Special Pleading/Christian Artists

Identity politics, a cancer on the body politic, is corrosive in the arts as well. All the more disconcerting, then, to find Christian artists recycling a self-indulgent pose similar to that used earlier by gay, black and women artists. Last week’s On the Square
column about Fuller Seminary’s Art Immersion project laments “the difficulty of being a theist in the art world.” No such difficulty exists; it is a manufactured complaint.

Helen Zajkowski. Tower of Babel (2002). Collaged pop-up booklet intended to “awaken the viewer to new dimensions to the New and Old Testaments.”
Helen Zajkowski. Tower of Babel (2002). Collaged pop-up booklet intended to “awaken the viewer to new dimensions to the New and Old Testaments.”

However appealing to a religious audience, the rhetoric of marginalization is, at best, an overstatement; at worst, dishonest. Special pleading for people of faith succeeds, like previous bandwagons in the arts, in lending lustre to mediocrity.

The mélange of styles and no-styles that characterizes such groups as Christians in the Visual Arts is indistinguishable as art from mainstream production. For the most part (see above), you have to read the press releases and artists’ statements to tell the difference.

What kind of training do artists who are Christians need? Precisely the kind of training non-Christian artists need. They need immersion in skills and the procedures of their chosen craft. They need talent. They need to jettison the Renaissance-induced, romantic notion of themselves as special beings. They need—as the best teaching artists insist—to know who their betters are, and not be afraid to acknowledge it. They need to leave grievance-mongering at home.

What Christian artists do not need is to be encouraged in the false notion that the hard-won capacity to create beauty, to achieve it, can be taught. Or that religious intentions translate readily, without cunning and high competence, into pictorial language.

Sandra Bowden. Gold Cross (2008). Encaustic and gold leaf on panel
Sandra Bowden. Gold Cross (2008). Encaustic and gold leaf on panel

By way of illustration, stay for a moment with the work of Sandra Bowden, a distinctive member of CVA and my personal favorite. Above is a gold leafed and encaustic arrangement of four panels intended to represent the four gospels; the interstices are meant to suggest the Cross. It is a beautiful piece, flawlessly crafted. But its religious symbolism depends on Bowden’s own statement or the setting in which it is seen (e.g. the Museum of Biblical Art or Evangel College). It is not apparent on its own. In strict visual terms, intentions dissolve into the idiom of geometric abstraction.

I am deeply drawn to Bowden’s work for its formal beauty. However, its expressive content—its religiosity—is largely dependent on words, not pictorial means. That dependence is characteristic of a mannered subculture that wants to pronounce its contemporaneity and its creed at the same time. If we care about the condition of the arts, we have to hold close Maritain’s injunction:

Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work . . . . [The artist must] be intent, in his very operation, on the good of the work alone, without being deflected or disturbed by the weight of the human or divine riches which fill his heart.

Those words are sufficiently known. Later in The Responsibility of the Artist , Maritain adds a less familiar comment:

I spoke some moments ago of the distinction to be made between the creative self and the self-centered Ego, and of the manner in which self-awareness risks making the artist shift from one to the other . . . . In the order of formal causality—moral virtues . . . belong to another sphere than the sphere of art, and are of no use to it.

Faith remains a virtue of the individual as a man or woman , not as an artist. It is fair to suspect ego is the driving force—disguised by sanctimony—behind efforts to promote a specifically Christian identity in the arts whether or not one’s art warrants it. The primary beneficiaries of such initiatives are professors, client-seeking institutions, arts entrepreneurs—artists among them—and non-profits. What benefit accrues to the larger culture is uncertain.

Dorothy Sayers phrased it more succinctly than Maritain: “The only Christian work is good work, well done.”

• • • • •
Two ancient media, encaustic and gold leaf, have experienced a renaissance over the last forty years. Gilding, popularized by the pattern-and-decoration movement begun in the Seventies and still going, is no longer a signal of sacrality. It is simply one of the rich variety of materials available to contemporary artists. Traditional methods and materials have been revivified for their indwelling loveliness by those artists who love the sensible qualities of the stuff in their hands. Christian artists have no corner on concern for tradition.

