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.
Identity politics, a cancer on the body politic, is corrosive in the arts as well. All the more disconcerting, then, to find Christian artists recycling a self-indulgent pose similar to that used earlier by gay, black and women artists. Last week’s On the Square
column about Fuller Seminary’s Art Immersion project laments “the difficulty of being a theist in the art world.” No such difficulty exists; it is a manufactured complaint.
However appealing to a religious audience, the rhetoric of marginalization is, at best, an overstatement; at worst, dishonest. Special pleading for people of faith succeeds, like previous bandwagons in the arts, in lending lustre to mediocrity. The mélange of styles and no-styles that characterizes such groups as Christians in the Visual Arts is indistinguishable as art from mainstream production. For the most part (see above), you have to read the press releases and artists’ statements to tell the difference.
What kind of training do artists who are Christians need? Precisely the kind of training non-Christian artists need. They need immersion in skills and the procedures of their chosen craft. They need talent. They need to jettison the Renaissance-induced, romantic notion of themselves as special beings. They needas the best teaching artists insistto know who their betters are, and not be afraid to acknowledge it. They need to leave grievance-mongering at home.
What Christian artists do not need is to be encouraged in the false notion that the hard-won capacity to create beauty, to achieve it, can be taught. Or that religious intentions translate readily, without cunning and high competence, into pictorial language.
By way of illustration, stay for a moment with the work of Sandra Bowden, a distinctive member of CVA and my personal favorite. Above is a gold leafed and encaustic arrangement of four panels intended to represent the four gospels; the interstices are meant to suggest the Cross. It is a beautiful piece, flawlessly crafted. But its religious symbolism depends on Bowden’s own statement or the setting in which it is seen (e.g. the Museum of Biblical Art or Evangel College). It is not apparent on its own. In strict visual terms, intentions dissolve into the idiom of geometric abstraction.
I am deeply drawn to Bowden’s work for its formal beauty. However, its expressive contentits religiosityis largely dependent on words, not pictorial means. That dependence is characteristic of a mannered subculture that wants to pronounce its contemporaneity and its creed at the same time. If we care about the condition of the arts, we have to hold close Maritain’s injunction:
Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work . . . . [The artist must] be intent, in his very operation, on the good of the work alone, without being deflected or disturbed by the weight of the human or divine riches which fill his heart.
Those words are sufficiently known. Later in The Responsibility of the Artist , Maritain adds a less familiar comment:
I spoke some moments ago of the distinction to be made between the creative self and the self-centered Ego, and of the manner in which self-awareness risks making the artist shift from one to the other . . . . In the order of formal causalitymoral virtues . . . belong to another sphere than the sphere of art, and are of no use to it.
Faith remains a virtue of the individual as a man or woman , not as an artist. It is fair to suspect ego is the driving forcedisguised by sanctimonybehind efforts to promote a specifically Christian identity in the arts whether or not one’s art warrants it. The primary beneficiaries of such initiatives are professors, client-seeking institutions, arts entrepreneursartists among themand non-profits. What benefit accrues to the larger culture is uncertain.
Dorothy Sayers phrased it more succinctly than Maritain: “The only Christian work is good work, well done.”
Two ancient media, encaustic and gold leaf, have experienced a renaissance over the last forty years. Gilding, popularized by the pattern-and-decoration movement begun in the Seventies and still going, is no longer a signal of sacrality. It is simply one of the rich variety of materials available to contemporary artists. Traditional methods and materials have been revivified for their indwelling loveliness by those artists who love the sensible qualities of the stuff in their hands. Christian artists have no corner on concern for tradition.
This return to traditional materials was initiated by artists themselves at work in their own studios. If we want to lay blame for inattention to tradition, place it on the professoriate’s mania for theory and ideological postures. Plus its aptitude for the discursive over the visual.
The art world has what can be called theists no less than Madison Avenue, Foggy Bottom, Goldman Sachs, or the Vatican bank. They are just not necessarily practicing Christians. Or practicing anythings. Most often, they are of the decaffeinated, gluten-free variety known as Nones. Religionless theists but theists nonetheless. Free range.
The art world precludes no one from love of neighbor. It denies no one a prayer life, keeps no one from church. It blacklists no artists for belief in God. Nothing inhibits artists from dedicating their talents and their studio time to the glory of God. Nobody cares. Theism, in and of itself, is a non-issue in the arts. It is a red-herring. Its market value issues, in the main, to enterprising arts impresarios. Lack of exposure for contemporary religious art owes more to the quality of the general run of it than to any presumed antagonism to theism.
What is an issue, however, is politics. If God is your thing, no matter; just so long as you are a liberal. Attend any gathering, social or professional, and the clubby assumption is that everyone is like-minded. How could it be otherwise? We are in the arts, dammit. It follows, as night the day, that we are all pro-abortion, favor gay marriage, oppose fracking, and vote Democrat. Any hint to the contrary is a stumbling block along the trade routes.
Yes, I know. Political conservatism and religious belief tend to run in tandem. Nevertheless, they are not identical. Recognition of the difference between them can be measured by Bill Viola’s preeminence in the contemporary art world. An exquisite technician, he has created videos that are increasingly sympathetic to that gauzy, undemanding sensation called spirituality . (If I were a betting woman, I’d lay odds on Viola appearing in the Vatican pavilion at the Biennale.) His work, lovely to watch in motion, corresponds to that soothing otherworldliness that raises no hackles and goes nicely with yoga lessons. Proto-theism is a user-friendly prelude to the real thing.
