A week or so ago I saw a question on a blog (and I have to apologize to the blogger involved because I can’t remember which blog it was on). I think the question was phrased “Why is Christian art so lame?”. It’s a question that I have been thinking about for some years. I don’t have an easy or quick answer. As with many subjects the answer is complex, because the situation has complex roots. But here’s a bit of an answer – the first of many, I suspect.
So, Christian art is lame because:
1. The idiom of art no longer speaks the idiom of human form. Since the second century Christian art has been a figural art, rather than a symbolic one. As the introduction to my blog (over on the right) points out, this is unique among the monotheistic religions. Both Judaism and Islam forbid the making of images of God. Christianity, because if its incarnational basis, is friendly to images, although there have been periods and places where iconoclasm has done much damage. Indeed, Christian art, for most of its history has been primarily based on images of God the Father, Jesus, Mary and the saints and angels. (On the left above is the 15th century image of Madonna and Child with Saints, Angels and Donor from Milan's Brera Gallery. The images, although created in paint in two-dimensions, seems to occupy a three-dimensional space. )
But it isn’t iconoclasm that has caused the current problems for Christian art. The problem lies instead in the way in which contemporary art deals, or better, doesn’t deal with human form. Since the middle of the 19th century, beginning with the early Impressionists, artists have flattened, decomposed, fractured and abstracted the human shape until it has virtually disappeared. It has become more and more difficult for artists to tell the Christian story, using a visual vocabulary that does not support a visual story. Two examples are: Gustav Klimt's 1907 portait of Adele Bloch-Bauer from New York's Neue Galerie (left) and Henri Matisse's La Musique of 1939 from the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY (right). The human figures are seen as flattened against the flat patterned backgrounds. They are as much a pattern as those backgrounds.