Two recent trips to two very different art exhibits provoked some gloomy thoughts about our times. Earlier in the fall, I visited New York City. An art-curator friend who has tried to warm me to contemporary art suggested a visit to the Leslie Tonkonow Gallery in Chelsea. Klaus Ottmann, a curator whose interests run in a spiritual direction, had put together a number of twentieth-century pieces under the title "The Materialization of Sensibility: Art and Alchemy." As my friend put it, "Klaus is an atheist, but he has some deep spiritual interests. He loves Kierkegaard on forgiveness, Levinas on ethics. I think the show is trying to explore a sacramental vision."

I went. My friend was right. The show was trying to pull together some work of spiritual seriousness. ( See the PR for the show. ) There was a chocolate crucifix that suggested Christianity marketed rather than preached ¯ or perhaps it was meant to evoke the fragility and transience of faith in our post-Christian culture. The cross melts in the heat of criticism, or something like that. A mute nail sat in a glass case, perhaps there to remind us of the nails that fastened Jesus to the cross, or perhaps to conjure the old tradition of relics cherished for their spiritual power, or perhaps to symbolize our clinical intellectual culture that transforms living religious realities into museum artifacts. I’m not sure. But when I left, I was sure of this: If "Art and Alchemy" represents spiritual seriousness in the contemporary art world, then we are in serious trouble.

Last week I visited the National Art Gallery in Washington, and the contrast with the Chelsea exhibit was striking. I wandered through "Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych" . The small painted images from the period of spiritual turmoil just prior to and during the Reformation were astounding in their emotional intensity and depth. One diptych in particular is extraordinary: Painted by an unknown artist called the Master of the Lille Adoration, the left panel portrays the Holy Trinity and the right panel depicts St. Jerome.

It is characteristic of contemporary art to gesture crudely and mutely toward themes or ideas of importance. This early-sixteenth-century piece of religious art, however, conveyed a sophisticated, nuanced, and powerful theological vision. The conventional elements of traditional images of the Trinity are the crucified Son, the regal Father, and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Yet in this diptych, the crucified Son, eyes closed and face ashen in what a viewer can only imagine as death, rests limply against the side of the Father. The Father, whose right arm draws the Son to him, looks out at the viewer with eyes of infinite sadness. The pathos is intensified by the garments and headgear worn by the Father. Influenced perhaps by Jews then immigrating to the Lowlands from Spain, the Father looks more like the High Priest of the Temple than a late medieval king. He is the one who slew the victim, doing at the heavenly altar what Father Abraham did not have to do on Mount Moriah.

This scene of divine love drawing the Godhead into the wrenching realities of suffering and death finds its complement in the depiction of St. Jerome. It is a medieval and renaissance commonplace to show the somber saint gazing at a skull, recalling the reality of death and judgment. The artist depicts this standard scene but turns St. Jerome’s head away from the skull and directs his gaze toward the scene of the Father receiving the dead Son. St. Jerome’s head is enlarged, his face is tensed, and the veins in his neck bulge. It is as if a vision of the eternal death of the Son so surpasses any thought of his own death that he is about to explode. In this way, St. Jerome seems to represent neither belief nor unbelief, neither joy nor sadness, neither hope nor despair. He is overwhelmed and undone by the mystery of a God who would enter so deeply into suffering and death in order to destroy it finally and completely.

I have gone on at length about this small diptych by the nameless Master of the Lille Adoration, not because I’m sure of my own interpretation, but because I think it illustrates an important difference. I can look at supposedly sophisticated, religiously relevant contemporary art and generate a few tentative sentences that seem more a consequence of my own inventiveness than any real content in the work. In contrast, an old work by an unknown artist can motivate paragraphs that only scratch the surface.

Why contemporary art should have become so vacant of spiritual sophistication would require a long treatise to explain. But, in the main, the dynamic is straightforward and parallels developments in the political, moral, and social sphere. Modern men and women are modern in large part because of a crisis of confidence. Inherited forms and structures have come to seem inhibiting and life-denying. No doubt they are, at least in part. Jane Austen’s novels convey something of the perilous journey of many young hearts through the narrow and unforgiving gates of social standards and expectations. By and large, we are modern insofar as we reject the journey because we will not pay the cost.

Seen in this way, modern culture is a two-act play. The first act was largely political and economic. Finding the old principles of social order and conflict resolution inhibiting ¯ due process, rule of law, limited warfare¯modern men and women turned to terror, revolution, carpet-bombing, nuclear weapons, death camps, gulags, and summary executions as the quick and uninhibited route to achieving social goals. What united the Nazi with the commissar was their common refusal to accept the delays, diversions, and barriers with which the old world and its anxious conscience wished to burden their noble ideals, their grand aspirations, their bold hopes for the New Man. They disdained the perilous journey, insisting that the future was theirs to control and make.

Where the first act involved the outer world of politics, the unfolding second act concerns our inner lives. Now those who dream of a new future turn inward and pursue an inner holocaust of inhibitions. Like Nazis and commissars of recent memory, postmodern professors find old principles of sexual morality, manners, social standards, or artistic and literary merit among the limiting and unwanted encumbrances of a prudish, hierarchical, oppressive past. If we could but live in all our blessed difference!

Art is as reflective as it is creative. We can only say what we can hear; we can only draw what we can see. Modern art has been a movement defined by the quest for freedom from inherited forms, a freedom widely felt necessary in order to truly see and express the realities of color and shape, sentiment and thought. Picasso deconstructed the human form so that he could bring its reality into focus. Joyce deconstructed realistic narrative in order to bring us still closer to life itself. They wanted undiminished, unmortgaged life in their art.

The contrast could not be more dramatic. The sort of art represented by the Netherlandish dyptichs I saw at the National Gallery of Art is clearly burdened by standard conventions of religious imagery, limited by a culture unable to see beyond its own Christian identity, and, in the case of the picture of the Trinity and St. Jerome described above, utterly in the grips of a paschal faith in which life itself is forced through the narrow and dark opening of Christ’s death on the cross. It was neither free nor critical, and, if open to life, it was only as through a narrow passage. And yet, the art is alive with possibilities that demand of us a deeper, fuller humanity.

Lionel Trilling once quoted Henry James approvingly: "Manners make the man." Personality, depth of character, nuance of judgment, the trick mirrors of hypocrisy, labyrinths of guilt, conscience, nobility, and wickedness¯these and more are formed in our endless negotiations with, submissions to, and rebellions against social expectations and inherited forms of life. The peril of the journey makes the man because it forms the soul. Today we are paralyzed by fear of that peril, and few cultural institutions in our society encourage the journey. The upshot is entertainment, decoration, and diversion that keeps our deflated souls from going entirely flat.

R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.

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