The Church & the Arts: Estranged Bedfellows

June 2013By Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe is the founder and co-editor of Image: A Journal of Religion and the Arts. He is currently writing a book on contem­porary novelists and poets who explore religious experience.

The Visual Arts and Christiani­ty in America: From the Colo­nial Period to the Present.  By John Dillenberger. Crossroad. 290 pages. $39.50.



The relationship between religion and the arts is not a topic that gets much attention these days, even among well-educated Christians. The one ironic exception to this rule is the occasional ruckus that is raised about some artistic succes de scandale, such as the re­cent flap over the public fund­ing of an exhibition featuring Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” (This, you may recall, was a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s own urine.) Other recent examples include the controversies surrounding films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Hail Mary. By and large the debate on such works breaks down into predictable categories: the artists proclaim­ing sincerity of motive and denouncing would-be censors, and the faithful castigating blasphemy and aesthetic deca­dence.

It’s hard to say who comes off worse in such public skir­mishes. The creative denizens of Hollywood and New York tend to betray a smug igno­rance of historic religion and an unwillingness to admit that their works possess little aes­thetic substance beyond tem­porary shock value. But the representatives of organized re­ligion — whether they be fun­damentalist preachers using the event to line the coffers of some protest group, or sober Catholic bishops speaking to their flocks — hardly appear in a better light. Apart from a general Philistine distrust of art and its prerogatives, the re­ligious spokesmen employ a shotgun tactic of vague and wide-ranging criticisms, often missing the target altogether.

Take, for example, the re­sponse to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Here is a film which suffers, not from the sins of blasphemy and mockery of sacred truths, but from an excessively earnest approach to the subject. In heaping scorn on the ex-Jesuit seminarian Scorsese, the clerics missed the point: The film’s depiction of Christ is nothing more or less than an accurate translation of contemporary liberal theology. In The Last Temptation, Willem Dafoe’s Christ — a confused, neurotic improviser wracked by the di­chotomies of flesh and spirit — simply reflects the reductive Christology of such neo-Modernist theologians as Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx. However ludicrous and bizarre the film may be at times, blaming Scorsese is a case of shooting the messenger for bringing bad news.

There is, however, a larger issue, an encompassing irony, that underlies these public de­bates: the extent to which Christians take for granted the estrangement between the church and the world of high art. From apostolic times until the Baroque era and beyond, the church has not only pa­tronized the arts, but recog­nized in them something more profound than mere decora­tion. There have been periods, in fact, when literature and the visual arts have helped to teach theology to clergy and laity alike. This is particularly clear in the East, in its icons and liturgy, but it would not be inappropriate to speak of the “theology” of Giotto, Michelangelo, and Van Eyck, not to mention the anonymous craftsmen of Chartres and the catacombs.

How did this modern es­trangement come about? It would take a book to answer this question, a book that needs to be written. On the one hand, there is the growth of bourgeois capitalism and the consequent changes in patron­age of the arts, the evolution of the nation-state, and secu­larization and the substitution of culture for religion. On the other, there is the church, which produces culture but does not necessarily embrace the culture of any time and place. In the modern era the church, like everyone else, took some time to absorb the “Shock of the New.” In its wisdom, the Church is never in a hurry to put its Imprimatur on revolutions in sensibility.

When they first appeared, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Av­ignon, with their celebrations of a sensual, pagan primitivism and their fragmentations and dissonances, seemed to spell the end of Western cul­ture. Only with the passage of time can we see that Modern­ism in art, far from rejecting tradition, entailed a concerted effort to get beyond the senti­mentality and triviality of the bourgeois culture of the late 19th century. It was necessary to recover the sense of mys­tery, awe, and sacrifice in pa­gan religion before the sacramentalism and numinousness of Christianity could be fully recovered. (Whether the artists intended any such recovery is not important. Stravinsky, as it happens, came to embrace the Christian faith; Picasso, of course, did not.)

