Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
With the morn, those angel faces smile which I have loved long since and lost awhile .
John Henry Newman
Notes of condolence are among of the hardest things of all to write. They are obliged to console. Consolation is their raison d’etre. Yet how is that accomplished? What can be said at the moment grief demands its due without falling into maudlin cliché? Anguish seems better left with silence. Yet silence is cruel, a retreat from the one who grieves and an abandonment of the dead. Words are needed, somehow. Where to find them? How to shape them? How to let one’s own heart speak while granting dominion to the heart of another?
The Flight of the Soul (15th C.). Manuscript illustration for Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Bibliotheque Municipal, Rouen.
The springs of condolence require exquisite sensitivity to the misery and bewilderment of the bereaved. John Henry Newman was gifted with just such discernment. His words were freed from constraints by the knowledge that they were addressed to fellow Christians. Beneficiaries of his sympathy assented to his meditation on the sympathy of Christ: “Wherever there is a heart to answer, ‘Lord, I believe,’ there Christ is present.”
The humanity of John Henry Newman is nowhere more apparent than in the condolences he sent to those with whom he lived and worked. His lifetime, spanning the nineteenth century, provided ample occasion to address the pain of bereaved friends. Mortality rates were high in Victorian England; death was omnipresent. Before 1900, a full fifteen percent of children died before adolescence. Records of 1839 show nearly one in three failed to reach the age of five. Pregnancy was hazardouschildbirth the most common cause of death among even healthy women. There was the chronic devastation of infectious diseases: influenza, typhus (bacterial infection), typhoid fever (from contaminated food or drink), tuberculosis, diphtheria, small pox, chicken pox, syphilis, and that quick and nasty killer, cholera.
Flemish School. Woman on Her Deathbed (17th C.). Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen.
Nowhere is Cardinal Manning’s description of Newman as “a preacher of justice, of piety and of compassion” more evident than in Newman’s many letters to the bereaved. James Tolhurst’s Comfort in Sorrow is a valuable collection of these letters. Newman’s humanity is apparent in every one.
This is Newman responding to Elizabeth Johnson who had written to tell him that her mother had died three days before on 2 January 1881
My dear Child:
I hear with great sorrow of your and your Sister’s losswith personal sorrow, for your dear mother was only one of a number whom I began to know and to love about sixty years ago. I knew your Grandfather before his marriage, and, as his large family gradually formed and grew up, I knew them all. And when he lost your Grandmother in 1835, it was I whom in the sad week that followed he let see his grief, and whose attempts to comfort him he accepted. And I have always kept all of you in mind, though I have been away from you.
But of course it is your own grief, my dear Children, which touches me most . . . .
After the death of his first wife, Richard Pope remarried to Elizabeth Phillips. She died seven years later, leaving him with with four children. Newman wrote:
It would be wonderful indeed, if we did not feel much for the loss of dear Bessie, both for our own sake and then more especially for yours. We knew, much as we might love her, (and I assure you, though no one knew it, I never could look at her sweet bright face without great pleasure, and I may say, joy.) we could not love her, much less miss her and mourn for her, as you have loved her and you would mourn, and that made and makes me feel for you the more, for the very reason that we sorrow so much even on our own account.
Newman’s youthful diary entry for January 5, 1828, notes: “We lost my sister Mary suddenly.” He recalls:
And how can I summon the strength to recount the particulars of the heavist affliction with which the good hand of God has ever visited me? . . . Here everything reminds me of her. She was with us at Oxford, and I took a delight in showing her the placeand every building, every tree, seems to speak of her. I cannot realize that I will never see her again.
Ary Scheffer. The Death of Gericault, accompanied by painter Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, 1824. Louvre, Paris.
Every one of Newman’s condolence notes gives evidence of a man capable of deep affection, one whose faith was illuminated by great kindliness. His own wordsand those of others to and about himstand in striking contradiction to Adrienne von Speyr’s portrait of him in Book of All Saints . Prompted by her illustrious stenographer to comment on Newman’s attitude to other people (“and people?”), von Speyr admits he loves them but immediately confounds the admission by adding:
It is a bit odd. He sees them as God’s creatures, but in a way that sometimes resembles an entomologist who loves his insects. He often has difficulty making the first human contact. He receives it first through the translation in God.
An entomologist who loves his insects. It is a bitchy remark, a shot of venom injected into otherwise unexceptional boilerplate. Unexceptional, that is, if you discount for the saccharine banality of off-the-rack piety:
His thoughts, his concerns, his recommendations are like diamonds that were not initially polished, stones he was not entirely sure were in fact really diamonds. Then the expert, that is, God, inspects them and gives them a true polish, and in the end Newman also sees that they were in fact precious stones.
