3.10.2009

Artistic Emancipation

My mother, a master artist, has begun doing some artwork for her church. A fellow artist recently loaned her a copy of the book Spaces for Spirit, lamenting that people don't seem to "get" the sort of thing represented in that book.

Mom and I share a love for art, and though my bent is more literary than visual, we enjoy the exchange of ideas as the same basic principles make for good visual art, good writing and good music. She did not have to ask my opinion to know how I would feel about this particular book, but she showed it to me and asked my thoughts. After ranting for half an hour, I asked to borrow the book for the purpose of responding to some of the ideas.

The art itself was not all bad, although it often detracted from its surroundings--origami mobiles hung in front of stained-glass windows, long swaths of watercolor-on-nylon swung between the faithful and the high arched ceilings, etc. Other work had more of a directly negative effect on my mind: paper cut into lacy jungle scenes, surprisingly feminized portrayals of St. Michael the archangel warrior, and faceless, sexless, ghostlike figures intended to represent the four elements, painted on sheer fabric, swooping down upon the congregation. I have no problem with four-element philosophy, but its appropriation into bland and formless figures and the association of those figures with globalism, environmentalism and feminism means that such use in art makes much more of a political statement than a religious statement.

Contrast that with Michael S. Rose's three main building blocks of religious architecture: "verticality (reaching to the heavens), permanence (transcending space and time), and iconography (the building itself as art)." Rose wrote a book called "Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again" (hat-tip to my husband, who told me about this), which points out the ideas and purpose behind church buildings that work. It is true that Rose is specifically dealing with architecture, not decorative art which may change with the seasons. Yet the author of Spaces for Spirit might have benefited from understanding these principles, as the art itself tended to get in the way of the architectural focal points.

The words of Spaces for Spirit bothered me more than the art itself. Exempli gratia:

"Making art is a process of letting go of expectations and living in relation to materials, living with confusion and an iconoclastic attitude toward assumptions everyone else seems to hold. This stance is a commitment to the non-rational, intuitive, uncontrolled, emotional side of knowing...

We artists destroy conformity. We demand plurality. And that can be very threatening."

Iconoclasm is a strange word for an artist to use--connoting a closed-minded, usually volatile reaction toward the symbolic, mysterious, or complex. Iconoclasts saw the presence of representational art as idolatry, literally that described in the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth ..." That attitude never seemed to take into account the God-dictated glories of the Israelite tabernacle, which contained images of cherubim and pomegranates, among other things. What, in all that narrowness, provides an effective simile for relating to popular assumptions of any sort?

But the problems in these lines are greater than overreaching adjectives. One of the great failures of the last few decades of art education has been the right-brain/left-brain concept, the false dichotomy between the creative and the rational. The tendency of true art is toward order, not chaos, and order presumes both rationality and control. This is not to say that the abstract has no place in true art, but that art, in order to convey meaning, is typically more ordered than the world itself and not less. As a novelist, this principle is always a part of my subconscious. Whatever a story chooses to portray, it cuts the parts of normal life's disarray and directionlessness that are unnecessary to the story's development, tension and resolution--at least, unless its only goal is an obscure award and the possibility of being used as course reading for a couple of literature classes taught by overeducated postmodern professors.

The modern concept of freeing the creative right-brain from the domineering logic of the left-brain does not result in better art; it results in less communication between the work itself and the intended audience. The author claims that "our response to art is liminal, not rational"; my concern is that modern art seems to provide liminal experience only to those who have some training in that response, while traditional art is not a respecter of persons, and can be appreciated by people of any class to the utmost of their capability.

Further, modern artists busy "destroying conformity" have become surprisingly conformed to one another--like young people trying desperately to stand out from the crowd: one person with pink hair is startling, but once every other person is dying their hair blue and purple, they all start to look the same. The new artists have forgotten that nothing creates sameness more than absence of definition. And in their demand for plurality they notoriously fail to accept traditionalists as intellectual equals.

A failure of education in general shows in the following:

"Much of Christian symbolism in the visual arts takes words to interpret it. This means that the art is dependent upon a filter of intellectual content if its meaning is to be understood. What the art means is limited to a truth that the viewer "gets". Of course, the problem that artists have with this approach is clear: Once the viewer "gets" the meaning, the work is reduced to a mere container for an intellectual idea, and its impact is also reduced to a predictable emotion. It ceases to have meaning apart from these predictable responses. It becomes a visual cliché."

This is an utterly mistaken idea of symbol. It's like looking at The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and saying "Aslan is Jesus and Edmund is one of us" and coolly assuming that one has unravelled the secret of that particular piece of literature. Symbol does not mean 1:1 representation, and neither Narnia, nor other great works of fiction, nor the saints and their assorted paraphernalia in a stained-glass window are that bland or explicit. Symbolic art works on multiple levels; it is first a comprehensible surface, and then it may have a recognizable moral purpose, a typological representation, and a deeper, anagogical meaning. Most people never get consciously beyond the first and second level, but they may be subconsciously touched by the other levels; they may not know what is represented by the lily in St. Catherine's hand, but they recognize the pure beauty thereof. In the modern art, it is often difficult for the uninitiate to gain an understanding or appreciation of the surface level, let alone what else might be interpreted from the piece. Rather than inspiring the "diversity of interpretations" desired, it may just bring small variations on the general "This crap is in the way".

Worse yet:

"we hear the name of that revolution. It is love--my love of you with your loyalties, your love of me with my passion, our love together of our creator God, your love of my brokenness as an artist, of my imperfections, my love of your resistance and compassion for the cost of change for you."

The condescension in this paragraph is appalling, but the concept of love is simply wrong. Love is not a playful indulgence for someone's weaknesses, nor is passion something belonging exclusively or even primarily to those who consider themselves revolutionaries and rulebreakers. Love does not insist on change for the purpose of change, on unbridled creativity for creativity's sake alone. We love people, not brokenness; truth, not "resistance"; and insistence on change, even while having "compassion" for its cost, is as tyrannical as any tradition could be.

Spaceship and warehouse architecture, poorly-designed art, and an eggshell-walking spirit of welcome have dominated American churches for several decades now. The result has been almost complete loss of interest among the male members of the church, a generation of Christians-in-name who have no idea what they believe, and as much mockery and misrepresentation from the outside world as ever.

I remember visiting the cathedral basilica in St. Louis--a concrete monsterpiece that appeared heavy enough to sink into the ground where it stood. But if you've ever considered the symbol of a room or object having an "inside bigger than its outside"--used so well by C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle--you'll know something of what it was like to step into that church. I walked through a vast world of beauty: intricate mosaics on the distant domed ceilings, depicting Scripture scenes and people; graceful carved statues, golden tabernacles, pillared corridors; and at every corner I wanted to fall on my face and worship.

The demanding of freedom by the modern artist is a misapprehension of freedom itself. Freedom without rules is like change without reason; a directionless, wandering, unfortunate thing that cannot lead anyone into truth or meaning.

"The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within."--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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