Sacred Art vs. Sacred Subject

Fanaticism in matters of sacred art is an attitude that can lead to a decadence more sterile than the one we are now endeavoring to overcome.
                                  Maurice Lavanoux, “The Authentic Tradition and Art,,” Liturgical Arts (1954)

This past Saturday I caught a late afternoon train into the city for the last night of One Faith, East and West, a collection of contemporary sacred art at NYU’s Catholic Center. This was the final stop after exhibition in Beijing and Moscow. The show closed with a talk by painter Clement Fuchs, “Hermeneutics of Continuity in Sacred Art.”

It was an inauspicious title. A bludgeoning word, hermeneutics works best on those who view art through a verbal filter and/or think they are responding to art when they are simply reacting to subject matter. Nevertheless, the problems of sacred art today matter to me. It was worth heading out into steady rain if only to spare myself wondering later if I had missed something by staying home.

Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, St. Nicholas.

Flyers listed the start of the event—lecture and reception—at 6 PM. I mistook that to mean the talk began at six, wine and cheese afterward. Since my train only runs once an hour on weekends, I could arrive either way too soon or a half hour late. I took the earlier train.

My timing proved as unlucky as the weather. Customary protocol—lecture first, drinks later—had been reversed. Fuchs’ talk would not begin until 7 PM. And the work on the walls was a letdown. With few exceptions, the show confirmed my growing assent to the Orthodox distinction between sacred art and mere secular art with religious subject matter. It illustrated, too, the distance between piety and genius.

While several names were familiar, only two artists merited a second look: Dony McManus, an Irish artist and something of an entrepreneur in sacred art circles; and Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, an Orthodox Romanian nun and iconographer living in rural Romania.

Dony McManus. Crucifixion (from Hendrik Terbrugghen, 1625).

McManus contributed an exquisite drawing of the corpus from Hendrik Terbrugghen’s Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John. I regret having only a jpg. of McManus’ drawing. You simply cannot see on screen the delicacy of his hand or fully grasp the intelligence and vitality of his translation into line of a tonal painting. (We are so accustomed to online images that it is easy to forget the physicality of an artwork, particularly that of a drawing.)

However fine, McManus’ drawing remains a copy of part of a painting from the Dutch Golden Age. It is a beautiful rendition of its model but what distinguishes it as sacred art? Neither subject matter nor an artist’s piety qualify art as sacred. Technique and touch applied to the rendering of a religious theme does not differ from what would be used to depict any moodily lit, anatomically correct figure in space. In formal terms, the drawing is an exercise in picture making (as is the Caravaggesque painting it borrows from.)

Hendrik Terbrugghen, Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John (c.1625). ©Metropolitan Museum, NYC.

That detracts not a jot from the loveliness of the artist’s hand, but it departs from the call to transcendent reality that is the purpose of sacred art, and which informs the heart of the icon tradition. Abstract qualities necessary to suggest religious mystery evaporate in verisimilitude. In the end, much of what Western tradition after the Romanesque and early fourteenth century takes as sacred art is really history painting, albeit of a religiously significant subject.

Here, Sr. Eliseea alone eclipses pious sentiment and rises to compelling sacred art. She is not a copyist, not merely replicating older work. Rather, she inhabits the icon tradition, infusing historic patterns with a quality of concentration, precision, and refinement distinctly her own. Think of it in musical terms. The process of writing an icon bears analogy to the way a modern musician might interpret an historic and venerable score. Yo Yo Ma, Arthur Russell, and Mstislav Rostropovic can each play Bach’s Cello Suites; yet each will sound different from the other when they do.

Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, St. Nicholas (detail).

It is said that to write an icon is like standing in prayer. Looking at her work, you trust the truth of Vladislav Andreyev’s words:

What we are trying to do in our icon writing, both on the board and in our souls, is . . . to grasp or become in touch in some way with the Logos.

No emotion is depicted on the icon board, only hieroglyphic formulas—principles—of depiction. There is no effort to convey the psychological reality esteemed in the Western portrait tradition. All emphasis in is on leading the viewer in continuous motion toward an ascendant reality outside time and history. Sr. Eliseea’s incantatory calligraphic inscriptions advance the icon’s aspiration toward the sacred—the Logos—in its iconological aspect. This is a symbolic realm, conformed to theology but not identical to it.

Sr. Eliseea Papacioc. St. Paul.

