mentioned operates in a long and rich tradition in Europe (especially in England, interestingly) of performing long sequences of scriptural episodes in places around town. These play-cycles took on their rich resonance for the community precisely because they were performed repeatedly over many generations and in ways that invested places in town with the overtones of the scriptural stories themselves. In a certain sense, society in our own country is simply too mobile, with weakened civic and neighborhood identity, and without any text that is recognized by the whole community as grounding of their mutual identity, to foster the conditions that made such theater, and other art in situ, real and relevant to people’s actual experience. But we should take every opportunity to cultivate those conditions afresh. Wherever there is an event that binds together a community, offers a place of shared sensibility and emotion, and sustains a common memory that can be passed down through generations, such events can serve as starting points for artistic reenactment and for formalized remembrance and celebration.
5. How does secular art fit into your idea of art in situ? Is there a way that secular art can be interacted with as conscientiously as religious art in its original location?
Recognizing that “secular” and “religious” are slippery terms, I don’t consider them as the defining feature of what allows “community” art or fosters “the social practices of art” (to cite the subtitle of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent book). Any profound event, narrative, value or belief that serves to bind together individuals into a collective can serve as the source point of “art in situ.” A work of memorial art that remembers a beloved founding figure, or narrates a story of generosity and perseverance, or honors the courageous first responders in New York City on 9/11 can be (it seems to me) “interacted with as conscientiously” by people of Christian faith as they would with explicitly “religious” art.
6. How do you reconcile the possibility of decomposition of an artwork in situ when it would have been preserved for much longer in a museum?
I enjoy exploring this paradox with my students. Yes, on the one hand, an artwork that is loved and used and incorporated into the life of a community is likely to be “used up,” worn out over time. In the epoch described in my book, artworks were made to last, and yet altarpieces did get damaged from candle smoke and wear and tear; frescoes on the walls of the portico around a monastery cloister were scuffed and faded and damaged by the elements, and so forth. On the other hand, the very efforts to preserve valuable objects by taking them out of circulation and protecting them from damage in climate-controlled museums in some sense strips them of their power. I guess I’ve come to the somewhat-pained position of thinking that it’s better to allow loved artworks to decompose from use, and then for the community to have to replace them with new works. (As I narrate in my book in chapter 4, this is exactly what happened in Siena, where a deeply loved old altarpiece of the Madonna in the cathedral was replaced with a new one by the artist Duccio.) Perhaps some sort of analogy is the beloved stuffed animal that has to be patched together, resewn, and finally loses its stuffing: better that than sitting untouched on the shelf in a plastic bag so that it lasts longer.
7. What would you recommend to those who can’t access the prestigious Italian and European art, but long to experience art like it in person?
A good question. Two approaches can work together. First, visit museums with collections of premodern European art originally made for particular places and purposes, but having done some reading (such as my book!) that helps one imagine how the artwork would have worked in its original physical and liturgical context. (A problem, of course, is that much of the art of the premodern period can’t make it to museums because it wasn’t on walls, it was the wall, frescoed permanently into the plaster, or carved in bas relief on panels that are part of the wall itself; not decoration on doors, but the very panels that comprise the doors.) Then, take every opportunity to visit places in your neck of the woods where, whatever their artistic quality, artworks remain installed in place: perhaps the murals painted around the courtroom in the county courthouse or in the old bank, and the like.
Second, see if you live in reach of any of the growing number of cities (such as Philadelphia) that have initiated explicit campaigns to commission and install artworks in civic settings. Visit and support new works of art commissioned for particular sites. Most importantly, get in gear and start commissioning in situ artworks in and for the places that your own community has control over. The Studio for Art, Faith & History, which I direct, offers study tours with particular themes—as reasonably-priced as possible—that are chock full of excursions to places in Tuscany and Umbria rich with in situ art from medieval and Renaissance Italy. Visit the Studio for Art, Faith & History’s website for more information.
8. What can we expect from you next?
Well, less of more books and more of active engagement in helping churches, schools, and civic entities figure out how their own life together can be enriched by thematically and artistically sophisticated artworks installed in the places where the “work of the people” is done. In other words, I will measure the real success of my book by how much it inspires real-life communities to “put art back in its place” and inspires students who read it for a class to translate premodern conditions of in situ art into the “postmodern” conditions of our own time.
While most Christians today view art from a distance and Christian discussions of art focus primarily on artists as lonely dreamers, this has not always been the case. In Putting Art (Back) in its Place, Dr. John Skillen, an expert in medieval and Renaissance art and literature, calls for the church to come together as one body to reclaim that rich heritage where art touched the entire believing community.
For more information about Putting Art (Back) in Its Place, feel free to check out this review of the book, read this article that Skillen wrote for the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) quarterly magazine SEEN, or visit our website!