The art of the Church is theology for the masses. The masses . Des Volkes . An unpleasant, class conscious phrase. My antipathy for it leaves me wary of anyone who uses it. Addressed here to artists, it abets the supposition that artists are among the Better Sort. They bathe and listen to Vivaldi; their prayers are sweeter, rise higher, than those of the great unwashed. The lure of self-regard behind programs tailored to artists anxious to admire “the theological implications of their trade” ought to leave us uneasy. (Is there no theological substrate in the conscience of the grocer who gives full measure? In the beauty carpenters create with chisels and rasps?)
The masses . That phrase echoes Gregory the Great’s memorable comment that “what writing presents to readers, a picture presents to the unlearned who view it, since in the image even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in the picture the illiterate read.”
Gregory’s having said it does not redeem its condescension nor alter its implicit suggestion that the printed wordthe treatises, arguments and apologias of the scholarly classis a superior mode of theological expression. Images are second-string offerings to simple minds: scripture for the unlettered.
How much of the high religious art we take as our patrimony was created for “the masses”? How much of it was commissioned for private use by princes, kings and cardinals, never seen by the rag tag multitudes until the advent of mass travel in the twentieth century?
Books of hours and illustrated prayer books were created for the privileged few who could read. All those glorious Giottos decorated the Scroveni family’s personal chapel. Da Vinci’s Last Supper was frescoed above a door in a monastery refectory. Piero’s Resurrection, among other great Renaissance frescoes , was made for the edification of monks . When Goethe venerated Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel he was alone in it. His era’s Grand Tour was a luxury denied “the masses.”
Theology for the masses the concept is embarrassed by hauteur. The arts need less of it, not more.
Speaking of angels, there is this rendering of St. Michael from the gifted Daniel Mitsui :
Mitsui promises a new St. Michael, again as a samurai, later in the year. Below is St. Raphael, carrying his attributes, a staffbamboo, this timeand a fish. Most likely a carp. (In Japanese culture the carp is a symbol of resolve, of strength in adversity. Perseverance is a desired quality in boys; hence, the carp is a popular design on boys’ kimonos.)
[Thanks to Mike Walsh, MM, for the link.]
The most persuasive philosophic proof of God’s existence is the one the textbooks never mention, the conclusion to which can perhaps best express the whole meaning: There exists the icon of the Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore God exists .
Murdered by KBG directive in 1937, Pavel Florensky was a leading voice in religious philosophy in Russia. His comment on Rublev’s icon prompted this reflection from art historian Daniel Siedell
This remarkable statement by Fr. Pavel Florensky, Russian Orthodox priest, mathematician, art historian and martyr, is not the kind of apologetic strategy that Christians in the West are used to. To say that our tastes run toward the intellectual is an understatement . . . . Christian apologetics in the West is a rational sport. To our western ears, Florensky’s argument sounds woolly, mystical, or patently irrational. This is so not simply because we have inherited a very different tradition of apologetics, we also, perhaps more importantly, have inherited a very different tradition of art.
For us in the West, art depicts the world around us, expresses our emotions, and teaches moral or ethical truths. In short, it represents , sometimes the visible world of things, sometimes the abstract world of ideas or the inner world of emotions. And therefore it tends to play a subservienteven decorativerole in the production of knowledge or truth. In the context of both the Catholic and Protestant Church the implications are clear. At its best art can only illustrate truth, help us “visualize” it. But at its worst it is an idolatrous distraction. The result is that western viewers and critics tend to consider the religious or secular works of art to be a text, a visual illustration of a philosophical truth or a theological worldview that needs to be “read.” . . .
Yet in the Eastern Church this is not so. Art does something else . . . .
[The icon] is the artistic practice of the Church. The icon is not something to be “decoded,” “read,” or a symbol for something more important. It is an event that is to be contemplated, internalized, and experienced. This recognition is not foreign to artists in the West, both religious and secular. Yet many theologians and philosophers often dismiss such experiences as romantic self-indulgence and naïve mysticism. What these artists might have been bumping up against is an aesthetic that is, in fact, Nicene .
The something else Seidell refers to is a call to prayer. That which is experienced in contemplation arises from the iconographer’s own prayer life, not his subconscious. It originates in the spiritual realm, not the psychological one. An icon is not “art” in the Western sense; not simply theology in paint. It is, in its making, an act of prayer. Witness to eternity, it beckons the viewer to participate in its antecedent: divine reality. In Florensky’s word: “An icon remembers its prototype.” It draws the meditative viewer onto a path of recollection .
This is an understanding radically different from the misplaced mysticism of art appreciation .
Thomas Aquinas gave us five proofs of the existence of God. But there is a sixth: humor. To follow Florensky’s model: There exists humor; therefore, God exists. Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., in his study of monastic culture, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God , comments on humor:
Humor is characteristic of the spiritual man; it supposes detachment, levityin the Gregorian sense of the wordjoy, and the easy sally.