If this is mysticism, then the line between mystic and mountebank is thinner than we want to think. Newman’s generous mind, apparent in his letters and sermons, are a more trustworthy guide to the character of his prayer life than the reveries of Balthasar’s medium.
I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write: From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.
Book of Common Prayer
Souls Transformed into Birds (15th C.). Venetian manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.
Can we stay awhile with death? This is November, month of the Holy Souls. Poor Souls, in the wording of my childhood. It is the season to remember that “in the midst of life, we are in death.” The Church gives us a full month to consider what the culture around us strains to obscure. Let us not rush.
Purgatory (15th C.), Lombard School. Manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Somber choruses to the Great Leveler, threnodies on the fragility of all earthly fame and favorthese are ancient themes common down ages and across cultures. In Day of the Dead , a garland of mortal reflections, Frank Gonzalez-Crussi recounts one of the less familiar aspects of Renaissance achievement: the spectacular memento mori . These were staged with all the macabre luxuriousness that mechanical ingenuity could provide:
In a carnival organized by Piero di Cosimo in 1551, a huge black cart, drawn by black bisons and crowded with human bones and white crosses, carried an enormous Death wielding a sickle and surrounded by tombs. At every station where the cart stopped, the tomb slabs parted, and the public could see frightening beings simulating decomposing cadavers emerging from the graves. There followed other terrible personages, or “death masks,” who carried torches and sang hymns to intensify the horror of the spectators.
This was a grandiose, theatrical exultation, a sophisticated mise en scène worthy of the Italian Renaissance, carefully calculated to excite collective shudders in crowds sensitized to the idea of death.
Three Living and Three Dead (15th C.), woodcut. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Gonzalez-Crussi compares the vivid European imagery of deathsobering variations on the danse macabre with its rambunctious, non-menacing incarnation in Mexican folklore:
The Mexican skeleton . . . is no spook. It is a policeman, a city dandy, a hired ranch hand or a bar tender . . . . A calavera , though a skeleton, poses no threats.
It may be argued that all this is affectation and pose; that Mexicans disguise the universal fear of death under the trappings of hilarity. So be it; it is still necessary to acknowledge that the disguise works wonderfully well. The skeletons that populate Mexico in early November do not address us with pathetic appeals. They never adopt dramatic poses; nor can we hear them intoning mournful dirges. We hear from them no solemn injunctions to repent, no preaching, no somber reminders of our need for moral regeneration. Caustic wit, biting irony, and sarcasm are their only weapons. They nettle us, and the rest they leave to our discretion.
That is probably just as well, if not for the reason the author, a pathologist, prefers. (“Who knows, if the blessed souls took umbrage at our occupation, how dissectors might have fared today.”) To the degree that modern Day of the Dead festivity is legatee to ancient Mayan burial practices, jolly dead are easier to live with than the ghastly kind.
Diego Rivera. Day of the Dead/City Fiesta (1923-24), mural. Secretaria de Education Publica, Mexico City.
Unlike most substantial cultures around the world, the Mayans did not have communal cemeteries. They buried their dead under the floor in their own homes. Sub-floor burial, common to families of all classes, extended into the sixteenth century. It was an intimate arrangement that might well have continued but for the zealous intervention of Franciscan friar and Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, who witnessed it. Archeologist Edwin Barnhart states sympathetically what the bishop saw as the work of the devil:
For the Classic Maya a residence was both home and tomb. As a result, the houses filled from two directions. While the birth rate expanded the family inside, the death rate expanded the family underneath.
A people who lodge atop their dead dare not dwell on dust and worms. They know in their own bones the urgency of making friends with the departed; they grasp the utility of relieving death of its sting. The dead underfoot have to be mollified, soothed, sweetened with gifts. Unthinkable, the calamities that might attend the sacred souls’ resentment of their hushed estate! What peril, should they harbor animosity toward the clamorous lives lived over them? Or begin to hanker after the quick? Become jealous or vindictive?
Cajoling the dead is a pragmatic measure, pre-Christian counterpoint to a religious shudder. Yet it is not without a certain tenderness. It suffers an understanding that living and dead are bound together in defiance of extermination.
Christian trust in the communion of saints is a stream fed by more than one spring.
This Wednesday, November 6, at the Church of St. Agnes, near Grand Central, the Catholic Artists Society is sponsoring a Solemn Requiem Mass at 6:30 PM. Details here.
