Thursday, 21 April 2011

Mass and Art

David’s last post is most interesting, not least because it takes us back to some of the earliest posts. This response, or continuum of the dialogue, is written now after the Liturgy of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday night.

The Holy Father has some very interesting observations, and important points indicating the areas of concern in the situation of contemporary Christian art. Tellingly he identifies a lack of reception of the last of the great ecumenical councils by the Latin West, the council that treated the subject of images. The sweep of all of this is vast, and reflections on it could go on for pages.

I raised my eyebrows when he discussed the situation facing us in the contemporary use of imagery, in particular the predominance of the photographic image as definitive of ‘reality’ and the vacuum at the heart of much modern art. Both these point I took up last week in the lecture I gave at the start of the Cheltenham Exhibition. I have a video of the lecture, and will hope to have it posted to the blog so readers can take a look.

The ubiquity of photographic imagery in newspapers, magazines, online photo albums, on TV and in film has swamped our sensibilities about what is ‘real’ with not just the external, but with a dislocated moment and single viewpoint. If it looks like a frozen moment in time, a moment’s glance preserved in arsenic, it is presumed as ‘real’. But isn’t that naively superficial? Take a cup. If I photograph it I might not show its handle, or its base, or its interior. All of these aspects conspire to express its ‘cupness’. A photograph nudges me to remember those times I have held a cup, but it is a very brief, emasculated impression that in many ways does not itself touch into the cup’s essence.

Three points further about this. Firstly, the process towards ‘naturalism’ pre-dates the era of photography, and is rooted in the movement in the late Middle Ages away from the iconographic system of artistic representation. This movement, inspired I suspect by the Franciscan spirituality of identification with the material poverty of Jesus, for example in the ‘realism’ of the Christmas Crib, focused less on the reality of spiritual glory and more on what ‘we’ could directly identify with. Saints and the events of Christ’s life were increasingly moved into the natural sphere, with a vanishing point, a horizon, and the sense of looking through a window into a scene. In classic Christian art, in iconography, the reality is that we meet God in the icon, encounter Him as Living Truth, and everything in the image conspires to make us aware of this. But the later medieval movement made God the subject of our looking, thinking, feeling. This was further developed after the Black Death and the development of the sense of Christ suffering in His death like us. North European art in particular depicts Christ crucified with foul wounds, deep, bloodied lacerations and a contorted, dismembered body. The reality is the physical one. That Christ reigns from a heart at peace with God and filled with love for humanity, that transcends the physical reality of brutal suffering is lost.

Secondly, the ultimate expression of a photographic culture is celebrity, where manipulation of images via computer etc enables the publisher of images to manipulate perceptions so as to promote particular individuals and to demote others. Style, fashion, your weight etc all become dominant in our perception of ourselves and of our neighbour, and honour is given to those who are most caught on the camera. It is a culture of paparazzi, and the superficiality of celebrity culture. They are all of a piece.

Thirdly, the development of modern art was in many ways an attempt to move beyond the superficiality of naturalism, of the photograph as reality, and an attempt to look deeper. That we had a fragmenting, disbelieving culture emaciated the process so that instead of the spiritual beauty of humanity and indeed of creation, we find a primordial scream, a dismembering of the human figure and the brutalisation of creation. A genius such as Picasso wrestles simply with the void in humanity, the void which consumes creation in war, violence and dislocation for which the cubist movement gives ample expression. This is art which was born through the violence of international conflict and the carnage of industrialised warfare which burst upon the world in the first world war. Thus I would temper the Pope’s negative sideswipe at the movements of modern art with a sincere appreciation of their frustration with the naturalism they had be born into and a desire to find something deeper in reality with which to express in their art.

Some forms of this are positive explorations of reality as a whole. In particular I would highlight impressionism with its delight in light, colour and the appreciation of at least the flexibility of the exterior form. Light too has a divine quality; as the Pope reminds us later iconography, particularly inspired by hesychast movement, understands iconography as the art of the Light of Tabor. Certainly the impressionists’ fascination is with reflected light, but they also, I believe, explore luminosity.Nor should we forget the predominance of mosaic as the medium of choice during much of the Byzantine centuries, where and impression of image and light is not so far from the methods of impressionism.  I am no expert in this area but that at least is my perception. It is therefore an artistic movement resonant with Christian culture, and inspired by theology and grounded back into the fullness of the Christian artistic tradition could, conceivably, have much to offer that is as yet unexplored.

