October 7, 2013

How We've Murdered Liturgical Art: Part I

This series of posts discusses a book written by a professor at Carthage College, published by Concordia Publishing House, and used as a required text at Concordia University NE in the 1970s. It is entitled "The Christian Encounters the World of Painting," by Wendell Mathews. The book purports to be a guide for Christians to approaching and critiquing modern painting. While claiming to be a proponent of Christian art, Mathews is clearly part of the problem—he is one of the many Christian voices that contributed to the murder of the liturgical arts in the past century. I intend to show exactly how.

In his book, Dr. Mathews wields four weapons against the art of the Church. Not surprisingly, they are the standard poison of Modernism, but have been carefully disguised with theological language in order to be more readily swallowed by Christians. They are: 1) undermining tradition, 2) promoting elitism, 3) attacking semantics, and 4) fostering an improper view of vocation.

1. Undermining the Christian Tradition

A hallmark of Modernism was the sudden break from tradition. Spectacular mental acrobatics were required by Modernist art critics—championed by Clement Greenberg—in order to attach abstract expressionism (and other -isms) to some kind of linear, historical significance. Greenberg felt it necessary to historically justify that which had nothing at all to do with thousands of years of artistic precedent. Other Modernists, however, felt the need to neither deny nor justify the obvious break from tradition. The Futurists, for example, would have burned the museums to the ground, if Marinetti's manifesto had been carried out in reality.1

Dr. Mathews is not one of those overtly iconoclastic Modernists, however. He has good intentions. But he appears to be under two related delusions: that Modernist painting is a continuation of the artistic tradition, but that the painting of past eras has no significance to people living in the present:
After a long period of indifference to the major stylistic trends of recent decades, the church is questioning whether it can relate adequately to the present age by means of outmoded art styles. Some in the church have known for some time that the use of past styles has alienated artists interested in stylistic innovations that emerge from creative activity.1
I quoted a portion of this statement in the Introduction post, but Mathews apparently believes it so strongly that he says it twice. But take special notice of the things he glosses over as though they were self-evident: that traditional styles are "outmoded," and that the use of past styles "alienates" creative artists. Mathews does not spend much time trying to explain exactly why something that was painted for Christians in 1600 cannot relate to Christians of today. Mathews does explain, however, that symbols used in past centuries may fall out of use. He writes,
Visual symbols are born and die. They die when they can no longer produce the special response that the viewer associates with the object. For this reason, many old visual symbols once alive to church members have now lost their power to communicate. But out of the contemporary involvement should arise new and meaningful symbols.2
Okay. So by this are we to believe that when people no longer know what a shepherd is, we should substitute "Jesus is my homeboy?" Well, he has an answer for that.
Some have suggested that all the old visual symbols... should be discarded because they communicate only when they are explained. It is true that some symbols have lost their power to communicate, but this should not apply to a large number of symbols that come to us directly from the Bible. We should not discard symbols of the lamb and the Good Shepherd because we are now more urban-oriented than people of Bible times. ... If such symbols lose their meaning, it reflects weakness on the part of the members of the Christian church.3
I suspect that it's rare for someone to so thoroughly shoot himself in the foot as Mathews has done here. So far, this has been his only concrete reason for doing away with "past styles" of art, and it really has nothing at all to do with the styles, but with the substance. But after saying that symbols that no longer communicate should be replaced with new symbols, he then rebukes this viewpoint as a weakness of faith. And even though he argues that only biblical symbols should enjoy a special protection from disuse, it still requires educating the believers as to their meaning and value. What possible excuse could one have, then, for ignorance toward other well-established but non-biblical symbols (for instance, the Chi-Rho)? None whatsoever.

This leads us to conclude that this cannot be his real and only reason for marginalizing Christian art of the past. Dr. Matthews' motives are only hinted at when he defines what "authentic" art is: "A Christian painting should be authentically artistic. In the world of painting, a work is authentic within a particular cultural and artistic continuum."4 He goes on to say that "individual style, however, should show also the style of his own historical and artistic epoch."5 This is his ace in the sleeve. Whatever a person might say about timelessness, symbolism, or the power to communicate, he can simply counter by saying, "But that art does not participate in the current artistic idiom; therefore it isn't authentic."