At Caramoor, Lincoln Center or any other listening hall, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is a concert. Only in the liturgical setting for which it was written is it an act of prayer. If you are in or near New York, come and pray. It is meet and just to pray for the dead. And to them as well.
William Blake. Dante and Virgil Approaching the Angel Who Guards the Entrance to Purgatory (1824-27). Illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Louvre, Paris
It cannot be said that a man endures death easily or uneasily when he does not think about it at all. He who feels nothing, endures nothing.
When did I stop liking Halloween?
Was it when parents horned in and started dressing up along with their kids? When the previous director of my town library celebrated Hallowmas by showing up in drag? [Honest. He did.] When all the local merchants turned shop windows over to middle schoolers to paintin washable gouacheghosts, witches and tombstones that go BOO? Could it just be the sight of orange icingick!on every cookie and cupcake in town? Or the loony spread of monster spider webs across the bayberry bushes on too many lawns? Those cheesy cardboard skeletons on view every which way from Sunday?
Bad graphics do me in every time.
Jacob Lawrence. “All Hallows Eve” (1960). Private collection.
Maybe my antipathy grew when the frisson drained out of it. That was when flour socks started disappearing in a fog of grown-up disapproval. You filled up a man’s knee sock with flour and swung it at anyone you could. When their backs were turned. Then you ran like the dickens. The whole point of Halloween was to sock as many people as possible without getting socked back. There was some real danger in that. No fake creepiness.
Anonymous. “Portrait of Young Man with Vanitas” (c. 1930). France.
Perhaps it was a tribal custom peculiar to my particular corner of the Bronx. But, back then, Thanksgiving was the day for dressing up. We did it ragamuffin style: Aunt Matty’s moth-eaten fox stolethe mouth opened and closed as a claspGrandpa’s old duty gear left over from his days on harbor patrol, that dingy crocheted beret my mother hated. Every shabby hand-me-down stuffed in the back of a closet was a treasure. They were taken out, appraised for decrepit effect, and the seediest chosen for begging: “Anything for Thanksgiving?”
Usually, the take was in dimes and quarters. To have candy fobbed off on us was close to insulting. Candy corn was the worst. Stinky stuff. Thank you, but we’d really rather buy our own candy.
Currier & Ives. “Snap Apple Night (All Hallows Eve).” Museum of the City of New York.
The ancient All Hallows Eve has lost its soul. It has become our silly, candy-grasping Halloween. The day has been bled dry of all reflection on mortality. The grin of the death’s head is no more than a cartoon. It neither poses a threat nor reminds us of our destiny. The wonderment and regard due the mystery of deaththe buckling terror of itis wholly absent from trick-or-treaters who graze from door to door, entitled to their treats. And who have no tricks to play. It is not that death is routedan ancient chase inherent in the traditional pranks played on All Hallows Eve. It is that death, in waiting, is no longer even acknowledged in the frolic.
The website of the Catholic Artists Society offers an audio download of its sponsored lectures. In return, it asks only for the courtesy of a small voluntary donation. When I went to the site after Gregory Wolfe’s talk, there was an addendum to the donation button. If you preferred prayer to cash, you could make good by saying a decade of the Rosary for the conversion of artists.
That codicil is now gone, thank goodness.
The conversion of artists. Given the unlovely, preparatory landfill turned out in carloads by MFA programs, it might have seemed a humane objective. But it was not. An intention as self-referentialreverentialas that underwrites, without meaning to, the corrosive self-regard that has helped propel us down the rabbit hole we find ourselves in. The Society is wise to have removed it.
Sarah Bisceli, MFA candidate. “Springtime Loneliness” (2013). Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
Today’s artist, together with art itself, has swollen like a puff adder in what Jacques Barzun dubbed “the vacuum of belief.” Religious aestheticism is as susceptible to dilation as its secular counterpart. Contemporary Christianity is too often tempted to sanctify its own worldly replacement.
In reality, artists are not as pivotal in the cultural chain of command as they have been groomed to think. Implicit in the Society’s initial request was the assumption that artists are primary agents, rather than easily visible symptoms, of cultural devolution. It ascribed to artists the power to reverse the mess we are in. It assumed artists to be ascendant over the nexus of less conspicuous actors in the cultural arena: curators, collectors, grant-giving panels, state accreditation bureaucrats, publishers, critics (add unemployed art historians and poets looking for a gig), dealers, academic department chairs, arts entrepreneurs and administrators, diversity connoisseurs, art fund managers, art consultants, museum trustees, publicists, et alia. It was an assumption that participated in the very ideology the Society prays to overturn.