Perhaps the more urgent question today is not how the church and the arts became alienated from one another, but whether the conditions ex­ist for a reconciliation. Clearly, there has been no dearth of art inspired by religious experi­ence in the 20th century. In addition to such prominent literary figures as Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Francois Mauriac, one could point to Rouault and Nolde in painting, Britten and Messaien in music, Moore and Epstein in sculpture, and many others. In the middle decades of this century, there were many theologians and philosophers of stature who were articulating an aesthetics that synthesized Christian thought and the peculiar conditions of modernity. Such figures as the Protestant Paul Tillich, and the widely re­spected Catholic Thomists, Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, moved easily in mainstream cultural circles. Both Thomists were invited to give the prestigious Mellon Lectures at the National Gal­lery of Art; they were known as champions of modern art. Pope Paul VI, who possessed a deep understanding of the na­ture of the visual arts and their cognitive value, initiated a new Vatican museum of modern religious art and was an admirer and friend of Mar­itain.

With the advent of the 1960s, and the upheaval which followed the Second Vatican Council, however, the synthe­sis which had been developed by these thinkers began to break down. As the Catholic Church became increasingly polarized, its ability to distin­guish true art from propagan­da diminished. On the Right a reactionary and Philistine atti­tude tended to allow 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 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 ubiquitous felt banners in pink and purple, with their schematic doves and ecstatic figures with upraised arms. Also disturbing are the murals of oppressed Third World natives which exude the pecul­iar sentimentality of political messianism, and which are sometimes reminiscent of Stal­inist 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.)

Where does all this fer­ment and fragmentation leave us? I would argue that we are now in fact standing on the threshold of new opportunities for renewal in the area of reli­gion and the arts. Pope John Paul II’s efforts to achieve a balance between unchanging truths and openness to the conditions of our time stand as a perfect model for the authen­tic renewal of Christian cul­ture. And in the realm of theology, it is arguable that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord, a seven-vol­ume study of “theological aesthetics,” will prove to be the greatest and most endur­ing achievement in Catholic thought in the latter half of the 20th century. Von Baltha­sar, the winner of both theo­logical and literary awards, died in 1988, two days before John Paul II was to make him a cardinal.

There are also hopeful signs in the political and cul­tural realms. The Utopian dreams implicit in both welfare-state liberalism and Reaganite conservatism have been dealt severe blows, and a sense of the limitations of na­ture, both human and envi­ronmental, is gaining ground. In the major cultural arenas, the supreme confidence of secular humanism has also been blunted. 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 commit­ment. For example, in the pages of Sunday book supple­ments of The New York Times and The Washington Post over the last few years, novels by writers with explicitly religious preoccupations (Walker Percy, John Updike, J.F. Powers, Shusaku Endo, Larry Woiwode, Reynolds Price, and others) have received warm and often effusive praise.

Whether this “window of opportunity” will lead to a renaissance of Christian culture is impossible to say. But it will require men and women of sensitivity, boldness, and wis­dom to forge a new conscious­ness of what Flannery O’Con­nor called “the presence of grace” in our times. One such individual is the Protestant John Dillenberger, Professor Emeritus at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Dillenberger, and his wife, Jane Dillenberger, have been laboring in the area of religion and the arts for over two dec­ades. A disciple of Tillich, Dillenberger is the former President of Hartford Semi­nary. His books include A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities (1986), Benjamin West (1977), and Perceptions of the Spirit in Twentieth Century Art (1977), a catalog for an important travel­ing exhibition of contemporary art with sacred themes. One of Dillenberger’s most important accomplishments is the role he has played in stressing the need for art education in sem­inaries.

The book under review, The Visual Arts and Christianity in America, is a new expanded edition of an earlier work, with an entirely new section on 20th-century art, illustrated with 184 black and white plates. Its value is two-edged: It not only fills a yawning gap in the history of religion and culture, but it also provides the necessary framework for understanding the tensions be­tween art and faith in the American experience.

The story that Dillenberger chronicles is, to be sure, one that most well-educated Chris­tians already know: The Eng­lish Protestant heritage, with its stress on the Word to the exclusion of the Image, pro­duced little visual art of any quality for nearly 300 years. But the documentation makes for fascinating reading. Having read the sermons of the Puri­tan fathers, and the theological journals of the 19th century, Dillenberger notes the constant refusal to acknowledge that art has any autonomous value. Rather, art was measured by its utility in providing orna­mentation or refinement for the purely verbal and narrative aspects of the Bible. He shows that the secularizing trend from the Puritanism of Cotton Mather to the Transcendental­ism of Emerson can be traced in the growth of landscape painting, in which Nature be­comes a substitute for God. Of particular interest is the con­nection he makes between Emersonian pantheism and the school of Luminist painters.

