Two Cheers for Modern Art: Despite Traditionalist Concern, Religion has Nothing to Fear

Anyone who ventures to speak of the relationship between religion and the arts today is in danger of walking into a rather densely planted minefield. Whenever this subject appears in the public arena, it almost always takes a particular form: a raging controversy over some artistic affront to organized religion and the sensibilities of millions of believers. Within just the last five years, we have had films like Hail, Mary and The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as federally funded exhibits featuring works like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, himself a lapsed Catholic. In nearly every case, the only genius these works seem to possess is for mockery, sensationalism, and offensiveness. And yet the artists, and a small but vociferous lobby of cultural pundits, defend these productions on the grounds of artistic merit and freedom.

In an atmosphere so highly charged, it might be the prudent course to let the worlds of religion and the arts quietly go their own ways. Indeed, for nearly a hundred years, there has been an unspoken consensus that the churches and the world of high art are fundamentally opposed to one another. So pervasive is this consensus that most Christians today take for granted the wall between Church and Art. In most people, the feeling of relief at this separation seems to overwhelm any puzzlement or concern about such a state of affairs.

Despite the dangers, I will proceed by asking three rather large questions. First, What role do the arts play in the Christian life? Another way of putting this might be, What are the consequences of the separation between the life of faith and the life of the imagination? Second, How did this estrangement come about and how has it manifested itself in liturgical and devotional art? And finally, What are the prospects for a reconciliation between the Church and the arts? Have there been any artists who have successfully been true to the conditions of modernity and yet been able to produce works which bespeak a Christian vision of the world?

No Salvation through Art

Perhaps it will be wise to say it straight off: art, for all its beauty and power, will never save a single soul. Aesthetic experience, in any refined sense, is no more necessary for salvation than is any particular political or intellectual experience. There have been artists and critics who, especially since the Romantic era, have sought to replace religion with culture—one thinks of Matthew Amold and Walter Pater and the “art for art’s sake” movement. This seemed to provide some of the spiritual ecstasy of religion without the need for real belief or moral discipline. Also, it should be said that proponents of the arts are often guilty of an elitism which places the more aesthetically sophisticated on a higher spiritual plane than the ignorant plebs.

But if art and the works of the human imagination are not necessary for salvation, it does not follow that they are mere luxuries which are to be consumed by a select few. The Patristic and Scholastic thinkers all paid homage to Beauty as an equal partner with Truth and Goodness in the transcendental realm. And in this century alone, nearly all of the major Catholic philosophers and theologians have been preoccupied with the nature of art: Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Josef Pieper, Cardinal Ratzinger—the list could be extended. Each of these thinkers considered art as an integral part of human experience and as an analogy to the supreme craftsman Himself.

In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s magisterial work The Glory of the Lord: Theological Aesthetics, he argues that beauty has been, in the Western tradition, the preeminent attribute of God, above truth and goodness. Though this line of thinking may rub against our normal mental habits, von Balthasar’s argument is compelling. He writes: God does not come primarily as teacher for us (“true”), as purposeful “redeemer” (“good”), but for Himself, to display and to radiate the splendor of his eternal triune love in that “disinterestedness” which true love has in common with true beauty. In other words, each human being is called ultimately to bask in the pure effulgence of God’s glory, which is the biblical equivalent to the philosophical term beauty.

The essence of a work of art is not its “meaning” (though that can constitute an important part of it) but its being, the sheer radiance of its form. This thought also goes against some of our most immediate mental reactions. Many people want a truth, or a moral, or a set of facts to be imbedded in a work of art, but this is to evacuate its very essence. As Maritain and Gilson have argued, following the Angelic Doctor himself, beauty is constituted by a radiance or splendor of form, rather than by some paraphraseable message. This is how God Himself, like the work of art, ought to be contemplated.

Throughout history there have been those, particularly in the religious realm, who consider the imagination a dangerous and intoxicating form of sensuality. The Iconoclasts, the Reformers, the Jansenists, and even some of the most energetic figures of the Counter-Reformation have sought to smash the images. But if the pleasure of aesthetic experience often appears to our fallen eyes as a form of concupiscence, it is, at its heart, nearly as close to the experience of paradise as mystical vision. The most recently translated book of the Thomist Josef Pieper is entitled: Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. In the book he approvingly quotes Teilhard de Chardin, who states that “all life is contained in the act of seeing, and that the entire evolution of the universe has as its final aim nothing else but the bringing forth of ever more perfect eyes.” Pieper concludes: “So, once again: to contemplate means first of all to see—and not to think.