So let's recap. Remember how Mathews began by saying that certain styles cannot "relate adequately to the present age?" As it turns out, that was just the first part of a classic bait-and-switch. His argument really has nothing to do with whether or not past art can relate or communicate with Christians today, because he knows this argument has no legs. Instead, he tries to convince you that any art that isn't a product of the mainstream culture cannot ever be "authentic."

Why is this dangerous to Christianity—and how did it kill liturgical art?

It turns out that Dr. Mathews is not really saying anything new. He has fallen prey to the age-old infatuation with the present—that the best music, poetry, art, science, and everything, is happening now. It must be exhilarating to think of one's self riding on the crest of progress, even affecting that progress. The trouble is that this kind of ego- and sociocentricity has nothing to do with Christianity. Christianity teaches that since the Fall into sin, man is utterly corrupt and has nothing to offer God. Furthermore, society at large has been on the express train to hell—and it's picking up speed. Mathews doesn't deny this. He correctly describes the Christian's relationship to the world as one of "mediation." He then explains,
The Christian relationship centers in God's grace, mediated to man in and through the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This gift was bought with His great sacrifice, revealing the fullness of divine love. Christ's love becomes the power for Christian action. The Christian's faith is to be active in love.6
The wording is theologically vague, but I think we could all agree with that statement. However, the problem is that what Mathews calls mediation is, to him, social activism. "This acceptance of responsibility means having a critical voice regarding cultural elements contrary to Christian truths."7 The most charitable view of Mathews' writing would be that he wants art to engage nonbelievers in a theological dialogue. But this is impossible. You can tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan to an atheist, and he will fancy himself to be the Good Samaritan. Images do not change a person's orientation to God. As highly as I regard ecclesiastical art, it does not have the power to evangelize nonbelievers—it is not a means of grace.

Vestment for Mass by Manessier
Besides the futility of this supposed evangelism effort, all it has accomplished is to scrape the beauty and meaning from art in order to present to an unbelieving culture something that Dr. Mathews hopes they can "relate" to. Where does that leave Christians? I did not find one single sentence in the book that distinguished art made for galleries from art made for worship. To Mathews, I suspect that they are the same thing. And this is why it is so fatally damaging to liturgical art. In 2000 years of art history, Christian art was made primarily for either devotional purposes or for worship. In both respects, it was made for Christians. No one deluded himself into believing that showing an image of Jesus would convert the heathens. (They suffered from other delusions, but probably not this one.) So it is exceedingly stupid to expect that the church of this age should lower its artistic standards to the tastes and aesthetic of a culture that is in every respect ruled by Satan.

But the biggest reason why this disconnect from tradition is damaging to liturgical art and to Christianity is that, while attempting to use the visual language of Modernism, it has jettisoned the narrative of Salvation in exchange for the subjective feelings of the artist. Modernist painting and sculpture, because it abandoned representational art, could only use abstraction to convey a visceral, barely definable, subjective experience. This art is incapable of expressing the reality of the Incarnation, because it refuses to acknowledge any reality at all.

History has now played out this costly artistic experiment. It has failed utterly. The attempt to make Christian art that "relates" to the iconoclastic culture of our times has resulted in: no significant theological dialogue, no new converts as a result, a Christian church disenchanted with art, talented artists who have either been estranged by the church or who have squandered their talent in an effort to gain mainstream acceptance, and a lifeless body of liturgical art.

To be continued...


1 "Come on! Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums! ... Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded. ... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities pitilessly!" Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909), quoted in: Michael Darling, Target Practice: Painting Under Attack, 1949-78 (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2009), 130.
2 Wendell Mathews, The Christian Encounters the World of Painting (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 92.
3 Ibid, 93.
4 Ibid, 90.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid, 89.
7 Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. Clement Greenburg was a Cultural Marxist, linked to the Frankfurt School. 'Modernism' in the arts was part of a larger attempt to subvert and poison Western civilization from within. They sought to marginalise all good art to the past, by use of propagandistic language.

    'Modernism' is largely a con. It promotes sill ideas that art has been 'liberated' from representation, or that it should not seek to be illusory but rather 'sincere' (by which token a blank canvas is more 'sincere' or 'authentic' than one bearing a realistic image. The whole part of Modernism is to alienate people, and to make them feel less attached to the great cultural tradition that is our heritage in the West. So obviously Christian art in the hideous 'modernist' style will have a repulsive effect, and will have no value in terms of attracting converts.

    Art should not be subservient to 'the current artistic idiom'. It has the right to aspire to timelessness, and to fit into a larger tradition.