Guiding the selections for One Faith, East and West is the assumption that faith is primary in matters of artistic achievement in sacred art. Were that true, this would have been more than the unexceptional exhibit that it is. True, in Sr. Eliseea’s icons faith and talent are in communion with each other. But her gifts are distinct from her faith. Were she not in religious life, not an iconographer, whatever she turned her attention to would be extraordinary. She has an eye for the subtleties of surface quality and a remarkable hand.

Rouault once said that, with respect to sacred art, “one must begin by loving painting.” (Something quite different from loving the image of oneself as a Christian painter.) In commenting on the great periods of religious art in the past, Chagall remarked “. . . there were good and bad artists even then. The difference did not lie in their piety but in their painterly ability.”

Overall, there was not enough of interest to keep me hanging about the gallery for at least another hour. I ducked out into a downpour to an overpriced Italian restaurant close by. Pappardelle con ragù degli Appennini is, undeniably, a thing of beauty. And Montepulciano is good for wet feet.

I never made the lecture. It was not necessary. There was nothing talk could add to the testimony on the walls.

Note: Email link was broken. All fixed now.

Matt Ridley & Politics of Bad Ideas

Every First Things reader should spend a few minutes with Matt Ridley's “The Climate Wars' Damage to Science,” in the current issue of Quadrant, Australia's leading monthly. 

Neither the pope nor the encyclical are mentioned. Nevertheless, Ridley's article is supremely relevant to a full grasp of what Laudato Si signifies.  His article is entirely concerned with the corruption of science by political agendas and the funding dependent on them. It is a clear-eyed examination of the intellectual bankruptcy of the species of ideologues who have the pope's ear, and on whose voice the moral credibility of the Church has been gambled.

Sure, we [science writers] occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience—homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

Tofim Lysenko, Soviet agronomist (c. 1930s). Photo: HIP

Bad ideas—i.e. Lysenkoism—that garner political support monopolize the debate:

This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses. In the 1970s, when global temperatures were cooling, some scientists could not resist the lure of press attention by arguing that a new ice age was imminent. Others called this nonsense and the World Meteorological Organisation rightly refused to endorse the alarm. That’s science working as it should. In the 1980s, as temperatures began to rise again, some of the same scientists dusted off the greenhouse effect and began to argue that runaway warming was now likely.

At first, the science establishment reacted sceptically and a diversity of views was aired. It’s hard to recall now just how much you were allowed to question the claims in those days.

As recently as ten years ago it was still possible to warn against over-heating debate:

Since then, however, inch by inch, the huge green pressure groups have grown fat on a diet of constant but ever-changing alarm about the future. That these alarms—over population growth, pesticides, rain forests, acid rain, ozone holes, sperm counts, genetically modified crops—have often proved wildly exaggerated does not matter: the organisations that did the most exaggeration trousered the most money. In the case of climate, the alarm is always in the distant future, so can never be debunked.

These huge green multinationals, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have now systematically infiltrated science, as well as industry and media, with the result that many high-profile climate scientists and the journalists who cover them have become one-sided cheerleaders for alarm, while a hit squad of increasingly vicious bloggers polices the debate to ensure that anybody who steps out of line is punished. They insist on stamping out all mention of the heresy that climate change might not be lethally dangerous.

Today’s climate science, as Ian Plimer points out in his chapter in The Facts, is based on a “pre-ordained conclusion, huge bodies of evidence are ignored and analytical procedures are treated as evidence”. [Climate Change: The Facts, published by Australia's Institute of Public Affairs] Funds are not available to investigate alternative theories. Those who express even the mildest doubts about dangerous climate change are ostracised, accused of being in the pay of fossil-fuel interests or starved of funds; those who take money from green pressure groups and make wildly exaggerated statements are showered with rewards and treated by the media as neutral.

The bulk of Ridley's essay is a menacing catalogue of scandals in which bad scientific practice is rewarded, evidence is ignored or funding threatened for research that raises questions about the pre-ordained conclusions of the climate change imams.  Reasoned dissent is greeted as blasphemy.

Climate is a chaotic system with multiple influences. As Ridley notes, human behavior is only one of many. This makes predictions extremely hazardous. The very nature of science places scientists among the least reliable forecasters. But caution is an impediment to the gravy train climate science is driving. Careers and reputations are at stake. And the traditional rigors of scientific method inhibit the intellectual posturings of self-selected, fashionable elites.

Pride is in the saddle. The Vatican, anxious to be ranked among European public intellectuals, has aligned itself with the degradation of science and the silencing of debate.