For all of his god-like creative powers, the artist cannot, like God, create de nihilo. But he can create de novo. By taking the things of our experience and producing a work which impresses a form on them, he enables us to see the world with fresh and more perfect eyes. The same form which is beautiful often involves a recognition of meaning as well. In a great work of literary imagination, for example, the tragic experience of an Oedipus can reveal to us the frailty of man in relation to the gods, and the higher, inscrutable purposes which underlie our seeming random experiences.

Thus the artist’s motto can be summed up in Ezra Pound’s dictum: “Make it new.” To make something new does not necessarily entail some adolescent theory of complete originality. The greatest artists and writers have always known that the “it” which they must make new stands for the perennial conditions of our human existence. But at the same time it is important to recognize that the newness of art is indispensable. There is no end to the finding of new forms. Art that repeats itself is a contradiction in terms. How often have we heard novelists speak about not knowing what their characters will do and how their novel will end? Art is a process of discovery, and as Gilson tells us, it must have the freedom which will allow for those new discoveries.

Here, too, we can find a biblical parallel. For it is Christ who says, “Behold, I make all things new.” In Christ’s salvific mission the world is re-created; everything suddenly appears in a new light. And so, too, in the Mass; bread and wine are transfigured: they are now the Body and Blood. It has often, and truly, been said that art has a sacramental, or incarnational, dimension.

A Sense of Radicalism

There were many who considered Our Lord’s form of renewal as pernicious radicalism; so, too, with the artist. We can accept the principle of renewal when it comes to the past; it is harder when we are face to face with the radical ourselves. Of course, there are some radicals who are nothing more than rebels; in the arts, the rebel does not seek new forms but merely spray-paints over the great forms of the past. But the truest radical lives up to his name: he returns to the root and somehow makes a dying plant live again. Henri Cardinal de Lubac, in his provocative book of pensees, Paradoxes of Faith, encapsulates this truth: “To get away from old things passing themselves off as tradition it is necessary to go back to the farthest past—which will reveal itself to be the nearest present.”

The unthinking traditionalist tends to think of Western culture as a museum, not a continuum. But in his cherishing of the legacy of previous centuries there lies concealed a kind of despair. And this in turn leads to something bordering on heresy: the tacit assumption that we cannot create Christian culture anew, now, in our own day. These traditionalists like to talk about “the waste land” of modern culture, as if we have come to the end of the road. But in quoting from T.S. Eliot they forget that Eliot made poetry out of the ruins, and went on to the affirmation of Four Quartets.

The life of the imagination, like the life of faith, is always threatened. Art and faith both maintain a healthy tension between mystery and fact, grace and nature. But there are forces which seek to reduce this productive tension in favor of one pole or the other. I began by alluding to the deeply divided nature of our times. In an age of secularism and ideology, more and more of our lives become politicized. Within the Church it is common to see liberals demanding more “empowerment” for various categories of the oppressed. But at the same time, their conservative adversaries are busily rooting for orthodox bishops and Vatican officials to exercise power in putting the liberals down from their seats. So the struggles within the Church are even more politicized than in the days when a Borgia was Pope.

At a time when factions vie for political advantage both in and out of the Church, the life of contemplation and perception is driven to the margins. Art is seen either as a luxury or as an ally in a cause. In the latter case, the politicization of art is the worst form of instrumentalism: message becomes dominant, and the art becomes nothing more than a candy coating around propaganda. This is true of both Left and Right, the traditionalist and the liberal. I know, for example, of several prestigious Catholic publishers whose interest in fiction or poetry extends only to satires of ideological enemies and saccharine devotional verse.

Now I think we are in a position to see why any balanced view of the relationship between the Church and the arts is so difficult to achieve today. The conservative and liberal activists, along with their artistic counterparts, reinforce each others’ stereotypes. And the man in the pew, torn between a faint belief in the need for artistic freedom and a real fear of moral and social collapse, is tempted to say: a plague on both your houses. I, for one, don’t blame him.

Artistic Estrangement

How, then, did this historical anomaly, the estrangement between the Church and the arts, come about? What forces have fueled it and continue to hamper the reintegration of Christianity and culture in these waning years of the twentieth century?

