Thursday, June 9, 2011

Other Thoughts on Christian Art (from Italy)

The issue of Christian art in contemporary culture seems to be on several minds lately.  Here's an entry from Sandro Magister, a writer on church matters from Italy.

Only Beauty Will Save Us

"In view of a new encounter between Benedict XVI and artists, two blistering criticisms of the Church hierarchy. From art historian Jean Clair and philosopher of aesthetics Enrico M. Radaelli

Pope Benedict XVI Meeting with Artists
in the Sistine Chapel 2009
"ROME, June 6, 2011 – This July, Benedict XVI will again meet with artists, a few hundred of them from all over the world, less than two years after the previous encounter in the Sistine Chapel (see photo).

That art, together with the saints and before reason, is "the greatest apologia for the Christian faith" is a thesis that Benedict XVI has supported on a number of occasions. 

For him, beauty is "the most attractive and fascinating way to come to encounter and love God."
Read the whole thing here

In one of the statements made in the articles quoted by Signor Magister there are some comments about abstraction.  I think that the problem is really not so much one of abstraction of the image, but of the unreadability of the image. 

Madonna and Child, Book of Kells,
ca. 800, Dublin, Trinity College Library
Detail, Book of Kells

The images in the 9th-century Book of Kells are highly abstract, but they are readable as illustrations of Christian texts or traditions, even to the average person.   It seems to me that the difficulty cited in the article, at least in the discussion of abstraction, is that the abstract images (and sometimes even the non-abstract images) "do not compute", except possibly to the artist. 

Therefore, it would seem that artists and their patrons (whether individuals or committees) need to take into account how clearly and easily their works can be read by the viewer when preparing works to be used in a religious context.  This is where images such as Robert Graham's "Our Lady of Angels" from Los Angeles fail.  The viewer is simply puzzled as to who she is. 
Robert Graham, Bronze Doors,
Los Angeles, Our Lady of Angels, 2002
The areas of gilding behind her head and under her feet do not easily read as the "crown of twelve stars" (or even as an ordinary halo) on her head and the moon under her feet. 

I think it's interesting to compare this work to the slightly earlier work by Graham on the Duke Ellington Memorial (1997), which stands here in New York at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 110th Street at the northern end of Central Park.  Here there are no problems with the reading.  We see the Duke, dressed in a suit,  standing next to his piano and we know instantly that this man was a musician, even before we know that it is Duke Ellington.

Robert Graham, Duke Ellington Memorial, 1997
New York

Surely it is not too much to ask for a similar clarity in publicly commissioned Christian art.

© M. Duffy, 2011