Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Sacred Arts and Their Opposite

FROM SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, solemnly promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council:
Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God.

Holy Mother Church has therefore always been the friend of the fine arts and has ever sought their noble help, with the special aim that all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world, and for this purpose she has trained artists. In fact, the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use.
Carolina Cannonball, over at The Crescat, is offering an “Ugliest Church Art Contest”, lampooning bad Catholic church art. While I won't be offering any examples for the contest, I will offer some of my opinions.

This bad art tends to be the art which does not conform to the text of the Second Vatican Council and the great tradition of the Church. Clear development of good Church art was seen in the 20th century: but those developments, such as the various Art Deco styles, were aborted before they were allowed to reach their full maturity. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in particular has some very successful elements of this development of art.

Rather, the bad art often conforms to the zeitgeist of those who wished to create a new Enlightenment religion which shares nothing at all in common with the Church founded by Jesus Christ but its name. Read the foundational texts of this movement to see the intent of nihilism; it is repugnant to the Faith. But often we also see bad art which is nice, comfortable, and worldly; neither depicting Jesus Christ as a brutally wounded first-century Palestinian Jew nor as a transfigured and glorious heavenly apparition. This comfortable depiction of Jesus is in its own way harmful to the Faith, and indeed is closely related to the zeitgeist mentioned above.

Continuing with the same document:
Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.
Sacred art of the 20th century, according to artist Daniel Mitsui, has largely followed a ‘satanic dialectic’ alternating between the cheap, mass-produced, sentimental kitsch and the nihilistic, iconoclastic, and monstrous avant-garde, as he demonstrates in his article SCYLLA & CHARYBDIS: L'ART SAINT-SULPICE & L'ART SACRE. The cheap manufactured religious goods were made to sell, and while this is not bad in and of itself, lots of things sell well, including many things repugnant to the Faith. Likewise, horrifying images are not bad in and of themselves — for example, the battered and bloody image of Christ on the Cross is horrifying yet fundamental to the Faith — but the horrifyingly ugly iconoclastic images do violence to the Faith itself. Rather church art must be subservient to Christ and His Church, and popular fashions or the aesthetics of the secular art world are not reliable guides to the suitability of art in a church.

Generally speaking though, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. The drive towards Modernism in the arts was so strong decades ago that even lovers of the tradition felt that Modernism was inevitable, necessary, and that nothing could be done about it. Also, there are some people who are bored and therefore want novelty. While both of these attitudes are sinful — taking scandal and the capital vice of sloth — psychologically they are powerful and so somewhat excusable. As we live in an era of moral confusion, this era is also one of artistic confusion. So what should be done?

Back to the decree from the Council:
Bishops should have a special concern for artists, so as to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy. This they may do in person or through suitable priests who are gifted with a knowledge and love of art.

It is also desirable that schools or academies of sacred art should be founded in those parts of the world where they would be useful, so that artists may be trained.

All artists who, prompted by their talents, desire to serve God's glory in holy Church, should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, to edify the faithful, and to foster their piety and their religious formation.

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