Clearly one of the fundamental changes which affected the Church’s relationship to the arts involves the social and economic developments of the modem era. The rise of the bourgeoisie and the nation-state altered the forms of art patronage. No longer were princes and prelates the chief purchasers and patrons of the arts. An urban, mercantile class replaced them, helping in part even to alter the subjects and styles of the artworks themselves.

The single greatest cause of estrangement, of course, was the phenomenon of secularization itself. Driven by modern anti-Christian ideologies and the rise of capitalism, religious iconography, shared by the entire social order, gave way to more domestic, private subjects: still lifes, landscapes, portraits. By the late nineteenth century, artists became interested in the dark underbelly of the social order: their subjects began to include prostitutes and other seemingly less-than-edifying subjects. Increasingly art came to reflect the alienation and nihilism which were manifesting themselves in social pathologies and ideological movements. Many of these subjects seemed to flout religion or at least to sink into despair and cynicism.

In a world which was becoming more hostile and more indifferent to organized religion, the Church naturally hesitated before these cultural developments. More and more Church leaders began to look within, as they battled the influences of modern philosophy among prominent Catholic thinkers. Much of this was inevitable. The Church, being in the world but not of it, is not in the business of giving wholesale endorsements to cultural trends. Festina lente—”hurry up slowly”—is in many ways the wise policy of Church leaders when dealing with artistic, political, and intellectual movements. On the other hand, it is precisely in such complex times that the rigorists and iconoclasts sound persuasive and even sensible. Parading under the flag of orthodoxy, these fundamentalists advocate a retreat into the fortress, where they seek to escape contamination from impure, worldly influences.

Though other reasons for the estrangement between the Church and the arts could be adduced, I will add only one further point concerning the situation in America. The Puritan strain in the American national character runs deep and strong. Preferring didactic rhetoric to poetry, the Puritans set in motion the American philosophy of pragmatism. The fine arts have always carried the scent of the old elitist European order to our more egalitarian noses.

For much of their history, American Catholics have sought to blend in with the dominant culture. After all, their churches were thought to be pieces of foreign real estate, little embassies of the Vatican. It was only natural that American Catholics, while clinging to their private faith, would the more willingly merge with the public forms of culture. Within the American Church the impact of the Irish tradition also has to be considered. As Thomas Day argues in his trenchant new book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, the Irish experience of oppression by the English has been central to Irish attitudes toward high culture. Day singles out the years of clandestine, minimalist liturgical services, and the association of the fine arts with the power and wealth of the oppressors to support his case. Given the dominant Irish influence on the American Church in its formative years, it was natural that the arts would appear suspicious and even frivolous.

But what of modern art itself? Though I have defended the role of art in making things new, there can be no question that the High Modernist movement, from Cezanne through Picasso and beyond, has created a particularly intense form of what art critic Robert Hughes calls “the shock of the new.” Despite the fact that we have lived with modern art for a century, there are many who continue to be shocked and discomfited. Here I speak with some experience, for I, too, grew up thinking modern art was a terrible calamity, one more graphic example of the waste land of the twentieth century. It seems to me, however, that unless Christians are willing to get beyond the proverbial “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” syndrome, they will abandon their duty to create a new Christian culture.

Virtues of Modern Art

The most common objection to modern art is that it is abstract, that it has abandoned the tradition of representational painting. This break with the past is often taken as an attack on the dignity of man, and a retreat into meaninglessness. Here the very purpose and nature of art itself is at issue. For the underlying assumption of those who argue that art must be strictly representational is that art is essentially a form of imitation. The teaching of art history often enforces this view: for example, consider the universal praise for Giotto as the first painter to create monumental figures in the illusion of three-dimensional space. Giotto’s art becomes the great breakthrough that leads upward from the clumsy, symbolic art of the Middle Ages to the glories of modern realism.

But if you turn to the aesthetics of the twentieth-century Thomists, you find a very different understanding of the nature of art. Maritain, Gilson, and Pieper hold that art is not an imitation of the world, which would make it only an inferior sort of camera, but rather involves the creation of new beings. The aesthetic value of these artifacts is gauged not by the fidelity of the camera’s lens, but the radiance, proportion, and harmony of their forms. Here the Thomists were joined by G.K. Chesterton, who thought that Giotto initiated the decline of Western art.