Monastic humor appears throughout the marginalia of illuminated bibles and liturgical books. Some are playful ways of conveying a sober thought, such as this charming, coded instruction to the flock to beware the source of what they hear. A wolf in a miter is still a wolf:
But not all whimsy is intended to edify. Some is unapologetically impudent, even scatological. An austere life does not suppress the desire to amuse, jolt, or even to needle now and then. That the comic spirit has no stake in good manners is a truth as old as Aristophanes. Besides, we all know how often we ache to stick our own tongues out. And at whom:
Last week’s joint dedication of Vatican City by Popes Francis and Benedict to Michael the Archangel, our defender in endless battle, brought angels to mind. While they are an integral part of our cultural history—some would say mythology—they have little purchase on contemporary Christian life, theology or spirituality. Once liturgical prayer to St. Michael was made voluntary, it slipped altogether out of the prayers after Mass.
The same has happened to that sweet staple of children’s culture:
Angel of God
My guardian dear
To Whom God’s love
Commits me here
Ever this day
Be at my side
To light and guard
To rule and guide. Amen
I miss that old prayer; it accompanied me out of the cradle. I miss childhood’s trust in a hovering presence, one with a watchful eye on the safety of my limbs and my conscience. By now, my guardian angel has likely been reassigned to a more responsive soul and my case file marked Inactive . Is it possible, you think, to wheedle my GA into doubling back? Can I hondle for a second chance?
If we could hire our own angel from a lineup, I would pick Fetti’s in a heartbeat. Here, indeed, is an angel to lean on. Sturdy. Masculine. His presence overshadows the devil who fades, defeated, off stage. A robust arm points upward toward the Uncreated Light, recalling the boy to his true destiny. The angelic wings are solid as stone; they could bear aloft the boy’s corporeal weight. A substantial spirit, Fetti’s comes close to the angel beloved of my childhood: Arthur Szyk’s glorious pen and ink drawing for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Angel :
The story begins:
Whenever a good child dies, an angel of God comes down from heaven, takes the dead child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings, and flies with him over all the places which the child has loved during his life. Then he gathers a large handful of flowers which he carries to the Almighty, that they may bloom more brightly in heaven than they do on earth. And the Almighty presses the flowers to His heart, but He kisses the flower that pleases Him best, and it receives a voice and is able to join the song of the chorus of bliss.
The boy gathers up a rosebush together with a discarded field flower fallen from a broken pot. You can guess, of course, which bloom God loves best: “The Almighty pressed all the flowers to His heart. But He kissed the withered field flower and it received a voice.” Here is Matthew 20:16 phrased for a child’s understanding. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. (And note the opening proviso: a good child. Is that formulation still permissible?) What magic!
The grammar of angels has been with us a very long time. Winged guardians protected the palace of the Assyrian monarch Ashurnasirpal II nearly nine centuries before Christ. This one, below, has lion feet; others display the body of a bull. The ferocity of a lion; the strength of a bull, steadfast in service—what better qualities to patrol the borders between things sacred and profane. Cousin to the cherubim, these ancient works prefigure the warrior angels of Christian iconography, emblematized in the unflinching militancy of Michael the Archangel.
Christian devotion to guardian angels spread and intensified during the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Catholic affirmation of them increased in defiance of condemnation by Luther and Calvin. By the seventeenth century they were so universally cherished that Clement X raised what had been a congeries of local feasts in honor of guardian angels to the rank of an official one. October 2nd on the Roman became the Feast of the Guardian Angel, one day following the ancient Feast of St. Michael.
Émile Màle summarized Counter Reformation ardor for guardian angels as it suffused the Church Universal:
In Rome and in many other places, churches, chapels, and altars were raised in honor of the guardian angel, and confraternities were founded under his patronage. An angel . . . receives each of us into his charge when we are born and lovingly watches over us from our earliest childhood. He walks beside us, and a hundred times without our suspecting it saves us from death . . . . It is our guardian angel who offers our prayers to God, our poor prayers, which, as [Jacques] Bossuet said, “would fall of their own weight if left to themselves.” He defends us against temptations and never permits himself to be discouraged by our failings. From him come “the sudden flashes of enlightenment, the prompt resolutions, the unhoped for consolations” which are surprising even to ourselves . . . . Nor does the guardian angel abandon the Christian after death. He stays with him in purgatory to console him, awaiting the hour when he will be able to carry the purified soul up to heaven. He also watches over the ashes of the body and gathers them together piously for the day of resurrection.
At first the guardian angel was depicted as the Archangel Raphael accompanying Tobias. But that image, explained Màle, required some biblical sophistication. Hence, the development of lovely angels of kindly demeanor leading a child by the hand. After the Council of Trent, the genre took on more dramatic qualities; an occasional glimpse of the demon lent a whiff of sulphur to the scene. In Carlo Bonone’s rendering, below, the devil already has his hand on the youth. The angel’s customary gesture points the lad toward heaven but makes no other sheltering move. It is up to the devil’s prey to follow the angel’s lead.
Gradually, almost by stealth, the angel begins to appear more androgynous, if not feminine. By the early nineteenth century, we have an angel that looks suspiciously like the perfect au pair:
The slow leakage of vigor and initiative from depictions of angels met its counter in Èugene Delacroix ‘a Liberty Leading the People . Delacroix upends conventional depictions of the guardian angel, transforming recognizable tropes into a political poster. Liberty, embodiment of an abstract concept, raises her right arm as countless angelic predecessors have done. But she does not to point to the God-created light; rather, she holds up the tricolor of rebellion against Charles X and aristocracies in the Revolution of 1830. Instead of a vulnerable youngster to be sheltered, Delacroix presents an armed one, crazed for battle. Evil is vanquished again, dead or wounded in the foreground. This time, though, the demon slain is a very secular one: a class and a system of governance.
