Recently, I helped some friends decorate a parish church in our diocese for Christmas. The priest gave us a picture of their old nativity scene and instructed us to replicate it. If any figure was out of place from the year before, he warned, the parishioners would notice—and they would blame him.
Our creativity was stifled by the congregation’s micromanaging. We could have produced an innovative scene—something which had never been done before! Yet we followed the instructions and, ultimately, there was something comforting about the constancy of the nativity.
The modern world changes rapidly before us, distracting us with new technologies, new concepts, new crises. The Nativity reminds us that this newness is an illusion, and that progress is unimportant in comparison to tradition. We look forward at an uncertain and rapidly changing future and learn only to be frightened and uneasy. We look on the Nativity and find comfort in its fixity. Perfection has no use for progress.
In 2019, the Vatican’s nativity scene resembled the scene we arranged. It was accompanied by a depiction of an Italian household from the region and time period where the statues were produced, almost as if the artists were trying to link modernity to antiquity. The scene embodied warmth, hope and humanity: indispensable qualities during cold winters and hard times.
These past few months have been isolating. When we do see them, our neighbors, colleagues and friends are faceless and indistinguishable behind their face masks. People are afraid or unable to interact with one another. Churches are closed in jurisdictions where bars and nightclubs remain open.
It seems odd, then, that the Vatican’s 2020 nativity scene features faceless and indistinguishable statues at a time when people would most benefit from an authentic depiction of the Holy Family. Reportedly, the ceramic statues are intended, in part, as a celebration of contemporary art.
We must ask, then: Why should the Catholic Church celebrate contemporary art?
According to the philosopher Stephen Hicks, modern artists see their craft, not as quest for beauty, as the premoderns did, but as a quest for truth. And the truth (these artists claim) is that “the world is not beautiful. The world is fractured, decaying, horrifying, depressing, empty, and ultimately unintelligible.” Therefore, “artists should not use the traditional realist forms of perspective and color because those forms presuppose an orderly, knowable, and integrated reality.”
It’s true that the world fractured. But it’s also whole. It decays and it regenerates. It’s horrifying and soothing, depressing and uplifting, empty and full, unintelligible and lucid. The way we see the world depends on what we accept as truth. Progress tells us the modern story, but tradition tells us the real story—the true story.
Modern art is relativist. Beauty, truth, good and evil are all regarded as subjective. This is how Marcel Duchamp and Andres Serrano can claim that “Toilette” and “Piss Christ” are art, and how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can call a statue of Father Damien “white supremacist.”
I’m not comparing the Vatican’s nativity scene the garish kitsch produced by the likes of Duchamp and Serrano. After all, it’s nothing if not earnest; it wasn’t contrived to mock, dismiss or destroy our appreciation for aesthetic beauty. But as G.K Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” Perhaps next year, someone should give the Vatican a picture of the Nativity to work from, if only to avoid upsetting the congregation.
[Photo credit: Catholic News Agency]