Art Views · Church Views · On Being Christian

the wrong kind of provocative

A 10-year-old artist is the center of a controversy involving the validity of art within the Church. Jackson Potts II was the only child asked to contribute to an exhibit depicting the Stations of the Cross, in anticipation that he “would bring a unique perspective.” Jackson’s representation of the seventh Station of the Cross (Jesus falling for the second time carrying the cross) was a policeman beating a small, bloody child with a nightstick. Consider his motivation: “I thought about how innocent Jesus was, like a kid. I thought a police officer was sort of like a Roman guard.” Yet his “unique perspective” was rejected as too violent and offensive.

“Certainly we don’t want to be censoring art or anything like that,” said Jeremy Wells, a gallery board member, church elder and artist. “Artwork being provocative in nature can be beneficial to the church if it’s provocative in the right way.

“We felt it was provocative in the wrong way,” Wells said. “The image, being as graphic as it is, did not draw people closer to the risen Christ.”

“Provocative in the wrong way” is really still just censorship. In this situation it’s the result of applying utilitarian standards, which Art cannot be measured by. Unfortunately, as Christians we’ve so bought into the idea that all creativity has to have a purpose, and that purpose is to lead people to Christ, that we can’t accept as “christian” that which hasn’t been completely neutered by a fish, dove or Bible verse. We’ve decided “christian art” should never be offensive – unless it’s offensive in the “right” way. (I’m compelled to remind: “christian” is an audience or market, not a genre of art.)

What’s particularly ironic is that the controversy revolves around the cross – arguably one of the most violent, cruel, and offensive events in history. This 10-year-old actually seems to have grasped the scale of violence, and sought to translate it in a modern and surprising way. It appears he succeeded.

Because that is, of course, exactly what Art does – it presents us with ideas and asks us to think differently about them. It challenges us or moves us, but always requires us to consider why – good or bad – or simply to live with the uncomfortableness. It’s possible we’ve simply become too comfortable with the story of the cross.

(The artist’s statement, and other background information is posted by his father on his blog.)

9 thoughts on “the wrong kind of provocative

  1. Well-said, Jan. I think that art, when it is done well, usually manages to offend someone. The other part of the issue is that the Western Church, specifically the American one, has become entirely too sensitive, and is now offended by things that don’t offend God. As you say, the cross is a violent symbol, and Jesus’ teachings were quite offensive (and often remain so today). And, as Schaffer stated so well, art was never intended to be utilitarian.

    For some reason, this left me thinking that this Dorothy Sayers quote from her essay “Why Work?” is appropriate here:
    “To aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work…If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good-and work that is not good serves neither God nor the community; it only serves Mammon.”


  2. I disagree with your conclusion that this is censorship. The organizers of the exhibit invited the child photographer to participate, therefore they hold the right to exclude his piece at their discretion, and having read the comments of the churches position on the matter, I certainly understand. While its true that child created a tremendous image and is richly talented, the perspective of the church should first be considered.


    1. Randy, I agree with your premise: the curator of an exhibit is certainly responsible for choosing the pieces that are included or excluded. Same for a juried exhibit. They may exclude a piece because it doesn’t fit with the others due to lack of quality or theme. But those were not the reasons the church gave in this instance. Their reasons were more subjective: it was too controversial, too violent, a family in the church had lost a child in a similar situation and might be hurt, it wasn’t provocative in the “right way.” In my opinion, these appear to be the criteria of censorship, rather than the right of exclusion of a curator.


  3. There is a lot of great stuff here. The image is provocative. However, I think the image is metaphorically weak. The church leaders/curators should have it addressed it from that angle. Unfortunately, the church is mostly uneducated on art and how it relates to the church (or might relate).

    If the image looked at the cross in general, it is a powerful image. The policeman would have represented justice/righteousness – basicly the wrath of God. Brilliant and poweful!!!! However, the kid’s task was to deal with the second station and the metaphor becomes muddled. Police are keepers of justice/righteousness (protectors of the law). Likening the police to a Roman guard muddles the metaphor a bit IMO because the law doesn’t beat down innocence. I would have critiqued the work of art, then ask the kid to take it one step further….


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