Photo by Stephanie Brooks. Advertisement for the Master of Arts in Visual Critical Studies offered by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The deification of artists has progressed to the point where they are no longer required to make anything; they simply have to be . It is a boundless mandate. The charge never wears out. It is not only the rich who are different from you and me. The artist, too, is a particular kind of beingrarified, born under the sign of Saturn, ordained for alienation, poised for mutiny. And shimmering with vision. More shaman than maker, the contemporary artist is a conceptual product of the culture of academia: a brew of left-leaning, utopian romanticism. Heady with attitude and missionary fervor, it disdains skillsmanual onesas the stock villain in the embourgeoisement of the artist’s true role.
Every artist, a cub Bolshevik.
This is learned behavior. And the acquisition of it has been structured in to university art departments since the end of the Second World War. The state of art today is, in very large measure, an unforeseen consequence of the G.I. Bill of Rights. The bill gave funds directly to returning GIs, to spend on their choice of schooling. Many (e.g. Wayne Thiebaud, U.S. Air Force; Richard Diebenkorn, U.S. Marine Corps) chose to study art.
Colleges and universities competed for the funds by establishing art departments that offered the added caché of a college degree unattainable through premier atelier-style institutions like the Art Students League or the (no longer extant) Brooklyn Museum Art School. Consequently, the Left’s steady march through the institutions was straight on course to parade through the arts as well. This it did with a vengeance in the Sixties, with no sign of let-up since. Even institutions founded on the atelier system are succumbing to the demands of accreditation, with its attendant baggage, in the struggle to stay solvent.
A current promo for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the nation’s first museum and art school, states it this way: “We make artists.” In bold. Sarah Bisceli might well have shown talent before arriving at PAFA, but now she has progressed beyond all that. [See above.] She has learned how to be an artist. And PAFA is pleased to illustrate the efficacy of their instruction with her installation.
In all, artists have already been converted. They are born again to the wrecking ball, an instrument beloved by insurgent academics.
Beauty will save the worlda mantra among contemporary Christians issuing from the mouth of a character in nineteenth century Russian fiction.
Susan Walp. Small Red Apples in a Berry Box (2011).
Augustine’s Beauty has already saved the world. Our ransom has been paid. What matters now is whether the world cooperates with its redemption or flouts it. History will tell in the end. The arts of the beautiful are weightless in the balance. They can only scratch at the surfaceif thatof moral beauty.
But moral beauty is not the artist’s province. The artist as artist has command of sensible beauty alone. The delight of it is a good to those who recognize it. But it saves no one.
Susan Walp. Late Winter Beet and Spring-Dug Burdock (2010).
Artists who set out to turn beauty on its head do so in the high-minded conviction that material beauty serves the enemy. Delectation, the spiritual weapon of a dying class, distracts from the artist’s presumed role to change the world. Conscientious objection to society’s unruly way of things has been a prime motivator in the arts since the early decades of the twentieth century. Art, the imagined locus of progressive revelation, must stride forward to correct those conditions of civilized life that mask the rot at the core. Among these righteous refusers, social justice is the beauty that redeems and regenerates. The rest is for lounge lizards.
Ghana Think Tank, a portable work station rolling through Queens, NY.
Presented by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art.
Paladins of beauty on the right, partisans of art-as-social-action on the leftquixotic world improvers in both camps. They are mirror images of one another.
Tikkun olam. Both sides view art as an act of repair, a means to something otherlargerthan itself. Both make of the artist a scold, a moralist on the barricades. Each thinks lofty thoughts of itself. Each seizes upon art to display stirring vistas from the piazza of its own sensibility.
Caitlin Caudwell, BFA candidate. “Never Settled” (2013).
Department of Visual Studies, SUNY at Buffalo.
Christ figures have peopled literature for centuries: Don Quixote, Dickens’ Sydney Carton and his far, far, better self-oblation, Melville’s Billy Budd, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Faulkner’s impaired Benjy, on down to Frodo Baggins. The list is long. Longer still if we add film: Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada , Babette and her agape meal in Babette’s Feast , the mysterious stranger in Shane ; Father Barry in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. We could go on listing.
Dostoevsky’s idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a creation of inimitable genius. All the more pressing, then, to be careful of what we make of it.
Interpreting The Idiot in 1919, shortly after the word Bolshevik had come into use, Hermann Hesse advanced a Christ figure that came to rancid flower in the 1960s:
The fact that this foe of order, this frightful destroyer, appears not as a criminal but as a shy, endearing person full of childlikeness and charm, a good-hearted, self-less, benevolent man, this is the secret of this terrifying book . . . .
