Saturday, January 12, 2013

Borrowed Light for a Murky Territory

This is an unstudied response to Manny's comment to my previous post and link to the current discussion on art at several Catholic blogs (including the Anchoress, Simcha Fisher, and Manny's own).   I say "unstudied" because I've only skimped through these pages and feel not equipped to enter the talk.Yet from experience I know there's a lot of confusion about the reality and duties of fine art in the context of religion. 

Generally, there is not much clarity around the narrow but easily contentious subject. If anything, most talks I've seen - heard - fall in the wooly and muddled category. I pass no such judgment on the above mentioned current discussions because I haven't gotten time to read them carefully (catching up on class planning just three days away from school opening). But a glance over the comment sections pretty much confirms my past impression of how uncertain and divergent the views are about the art thingie in the context of religion.

Melancholia by Albrecht Durer 

As I've noticed the term religious art being used in these discussions, I thought maybe it's helpful to first clarify the definition of religious art. That reminded me of an essay written by Maureen Mullarkey, an art critic of the first order in my estimation, whose intellectual vigor and honesty I hugely admire, and who is a very fine painter herself. The essay was written for the Catholic Crisis Magazine, titled  An Unmanifesto: A Proposal to Retire “Catholic Art”. Although I'm aware of the the nuanced differences between what's called "religious art" and "Catholic art," I recommend her essay for the close relatedness addressing the two things under discourse: art, religion. 

I also want to share a bit of where I personally have found clarity in seeing the relations between art and religion. 

Following my conversion my thoughts naturally turned to the same set of questions, among them "can there be religious art?" "how does an artist who's Catholic live up to her vocation?" Or, "does an artwork have to have religious symbols to serve the Good?" In other words, all questions in the realm of art and religion. 

In my search for validation of some privately harbored convictions for being a Catholic artist, and for a model who has the grits to endure misunderstandings and conflicts from within and without, I discovered Flannery O'Connor. The book The Habit of Being, the collection of her letters to fellow Christians, artists, friendly skeptics, has been a life saver to me. As an extension for her views of being an artist who's Catholic can also be found in her talks given to college students and other communities collected under the book title Mystery and Manners. 

Through reading Flannery O'Connor, I discovered the writings of Jacques Maritain, especially his book called Art and Scholasticism, which provides me with much needed insights into the reality of art from theological stand point. There's also a collection of his writings under the title The Responsibility of the Artist, available online. These together look into the relations between art and religion, as well as helps the artist understand where his craft stands in view of his religious belief. Maritain's view is honed from his scholarship of Medieval philosophy, therefore has deep Christian, specifically Catholic, roots.

These recommendations are meant to share a few resources which have been invaluable to me as a practicing artist. I hope they help further the discussion and deepen the interest and understanding of art for fellow Christians. 

Cheerios on a rainy, sloppy day in my land. 


  1. But what did you think of the painting Manny posted on? Maybe from your gut..?

    Did I ever tell you that I'm a fan of Durer?

  2. Jan, you're forcing me to say something. Alright then.

    I don't think that painting is intended to be "religious." Contemporary artists often appropriate Christian themes and symbols to express an individualized vision, often without deep regard to their traditional solemnity. In this case what I see is an abstracted concept of "adoration," while the modern "magi" deprive the image of the symbolic significance of its original source. It's not a new trick in the painters' sleeve. However I don't see malice or cynicism. Even in its perhaps misguided use of the traditional theme there's the hint of spiritual quest. Sometimes I think it's an unintended compliment to Christianity that so much secular art (be it literary or visual) resort to Biblical themes when there's so much to choose from. The deeper reason, I think, is that the central human dramas have been played out in the immortal Book. Even anti-Christian artists find themselves unable to escape the unsurpassed richness and timelessness of the stories it told.

    The concept of "religious art" is imprecise. There was art intended for the altar thus integrated into the liturgy; there's also the art of religious themes, for outside the liturgy; then with modernization artists become increasingly individualistic in their choices without having to answer to the Church. So there are two things to be clear on: what do we mean by "religious art?" and, what's the relation between art and religion?

    One thing I'm sure of: just because an artwork contains religious theme or symbol does not make it a religious work. That the work in question was circulated as a religious work is the result of confusion. By the way, I know of the artist, he is British Chinese. A factoid, no sequitur.

    I could get into more but for the dang classes I have to prepare for.

    1. Thank you Izy for your blog; it was extremely informative. I skimmed Mullarkey's article in Crises, and I hope to go back to it when I have more of a chance.

      Between your comment here and Antonella's comment at the bottom of my blog, perhaps you both have moved me to where I'm beginning to believe it's not a religious work. No question about it. Even if the artist is not being cynical, that painting could never go inside a church, and therefore is not religious.

      Sorry to pull you away from your class prep.

  3. you "like" it? does it move you some way?? hmmm?

  4. Now that I've had dinner and with a full belly I'm not fit to write syllabi, but in mood to continue a bit on this thread on the important topic of art (hehe).

    First, sorry, Jan. I forgot you asked me to respond from "gut." You must understand, my dear, that a jaded artist like me has been forever "genetically" altered, so to speak, by trade, when it comes to say whether I "like" a painting or not. This jadedness only comes to light to myself when I find myself outside the art rooms. So, to cut it short: I like the painting for its formal quality, that's to say I like it as a "thing," a well-crafted "thing" that's good in its own terms; as for whatever it tries to say by appropriating the Magi theme, it neither appeals nor offends me, mainly because of the vapidity of the attempt. Again, it's maybe because I've seen so much of its kind. So, to dislike, or to be offended by it, is just more of a reaction than the work deserves, in my mind.

    As so many artists who like to pose as someone who provokes questions, this painting has succeeded in that.

    Butbutbut..(where did I get that voice, I wonder?), we can SO reasonably discuss what this type of work reveals to us the current culture. Much like the scene after scenes of modern vulgarity T. S. Elliot set in the settings of a noble past in the Wasteland (I wish I could quote right off my head like Manny does) to reveal the frightening, vapid and banal reality of the former, the "magi" in this painting adore an unseen object. Is the modern heart too weak to name the object of its love? In that, I agree with one blogger who sees it as a mindset which has no room for God. If anything, it's a sad commentary of our society.

    So, what's necessary in the talk, I believe, is some criteria consistent with a given perspective. That's why I recommended Maureen Mullarkey and Jaques Maritain, for a more unified, systematic, as opposed to patchy, view on art and religion.

    Back to the "gut" thing, dear Jan, sometimes I feel like a dog who has forgotten how to salivate at the smell of bacon due to a reversed conditioning called art.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.