Note: Matt Ridley is a prize-winning British journalist and member of the House of Lords. He earned degrees in zoology from Eton and Oxford. You can read Ridley's essay in its entirety online here

Post-Encyclical Readings

Snared by the hot button issues of the day, we serve ourselves best by standing back a bit and reading, or rereading, previous texts that anchor the mind in the longue durée. Or at least release us from the pressures of the moment. Philip Larkin’s quip that sex began in 1963 applies to a great many things, including those myths and inclinations driving the ecclesial culture that produced Laudato Si. Herewith, a small bouquet for remembrance. 

Comet of 1680. From a pamphlet by Simon Bornmeister (1681). Nurenberg.

Begin with Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 and still in print. He introduces his chronicle of reigning hysterias and credulities, this way:

Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history. The present may be considered more of a miscellany of delusions than a history—a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written.

Christianity reveals nothing about politics, economics, or atmospheric physics. Christopher Dawson, writing in 1934, stated words that still resonate. Keep them in mind as you read calls for the creation of global authorities, especially ones with enforcement powers on environmental matters:

[Christians] should remember that it is not the business of the Church to do the same things as the state—to build a Kingdom like the other Kingdoms of men, only better; nor to create a regime of earthly peace and justice. The Church exists to be the light of the world . . . .

That light derives from the promise of the Resurrection, a glory and a gift offered us as individuals, not as a class.

Jesuit scholar James V. Schall, in Religion Wealth and Poverty (1990) takes note of a reality that social justice warriors tend to forget. It is that the main source of poverty in the world is ideological:

The major causes of hunger are almost always related to the quality of the governmental regime and its theory about how mankind is to be organized where there is (or is not) hunger. Ideology, in fact, the main cause of hunger, along with . . . certain attitudes to work, reward, and order. The relation of religion and moral practice to wealth producing is much closer than re are normally willing to admit. Certain doctrines and beliefs will guarantee continuing poverty.

Theodore Schultz’s Nobel Prize lecture (1980) on “The Economics of Being Poor” clarifies Fr. Schall’s point:

Future historians will no doubt be puzzled by the extent to which economic incentives were impaired during recent decades. The dominant intellectual view is antagonistic to agricultural incentive, and the prevailing economic policies deprecate the function of producer incentives. For lack of incentives the unrealized economic potential in many low-income countries is large. .  . . Interventions by governments are currently the major cause of the lack of optimum economic incentives.

Laudato Si arrives as a stalking horse for the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and a promoter of its ideological bent. So listen again to Fr. Schall:

The Church has a great stake in not presenting itself as just another economic or political lobby. Unfortunately, it sometimes conceives its main purpose to concoct alternative policies, to be a sort of ecclesiastical “shadow cabinet,” waiting to explain how the world could be better run if it just voted for these practical policies.

Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains his having left the organization because of its increasing abandonment—thirty years ago!—of scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas:

By around the mid-1980s, when I left Greenpeace, the public had accepted most of the reasonable things we had been fighting for: stop the bomb, save the whales, stop toxic waste dumping into the earth, water, and air. Some, like myself, realized the job of creating mass awareness of the importance of the environment had been accomplished and it was time to move on from confrontation to sustainable development, seeking solutions. But others seemed bent on lifelong confrontation, “up against the man” “smash capitalism” . . . .

In order to remain confrontational as society adopted all the reasonable demands, it was necessary for these anti-establishment lifers to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in zero-tolerance policies.

That brings us back to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:

During the great plague of London, in 1665, the people listened with similar avidity to the predictions of quacks and fanatics. Defoe says, that at that time the people were more addicted to prophecies and astronomical conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than ever they were before or since. Almanacs, and their predictions, frightened them terribly. Even the year before the plague broke out, they were greatly alarmed by the comet which then appeared, and anticipated that famine, pestilence, or fire would follow. Enthusiasts, while yet the disease had made but little progress, ran about the streets, predicting that in a few days London would be destroyed.

A still more singular instance of the faith in predictions occurred in London in the year 1524. The city swarmed at that time with fortune-tellers and astrologers, who were consulted daily by people of every class in society on the secrets of futurity. As early as the month of June 1523, several of them concurred in predicting that, on the 1st day of February 1524, the waters of the Thames would swell to such a height as to overflow the whole city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses. The prophecy met implicit belief. It was reiterated with the utmost confidence month after month, until so much alarm was excited that many families packed up their goods, and removed into Kent and Essex. .  .  .

By the middle of January, at least twenty thousand persons had quitted the doomed city, leaving nothing but the bare walls of their homes to be swept away by the impending floods.