It was an intriguing, even artful, consecration, this papal effort designed to reawaken veneration of St. Michael. I do not know what to think of it. I just know that some lapsed and abandoned part of me leaps with delight at the sound of prayers unheard for too long.
It is an odd thing, this culture of blogging. I am still not fully at home with it.
The very word blog makes me wince. It is an ungainly term, ugly to look at on the page and even uglier to hear spoken. Gelatinous. The word comes dangerously close to blob . If I had to pick a visual correlative for the term, it could only be this:
Somewhere in the pudding of phonetic associations, is blah and blab . Worse, frog as Emily Dickinson used the word:
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Or, just as likely, a disapproving bog. Either way, a blog croaks on in public, dressed for the podium but bereft of any governing rules regarding the requisite ratio between formality and ease. Is the frog served raw or cooked? Unlike essay writing, a blog post conveys, ideally, a certain unpremeditated spontaneity. As if it were generated on the fly. A blogger is expected to think out loud and in public. Time to considerreconsider, reword, cover your tracksis limited.
All well and good if the blog is housed on one’s own website. But when it is a tenant on the site of a stately publication, the crankshaft changes. Suddenly there is a clutch, maybe even a manual choke, where before all was automatic. Postings are supposed to be tuned to concert level for readers accustomed to scrolling through yards of seemingly effortless fluency. Metaphors get mixed.
Impromptu virtuosity is developed in front of a live audience: on the stump, at the lectern, in class or court rooms, in pulpits, bars, or improv clubs like Caroline’s on Broadway. But artists are most themselves alone in their studios. One measure of a good day is how few words were needed.
Alan Jacobs’ calls his weblog
“an online commonplace book.” It is a lovely phrase. It suggests a scrapbook of sorts, a medley of things seen, read, recorded, and responded to. In no particular order. A commonplace book opens onto a pressed bouquet of quotes, homilettes, memories and reflections on everything from cabbages to kings. Pictures, too, just for the joy of them. Personal sensibilities remain on trial, but the dock is cushioned by brevity and variety.
I like that.
If Michel de Montaigne were alive today, his tower library would doubtless be wired. But would he blog or would gallic stubbornness commit him to print? Would he permit himself to be followed by the rank and file down the crooked alleys of Twitter? There might be a clue in his essay “On Books”:
When I meet with difficulties in my reading, I do not bite my nails over them; after making one or two attempts I give them up. If I were to sit down with them, I should be wasting myself and my time; my mind works at the first leap. What I do not see immediately, I see even less by persisting. Without lightness, I achieve nothing; application and over-serious effort confuse, depress, and weary my brain . . . . If one book bores me, I take up another.
That suggests Montaigne would at least read blogs even if he held back from writing them. Blogees, after all, can cruise along their RSS feed at the pace of their attention span. But wait. The man admits to not taking easily to the moderns. Yet he is one himself. And, notwithstanding a disarming assertion of modesty, Montaigne is not shy about adding his own voice to the chorus of history:
I freely state my opinion about all things, even those which perhaps fall outside my capacity, and of which I do not for a moment suppose myself to be a judge. What I say about them, therefore, is meant to reveal the extent of my own vision, not the measure of the things themselves.
It is unlikely that the first writer to use the word essai trialas a literary term would shun fresh ways to test his discernment before a public jury. Today the scale of Montaigne’s reading audience would far exceed what was available to him in 1580. At the same time, he would hardly recognize it. Four hundred plus years of material advance has eased the burdens of living. We are grown careless now, shallow in our distractions, and less adept at making the distinctions on which moral judgments are made. We are less responsive to the claims of history and scholarship, particularly the classical pedagogy that Montaigne carried so lightly.
Is there an app for the Annals of Tacitus? How many would put their iPhone down long enough to cheer Seneca’s counsel against “the vice of leisure”? Can we still sympathize with ancient warnings against credulity, tolerate talk of virtue or the “privilege” of being able to think? In brief, we are a complacent public, heedless of Montaigne’s plea that learning be “wedded to the mind,” not simply pocketed as a credential.
Could he write today and still be Montaigne?
The only Christian work is good work, well done.
Ask: “Who is the greatest figure painter of the late twentieth century?” The answer on this side of the Atlantic is likely to be Lucian Freud. Across the water, the choice is hardly so clear cut. Euan Uglow (1932-2000) is one of Britain’s most distinguished—to many, the most distinguished—painter of his time. Ten years younger than Freud, he died too soon.
Uglow was an austere, luminous practitioner of direct observation. He brought to modern figure painting the clarity, composure and reticence that is the soul of classicism. Linear probity, the hard-won prize of a steadfast eye, is the rock beneath his magical tonal shifts marking the faceted planar structure of organic forms.
Uglow’s rigorous methodology militated against speed; some poses had to be held for years. Consequently, his production was relatively small. He shunned publicity and ignored contemporary fashion in both subject matter and materials. While his contemporaries were experimenting with spray guns, acrylics, masking tape and photographic projection—plus the theatrics of self-expression—he devoted himself to the quality of his materials, to discipline and method.
