Ethika Politika has been on an artistic streak lately. Sam Rocha has published two separate, but related articles, one building on the other. The first proclaims that “art kills,” while the latter details the relationship between fear and truth. A slightly older piece by Mark Anthony Signorelli defends a self-identified “declinist” narrative, mourning the death of true art with the ashes and sackcloth apropos of Lent. Before that, this online journal featured an interview with Gregory Wolfe defending contemporary art with a sort of ecce ars.
All of these pieces have talked around each other, clearly responding to each other’s claims mostly without direct refutation. Signorelli claims to respond to Wolfe; Rocha builds upon the debate, but takes it in an entirely new direction, claiming that the previous conversation is at best droll, at worst a mouthful of air.
Allow me to enter the discussion. I don’t expect to end it, nor do I expect to solve the grand “problem” of art with a short essay. Rather, it is my goal first to redeem contemporary art à la Wolfe. Second, I seek to put forth some idea of art, not a definition, not something that pins art down and limits its possibility. No. Instead, I hope to bring some coherence to the discussion, to avoid platitudes while enriching our very human (and thus very flawed) understanding of what art is, does, and gestures toward.
In some sense, I am really a declinist. Most of my friends think that I’m a pessimist because I believe in Original Sin, the virtual inevitability of cataclysm at the hands of technology, and the importance of a broadly conservative mindset. But I’m not a pessimist. As my political idol and first intellectual crush, George Parkin Grant, said when accused of being “a glass half-empty” sort of guy: “I’m not being pessimistic at all. I think God will eventually destroy this technological civilization. I’m very optimistic about that.”
So, to the point, I find most contemporary Christian literature bad primarily because it is mired in the sentimentalism of conservative Christianity. In the Postmodern era, sentimentality is met with wry laughter and dismissive glances. And even though David Foster Wallace (and other less important figures like me), have written that it is time to move away from the rampant irony that defines our culture, for now it is here to stay. Often non-Christian artists do the best job making Christian points, or at least those consonant with Christian views. Harmony Korine, likely atheist and certified ne’er-do-well, has been involved with films like Kids and Spring Breakers, which while grotesque, are unflinching examinations of the problems of our cultural moment. Secular Scandinavian film has given us gems as diverse as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, both uncompromising explorations of human suffering. In the world of painting, Mark Rothko’s Rothko Chapel has elicited heartfelt Christian reflections. As Fr. John S. Dunne, CSC writes,
How can joy coexist with sorrow? And yet the peace I am finding here in the Rothko Chapel does co-exist with the suffering and death I am facing in these dark stations of the cross. I can feel the reality of joy! I can see the reality of the sorrow [emphasis original]!
Rothko himself, a demon by declinist standards, was equally candid about how “truthful” he felt his art was:
I am not an abstract artist … I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on – and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows I am communicating those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experiences I had when I painted them … And if you are moved only by their color relationships, you miss the point.
At the same time, great Christian artists are working in our day, and they deserve our appreciation. Marilynne Robinson is a fine writer of fiction whose works take seriously questions near and dear to those of other believers. Until recently, Galway Kinnell produced meditative and moving Christian poetry. Though not our contemporaries, Dalí and Warhol brought together an odd Christianity with popular artistic trends, producing pieces both thought-provoking and cutting-edge. I do not think that Christian art is reaching a new apex, but it is far from totally dead.
The point, then, is that we cannot simply observe a “decline” in art. The “pop” forms of Warhol were both thoroughly spiritual and thoroughly true to their artistic moment, combining his latent homosexuality, his Catholicism, and the problem of consumerism. Before him, Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, reclaimed older rhythms to the chagrin of his contemporaries. Before even him, the alliterative revival of the 14th and 15th centuries reinvigorated artistic interest in older English poetics, resisting the eventually triumphant Chaucer’s French mode. The form of art certainly matters, but it has not simply degraded. What matters is how subject matter and form come together or resist one another to explore a deeper human truth: suffering, faith, grief, joy, etc. A piece can be genuinely religious and meditative without depicting Christ, like Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as much as a work—The Da Vinci Code for example—can depict religious themes in a thoroughly damaging and untrue way. While I am no fan of the state of contemporary art as such, to declare “art” a downhill voyage from the Catacomb Christians to Kandinsky is irresponsible both historically and religiously.
The question, however, remains: what is it about these very different manifestations of “art” that is “truthful” and resists the simple narrative of decline? Art cannot simply be defined, for it exists as a representation of experience in flux. Both Beowulf and Gilead explore real human questions faithfully and truly; one represents the human quest against a Pagan backdrop, the other does so in the authorial moment of postmodern America. Each work belongs to a particular period, as does each reader. As Gadamer has said, then, the act of meeting the text (or the painting, etc.) is the meeting of horizons, of worlds. When I engage the Old English poem Judith, I do so as a 21st-century American. The poem, however, does not surrender its rootedness in the moment of its own composition. At the same time, the work draws upon the Biblical tale of Judith, itself rooted in its own composition, and drawing upon the theoretical event of the decapitation of Holofernes (which occurred before the writing of the Biblical book). Horizon after horizon comes into contact. Paul Ricoeur, the hermeneutical phenomenologist, literary critic, and Christian, calls this interwoven nature of artistic interpretation “the matter of the text.” As he writes:
Now where is the reign of the thing said over the interlocutors more apparent, if not where Sprachlichkeit [lingual-ness] becomes Schriftlichkeit [writing-ness], in other words, where mediation by languages becomes mediation by the text? What enables us to communicate at a distance is thus the matter of the text, which belongs neither to its author nor to its reader [emphasis original].
Art thus eludes easy definition. It explores the permanent human condition underlying the diversity of human experiences while being made possible by the confrontations of the horizons of those experiences. Our attempts to “understand” it are attempts to accomplish the harder task of self-understanding, alienated from both the work and ourselves. And through these two attempts at understanding, we reach toward the divine, the unreachable and all-loving whose transcendence is gestured toward by the impossibility of self-understanding.
Art, then, suggests both permanence and historicity, transcendence and immanence. For this reason, we can appreciate cave paintings, Donatello’s works, and the Rothko Chapel. When artistic pieces deify one pole of this dialectic they fail; when they reach only for the eternal (unachievable in human time) or deny the inherent equivalence of human experience across time, they risk absurdity (in the negative sense).
To speak of art is thus to try and speak of a codified experience, both historical and permanent. Much as God is both immanently present and radically transcendent, art can be experienced and yet never wholly understood or grasped. The dialectic continues.