Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ochlophobist and Art (Part II)

We resume our examination of Ochlophobist's recent post on art - my previous comments are over here.
When I went to Russia in my late teens, I had an experience in front of an icon of the Theotokos, one written in a traditional style, as I have briefly described here. While visiting a number of monasteries, churches, and "museums" in Russia I saw a number of icons. At that time I had never read or been told anything regarding the theology or aesthetics of traditional Orthodox iconography. Yet it was clear as day to me that there was a distinct difference between those icons which were Italianate and those which were traditional, and I was very much drawn to the traditional, and recognized a gravitas in them which I did not recognize in the Italianate icons. Indeed, I immediately regarded the Italianate as religious kitsch, a regard I hold to this day. Now, as a Protestant I grew up in an religious environment which had images, in our Baptist churches and most Baptist homes there were images of Christ, the Last Supper, hands folded in prayer next to a loaf of bread, and so forth. The aesthetic style of these images was much closer to that of Italianate iconography than it was Orthodox iconography. Now, one might suggest that like many Protestants I was only longing to find or create the NT Church all over again, and therefore would want something that was utterly foreign to my religious conventions as this would seem more "authentic." But this is not the typical paradigm through which virtually all Protestants assimilate and act on the desire to get back to the real NT Church. In almost every example of Protestant aesthetic purification of aesthetics, they either use iconoclasm to minimalize or eradicate prior forms, or they maintain the same artistic styles but change the content of the art. This is exactly what Baptists did. They adopted the artistic style of a given time and changed the content of the art to suit their aesthetic needs. Heck, a great example of this is the Mormons, who adopted 19th century aesthetics forms (painting, sculpture, and even faux-hieroglyphic manuscript writing) and assigned to such ancient pedigree. Thus it seems to me that if I had been very much in tune with the Protestant aesthetic ethos, I would have preferred the Italianate icons to the traditional Orthodox ones. I would have accepted them as a form of changed content (with Mary and Saints and somber Jesus instead of folded hands and laughing Jesus, etc.) in a common, "received" style in order to bring myself closer to the ancient Church. For in Protestant aesthetics, style and form, as it were, is decidedly arbitrary - whatever communicates the token talking points of content in a stylistic manner which is "heard" is the most acceptable. But I saw something in the traditional icons which was worlds apart from any religious art I had ever seen before. These icons spoke of a truth that far transcended my little "Jesus and me" self-evangelistic moment or my lust for didacticism or my religious sentimental inclinations or my need for a socio-religious commercial. The traditional icons were uncomfortable, demanding, and not, in the slightest bit, concerned with my own affectations or "needs." I thought there might be mercy to be found in them, and in one instance I was overwhelmed by such mercy, but it was not the sort of mercy I had encountered before.
Again, I don't want to dissect Ochlophobist's work (dissection being messy, usually involving something dead), but I feel that certain points he makes deserve further comment.

First, there is a clear difference between iconography and Italianate kitsch. "Gravitas" distinguishes icons from the Italianate painting, he says. Yes. Gravitas, sobriety, transcendence, a taste of eternity. In infusing religious art with the principles of realism and humanism, including emotionalism, the earlier qualities of transcendence and the eternal were lost. In essence, religious art became Nestorian, as it emphasized Christ's humanity at the expense of His divinity. And His Apostles and Saints lost their sanctity, as sanctity is not a humanist trait; their most sensational qualities had to emphasized instead.

Second, the aesthetic style of Protestant religious art is very similar to that of Italianate kitsch. Unfortunately, this is all too true. And where Protestant aesthetics is not of the Italianate kitsch variety, it belongs to the images of nature motivational poster variety, which is, if anything, worse. I remember two posters from my childhood: "Moi, je suis le chemin, la vérité, et la vie" ("I am the way, the truth, and the life" in French) on a rainy, rainbow-bannered landscape, and "I know I'm victorious, Lord, but it sure feels like I'm getting stomped" on a picture of a sad-faced dog. Somehow, neither attains to the watered-down respect for the holy that a pair of praying hands has.

Third, a desire to get back to the NT Church results in iconoclasm or the same style with a different content. I have never heard of the Protestant drive to return to the NT Church (or even the primitive Church) resulting in a change in aesthetics. I don't think Protestants are built that way with respect to art - they are, sadly, uneducated as to art or are hostile to it. The intimate nature with which theology interacts with art is completely lost on the average Protestant... maybe even your average liturgical Protestant. A change in theology will not, cannot, result in a change in aesthetics.

Unfortunately, far more common than altered content is outright iconoclasm. At one time in my varied (or is that checkered?) past I was an art teacher in a Christian setting. And time and again I would run into parents who had no understanding for the value of art, save as a historical phenomena, or in rare cases, as a part of Western culture. For these parents, the intersection of image and God, no matter how remotely or tenuously linked, was sacrilege. My freedom to put the sacred into art, or simply to present religious art in class, was not welcome, and my decision to do so resulted in some pitched battles.

[Perhaps at some point in the future I will give my patented five minute defense of religious art against those who attack it on the grounds of the Second Commandment.]

Fourth, iconography transcends the vagaries of art history and societal aesthetic tastes. This transcendence is formed in carefully defined theology, and it is preserved and perfected in Tradition. Because Protestants never had a theology of art, and because Catholics have regrettably lost theirs (save for isolated pockets of conservative Catholics where Italianate kitsch is the tradition), both are left helpless before the whims and the winds of fashion. The new method of "communication", no matter how inarticulate it may be or how imperfectly it speak the colours and the tones of eternal truth, must perforce become the new mode for the masses. In the absence of tradition, the new and the unconventional is a seduction for which there is no defense.

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We look forward to Ochlophobist's next post on art.

- V.

3 comments:

les said...

"Because Protestants never had a theology of art, and because Catholics have regrettably lost theirs (save for isolated pockets of conservative Catholics where Italianate kitsch is the tradition), both are left helpless before the whims and the winds of fashion."

As a Catholic, I would have to sadly agree. In the process of becoming Catholic, if there was one ascetic stumbling block for me it was that "Italianate kitsch" (if it is indeed what I think you mean by that expression). I think we could borrow unabashedly from the east and not be the worse for it, in the realm of iconography at least.
I haven't done any kind of study of this, but my instinct is that prior to the great divide, the artistic expression of the Roman church was not far removed from its eastern counterparts, although unquestionably different.
Also, I would suggest that the loss of the English influence was a great loss to the western Church. I know that liturgically and architecturally the High Church of England, the closest to the Catholic faith, has even today much to offer us as Catholics.

les said...

From Ochlophobist;

"The traditional icons were uncomfortable, demanding, and not, in the slightest bit, concerned with my own affectations or "needs." I thought there might be mercy to be found in them, and in one instance I was overwhelmed by such mercy, but it was not the sort of mercy I had encountered before."

A very thought-provoking statement, and very high praise.

V & E said...

There is much that is beautiful, good, holy, and true in the art that preceded the Renaissance, particularly the iconographic art of the so-called Dark Ages. There were changes towards the end of the Gothic period that were a movement away from the Roman, Celtic, German (etc.) iconography that had preceded it, a movement that spelled a loss of truth.

While it is true that the British Isles had a positive influence upon Roman Catholic art, I would argue that it was only insofar as they retained their native Celtic iconographic traditions.

I don't feel that it is necessary for the R.C. Church to adopt Orthodox iconography - I just wish they would re-appropriate their own tradition, carefully square that iconographic tradition with the canons and the theology of the 7 Ecumenical Councils, and then - with rigour and zeal - live the iconography, write the iconography, draw the iconography.

- V.