The future is uncertain, but the road that is shown here is unambiguous. It means spiritual revaluation. It leads through Myshkin and calls for “magical thinking,” the acceptance of chaos. Return to the incoherent, to the unconscious, to the formless, to the animal, and far beyond the animal to the beginning of all things.
Every literary Christ figure is an artifact of language, a trope. However exalted the language, it remains what it is: an extended metaphor. In other words: art.
How privileged we are to have the leisure and resources that permit us to criss-cross the boundaries between art and life. And how precarious the crossing.
Yip Chen. Inside the Cage on Black Friday (2008). Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Roger de La Fresnaye. Artillery (1911). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) painted strikingly personal, luminous, figure compositions between 1912 and his entry into the French army in 1914. They are among the grandest works of the generation of Picasso and Braque.
During the 1940s, Duncan Phillips called him a “legendary knight.” Neglected might have been the more accurate adjective, but the noun was apt. La Fresnaye fought on two fronts: in the trenches of World War I, and in the aesthetic battles preceding the war. By all personal accounts, he was a gentle mana “verray parfit gentle knight.” And a stunning painter. Exhibiting with the Section d’Or, a showcase for that branch of the Cubist movement that valued the grand tradition, he never abandoned legibility, or the dance of color that linked him to Robert Delaunay’s Orphic variety of Cubism. His greatest work held true to visual as well as to tactile reality.
His Conquest of the Air, painted little more than a decade after the Wright brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, is a glorious, mural-sized expression of exhilaration over the glistening new age of aviation. The figures at table are as bouyant as the air around them. What appears in this tiny reproduction as a yellow ball in the sky is a hot air balloon, reference to the first manned balloon flight launched over France by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, a milestone in aviation history. Viva le tricolor !
The painting’s narrativeor literaryimpulse has undeniable historic interest. But the splendor of it has nothing at all to do with subject matter that might constitute an essay. The splendor is all in the paint. Conquest of the Air is an astonishing act of painting. When it was on permanent view at the Modern, painters of all stripes stopped in to “make a visit,” as Catholics used to do when passing a church.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conquest of the Air (1913). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
La Fresnaye’s too-short painting career ended sadly and in suffering. Just two months before the Armistice, he suffered lung haemorraghe while still in the trenches. The first was followed by a second so severe that he had to be evacuated to a temporary base hospital. Germaine Seligman remarked:
Though his death did not occur until 1925, the war cost him his life as surely as though he had fallen on the battlefield.
By 1922, La Fresnaye no longer had the stamina to work in oils. Standing at the easel for long periods was no longer possible; the sustained exertion required by large canvases had become too much. Works from the last three years of his life were smaller in size, created on paper with crayon, watercolor, or gouache. He was only forty when he died.
Four years at the front, followed by their legacy of lung infections, circumscribed his productivity. This, together with few earlier sales and the lack of any known patron of standing, hampered recognition. Not until 1950, a quarter century after his death, did France pay homage to one of its major painters with an extensive exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Appreciation of his work was in its infancy when Seligman’s catalogue raisonné, published by the New York Graphic Society appeared in 1969. Beloved among painters, his work still waits to receive its due in public.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conjugal Life (1912-13). Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The Conjugal Life is a delightful performance. Disengaging from the laws of perspective, La Fresnaye views the figures straight on, essentially at eye level. But everything behind themthe table tops, the books, the fruit plateare viewed from above. The diagonals of the out-of-perspective table frame the figures, locking them together in a pictorial analogy to the doublet that is marriage. It is a marvelous, rhythmic performance that keeps the eye returning to the figures. The couple, tilted toward each other, never lose their intelligibility to Cubist planar structures. In compositional technique, the painting is clearly modern; its humanity and reticence are classical. (Evident in the clothed male together with the nude female viewed from her right side, and accompanied by the emblematic fruit platter, is an amiable, quotidianthat newspaper! nod to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. )
Roger de La Fresnaye. Marie Ressort (1912-13). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
Below, La Fresnaye’s vibrant rehearsal for the backdrop to The Conjugal Life . Curving, undulating forms relieve the austerity of hard-edged angles and straight lines. It is just this kind of linear call-and-response that makes a painting a composition rather than a snapshot in servitude to representation. Here, the tonal perfection and resonance of even subdued color lends drama to ordinary things. The spatial colorits suggestion of advance and retreatis a grammar in itself. La Fresnaye had a genius for it.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Corner Table (1912). Study for The Conjugal Life. Private Collection.
