Why would anybody concern himself with this topic when there are so many other “burning questions” swirling round the internet? Distinct from so much that is discussed, it has a lasting value. Like a regrettable family portrait, church art has a way of lasting beyond the lifetime of those who commissioned it and consequently a way of creating an impression on people who were never its intended audience. Consider one little example, from the reign of Pius XI, the under-appreciated Vatican train station:
|Vatican Railway Station: Did we just pull into Fascist Italy?|
Now, compare it with something in the so-called fascist style:
|A dated example of Italian "Futurism," a.k.a. Fascist art|
The casual art observer in and around the Vatican could easily get the feeling that perhaps there was some degree of sympathy for fascism on the part of Papa (Mit brennender Sorge) Ratti. Still, it could be worse: one could have this as his artistic legacy:
But for the rest of us, we may simply dislike this kind of art, especially in the context of the Church and her Mysteries, without perhaps being able to explain exactly why.
And more to the point here, we have a nagging suspicion that Modernism in the art world has some profound, though hidden, relation to the all-too-familiar ecclesiastical Modernism, including one of its many baleful progeny, the modern liturgical environment:
|An irony-free environment, courtesy of modern sensibilities|
IT’S ALL ABOUT BEAUTY
So, let’s flush these dark suspicions out into the open and see if we can have a better idea what lies at the heart of our dislike, or at least distrust, of “modern” church art.
Allow me, then, to lay out in the most preliminary of ways, that by “beauty,” I mean the classic definition quod visum placet: “that which, when seen, is pleasing.” It would be more accurately, if less literally, rendered as: “whatever gives delight when perceived.” Whether beauty as such is one of the transcendentals—i.e., one of the universal aspects of any thing—separate from truth and beauty, or whether it is merely an aspect of truth (namely, truth perceived as good), need not detain us here. It’s enough to note that things in and of themselves have beauty; we merely perceive this beauty, not impose it from without.
We also want to acknowledge that all art involves abstraction from reality. Of course we’re mainly interested in the visual arts, but it’s equally true of music or even something less practical, like mathematics. At any rate, if there were no abstracting of certain things from reality while leaving other aspects of reality behind, then of course we wouldn’t be dealing with an artwork but with reality itself. So far so good?
Without a doubt, in classical Catholic architecture (for instance) there is a great emphasis on the order and proportion that obtains among things, as in the nave of the great Durham cathedral:
Finally, no less indebted to abstractionism than Fantasy, but with a concentration on the artist’s reaction to his perceptions as an artist, there is Expressionism. Let’s say you’re a half-insane, frustrated seminarian from the Low Countries with a bent for drawing. You eventually escape to a part of Europe where there is a good deal more physical beauty than in Holland, namely the Midi. You see some pretty trees. Of course, as a Post-Impressionist, you have no intention of rendering the scene in its essential aspect. No, you’re only interested in putting colors on your two-dimensional surface in a way that records your reaction. Nevertheless, these trees provoke in you a feeling of the sheer power and energy and solidity of living things—certainly not a bad thing. And once all that gets processed, voilà! a Van Gogh original:
|"Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee" Canticles 4|
|Abstract art (Richard Estes)|
A particular kind of abstraction—you certainly don’t need me to remind you—is the symbol. A black cross on a yellow, diamond-shaped background is the conventional symbol of an intersection, for instance. But of course “symbol” is only a couple of letters away from the much more religion-tinted word symbolum, better known as the creed. It’s not merely the result of wordplay, however, to say that whatever a given art movement abstracts from reality (its “symbols”) gives us an insight into that movement’s creed (its “symbolum”).
|The modern creed? (Paul Klee, The Archangel)|
Along these lines, we might examine the Church’s art (at its best, I mean), to see what great Catholic artists abstracted from reality. If I’m correct, it should give some insight into the Church’s symbolum.
|"Thou hast ordered all things in measure, number, and weight" Wisdom 11|
But of all the symbols used by Christian artists, the most widespread (according to the influential art historian H. W. Janson) is light: the “shadow of God,” as Einstein dubbed it. Light is, he contends, more prevalent in Christian art (or abstraction) than even the cross or crucifix.
|"In thy light, we shall see light" Psalm 35|
So, even an admittedly very superficial look at Christian abstraction cum symbolism yields an insight into the central fact of God as the One who illumines and causes beauty in the reality He created and set in order. Certainly not the entirety of the Credo properly so-called, but good enough perhaps as an introduction.