The rise of representational painting thus parallels the rise of modern empiricism and signifies a shrinking, not an expanding, of the activity of art. The notion that the Byzantine and medieval painters were somehow too primitive to draw things as they really are is naïve; they abstracted freely because they wanted to create beautiful forms and suggest realities beyond those available to the naked eye. Modem art likewise has returned to an awareness of its own essence. Understanding this is often difficult, for the most common demand we make of art is that it represent some recognizable object. This, we think, will give a picture meaning. But here we tend to forget the examples of music and architecture, which deal in purely formal values. No one ever demands to know the meaning of a Mozart sonata or a Doric column. We are content to rest in the beauty of their forms.

Perhaps the second most popular charge in the indictment of modern art is that it is disordered or chaotic. In more philosophical terms, modern art is considered relativistic. Of course, if you think art is imitation, then any deviation or abstraction from the picture provided by the camera lens will move in the directing of disorder. But many modern artists were preoccupied precisely with the increasing fragmentation of our perceptions, particularly as technology affects the rhythms of our lives. A Cubist picture might look like a jumble of fragments, but it grows out of an interest in going beyond the stationary vantage point and portraying an object simultaneously from all angles. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is fragmentary, but if you examine the way he juxtaposes those fragments, you will discover that there is method in his madness. The whole point of Modernist art is that the spectator must not sit back and passively receive art, but actively participate in discovering order. Shakespeare had Hamlet declare that the actor’s job was to reveal the “form and pressure of the age.” This is true of any art form. The artist is rooted in time and place; only by being true to the particularities of his existence can he achieve universality. The notion that the artist is under an obligation explicitly to affirm order in his work, how-ever, is really nothing more than a glorified didacticism.

Another objection concerns the use of primitive and/or pagan elements in modern art. Here the argument is that the modern secular artist turns his back on Christianity and seeks the unbridled eroticism and pantheism of primitive societies. There is a measure of truth in this, but it often comes at the expense of a deeper understanding of the nature of modernity. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with the faces of prostitutes turned into primitive African masks, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with its frank celebration of an ancient fertility ritual, would stand as prime examples of the use of the primitive in modern art. In this context, it is crucial to recall that Christianity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had in many instances become hollowed out, a pious coating for the bourgeois materialism of modern society. Having been subjected to various forms of rationalism, Christianity had lost much of its sacramental, ritualistic power. That is why the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church arose. It is what critics as divergent as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard railed against. Artists like Gaugin, Picasso, Stravinsky, and D.H. Lawrence returned to primitive societies to regain a sense of the numinous, of the sacred, of holy dread. Eliot’s The Waste Land is permeated by allusions to pagan fertility cults. Eliot and Stravinsky went on to become Christians. But it doesn’t require the personal conversion of the artists to validate their prophetic vision; rather, by attending to their art, we, as Christians, can return to a more profound sense of our faith.

A final objection worth examining is the belief that modern art degrades us because it portrays ugliness, horror, and alienation. Here, too, the conflict between the artist’s duty to reflect the form and pressure of his age, and the persistent desire we feel to tidy up messy realities, come into conflict. Flannery O’Connor had to deal with this kind of sentiment constantly because her stories are filled with grotesque and evil figures. Her response was that her distortions were necessary, in large part because her audience had lost all sense of the supernatural. “For the hard of hearing you have to shout; for the blind you draw large and startling pictures.” Ultimately she thought of herself as a “Christian realist.”

Now it is no great stretch of the imagination to say that any artist, religious or secular, has the obligation to be true to the world “from where he is.” This is so even if that involves an element of his own subjectivity. There are few artists whose subjectivity is so total that it bears no relation to the anxieties and neuroses of his time. Ironically, it is precisely in the cases when the modern artist most explicitly observes the world around him—a world marred by sin—that his religious detractors desire him to provide what O’Connor calls “Instant Uplift.” If despair is the constant temptation for the unbeliever, then sentimentality is the sweet-faced demon who plagues the believer.

Healing the Breach

What, then, are the prospects for a reconciliation between the Church and the arts? As my allusions indicate, the work in Catholic aesthetics has been done. This century has seen some of the greatest Christian literature ever produced, from Eliot and O’Connor to Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Walker Percy.