I cannot look at his nudes without brooding over what might have resulted if Uglow had been commissioned by a church to design a modern expulsion from Eden. If ever there were a human figure whose loss paradise might mourn, it is this:
Uglow endowed his still lifes, too, with the same considered weight. In his hands, even a common watermelon stands in testimony to the dignity of the material world. The Piero-like poise of his work derives from his insistence that drawing is at the heart of image-making. Tony Eyton, his friend and fellow painter, describes their stringent training as students at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts:
We were taught the discipline of how to give some certainty to looking. We called it certezza , a certainty through measuring, in the way that Piero della Francesca and the great Italians had done, by different means perhaps, but the same rational approach.
Dying of an inoperable cancer, Uglow was desperate to make a final pilgrimage to his favorite paintings. He went to Italy with friends to see Piero’s Resurrection in San Sepolchro and his frescoes in Arezzo. (His friends bought all the tickets for the half-hour visit so he could have Piero to himself for the allotted time.) He traveled, too, to Colmar for his very first look at Grünewald’s Crucifixion . Georgia Georgallas—model for the first painting illustrated above—recalls that visit: “[It was] as if it was an appointment he’d always meant to keep. The last drawing he made in his sketch book was of that.”
Glancing quickly, I misinterpreted the opening lines of a recent bulletin from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa . My eye fell on a reference to the Venice Biennale and, at the same time, on a thumbnail image of a contemporary chapel. At once devotional and festive, it looked to be a lovely ensemble. My immediate impression was that the Vatican pavilion would contain a model chapel, a beautifully designed invitation to prayera challengeaddressed to the international art crowd.
I was ready to recant all my misgivings about Cardinal Ravasi’s foray into the belly of the casino: I take it all back! Ravasi pulled it off! He is reminding high-flyers that the Christian West still holds. Hats off, Your Eminence!
Then I read more carefully.
What I was looking at had nothing to do with the Biennale. It illustrated a liturgical model already in use by the Neocatechumenal Way, designed by its founder Kiko Argüello. Some Catholics dismiss these images as pseudo-Byzantinea charge made, I suspect, out of disfavor with the liturgical practices of the Way. (No such dismissal is aimed at Ken Jan Woo’s icons of modern saints, commissioned by Fr. George Rutler, that surround the sanctuary at Our Savior’s Church in Manhattan.)
Yet there is nothing counterfeit about Argüello’s paintings. They do not pretend to be anything but modern. No antiquing glazes mellow surfaces with a patina of age; nothing softens the modernity of hard-edged forms. Unmistakably contemporary in execution, his work simply follows the pattern of ancient iconographic guides. Doing so, it witnesses to the enduring power of the icon tradition, one worthy of restoration.
But the Pontifical Council for Culture has its eye on decorations for the Church of What’s Happening Right Now. That is where pseudo comes in.
Chiesa ‘s broadcast included a link to Magister’s blog in L’Espresso . His May 17th entry offered a tiny photo of the cardinal posing in front of one of his selections with the artist, Lawrence Carroll. Born in Australia in 1954, Carroll is an American painter who lives and works in New York and LA (also Malibu and Venice, depending on which bio you read). His exhibition history is impressive. It includes prestigious venues from New York and Beverly Hills to Rome, Barcelona, Bergamo, Munich, Helsinki and points in-between.
Cardinal Ravasi has been carefully advised. Judging from this first peek into his choices for the Biennale, the Vatican pavilion will be obedient to that amalgam of interests held by dealers, collectors, museum directors and trustees (collectors themselves), and curators that comprise the speculative contemporary art market.
It may yet happen that the Vatican pavilion will knock the ball out of the park. But Cardinal Ravasi’s opening move does not suggest a man of distinguished taste or independent judgment. On the contrary, it declares him one of those many aspirants to connoisseur status who have little sensitivity to what is front of their eyes. Dependent on consultants, they respond to market value, fashion, and fetishizing rhetoric. Behind the high sounding references to “dialogue between art and faith” lurkson the face of ita profane drive to become a celebrity player on the international scene.
Start with Carroll’s submission. What photographs as a delicate tracery of drawn lines is really a nest of electrical cords from a hardware store, plus a few light bulbs, draped against sackcloth-covered canvas. (I trust the surface is sack clothor a mix of sackcloth and pigmentbecause Magister calls it that. Also, sackcloth is in sync with the artist’s taste for debris, the stock materials of Arte Povera.)
The light bulbs are a prosaic hand-me-down from the 1960s. The exquisitely complex constructivist-inspired forms of Lásló Moholy-Nagy (d.1946) were the first to marry light to art works. All modern Light Art owes its beginnings to Moholy-Nagy. Dan Flavin and James Turrell are among the best known contemporary names, but a host of others have followed Moholy-Nagy’s seventy year lead. Many have created stunning works, such as the one below by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Carroll’s styleless bulb caper is a bewilderment by comparison.
Incandescent light bulbs hanging from wires? No one with a modicum of memory can look at Carroll’s offhand improvisation without immediately thinking of Larry Rivers’ notorious electrified assemblage Lampman Loves It (1966). A monumental standing male figure penetrates another from behind. Rivers’ bulbs were strategically hung; Carroll’s are inconsequential.