The flood never happened. But we are a credulous species. From comets to climate, we are forever  trembling on the verge of Apocalypse. We must hurry to forestall it. And, in our anxiety, we risk great harm to ourselves and our neighbors.

Liturgy as Mission

I came away from last week’s Sacra Liturgia conference in New York on something of a high. It was exhilarating to see a large audience drawn to Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I had half expected the majority to be older, primarily the generation born into the traditional Latin Mass. But no. Here was an auditorium filled with seminarians and younger priests, joined by musicians, scholars, and lay catechists, united in belief that the beauty of the ancient liturgy—the splendid otherness of it—plays its own role in evangelization.

Raymond Cardinal Burke spoke in support of that conviction. In the Q and A after his formal address, he told an engaging story about his experience in Barcelona with members of the youth movement Juventutem. Finding the source of their own sanctification in the ancient liturgy, this quixotic little group arranged a Solemn Pontifical Mass for the street people—addicts, homeless, runaways—that they served.

What could possibly come of such an impractical, romantic gesture? Surely it would be wasted on its intended beneficiaries. To the cardinal’s surprise and delight, the improbable congregants were exalted by the experience. All who attended were deeply moved and grateful. Much kissing and embracing followed.

Was there any lasting influence to the surge of emotion the Mass generated? Were even one or two converted from the downward spiral that brought them to this pass? The cardinal did not say. A skeptic could argue that a neglected, needy congregation such as this would likely have responded the same way to a performance of Tosca or any musical event staged in their behalf.

Here on my desk is something for our skeptic.

Not long ago I plucked John Cowper Powys’ The Meaning of Culture (1929) from the town dump for no better reason than curiosity about a writer who once drew praise from Emma Goldman. Powy (1872-1963) was a little known British novelist and itinerant lecturer whose name survives by reflection from other names— e.g. Bertrand Russell, Will Durant—he met along the way.

It turned out to be a happy find. Powy, too sophisticated to remain a believer, was no stranger to Catholicism. His wife, a Catholic, refused him a divorce when he fell in love with another woman. In the main, this clergyman’s son held himself superior to dogmas of any stripe—religious, political or marital, the same.

And yet.

Powy's commentary on the “complicated poetic casuistry of Catholicism” is tinged with nostalgia, almost regret. He writes as an outsider to Rome’s precepts, but—not unlike Claudel at Christmas Vespers—is susceptible to the solemn beauty of the liturgy:

The Church of Roma in her proud, complicated, organic growth—like a great rooted tree whose branches indiscriminately shelter apes, squirrels, crows, owls and doves—has offered to the wayfarer of life-awareness a no less rich, dark depository of occult experience.

Do not let that word occult nettle you. Magic works. Besides, the word is quite serviceable for a skeptic’s recognition that in some ineffable way the Latin liturgy and its “thrilling music”—Gregorian chant and classical polyphony, not today’s sacro-pop—yield something “far more spiritual than any aesthetic opium.” Powy describes that something as “a certain intellectual temper, or habitual artistry of the mind, an antiquum organum, polished smooth by long handling.”

Unconsenting to the Church’s “ancient poetic dogmas,” he acknowledges the “power of a sorcery” carried by its liturgy. He continues:

Like some magic table, upon which our bread and wine is served and our candles lit, the Church bears up the weight of man’s quotidian destiny; bears it, and has borne it so long that it seems a kind of violence to the good breeding of the soul to ask the uncomfortable question, how can so human a piece of furniture carry the burden of the universe?

Nine decades ago Powy asked the same question latent in the substrate of this year’s Sacra Liturgia conference:

Here indeed, in this difficult question of the relation between religion and culture, we find ourselves compelled to face what really is the most crucial point of our present-day human situation: the problem, namely, as to how far it is possible to retain for individual lives, in the midst of the breaking up of the old traditions, those over-tones and under-tones of character which the long discipline of the centuries, under the scaffolding of a unified faith, has so laboriously nourished.

The liturgy that drew deep imaginative sympathy from an unbeliever was the very one discarded and disdained in the decades following Vatican II. It is not unfair to say that Powy, in his own way and despite vaunted skepticism, participated more fully in the liturgy than glad-handing congregants at the dispirited, self-conscious “new” Mass that has already grown gray.

The dignity of the liturgy has suffered a great wound. It will take more than a generation to close it.

Trans-Fixed For Sure

Decadence was brought about by .  .  .  the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.
                                                     Voltaire (1748)

Chris Burden died last month, close to Caitlyn Jenner’s birth on Wikipedia. Timing is everything.