This return to traditional materials was initiated by artists themselves at work in their own studios. If we want to lay blame for inattention to tradition, place it on the professoriate’s mania for theory and ideological postures. Plus its aptitude for the discursive over the visual.

• • • • •

Mary McLeary. The Prodical Son (1996). Collage on paper.
Mary McLeary. The Prodical Son (1996). Collage on paper.

The art world has what can be called theists no less than Madison Avenue, Foggy Bottom, Goldman Sachs, or the Vatican bank. They are just not necessarily practicing Christians. Or practicing anythings. Most often, they are of the decaffeinated, gluten-free variety known as Nones. Religionless theists but theists nonetheless. Free range.

The art world precludes no one from love of neighbor. It denies no one a prayer life, keeps no one from church. It blacklists no artists for belief in God. Nothing inhibits artists from dedicating their talents and their studio time to the glory of God. Nobody cares. Theism, in and of itself, is a non-issue in the arts. It is a red-herring. Its market value issues, in the main, to enterprising arts impresarios. Lack of exposure for contemporary religious art owes more to the quality of the general run of it than to any presumed antagonism to theism.

What is an issue, however, is politics. If God is your thing, no matter; just so long as you are a liberal. Attend any gathering, social or professional, and the clubby assumption is that everyone is like-minded. How could it be otherwise? We are in the arts, dammit. It follows, as night the day, that we are all pro-abortion, favor gay marriage, oppose fracking, and vote Democrat. Any hint to the contrary is a stumbling block along the trade routes.

Bill Viola. Five Angels for the Millenium (2001)
Bill Viola. Five Angels for the Millenium (2001)

Yes, I know. Political conservatism and religious belief tend to run in tandem. Nevertheless, they are not identical. Recognition of the difference between them can be measured by Bill Viola’s preeminence in the contemporary art world. An exquisite technician, he has created videos that are increasingly sympathetic to that gauzy, undemanding sensation called spirituality . (If I were a betting woman, I’d lay odds on Viola appearing in the Vatican pavilion at the Biennale.
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) His work, lovely to watch in motion, corresponds to that soothing otherworldliness that raises no hackles and goes nicely with yoga lessons. Proto-theism is a user-friendly prelude to the real thing.

• • • • •

The art of the Church is theology for the masses. The masses. Des Volkes . An unpleasant, class conscious phrase. My antipathy for it leaves me wary of anyone who uses it. Addressed here to artists, it abets the supposition that artists are among the Better Sort. They bathe and listen to Vivaldi; their prayers are sweeter, rise higher, than those of the great unwashed. The lure of self-regard behind programs tailored to artists anxious to admire “the theological implications of their trade” ought to leave us uneasy. (Is there no theological substrate in the conscience of the grocer who gives full measure? In the beauty carpenters create with chisels and rasps?)

The masses . That phrase echoes Gregory the Great’s memorable comment that “what writing presents to readers, a picture presents to the unlearned who view it, since in the image even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in the picture the illiterate read.”

Gregory’s having said it does not redeem its condescension nor alter its implicit suggestion that the printed word—the treatises, arguments and apologias of the scholarly class—is a superior mode of theological expression. Images are second-string offerings to simple minds: scripture for the unlettered.

The Masses

How much of the high religious art we take as our patrimony was created for “the masses”? How much of it was commissioned for private use by princes, kings and cardinals, never seen by the rag tag multitudes until the advent of mass travel in the twentieth century?

Books of hours and illustrated prayer books were created for the privileged few who could read. All those glorious Giottos decorated the Scroveni family’s personal chapel. Da Vinci’s Last Supper was frescoed above a door in a monastery refectory. Piero’s Resurrection, among other great Renaissance frescoes , was made for the edification of monks . When Goethe venerated Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel he was alone in it.
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His era’s Grand Tour was a luxury denied “the masses.”

Theology for the masses —the concept is embarrassed by hauteur. The arts need less of it, not more.