Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why Contemporary Christian Art Is Lame and/or Dreadful

Within the last few weeks I have picked up on a series of news items and of blog entries by Steven Greydanus and the discussions they have provoked.
Oliviero Rainaldi, Pope John Paul II
Italian, 2011
Rome, Piazza Giovanni Paolo II
The news stories were about a newly unveiled statue by Oliviero Rainaldi of Blessed Pope John Paul II recently placed in the square named for the Pope near the Termini train station in Rome,

Robert Graham, Our Lady of the Angels
American, 2002
Los Angeles, Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral

while the blog postings were in regard to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Robert Graham in Los Angeles’ Our Lady of the Angels cathedral.

Generally, the reactions to both of these statues were deeply negative.

In 2008, when I began blogging, this kind of subject matter was much on my mind and was among the first subjects I wrote about. This was in a series of three essays, titled “Why Christian Art is Lame #1, 2 and 3”. I’ve summarized these below and added some additional points, as well.

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 of 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. Furthermore, as the Gospels make clear, the people and events they describe occurred in a particular place and at a particular time, not in some misty mythological realm.  For example, the familiar narrative of the birth of Jesus places it firmly in a historical and geographic context:  "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child." (Luke 2:1-5)

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.

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer
Austrian, 1907
New York, Neue Galerie
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.

2. Much “Christian” art is often nothing better than sentimental eye candy. Alongside the problem of bodily distortions and eventual disappearance, is the problem of images that, while readable, have become trivialized and pedestrian. In other words, much of the “Christian art” of the last 150 years or so has been diluted by a spirit of sentimentality and wish not to give offense.

This trend can begin to be seen in some of the art of the first half of the 19th century, especially in the work of the German Nazarenes and the English Pre-Raphaelites. A popular image from the very beginning of this strain is William Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” (Manchester, City Galleries). Painted in 1851-52, this work illustrates the passage from Revelation that reads:  Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. (Revelation, 3:20)

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World
English, 1852
Oxford, Keble College

Warner Sallman, Christ at the Heart's Door
American, 1940s
Anderson University, Indiana

While Holman Hunt’s image still retains some of the mystery and awe that had attended images of Christ from the earliest times, it also stands at the beginning of a series of images that progressively sentimentalized, trivialized and domesticated Christ and His presence. We all know the results of this process. We have lived with it all our lives, from the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” image of countless Good Shepherd pictures, to the works of Warner Sallman to innumerable devotional images of the Sacred Heart. In contrast to the portrayals of Christ in earlier art, where Christ is presented as a solid personality, in this strain of art Jesus is presented, as almost hollow, somehow lacking in personality and uniformly pretty.

Add to this abstraction of personality the visual abstraction that has taken place since the 19th century and one finds that recent Christian art no longer has much contact with a concrete reality, with the Incarnation in fact. It can be difficult to see in the late-19th and earlier-20th-century mild mannered Jesus or in the late-20th/early-21st-century abstract Christ any relation to a living person, who is also God. The balance between the man and the Godhead has vanished into a dreamlike state of unreality. This Jesus is shown as already living in eternity, where no human emotion exists and, therefore, lacking in anything that might engage our own emotions.

3. There has been a disconnect between patron and artist. Art is and has always been an expensive proposition. It is not one of the necessities of life. On the contrary, it is a product of leisure and thought. Even the cave dwellers needed to have gained enough food to provide them with the leisure to take the time to grind up their colors, plan their designs, practice making them and, finally, place the final designs on the walls of their caves.
Ahkenaten Offering to the Aten
Egyptian, 18th Dynasty
Cairo, Egyptian Museum
Michelangelo, Sacrifice of Noah
Italian, 1408-1512
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

From the beginning of art history the work of the artist has been intimately linked with the requirements of the patron. This is as true for the art of Amarna, where the pharaoh, Ahkenaten, requested from his artists an entirely new iconography to serve his new, single God, the Aten, as it is for the art of Michelangelo, as he struggled with both the demands of his own muse and the demands of Pope Julius II in creating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel .

Up to the time of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution the Church was one of the primary sources of patronage for artists. The other primary source of patronage was European royalty and nobility. Frequently, the two sources of patronage were in agreement. The Church commissioned works for itself and royal and noble patrons also commissioned works for the Church. In both cases the religious works of artists were as important to their survival as their secular works.

This symbiotic relationship came to an end under the triple pressures of the Enlightenment, French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. As a secular art market developed, with sales and commissions more and more frequently being handled by specialist art dealers, the importance of both the religious and noble art commission diminished. The style and subjects of art changed, with domestic scenes, landscapes, portraits taking a greater and greater share of artistic production. As the inheritance of the Revolution spread throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, fewer and fewer artists turned their thought to religious themes, while the forms of art went farther and farther from readable human forms suitable for the depiction of Christian themes.

At the same time, Church patronage became more and more conservative. New churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, were usually constructed to reflect historic styles: Neo-Gothic, Neo-Classical, Neo-Byzantine, Neo-Renaissance. This often resulted in beautiful spaces, but it also meant that, by the first quarter of the 20th century, religious art and high art flowed in entirely different and often antagonistic channels.

Those artists who chose to pursue a career in high art frequently held beliefs quite opposed to Christian, or indeed any, religious belief. There are a few who seem to have been able to bridge the gap, but they stand out in art history by this very uniqueness. In addition, the art establishment tends to reward those who do not express religious content in their work. “Spiritual” content may be acceptable, but not religious content that references Christian belief.

Consequently, it is now very difficult for patrons of religious art to find persons who have both high contemporary style and who can imbue their productions with an inner core of belief. One can easily see why contemporary religious commissions appear somewhat awkward and self-conscious in a way the work of earlier periods never did.

4. The rise of individualism and the exaltation of personal style. Prior to the Renaissance visual artists were considered to be artisans, what we would call crafts persons, albeit on a higher level than a carpenter, for example. The basic understanding was that an artist was a manual worker, not a person who dealt with abstract ideas, therefore, not on a par with a learned person such as a philosopher, theologian or doctor. The understanding was also that the “program” for a work of art, at least beyond the level of the most basic images, would be set up by a learned person, often the patron or a scholar in the service of the patron. However, as the Renaissance progressed, it became increasingly common to view the artist more and more as a learned person in his or her own right, as someone who gave visual form to abstract or internally set ideas and, therefore, equal to those same scholarly professionals.1 By the time Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects in the second half of the 16th century, the idea of the artist as hero and genius had been well established. As the centuries passed, the position of artists rose and fell somewhat, but generally the trend was always upward. By the beginning of the 20th century artists were in the forefront of the rising tide of modernism. We need only think of such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Pollack and Rothko, sculptors such as Giocometti and Calder and architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier to see the impact they have had on our visual surroundings.  An excellent comparison may be made between two buildings, built 40 years apart, that stand within two blocks of each other on Manhattan's Park Avenue:

Bertram Goodhue, St. Bartholemew
American, 1918
New York, NY

St. Bartholemew's Episcopal Church of 1918, built in Romanesque style by Bertram Goodhue (with portico from the previous church by Stanford White) and

Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building
German, 1958
New York, NY
Seagram Building, built in 1958 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

All this contributes to reason #5.

5. A reversal of roles between the artist and the patron. In past eras the position of artist and patron was, at least to a degree, one of servant and master. The artist wished to please the patron by carrying out his or her wishes and instructions. And the patron understood that he or she held “the power of the purse strings” and could accept or reject the final work to the degree that it fulfilled his or her intent. Because of the change in the status of artists there has been something of a reversal in position. The patron now may be less inclined to set specific conditions for a work and more inclined to accept the work produced as an expression of the artist’s personal genius than might have been true in the past. Further, the change in how artists earn a living, i.e., the existence of a secular art market, means that commissions, while sought after and welcome, are not the sole way in which artists can sell their work. This makes the artist less dependent on pleasing the patron.