Burden gained world fame as a performance artist in the genre's heyday. Self-wounding was integral to the act. Two years before Bruce Jenner won an Olympic Gold Medal, Burden starred in his own crucifixion. In 1976, he had himself nailed, Christ-like, to the back of a Volkswagon in a performance piece called Trans-Fixed.

His body was his canvas, body parts his material. Throughout the Seventies, he crawled on glass, suffered electric shocks, starved himself, arranged to be shot, kicked down stairs, dropped from heights, and almost drowned. No athlete endured more pain than Burden. He could easily have taken for himself Jenner’s own comment on the agonies of training for the decathlon: “I've got the rest of my life to recover. Who cares how much it hurts.”

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Call him Bruce or call him Caitlyn, you cannot deny the pathos of the man. At the end of the day, are there any of us who have not toyed with one fool’s paradise or another? His is more public and spectacular than most. Still, Jenner himself earns mainly pity. So does his ex-wife of twenty-four years, abandoned to a culture that mistakes support for acquiescence. Leave this melancholy pair to their mirage.

Save scorn—store it up in spades—for Vanity Fair, a fancy dress peep show for the bored and witless. It trumpets a troubled man’s delusional lust for self-mutilation as a heroic epiphany, part fashion statement, part civil rights coup. No matter the falsity. Curdled realities sell copy.

The 2015 ESPY Awards are hooked to the same pop culture drip feed. On the trot to present the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner, they have played a trick on themselves. They conjured away the screaming fact that the transsexed, sixty-five year old ex-athlete has more in common these days with Emma Bovary than Arthur Ashe. All Caitlyn shares with the gracious Arthur Ashe is a Y chromosome. But Flaubertian irony is lost at the party. 

William Merritt Chase. Keying Up - A Jester (1875). Pennsylvania Academy of Fine, Philadelphia

What fascinates me is the celebratory tenor of this parade into bedlam. Brass bands on the networks. Confetti everywhere. TV anchors appearing in full intellectual motley. They rear up like Lewis Carroll's Caterpillar to give us a sentimental education in pronoun protocol—inhaled, it seems, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s LBGT Resource Center:

You can’t always know what someone’s PGP [preferred gender pronoun] is by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s personal pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.

When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (or, often, all of the above.)

Such delicacy over grammar. It belies the ruthless surgical and pharmaceutical assault that sexual reassignment—aka sexual affirmation or confirmation entails. Procedures slice, pluck, and segment a person into an imitation of the opposite sex. Anyone with the stamina to withstand the violence to their anatomy and endocrine system, together with customary facial modifications, should be able to cope with mere pronouns.

Transwomen are yoked to a life-long regime of vaginal dilation. That strikes me as significantly more alienating than having to hear an occasional “him” instead of “her.” Besides, we used to have a rhyme that came in handy against irksome language: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” (That one little verse trumps years of sensitivity training.)

Christine Jorgensen went the full monty in the 1960s. He was castrated and vaginoplacticized. As far as I've heard—not exceedingly far—Caitlyn still has the family jewels. Mainstream media greeted the unveiling of breast-augmented, Adam’s-apple-and-jaw-reduced, depilated, and hormone-saturated Caitlyn Jenner as if he were a long-awaited work of art. Which, in truth, he is. Glamorous in the 1970s, the aging Jenner has made himself glamorous again in a vulgar, fifteen-minute sort of way. He has become the apogee of performance art.

How long the performance can last is anyone’s guess. Time and gravity are ineluctable.

Polyclitus. Amazon in Combat (5th C. BC). Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Last thought: Once was a time young people read stories of mythical Amazons, warlike women who cut off a breast, better to draw a bow string in battle. Fearless, they conquered territories, founded cities, fought with Hercules. It was stirring stuff even for boys. Perhaps especially for boys. Today’s young read of—and are asked to applaud—men who maim themselves to seek their identity in pantyhose and synthetic cleavage.

Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, pioneered in sex-reassignment surgery in the 1960s and subsequently disavowed it. He wrote last year:

“Sex change” is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.

Is this what happens when regard for the virtues of warrior culture whittles down, splinter by generational splinter, to a surfeit of regard—intoxication, really—for art and artifice? Subjectivity goes rancid. And culture decomposes on the cutting room floor in a fetid puddle of feelings.

Anonymous Illustration. A Dahomey Amazon Warrior (19th C.). Smithsonian.