January 4, 2014

How We've Murdered Liturgical Art: Part II

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.

2. Promoting Elitism

Admittedly, calling someone an elitist is probably one of the most overused name-calling tactics in history. There is nothing that raises the ire of the masses as much as someone who uses his power, wealth, or position in order to exclude those of "lesser" social status. In modern politics, even if the title is not deserving, once it is applied to a person it is difficult to overcome that association.

That being said, there are few entities that are so deserving of the title "elitist" as Modernism is. And there are few places where elitism is so wholly inappropriate as the Christian Church. But oddly enough, we so very often find them together.

Modernists firmly believed that their art was the culmination of tens of thousands of years of artistic efforts; that after millennia of mindlessly imitating nature, they had finally thrown off the shackles of realism and representationalism, and the result was an art that was more pure, more expressive, and more intensely human than ever before.

The only problem was that the public wasn't buying it (both figuratively and literally). A 1995 article from the Independent explains:
In the 1950s and 1960s… the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art—President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”1
I suspect that Modernism had to become elitist in order to survive. When the new art failed to gather as much enthusiasm as de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and their peers thought it deserved, the automatic response was to dismiss the public as uneducated idiots. If you repeat a lie often enough, and believe it strongly enough, and if the CIA secretly funds your lie for decades2, eventually everyone will believe it.

Manessier, "Crown of Thorns"
And that is what Mathews believes, as well. In "The Christian Encounters the World of Painting," he tries very hard to distinguish "authentic" painting from that which is not. He writes, "Authenticity is determined by knowledgeable and experienced viewers who have been trained to see these qualities."3 He continues, "The standards of evaluation come from the artists and those who, through learning and exposure, have come to sense the visual language of painting."4 And again, "If the viewer has had little or no training and experience with viewing paintings, it is rather presumptuous to think he can judge what is an authentic painting."No doubt, Matthews counts himself among these "knowledgeable and experienced" viewers, and is therefore qualified to apply the title of authenticity to those works he considers worthy.

By way of clarification, I do not discount knowledge and experience in matters of art. As a student of the arts, I certainly have a deeper understanding and appreciation for art now than I did as a high school graduate. But I object to the notion that an elite class of academics have the right to say what is "authentic" and what is not, while the public—the people for whom art is ostensibly intended—have no right at all.

Mathews even attempts to disqualify clergy and laymen from passing artistic judgement on the art that is made for their churches! He writes, "The church also is finding that it cannot foster creative expression by requesting the artist to cater to the prevailing tastes of clergy and laymen."6 I question whether the church has actually found this, or whether this has been dictated to the church by elitist academics. Regardless, Mathews is effectively saying, If you find this new art objectionable, you have bad taste, and you are inhibiting authentic artistic expression. And anyways, who are you? Just a stupid layman.

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

If neither the laymen nor the clergy are fit to discern what art is and is not fit for use in worship, then who is? The artists? You can see why Modernists are so deserving of the title "elitist." They not only want to monopolize the production of new artwork, but its critique, and—no doubt—its value. You can also see why the church has come to distrust artists on the whole. If Mathews represents the prevailing academic opinion about arts in the church, it is no wonder that many churches would prefer to leave the whole matter alone and worship in a white-washed barn.

Chagall, "White Crucifixion"
An all-important question that Mathews never raises is: who is the art intended for? The book is entitled "The Christian Encounters...", and the author presupposes that his readership are Christians. But he never explicitly states that Christian art is intended for Christians. Now if liturgical art is meant for Christians, then logicaly the intended audience would play a role in judging its worth. But he cannot reveal that inconsistency, so I suspect the question is deliberately avoided. However, from phrases scattered throughout the book, I gather that Mathews never considers that a work should be intended for the edification of the body of believers. He sees art universally as a subjective experience between you, the viewer, and the work itself. This can only ever harm the Church, because it takes away the ability of art to communicate real meaning.

The second all-important question that Mathews never asks is: what is the art's purpose? He doesn't ask, but he does give an answer, though only in passing:
If, however, we conclude that for Christians the quality of artistic expression does not matter and that only the religious message matters, we have moved out of the area of the fine arts. If the church wishes to enunciate the Gospel by means of artistic expressions, it must strive for nothing less than authentic art of quality.7 
Did you catch it? He casually, almost accidentally, says what should have been the central point of the whole book: "to enunciate the Gospel." I wonder how artists are supposed to do that if, in trying to do so, Mathews and his peers dismiss it as unauthentic, or disassociate it with fine art. Or, if an artist tries to follow Dr. Mathews' advice, how he is supposed to enunciate anything by means of the subjective abstractions Mathews is so infatuated with? It's an enormous catch-22 that he hopes you won't notice. Unfortunately, some rather influential voices in the church have been playing the Modernist tune for decades. They are still teaching young artists that liturgical art is a means of self-expression, and not one of enunciating the gospel. The inevitable result is that the church grows either farther estranged from artists, or from the gospel—and possibly both.

Christianity is not a religion of subjective realities, but of objective, unchanging truths. It sees humankind as unique creations, but ones that are fundamentally the same—equally corrupt and sinful, and equally in need of a Savior. This is why we come to worship. We need to hear that Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification.8

Whatever works of art we choose to place in our sanctuaries, they must certainly reflect these truths. Those works should be accessible to the people they are meant to communicate to. There is no room in the Church for elitism.

To be continued...


1 Frances S. Saunders, "Modern art was CIA 'weapon'," The Independent (October 1995), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html
2 Ibid.
3 Wendell Mathews, The Christian Encounters the World of Painting (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 90.
4 Mathews, 91.
5 Ibid, 100.
6 Ibid, 91-92.
7 Ibid, 101.
8 Romans 4:25


  1. Jonathan,

    I came across you blog a few weeks ago and appreciate your many posts, particularly the one "The importance of being vested". Good job. Keep up the good work!