Has the Vatican’s Grand Acquisitor been had?
All contemporary work arrives with an accompanying users’ guide. Vatican copy writers produced this for Carroll:
The hope inherent in the Re-Creation [the third segment of the pavilion] is reflected in the specificity of the art of Lawrence Carroll. Its ability to restore life to recycled materials, transforming them through processes of reflection and regeneration, against all odds opens new possibilities for coexistence of seemingly unrelated dimensions as monumentality and fragility
Artspeak is artspeak, whether it comes from a secular flack or one in red piping. Call it museum theology. Either way, its hallmark property is horseradish.
Seemingly unrelated dimensions? The Pontifical Council for Culture has forgotten Ozymandias. Every school kid in the Western world learns Shelley’s testament to the fateful intimacy between these two dimensions. The fragility of man’s monumentalizing impulse has had an iconic, quotable prophet since 1818. Carroll’s multi-media constructions hover willy-nilly where Ozymandias’ cenotaph ends. Nothing beside remains; boundless and bare. Specificity is precisely what Carroll studiously avoids, together with any suggestion of life.
To be honest, it is just that aspect of his recent work that appeals to me. At their best, Carroll’s pieces can generate a certain melancholy. These are mood pieces, bleak and disconsolate. Redolent of decay, they augur the cessation of life, not its restoration. Colossal wrecks.
Carroll’s work is that kind of minimal abstraction that photographs to good effect. A professional photo minimizes crudities of construction and blends disparate materials into a congenial whole. If you tour photo essays of his work, you will find pieces readily adaptable to architectural spacesbut corporate spaces, not sacred ones. Each piece is a conceptual blank onto which any meaning whatever can be projected. The same work would suit equally the headquarters of Absolut Vodka, Bank of China, or Greenpeace. Its inherent neutrality accommodates any sponsor from Mercedes-Benz to Catholic Charities.
And that is not a strike against the works themselves. It is just that corporate culture and sacrality are not compatible. The cardinal’s choice corporatizes Christian visual culture while it grants benefit of clergy to corporate culture. This is no small matter, given the symbiosis between corporate cultural politics and the arts.
If the light bulbs recall the 1960s, so does Carroll’s entire repertory of materials. It was 1967 when Italian painter Michelangelo Pistoletto piled up his used studio rags around a plaster statue of Venus. Arte Povera was born. Pistoletto’s disgruntled stunt was inflated into a manifesto against high art and parlayed into a guerrilla movement by theorist Germano Celant. Venus of the Rags was lionized as a finger in the eye of privileged consumers of beautiful objects. Here, at last, was art made from “authentic” material more accessible to ordinary folk.
Fashion loves a movement. By the mid-seventies, the guerrillas had been invited in from the cold. Arte Povera has been sitting at high table since. Carroll’s calculated aura of dissolution is the common property of Arte Povera gone upscalepolished, pretentious, and pricey.
Déjà vu keeps coming. It was also in the 1960s that Henry Geldzahler was installed as the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum. An ambitious careerist, he introduced Pop Art and its progeny into the sanctum of the Met. Andy Warhol arrived at the museum’s party for Geldzahler’s celebrated 1969 exhibition New York Paintings and Sculpture 1940-1970 (known around as “Henry’s show”) and introduced himself as “the first Mrs. Geldzahler.”
With Cardinal Ravasi now channeling Geldzahler for the Vatican, maybe we can call Lawrence Carroll the first Mrs. Ravasi.
Among liturgically concerned responses to the previous post, one of them gave me a start:
On Corpus Christi, at a Manhattan parish, we had to sing an entrance song which begins, “We are here to tell our story, We are here to break the bread, we are here to know our rising from the dead . . . ”
Here to tell our story . The Gospel of Me. The all-encompassing Cosmic Me. The lyrics lend new meaning to the adjective catholic , do they not? The respondent rightly makes fun of it: “It was like the B-side of a Debby Boone album, except Debby Boone’s lyrics are more coherent.” Yet the lyrics are more ominous than that. Any global extension of the self into the very object of liturgical devotion is deadly. Ovid knew just how lethal self-worship was: Narcissus wasted unto death mooning over his own reflection.
No one needs to have read Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge’s psychological study The Narcissism Epidemic (1999) to know that narcissism spreads like fungus. It advances through the social order, blighting the wits not only of individuals but of populations. Even liturgical culture decomposes under its assault. External realities disintegrate in the drive to construct and celebrate a winsome, elevated self-image.
This occurs to me every time I walk past the lawn of the local Episcopal church. Staked in the ground close to the sidewalk is an eight foot banner erected in the wake of the Newtown school shooting. Great block letters trumpet: THEY ARE ALL OUR CHILDREN. Beneath the slogan is a list of endorsing religious groups: the town’s four Christian denominations, the local temple, the Quakers, regional Baháis, and the county Muslim association.
My gorge rises at the sight of it. This is grandstanding clothed as compassion. Counterfeit condolence, the banner comforts no one. Words are not directed to the suffering parents of those murdered school children. They are addressed to our town, not Newtown. An outsized bumper sticker, the banner advertises its own self-admiring stance. That it is still on show six months after the shootings insinuates a political agenda—gun control—for which the deaths of children were expedient. The disguise of fellow-feeling gets thinner each day that the banner stands.
