We have arrived at a particular moment in time, a significant aesthetic Kairos in a definitive battle ensuing between beauty and ugliness, between aesthetic good and evil.
Austrian writer Hermann Broch declared kitsch “the element of evil in the value system of art.” In the contemporary art world defined by the celebrity of kitsch, its patron saints found in the life of Jeff Koons and in the sobering condition of contemporary art presented by Andy Warhol in 1987: “Art is what you can get away with.”
American culture is saturated with contemporary kitsch, from the trendy and disposable clothing we buy at places like H&M and Forever 21 to the hyper-trendy hotel décor. Considering establishments like the mirrored green kitsch circus in the Hotel Monaco lobby in Washington, D.C., or the minimalist red postmodern vortex in the Bryant Park Hotel lobby in New York City—two of the most beautiful and historic buildings in their respective cities. The interiors are ruined by splashy kitsch décor that assaults the classical beauty of the hotel façades.
We are faced with an existential moment akin to the scene in Local Color (2006) in which a brilliant, aging Russian painter falls apart at a festival. In a state of inebriation, surrounded by 1970s-era contemporary art- which includes canvas painted entirely black- he declares: “There’s a war going on here, of craziness and sanity… and craziness is winning!” He then proceeds to place the blue ribbon on an oscillating fan, claiming that it is the only thing in the room that works.
In spite of the effect of modernity on Western arts and culture, there are artists working to redeem contemporary culture through beauty. In New York City last week, the One Faith: East and West art exhibition presented thirty works from artists around the world, promoting the crossing of cultures through the power of beauty. This international exhibition of contemporary Christian art debuted on March 19 in Beijing’s Wangfujing Cathedral, traveled to Moscow’s Pokrovsky Cultural Center in April, and ended with a closing reception in New York City last Saturday with a lecture by Austrian artist Clemens Fuchs. The international tour art tour was an “innovative and ambitious” undertaking, said exhibition coordinator Terrence McKeegan, whose ambition is that the art will “bring people into an encounter with the faith and Christ through beauty.”
“This exhibition stands in opposition to the mainstream of the 20th and 21st century art world,” writes exhibition artist Carl Fougerousse. In a recent First Things piece, “O Christian Art, Why Can’t You Be Good?”, Matthew Block describes the decline of the contemporary Christian music industry. The calling of the Christian artist is “to confront others with truth and beauty, to captivate imaginations, and to lead the audience deeper into contemplation of both creation and creator.” He calls on members of the Church to make an “active effort to seek out those who are making good Christian art and support them as they do so.” This exhibit is the answer to this call. The works in the exhibit serve to recover the lost sense of the human figure as portrayed by classical artists.
“Beauty has the ability to pierce our hearts in a unique way,” writes Fougerousse, “evoking in it a great sense of wonderment in the mysteries of our faith, elevating us out of despair into joy, and inspiring insight. Art has the ability to show the dignity of man and his proper place in relation to God and the world.” One exhibition visitor decided to attend Mass for the first time in over twelve years.
The exhibit was organized by Jennifer Healy, Co-director of the Language and Catechetical Institute (LCI) in Gaming, Austria, a one-year Catholic education program providing spiritual and theological formation to young men and women. A portion of the proceeds from the auction on Saturday night will help support LCI students.
The exhibit featured the work of one artist who was brought to faith through his own work. Ken Woo- a Chinese convert to Catholicism- told me that his goal as an artist is to bring people closer to God, for the art to serve as a “gateway into heaven, into prayer.” Two of his works (pictured) featured in the exhibit, Female Figure and Five Figures, represent the East/West theme of the exhibition in two paintings. The female in his first piece is inspired by Mary, as seen through Eastern eyes. He hopes that the art will lead viewers on their own pathways to beauty. Woo came to the Catholic faith through the painting of icons. He met his wife, who also came into the Catholic Church as an adult, when they collaborated on a project for the Church of Our Savior in New York City—the church he was baptized, confirmed, and married in.
The work of these artists is an aesthetic balm to America's artistic soul that has been wounded by decades of kitsch and the cultural corrosion of anti-art. Instead of dropping millions on modern “anti-art” as the artist Maureen Mullarkey describes it, and wasting time lamenting the cultural kitsch of Jeff Koons, we need to become patrons, critics, and promoters of the truly great artists contributing to the canon of beauty today. We don’t need yet another platform for anti-modernist art rants; we need to facilitate authentic artistic beauty and create a space for classical arts and culture to flourish.
“There is an overarching culture, Catholic culture, which is universal and responds to the Truth of revelation,” explains Fougerousse. “In this exhibition you will find a small cross section of the infinity of ways to express this Truth.” The common theme among the three artists I spoke to about One Faith is their profound relationship with God. At the closing reception, Clemens Fuchs focused his lecture on the centrality of the Latin Mass and the importance of chastity to his life as an artist. He closed with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a painting he presented as a gift to LCI. “If I’m ready to pray to it,” Woo says of his icons, “then it’s ready.”
“Some things can be approached only with great reverence,” writes Dietrich von Hildebrand in his recently translated work Aesthetics, “for it is only then that they disclose themselves to us as they truly are. One of these is beauty.” Only when we start recognizing the artists whose work inspires reverence can we return to beauty—reverence of not only the beauty contained in the art itself, but the humility of artists to approach art with a reverent attitude. The noble telos of the Catholic artist stands morally opposed to the narcissistic telos of the celebrity artist. If only there were popular artists who produced works whose beauty brings men to their knees in prayer. Perhaps we need more artists who are brought to their knees in prayer before they begin to create.
The Catholic creates art for beauty’s sake; the celebrity produces art for art’s sake. If more artists were as humble and prayerful as the artists of One Faith, more art would be worthy of reverence.