My love of La Fresnaye is long-standing. I wanted to share itshare himwith you. Hard to explain just why. Perhaps simply to counter the poignance of discovering [those grim emails!] that, even now, there are Catholics who are proud to dismiss all of modern art not as a freeing gift but as bosh . And on no greater evidence than the words of a character in fiction.
The feeling for things in themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.
Vincent Van Gogh
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.
Mike Walsh, MM. The Hudson Dragon (2013). Looking west across the Hudson at serpentine clouds that spread like a Chinese dragon over the highlands.
I love the words of that psalm. They repeat in my heart like a mantra. This is the day not just today, October 10; not yesterday or tomorrow but the entire span of our days. And the times in which our days are lived. We cannot embrace one in separation from the other, however much we might wish to.
How the psalmist’s lovely proclamation applies to the way we think about art had been the intended springboard for this morning’s post. As luck would have it, a reader got there ahead of me with his response in the comment section to the previous post. Here it is in full, from Richard T.:
Like all human activity, art suffers from cycles of good and bad. Yet even in those cycles, the opposite exists. In the worst of times, good exists. And in the best of times, bad also exists.
I have often wondered how much bad art existed, say 500 years ago. My guess is that there was plenty of bad art, but it was so bad that it ended up in with the garbage. Good art was more likely protected, because it was obviously valuable. Thus it survived.
What distinguishes our current “bad” era is not so much a lack of good art (there is plenty, if one looks for it) but that bad art is the most popular and highly praised. I have faith that some day, many decades from now, we will come to our senses and give good art the praise and attention it deserves.
The comment that there is plenty of good art is spot on. And, yes, one has to search it out, beat the bushes, only because we live under such an avalanche of art stuffs. By a peculiar kind of Gresham’s law, the volume of banal or just plain bad art drives the good out of view. There are reasons for this and I want to talk about them in the by-and-by. But first, it is crucial to consider that it is quite likely that there is no less gracious art being produced today than there ever was. It is not commissioned by princes or cardinals. It is not distinctly religious in character. It has available to it a widened range of materials. But it is real, it is good, and it is ours. Let us be glad.
Art is an eminently earthly thing.
Pierre Revardy (1927)
Beautiful things are those which please when seenand, of course, I mean mentally seen, and therefore pleasing to the mind . . . . Anything is beautiful if it be made in such a way as to give pleasure to the mind which perceives it, and the question as to what should or should not give pleasure to the mind is no more and no less difficult than the question as to what should or should not give annoyance.
Eric Gill, letter to The Architects Journal (1931)
Plate 1 of a folio edition of Hogarth’s treatise The Analysis of Beauty printed (1796-1806), It is set in a sculptor’s yard in London with copies of well-known classical sculptures including the Farnese Hercules, the Antinous, the Laocoon and the Medici Venus. The scene is framed by compartments with diagrams relating to the text and illustrating changes in fashion, from corsets to hair styles.
It is a melancholy discoveryreaders who take as gospel words put into the fictional mouths of characters in novels. We are endeared to Waugh’s Cordelia Flyte for her abiding loyalty. That does not oblige us to embrace the character’s blanket dismissal of “Modern Art” (those capitals!) any more than her taste for meringue at The Ritz.
What appears in print is indelible, preserved on the page like a fly in amber. Living authors, however, can change their minds even about what they have previously written. Waugh did just that. Five years after Brideshead Revisited (1945) was published, Waugh confided in a letter to Graham Greene that, on re-reading his own novel, he “was appalled” by aspects of it. He introduced a later edition by admitting second thoughts. We are free to hope young Cordelia’s peremptory anathema was among the things retrospection deemed “distasteful” to him.
William Hogarth. Time Smoking a Picture (1761). Guildhall Art Gallery, London. The allegorical figure of Time is faking the age of a painting. It is a satirical comment on Hogarth’s belief that connoisseurs valued art only for its age.
Etienne Gilson delivered the 1957 Mellon Lectures within the same decade as Waugh’s self-reassessment. Published as Painting and Reality in 1959, the lectures are a welcome testament to the fundamental differences between artists and philosophers and, by extension, between making art andin today’s phrasedoing theology. Gilson opens with a re-evaluation of his own:
My first publication concerning the philosophy of art was written in November-December, 1915, and published the next year . . . under the title Art et métaphysique. That was forty years ago, and during this long space of time, many things have happened to art as well as to my own metaphysics.
Rather than dismiss modern art, Gilson retires the author of the 1915 tract and turns a receptive eye on the intentions of modern artists themselves:
In art, we have witnessed the boldest creative experiment ever attempted during the whole evolution of the art of painting. With admirable and penetrating lucidity, the artists themselves have done their utmost to explain to their public the meaning of initiatives by which, not feeling their inner necessity, even the onlookers of good will could not help being puzzled.