If literature has witnessed the most abundant flowering of Christian vision, the other arts can boast of individuals who are both fully modern and profoundly spiritual. In music, one could cite Olivier Messaien, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, and Francis Poulenc. In painting, we have had the genius of Georges Rouault, Emil Nolde, and David Jones.

There is also evidence that mediocre liturgical art has finally irritated people to the point of a healthy rebellion. The upheavals in the Church since the Second Vatican Council have calmed down somewhat, thanks in part to the stabilizing leadership of John Paul II. Liturgical art in this century has reflected one extreme or another. The traditionalist Right tends to approve of only the most maudlin and saccharine holy cards and plaster statues. Whether the conservatives realize it or not, their devotional pictures stem not from some ancient tradition of muscular Catholicism, such as the High Gothic or even the Spanish Baroque, but from a flabby fin de siècle piety, based in the liberalized atmosphere of nineteenth-century Germany, and embodied by artists such as Warner Sallman and Heinrich Hofmann.

On the left an undiscriminating acceptance of pop psychology and liberation theology led to another version of aesthetic blight. There have been the interminable felt banners in pink and purple, with their schematic doves and ecstatic figures with upraised arms. More disturbing are the murals of oppressed Third World natives which exude the peculiar sentimentality of political messianism, and which are sometimes reminiscent of Stalin’s Socialist Realism. One could also mention feminist art, such as the controversial Christa, a female figure on a crucifix, set up for a time in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

What these examples of liturgical art from both Left and Right have in common is a form of sentimentality, a short-circuiting of the anguish and joy of the Christian life in favor of instant visions of sweetness and light. But a healthy wind may soon clear much of this mediocrity away. If Thomas Day’s book Why Catholics Can’t Sing is any indication, there may be a willingness to confront the reign of mediocrity.

One development which bodes well for the reconciliation of Church and the arts has occurred within the major cultural arenas, where the supreme confidence of secular humanism has partially broken down. Whereas in the last few decades it was regularly asserted that religion, in art or in any other aspect of life, formed an escape from reality into wish-fulfillment, there is now a newfound respect for religious belief and commitment. For example, in the pages of Sunday book supplements of the New York Times and the Washington Post over the last two years, novels by writers with explicitly religious preoccupations (Walker Percy, John Updike, J.F. Powers, Shusaku Endo, Larry Woiwode, Reynolds Price, Michael Malone, and others) have received warm, and often effusive praise. I am not suggesting some kind of mass conversion to orthodoxy, but this newfound openness to spiritual experience has torn apart the iron curtain of secularism. Some of the journalists and cultural commentators are beginning to ask the right questions.

The leaders of the Church have not been silent either. Pope Paul VI, who was a friend and admirer of Jacques Maritain, opened the collection of Modern Sacred Art at the Vatican in 1964. This collection is not restricted to art by Catholics but includes work by Jewish and even agnostic painters and sculptors. Speaking in the Sistine Chapel to a group of artists, Paul VI uttered these prophetic words: “We must again become allies. We must ask of you the possibilities which the Lord has given you and therefore, within the limits of the functionality and the finality which form a fraternal link between art and the worship of God, we must leave to your voices the free and powerful chant of which you are capable.”

The Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution, Gaudium et spes, echoes these sentiments. And John Paul II, who has repeatedly called for the renewal of Christian culture, is himself a playwright, poet, and critic, intimately aware of modem problems of mind and spirit. Unlike many clerics, the pope does not reserve his approval only for art which is safe. Within the first months of his pontificate he uttered these remarkable words: “Every piece of art, be it religious or secular, be it a painting, a sculpture, a poem, or any other form of handicraft made by loving skill, is a sign and a symbol of the inscrutable secret of human existence, of man’s origin and destiny, of the meaning of his life and work. It speaks to us of the meaning of birth and death, of the greatness of man.”

It is only fitting that the popes and council fathers ought to be ahead of us, calling on us to follow. And follow we must if we are to be true servants of the One who said: “Behold, I make all things new.”


  • Gregory Wolfe

    Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. Both as a thinker and institution-builder, he has been a pioneer in the resurgence of interest in the relationship between art and religion—a resurgence that has had widespread impact both on religious communities and the public square. As an advocate for and exemplar of the tradition of Christian Humanism, Wolfe has established a reputation as an independent, non-ideological thinker—part gadfly, part peacemaker.

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