Wednesday, May 18, 2005

on "Christian" art . . .

I found the following paragraph in the introduction to the Oxford History of Christianity recently:

Christianity is a religion of the word -- the 'Word made Flesh', the word preached, the word written to record the story of God's intervention in history. Every story needs a picture. Pope Gregory the Great defined the role of the artist thus: 'painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read'. Augustine had gone further in praise of music: written words are in themselves inadequate -- 'language is too poor to speak of God . . . yet you do not like to be silent. What is left for you but to sing in jubilation'. The visual artist as well as the musician is entitled to the benefit of the Augustinian argument. Words constitute a record exerting a long-term pressure: a work of art has an instantaneous impact. It bridges the gap between cultures with a simple gesture with an immediacy denied to translations of the record. Whatever the culture from which it derives, a great work of art is a potential source of spiritual insight, falling short of words in the power of syllogistic argument and even in the ability to suggest the content of the imagination's inward eye, but far superior in the evocative power to haunt and illuminate. Wassily Kandinsky, the pioneer of abstract painting, who published a study of The Spiritual in Art in 1912, spoke of art as resembling religion in taking what is known and transforming it, showing it 'in new perspectives and in a blinding light'. Some of the masterpieces of painting and sculpture in the Christian tradition have been produced by artists whose status as believers is doubtful. In Kandinsky's view of the breakthrough to spiritual perception, this is no paradox. 'It is safer to turn to geniuses without faith than to believers without talent' (blogger's emphasis), said the French Dominican Marie-Alain Couturier -- an aphorism which he tested by persuading Matisse, Braque, Chagall, and other great names of the day to do work for the church of Assy in the French Alps. Couturier was not subordinating religious considerations to élitism; to him, 'all great art is spiritual since the genius of the artist lies in the depths, the secret inner being from whence faith also springs'. Jacques Maritain has drawn out a further implication of the supposition of the unity of all spiritual experience. To the Christian who wishes his art to reflect his religious convictions he says: keep this desire out of the forefront of the mind, and simply 'strive to make a work of beauty in which your entire heart lies.' (blogger's emphasis)

John McManners

1 comment:

Quixie said...

This bit gave me some great insight into why it is that most "X-stian" (the musical genre) music is not very good (I'm being very generous). If in your music, you do little else than praise God repeatedly, well . . that just seems to me like a wasted opportunity. I talk a little more about this at the quixotic infidel.