The deviance in the Latin Church of the West from the sense of art as the visualisation of the ultimate realities of the spiritual world to an art that appealed to the emotions, to sentiment among the observers, gave rise to a very different form of Christian religious art: devotional art. In time this displaced all other forms and came to dominate not just private homes but the public places of worship too. This was unfortunate as it individualised Christian art, focusing the viewer back into himself and fragmented the Body of Christ as a consciously corporate entity. It is just a thought, but maybe this lay the first steps towards the over-emphasised individualism of the Renaissance and beyond? Certainly art becomes less about the realities being portrayed and more about the skills of the artist, and brilliance accorded to those most able at expressing the richness of textiles, the flesh, and scenery perceived against a horizon – in other words the ability to capture a snapshot of what the eyes perceives externally. Religious themes were simply the excuse for an artist to show off his skills at capturing what the eye glimpsed of physical reality in a moment, or to glorify some very wealthy and worldly patron, be that merchant, doge or pope.

All of this invaded the public space of prayer, displacing liturgical art and individualising prayer as primarily devotion. The contrast between the very corporate – and I would say masculine – liturgy of the eastern churches with the very individualised and devotional – and I would say feminised – Mass of the western church is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the understanding and execution of sacred art. This takes us back to the early posts of January,  and you can see this in the icon of the Holy Prophet Elijah and the statue of St Teresa in ecstasy. The root cause of this I think the Pope has identified for us: the lack of an authentic reception of the Christian theology of the image, the reception of the last of the great ecumenical councils which brought the iconoclastic controversy to a close in the 9th century.

Sadly I guess few priests even know about this council, let alone have interiorised its teachings. The building, decoration and use of liturgical space is thus poorly understood not just by individuals but by the Latin community as a whole. While the West has had as a result a greater freedom to explore art, and the achievements of artistic endeavour in the West are magnificent technically speaking, nevertheless this theological poverty left the theological achievements of Latin art sorely lacking and prey to the degradation we have witnessed as secular culture has emasculated the arts from any spiritual perception, including  the profundity of Christian anthropology. This lack of sincere reception of the teachings of this council also left the Western church more open to the ravages of modernity after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The progressive theology of liturgy paid little or scant regard to the renewal of sacred art, often being little more than desecration and sacrilege. Sacred art was hacked out, sawn up, thrown out with the rubbish, left to rot, neglected, mocked. In its place we have had rather uninspiring symbolism at best, sometimes reasonable pieces of secular art with religious themes, but more often than not banal, sentimental, visually offensive rubbish. It is all so superficial, deeply meaningful in the most transient of ways, and lacking in inspiration either in its creation or perception. In this way we have become victims of our theological mediocrity.

Moving back to the church of the Sacred Heart in Naur, there was a statue there of the Sacred Heart. It was large, and intensely ugly, offensive. Mass produced statuary is hardly pushing out the artistic boat, but at least it can make art available to poor communities. But when it is painted in garish colours and in enamel paint, where the features of the Saviour’s Face are crudely done to the point that he looks as though he is not actually human, it is blasphemous. Yet that is what Catholics are too often used to, and many remain sentimentally attached to such statues. Christ’s Face must be beautiful, because He is truly beautiful not exteriorly but as the One true God, who is all perfection and truth, and so anything that is not at least physically beautiful and decently made is not worthy to be placed in the church. Weaning people off all of this is hard to do when the priests and catechists have no real understanding of the theology of the image and its profound place in the liturgy and the public place of worship.

Of course some very poor images and statues have a value of their own, through miracles or a continuum of devotion. Their beauty lies in the way in which they embody the Spirit in extraordinary ways. But as a norm, we should expect a certain basic level of beauty easily beheld in most people’s eyes.

Reflecting on a visit I made to another church in Jordan, I remember a very clean and nicely decorated sanctuary but which looked a bit too much like a plush sitting room in a wealthy man’s palace, and where the very good parish sister had set up a colourful display ‘for the children’ right around the altar. While it was tasteful, it reduced the altar and the sanctuary to the role of a stage. It was devotional, and emotionally appealing because it had some of the children’s work in it, but it wasn’t liturgical! It obscured the altar, and the standard of work was not good enough for the sacred realities which were celebrated there.  I suggested, after some explanation, that a much better place for such good displays was by the statue of the Virgin Mary, an area set apart for personal devotion.
Having said all of this, I do believe that the development of devotional art is not a bad thing in itself, but that its role is to compliment, not displace, liturgical art. Interestingly, eastern iconography has often included more devotional aspects, and purists describe such icons as debased. But the general faithful have a great love for these pieces, where the Byzantine norms are supplemented by more gentle, realistic faces. Interestingly, the iconography of late Medieval Russia, which evolved at the same time as devotional art emerged in the Latin West, went to the opposite extreme. It reduced the image to almost mere lines and muted colours, erasing almost all depth, shadow and facial detail. It became an extreme ascetic art to the same measure that devotional art became focused on Christ’s tangible humanity. Both brought great gifts of beauty to the Church, be that St Andre Rublev or the saint ‘Fra Angelico’.  In a reunified Christendom the heritage of both should hopefully find a renewed and renewing place.

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