Subtle and suggestive, Painting and Reality is a welcome alternative to the willful myopianot to say crudityof “Modern Art is all bosh.” What was an entertaining line in the narrative context of a novel turns sour when it is brandished, more than a half century later, as a considered judgment on the entirety of modern production in the arts. Gilson did sometimes gild the lily in favor of art itself. Yet, overall, he is more compellingcertainly to methan the oft-quoted Jacques Maritain who more frequently tilted, ponderously, toward art as a handmaiden to metaphysics. (Creative intuition, after all, is hardly located exclusively in the arts. There are instances where it even seems to abandon the arts altogether.) Gilson adhered to a conscientious decision to stay tethered to John Constable’s insistence that the world should “look to painters for information on painting.” That is quite enough.
Both scholars were advocates for the art of their time. Not all of it, to be sure. Still, they refused to look over their shoulder to an irretrievable past.
Gilson deserves the last word in his chapter “Painters and the Talking World”:
As to the never-ending flow of discourse about painting that springs from non-painters, perfectly legitimate in itself as it certainly is, the main question it raises is to know to what extent it truly is about painting.
“Charles,” said Cordelia, “Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try to criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.”
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Ohnigian’s studio table and works in progress.
Just because Waugh wrote it does not make it true. All the same, it is hard to blame him, writing as he was in the wake of Dada’s aggressive anti-art impulse. Dada delighted in sticking a finger in the eye of what it considered the rancid bourgeoisie. (Their delectations, Dadaists reasonably assumed, had been rendered sterile in the face of the butcheries of the Great War). Waugh held to the belief that art should please. Doubtless, we are all with him on that.
We just need to remember that the terms of pleasure have to be negotiated, recalibrated, from one age to the next. We are called to live into leaventhe age in which we find ourselves. Nostalgia is a dead end, associated with senescence for a reason. Modernity is not about to be rolled back. That it can be is a melancholy quixoticism that robs us of what is realizable in the times allotted to us. As Gregory Wolfe emphasized recently to the Catholic Artists Society, the Middle Ages are over. So is the Renaissance.
Keep in mind the price Orpheus paid for looking back. Lot’s wife, the same.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s declaration“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it”is an imperious assertion blind to the spiritual quest that attended the birth of modernism. Beauty, like grace, is all around us; it has been all along. We need only the will to see it. In the visual arts, that often means looking past brand names and the trademark culture too often taken for culture itself.
Robert Ohnigian. Catalonia (2013); paper collage on antique book cover, 5 1/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Davis & Langdale Company, New York City.
Robert Ohnigian’s Lilliputian capriccioinvented landscapeis one of eighteen recent collages executed in the past year. They are up already at Davis & Langdale in New York City. Between now and November 9th, anyone in Manhattan or passing through owes it to Beautyas Platonic as it getsto stop in. This is transporting work. I do not know Ohnigian; have never met him. But the Blakeian quality of his work (“the world in a grain of sand”), together with the poignant loveliness of materials that carry their own historynineteenth century books with their steel engravingshas entranced me since I first saw it.
His pieces are so small, so intimate, that they do not reproduce well in jpg. format. The stains and mottling of aged papers, the subtle shift of tone from one book paper to another, the allure of paper quality and its historicity, the visual witlittle of this translates on the web. For that reason only one piece is soloed above. You really cannot see them except up close and in the flesh. All the grace notes of texture and tone disappear in reproduction.
In a culture dominated by celebrity, the scale and calm of Robert Ohnigian’s quiet collages is counter-cultural in the most gracious sense of the word.
Alexandra Athanassiades. Horse LVIII (2005).
Pleasure of another kind is on show at Kouros Gallery Sculpture Center, Ridgefield. Manhattan lost a major sculpture gallery when Kouros closed its doors in May, 2012, after thirty one years on 73rd and Madison. Exhibitions continue, however, at the Center and in the home of Kouros’ owners, Angelos Camillos and actress Charlotte Hampden. It is a delightful way to view art, the very best. Art is meant to be lived without on the grass, in your housenot worshipped.
The current exhibition, opening this Sunday, observes the range of styles and periods that has been Kouros’ hallmark. The work of internationally exhibited sculptors keeps company with historic pieces and contemporary paintings and drawings. Included are a ninth century Cypriot terracotta, an eighteenth century map of Thermopyle, abstract painting of the Greek landscape by the legendary Aristodimus Kaldis (d.1979), and so much more. Among my long-time favorites have been the horses and torsosvariations on the Trojan horse and warrior chest platesbuilt up from driftwood and metal scraps by Alexandra Athanassiades. These are haunting transfigurations of neglected and homely materials into objects of abiding beauty.