You have to have a taste for tartuffery to greet this display of higher sanctimony as anything but cant. The falsity of it is plain: The children of Sandy Hook Elementary School are not our children. Their deaths have not withered our hopes, crushed our spirits, caused us unimaginable agony. That pain belongs exclusively to the parents who gave those little ones life and love. The solemnity of parental grief is mocked by unctuous affectation in service to an unspoken platform that circumvents informed, serious discussion.
To broadcast one’s own empathy—made without risk or cost—is pharisaical vanity. Signatories to this vulgar pennon offer nothing but cheap grace, bestowed on themselves. My town’s children remain snug in their beds, ATM cards under their pillows. Ivy League visions still dance in their heads. Their birthdays continue.
The more language is used to work against intellect, the more vulnerable we are to the consoling purr of jargon. Salesmanship. Devoted to soothing indirections—so valuable in preserving self-image—we become febrile in the face of hard questions that require asking.
While our street-side banner affirms the fine intentions of all signatories, plans are moving speedily along for the building of the hamlet’s first mosque and cultural center. Town meetings on the matter, now in the final pre-construction stage, have been a comedy of evasion. Residents are too exquisitely adverse to raising any issue that might cast an impolitic shadow on their vaunted good will. Instead, anxiety is strenuously deflected onto clamor over the center’s impact on local traffic, the possibility of septic failure, dark hints of potential environmental damage, the dangers of habitat destruction. Truly, it is our heart’s desire that young Aamil and Aaleyah have a nearby Muslim summer camp. But we do have wetlands to protect also. And what about the deer?
Local clerics, Christian and Jewish, persevere in whipping up support among the godly for the eight-acre complex: We have broken bread together, worked hard for interfaith relations, studied each others’ (carefully selected) sacred texts, celebrated Thanksgiving together. Memorial Day, too. Inclusiveness , minus attention to precisely what is being included. Outreach , but no cautious eye on what the outstretched hand might touch. Bromides run like gravy down the chin.
No one—not the public, clergy or press—has asked if the acreage being developed was sold according to Islamic law. Is there any safeguard against a Muslim understanding that the property belongs to the ummah in perpetuity? In the future, can it be resold to any bidder in the manner of churches and synagogues? Such questions would appear uncivil; and ours is very civil town. Its self-regarding courtesy precedes it to the negotiating table, a point not lost on area Muslims. Already they are seeking substantial reductions in those fees required by law to be paid to the town by any developer. Let the dhimmi pay?
That takes me back where I began: remembering that Narcissus died. He could not survive on his lovely reflection. Neither can we.
Today we hear conga drums, trap sets, bongos, and other drums played not in the style of Monteverdi processions, or Masses by Haydn or Mozart. Instead we hear them just as we would hear them in a bar or dance hall.
They are used just as they are in the secular world: to keep a beat, to make the music groovy, to inspire us to kind of do a bit of a dance. That’s the association of percussion we have in our culture. It is not a sacred association. The association is entirely profane. There’s a role for that. But Church is not the place and Mass is not the time.
Jeffrey Tucker, “Five Ways to Ruin the Mass,” Crisis Magazine
Tucker’s reminder that a piano is a percussion instrument strikes home. I have to steel myself for the Sunday morning lounge act that poses as sacred music in a local parish. The devil, of course, is not in the instrument but in the tunes tinkled on it. The piano is blameless; the music director is not. If Glenn Gould were at the keyboard, maybe I could surrender my fantasies of pouring wet cement on the hammers.
There exists no lovelier, more compelling witness to the innocence of percussion than the Missa Luba. First sung by a choir formed by a Belgian Franciscan priest in 1958 in what was then the Belgian Congo, the Missa Luba is pure Congolese. All words are Latin but no Western instrumentation or arrangement intrudes on the music. Even now, after years of familiarity, I tremble at the Sanctus . Based on a traditional Bantu farewell song, it reaches a height of exultation all the more piercing for its brevity. It carries hearers to the limits of what can be expressed in sound. Hosanna in excelsis . Then the shock of silence.
Every instrument has had its struggle with religious sensibilities. What Tucker calls “sacred associations” are subject to revision. In antiquity, the flute player performed a sacred function. His playing supported the invocation that accompanied sacrifice to the gods. While the ancients summoned the gods with a flute, Christians took an opposing view. John Chrysostom declared: “Where flute players are, there Christ can never be.” Because instrumental music resided in the cults of ancient pagan culture, music was once forbidden to Christians.
Gerardus van der Leeuw, Dutch philosopher of religion and liturgist, tracks the discord between music and religion:
Whoever plays the kithara or a wind instrument must give it up, says the nomocanon of Michael of Damiate, and in the Canons of Hippolytus [an early third century manuscript] it says: “Whoever performs in the theater, or is . . . a music teacher . . . or a priest of idols, none of these may be granted entrance to a holy address until they have been purified of these unclean works. After forty days they may hear the sermon. If they prove themselves worthy, then they are baptized.”
This explains why instruments were scorned even when music blossomed in the young Christian Church: the Church accepted the heritage of the synagogue, but not of the temple. “In place of the playing of tampani, let the singing of hymns resound,” says Gregory of Nazianzus.
. . . Thus instruments were excluded from worship for centuries, and even today they are really a foreign element. Both the Gregorian and the Reformed hymns are meant to be sung without any accompaniment.