Dillenberger is more posi­tive about the impact of Span­ish Catholicism on the Ameri­can Southwest. He notes that the art which was transmitted to the early mission settle­ments, far from representing the high points of Renaissance and Baroque periods, is in fact closer to the naive styles of the medieval era. Sacramental and image-centered, this tradition was also closely tied to folk art and crafts. But this subculture was in no position to influence the dominant culture of Amer­ica.

The section on the 20th century covers not only the work of artists, but also the views of Christians from diverse backgrounds as express­ed in their journals, societies, and exhibitions. Dillenberger pays particular attention to the challenge that modern abstrac­tion poses for Christians inter­ested in the arts. This is an area fraught with ironies and contradictions. Most contempo­rary believers instinctively as­sume that the Western tradi­tion of art from Giotto to Ce­zanne, with its brilliant achievements in perspective and artistic illusionism, consti­tutes the golden era of paint­ing. But Dillenberger argues that the primary function of art is not imitation of the ob­servable world, but imagina­tive penetration into the mean­ing of the world. In fact, the same argument has been made by such orthodox Catholics as G.K. Chesterton and Etienne Gilson. Giotto and his succes­sors, for all their brilliance, lost something crucial to the aes­thetic imagination, according to Chesterton. The reason why the medieval artist drew flat­tened and abstracted pictures of man was not because he couldn’t work out perspective, but because his vision was better communicated by this distortion. And Gilson, in his densely philosophical work, Painting and Reality, shows that “modern art” constitutes a recovery of the primary end of art: the making of beautiful objects which do not need to refer to something observable, but merely subsist in their formal perfection.

As Dillenberger acknowl­edges, his evaluations of re­cent artists, who have not yet been subjected to the test of time, may be somewhat per­sonal. While I agree that Ab­stract Expressionism constitutes an important strand of artistic Modernism, I am less drawn to figures such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko (two of Dillenberger’s favor­ites) than I am to the more recent “Postmodern” artists (such as Steve Hawley, Adrian Kellard, and Claudio Bravo) who had reintroduced history, allusion, and the human figure into their works, while main­taining their distance from any form of “photorealism.”

The final chapter of the book takes up the knotty question of liturgical art and its relationship to the currents of contemporary high art. Ev­eryone has his own horror stories about hideous churches that look like roller-skating rinks, not to mention sculptur­al abominations of all shapes and sizes. The accepted theory has been that liturgical art is controlled by its role in focus­ing the worshiper on the litur­gical events. Thus the empha­sis has been on accessibility, recognizability, and traditional iconography.

Dillenberger’s treatment of this question will seem to many to border on an endorse­ment of placing anything in a church that looks nice, regard­less of its connection to the very concrete mysteries of an incarnational religion. Thus he wholeheartedly admires the triptych Willem de Kooning painted for St. Peter’s Luther­an Church in Manhattan. This free-flowing painting, compos­ed solely of sinuous and in­tensely colored lines, was placed immediately behind the altar at St. Peter’s. But even at this progressive New York church, as I discovered on a recent visit there, de Kooning’s work was considered too much of a distraction and had been removed.

But if liturgical art which is too experimental and re­moved from the ends of Chris­tian prayer can obstruct the spiritual life of the people of God, so too can shoddy, sen­timental, and trivial liturgical art do damage to the vitality of faith. Twenty-five years ago the brilliant Dominican Gerald Vann wrote: “Again and again a great book or film will be denounced as ‘immoral’ while the mawkish, the moronic, the aesthetically meretricious will be extolled because its message is regarded as edifying or at least ‘safe.’ In the end those who are docile to this sort of guidance acquire an affinity not with what is good and real but what is bad and false, not with genuineness and integrity but with the debased and the ignoble.” The danger of dis­traction is real when in­appropriate liturgical art is placed in a church, but the opposite danger is an art that does not challenge or awaken in the beholder the continual surprises and paradoxes of the Christian message.



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