John Atkin. Sentinel (2013). Marble.
This exhibition “Warriors” has two opening dates: October 6 and October 13, 2 to 6 PM. If you want to attend, RSVP your preference! Exhibition will continue through November.
Kouros Sculpture Center, 150 Mopus Bridge Road, Ridgefield, CT 06877. Tel: 203.438.7636 or Email: email@example.com.
What is beauty ? The question is better left to philosophers. It is a bootless one for artists to brood over. It does nothing to enhance the work of an artist’s hand. It is the experience of beautysensory, emotional, psychologicalnot any definition that makes an artist’s work intelligible to himself. Herself. Creators of the greatest beauty possess it by instinct. Yet, the question has become a species of branding device among Christian, particularly Catholic, artists. It is the asking that matters more than the answer.
Hand-colored illustration of a peach and its flower from a German garden magazine (1809). It appears online at www.kulterbe.niedersachsen.de.
The ultimate, if cloaked, purpose of the question is to indicate a well-stocked mind. It leads inescapably to referencescarried casually like a vintage purseto what the Scholastics understood as an attribute of God. Curtsying to beauty’s acquired status as a transcendental has become a credential, a certificate, in its way, of one’s Thomist pedigree. No small degree of intellectual vanity inhabits the inquiry. It offers itself as evidence that artists, too, can get past the goalie in the gray cell department.
But once there, what then? Sensuous beauty as a herald of moral beauty, followed by the equivalence of moral beauty with goodness, takes us past Augustine, past Cicero and the Stoics, back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. (“The beautiful is that which is desirable for its own sake, and pleasant, or that which, being good, is pleasurable because it is good.”)
The Goodso pure, simple in upper case; messy and misleading in lower. Whose good? (Catch the golden showers scene in Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette, a benchmark in the pantheon of queer cinema, before you answer.) The Ethical Fallacygood men build good buildings, et ceteralurks below the surface of much Christian discussion of beauty in the arts.
Paul Cézanne. The Card Players (1890-90). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
What is beauty? When I hear the question, my mind goes straight to Cézanne for two reasons. The first might sound silly but I do not mind: Imagine a card game where one of the players cannot make a move until he rises to reflectout loud, eyes off his cardson the meaning of chance.
Sit down, Jack. Keep quiet and play your hand.
My second reason is more sober. Though Cézanne was a believing Catholic, his greatness as a painter had nothing to do with his faith. Deduction can coax no hint of his Catholicism out of his painting. (John Rewald cites 1891 as the year Cézanne, in his early fifties, embraced his natal tradition and turned devout.) In his work, Cézanne built upon his precedents, not metaphysical musings. And despite his brilliance as a painter, his Catholicism put him on the wrongreactionaryside of the Dreyfus affair. (His allegiance to the largely Catholic anti-Dreyfusards cost him his life-long friendship with Émile Zola.)
Georges de la Tour. The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds (1635). Musée de Louvre, Paris.
Gregory Wolfe, founder and publisher of Image Journal , recently gave the inaugural lecture to the newly formed Catholic Artists Society. He spoke eloquently on behalf of the freedom of the arts despite his own felt constraints in speaking under the auspices of the Thomistic Institute. The talk he gave was very good. The talk he really wanted to give would have been even better. The one he strained at the bit to deliver was epitomized in the anecdote he related about Flannery O’Connor. As Wolfe tells it, O’Connor, on the stump as a writer, suffered the usual question from a member of the audience: “Why do you write?” Without a second’s hesitation, O’Connor shot back: “Because I am good at it.”
Wonderful! O’Connor’s reply assents, in spirit, to Dorothy Sayers’ insistence that the only Christian art is good art. Both observations should be tacked to artists’ studio walls. Certainly, the particular awareness and challenges of novelists are different from those of visual artists. So, too, is the nature of their materialswords. Nevertheless, both O’Connor and Sayers grasped that at the heart of any artistic endeavor is talent and commitment to craft. For the Christian, that implies the humility to view clearly the character and dimensions of one’s own gift.
Acknowledgment is ensnared in a thousand seductions. Humility is hard to acquire and rocky to sustain in any life. It becomes all the harder for artists when voices within the Church, the very guardian of that virtue, insist on flattering them as keepers of a special kind of metaphysics.
Note: I had identified My Beautiful Laundrette as a Wim Wenders film. Not so. It was directed by Stephen Frears. All fixed above.