Two things suggest themselves to Van der Leeuw. First, that the centuries of cultural discord on the matter follow a pagan argument: Plato found pure instrumental music opposed to the inner worship of God. Second, where every human expression of the divine is insufficient, music can never find the just the right note to sound the holy. At its depths, religion can demand silence just as music demands rest. “When the holy girds itself to put beautiful sound to silence, it can be that the latter has already fallen dumb.”
Belief in the congruity of aesthetics and morality is widely shared. The conviction presupposes that a developed aesthetic sense points, by some means, to the Good. Or, at least, to an expansive analogy to it. But on the ground, aesthetic impulses exist independently of goodness—which is as close as quotidian reality gets to the Good. They know nothing of simple kindness or decency. That was the implicit reason for my earlier post on Hilter’s aestheticism.
Elizabeth Powers, a Goethe scholar and previous contributor to FT , wrote to remind me that Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg had written a ground-breaking text on the history of the sublime in England. Published before 1917, Longinus in England: Bis Zum Ende Des 18. Jahrhunderts remains a seminal work in scholarly bibliographies of the subject. Her final comment: “Some have seen the Holocaust as ‘aesthetic totalization.’”
Could Keats have gotten it wrong? Or perhaps overstated the case? Is it really so that truth is beauty and beauty truth? Vernacular culture has taken Keats’ ode to that well-wrought urn as gospel. Literary studies, however, have long bubbled and churned over whether the poet himself intended the line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” to be taken literally as the capstone of wisdom. Might there have been some irony up his sleeve in linking the two? Beauty, after all, is transient and, as Shakespeare’s sonnet 70 reminds, suspect. Beauty can lie, and often does.
Specifics of the controversy over the ambiguities of Keats’ final iconic stanza are not germane here. What matters is the red flag at the heart of the argument. Platonic ideas of transcendent perfection against which all art must be judged are poor help to those who take art seriously, still less to artists themselves. The artist’s bailiwick is forever in exile from any immutable world of absolutes.
We reject as fallacy any notion that the distinctions on which moral judgments are made can be merely subjective. Trusting in the existence of a natural law, we expect aesthetics to share a corresponding base with ethics. And that is where our troubles start. Ideals of beauty, in all its variegated forms, are inextricable from history and culture, bound to place and time. The temptation for artists—particularly contemporary Christian ones—is to conjure up a Platonized mysticism as justification for their work. Metaphysical props can too easily stand bail for the perfection of one’s craft.
// Vincent Turner, S.J. discharged a well-known deflation of idealist aesthetics. His 1958 salvo “The Desolation of Aesthetics” argues that idealism itself was “about as false a philosophy as even a philosopher could devise.” E.H. Gombrich opens “Art and Self-Transcendence” with a statement of explicit sympathy for Father Turner’s skepticism toward the ambitions of aesthetics: to systematize, tidy up, and simultaneously mystify what might better have been left in the realm of discriminating conversation. Left on the table with pamplemousse and a baguette for the Goncourt brothers.
Socrates, in the Republic , distinguishes between “the lovers of sights and sounds” and “true philosophers.” Only the latter are capable of seeing true beauty. Where does that leave you and me? John Passmore, rambunctious philosopher and historian of ideas, was blunt: We all fall into the former, incapable class as far as our tastes are concerned. The aesthetic preferences of philosophers are no more reliable than anyone else’s.
Passmore, never one to shrink from battle, declares, “Aesthetics itself is irretrievably dreary.” It is dull because it fails to reveal with any clarity the necessary characteristics of its subject matter:
Aesthetics fails to illuminate, often enough, because the aesthetician wants to retain “mystery” rather than to dispel it, to conceal his subject rather than to reveal it. He wants to treat art instrumentally, as a “clue to reality “; his aesthetics is a spring-board to transcendental metaphysics.
Admitting the possibility of a bad translation from the French, he offers as illustration this wooly passage from Jacques Maritain’s Art and Poetry :
The music of Lourie is an ontological music; in the Kierkegaardian style, one would also say ‘existential’. It is born in the singular roots of being, the nearest possible juncture of the soul and the spirit, spoken of by St. Paul ” or again, ” Why should a musical work ever finish ? . . . Let us say that as the time of the world shall one day emerge into an instant of eternity, so music should cease only by emerging into a silence of another order, filled with a substantial voice, where the soul for a moment tastes that time no longer is .
Passmore follows up by noting that, too often, aesthetics “consists in saying nothing at all in the most pretentious possible way.” Or, as Pope put it: “In clouded majesty here Dullness shone.” Even the best of minds can slip into nonsense when talking about art.
“ Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer; art is everything else. ” — Donald Knuth , Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
I promised to get back on the subject of beauty. And I will keep the promise, but not today. This is just a demi-post to get us through the weekend. Herewith, a contrarian thought to consider from France’s wildly popular pop singer Serge Gainsbourg: “Ugliness is superior to beauty because it last longer.”
We cannot talk about beauty unless we have an appreciation—if that is the word—for ugliness. And what, precisely, is it? Is the ugly no more than an absence of beauty? Or is it substantive and dynamic in its own right? If you know, please tell me. I have not yet read Stephen Bayley’s Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything but am looking forward to a good romp through neglected territory.