Friday, May 30, 2008

Why Christian Art is Lame #3 (part of a series in which I try to answer the question "Why is Christian art so lame?")

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. This is true even for cave art. 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.

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 ("Ahkenaten offering to the Aten”, Cairo, Egyptian Museum), 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 (“Sacrifice of Noah”). Up to the time of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (with the exception, after the Reformation, of the independent Netherlands) the Church was one of the primary sources of patronage for religious art. 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, the French Revolution and the 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 and 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. Living as I do in New York City I am surrounded by multiple examples of this history. The interior decoration and furnishing of these historicizing buildings was conducted in the same manner, reproducing the styles of earlier periods. This often resulted in beautiful spaces, such as my own parish of St. Jean Baptiste in Manhattan at left ( However, 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 positively 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.

Indeed, problems of even secular patronage have been fraught with difficulties in recent years. For instance, many American taxpayers, whose tax money funds the National Endowment for the Arts, were seriously riled during the early 1990’s by some of the works produced under funding from the NEA by Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”) or Robert Maplethorpe (homoerotic photographs). Their protests led to some modest cutbacks in funding. More recently, the New York art world has experienced controversy surrounding the inclusion of Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" in the 1999 Brooklyn Musuem exhibition, Sensation, in which the picture was composed of (among other things) pornography and elephant dung, and the cancellation of a 2007 gallery exhibition of Cosimo Cavallaro's "My Sweet Lord", more commonly known as the "Chocolate Jesus".

Patronage problems are nothing new, of course. One of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, “The Death of the Virgin” (Louvre, ca 1606), was rejected by the church for which it had been commissioned. The fathers found the bloated body of Mary, her exposed feet and the peasant-like mourners to be lacking in decorum. However, in 1606 the fathers were able to find another painter to give them the decorous picture they wanted. In 2008 their successors might have a harder time.