NOW FOR THE BAD NEWS ....
Modern art, as we all understand the term, sprang up—not un-Cerberus-like—with three heads, close on the heels of Impressionism. The three heads, or better, three general tendencies of post-Impressionism were and are Abstraction, Fantasy (for want of a better term), and Expression.
|Picasso, natch: Me and my (shattered) guitar|
Abstraction. This brand of post-Impressionism began with the blindingly obvious insight that a painting is not a three-dimensional “scene” but merely colors on a two-dimensional surface. (Analogous insights were applied to other areas of the arts.) That being the case, artists should stop using perspective and other tricks to fool the eye into seeing three dimensions on a painted surface. The particular aspect of reality that relates things one to another in space is simply dispensed with—we might say, abstracted. In fact, why not go a step further and abstract from the three dimensions entirely and reduce the object out there in reality to a two-dimensional version of itself? This is the wondrous contribution of Cubism.
|If you think this is a vase full of flowers, you are hopelessly un-modern (Cezanne, Tulips and Apples)|
Next, with the—what word to use?—advances in psychology, some artists concentrated on abstraction according to the images and feelings of the psychological realm, whence the “school” of Fantasy in the post-Impressionists’ world. Well, if there’s any truth to the saying that the state of your room reveals the state of your soul, by extension the state of its fantasy abstractions will become the news source for the modern psyche. And the news isn’t good.
|The modern soul: not a pretty picture|
(Munch, Die Schrei)
|The look of love: Van Gogh's cypress trees|
In lesser artists, “expression” became more and more solipsistic, until it eventually landed on the unhappy idea of recording the artist’s motions with a paintbrush (or drip bucket) while the connection with whatever was “out there” became tenuous to the point of vanishing from the observer’s ken. In fact, “out there” isn’t very important anymore: it’s only what’s inside the artist—along with the tools of his trade—that matters. And so you end up with this rogues’ gallery:
Eventually these tendencies crept, Grinch-like, into the household of the Faith, having found a welcoming embrace (as I intend to show in more detail in the second part of this article) and a generous lease from doctrinal Modernism—more precisely, the philosophical underpinnings that united the disparate movement labeled Modernism.
And so, if a sculptor—let’s say—were commissioned to render the Glorified Christ in bronze under the new dispensation of Expressionism, we wouldn’t look for a representation of something that was in itself beautiful, exalted, and glorious. That would be anything but modern. No, of course, such a sculptor would seek to represent the impression, the feeling even, that the idea of resurrection provokes in a thoroughly modern soul, working in bronze.
|Fazzini, The Resurrection--but only of the Christ of Faith|
You may have always hated this sculpture, and I readily admit that a knowledge of modern artistic tendencies toward Abstraction, Fantasy, and Expression will probably not dilute that hatred. But at least, such knowledge helps set “modern” church art into its proper context. (I would say “perspective,” but that’s been out since Cezanne.) Besides, no matter how many Catholics despise a particular work of modern church art, it doesn’t matter as far as the art itself is concerned: it’s always about the artist himself.
Are such artists (and their ecclesiastical patrons, of course) the embodiment—according to their own capacity—of the modern idea of one’s relation to the world and to oneself? The view, i.e., that the world around us is fragmented, rendered into haphazard abstractions, without order or harmony, so that the individual soul must retreat into a psychological world of the self that is more and more cast adrift and alienated from its natural place in creation? You bet! But I think this question bears more explanation—and illustration—and I will seek to supplement this lowly introduction to modernism in art with an examination of its fungus-like flourishing in the contemporary Church, the Church’s art, and her greatest artistic expression: divine worship.
|The Modern goes to Mass: even the Celebrant's gaze is redirected.|
But Faith is still present, at least in the abstract.
(Matisse, Rosary Chapel, Vence, 1948-1951)