Consequently, roles have reversed, at least to some extent. The would-be patron, once having chosen an artist for a commission, may relinquish control over the final product. Modern contracts may also be less favorable to the patron than to the artist. In addition, as many commissions are for major, expensive works, decisions are likely to be made by a committee, always a difficult method of reaching a successful outcome.

6. Lack of visual literacy on the part of decision makers. Probably the majority of patrons, whether clerical or lay, for contemporary ecclesiastical art have little background in the visual arts. Decisions, even those open to competition, may be based on sketches or even written descriptions of the work to be carried out. The decision makers may have done little or no research into the prior work of the artist being commissioned or may be basing the decision on having seen a small group of works. This can result in problems of scale (too big or too small for a space) as well as in confusion or difficulty in the visual reading of the finished work. Finally, lack of literacy can make the patron(s) more deferential to the artist and, therefore, less willing to challenge him or her than might otherwise be the case.

7. The uncritical embrace of the new. Finally, some church decision makers have been largely uncritical in their embrace of the “new” and too eager to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. This was particularly true in the period immediately after Vatican II when some churches were “updated” for the liturgical changes. Some unfortunate church buildings were subjected to what amounted to a new iconoclasm and were virtually stripped of their furnishings. Some of the worst examples of this that I have seen were perpetrated in Ireland.

Joseph B. Keane, St. Mel's Cathedral
Irish, 1840-1853
Longford, Co. Longford
(A picture of the nave taken in the late 19th century)

One particularly egregious example was St. Mel’s Cathedral in Longford where the interior of a beautiful Neo-Classical building was almost entirely ripped out and inappropriate modern interior furnishings were substituted.

Joseph B. Keane, St. Mel's Cathedral
Irish, 1840-1853, remodeled 1970-1975
Longford, Co. Longford
(Picture taken before the fire on December 25, 2009)

The effect was as if a human being had been eviscerated, vacant and sad. The interior of the building was subsequently destroyed by a fire in the early hours of Christmas Day 2009. It is now being restored and one hopes that it will be restored in a more appropriate manner.

New church buildings were also built in severely modern style, often on a non-human scale and without ornamentation or with minimalist, abstract ornament. Whatever the intent, the result has often been bleak and unwelcoming.

George William Walsh, Annunciation and Nativity Window
Irish, 1980s
Eyeries, Co. Cork, Ireland
 Church of St. Kentigern
These comments may raise the question of whether it is possible for there to be works of modern art that are both beautiful and respectful of Christian tradition and history. The answer is that, happily, it is. While I have been rather severe in criticism of the situation in Ireland I have seen much accomplishment there since the very bleak days of the 1970s. One of the most astoundingly beautiful sets of modern stained glass I have ever seen was installed during the late 1980s in my mother’s home church, St. Kentigern in Eyeries, Co. Cork. While definitely modern, they are full of human warmth and have iconography that is very easy to read. (Photo is mine.)

Similarly, in many older churches, poor quality modern work, installed during the late 1960s and 1970s, has been removed and replaced by furnishings more in keeping with the dignity of the space and of the liturgy that takes place within it.

Altar of Sacrifice, Church of St. Jean Baptiste
American, 1910-1913
New York, NY
This altar, now in use as the principal altar for the
celebration of Mass in the main church, was originally the
altar of the secondary, lower church (no longer in use).
It was moved to the main church during a restoration in the late
1990s to replace an incongruously modern altar that was
placed in the church during remodeling in 1968.  Its classic
style is in harmony with the elaborately decorated
Beaux-Arts Baroque design of the church and its decoration.

For instance, in my home parish in New York, St. Jean Baptiste, several beautiful elements were removed from the upper church in the 1960s and replaced by poor quality modern. However, starting in the late 1980s, some of the older elements have been replaced or reimagined and new work commissioned in the same style as the church, which opened in 1913.

1. Martindale, Andrew. The Rise of the Artist in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1972.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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