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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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Non-believing Artists

A concrete example of the issues raised by Eliade’s division of religious and non-religious in experiences of the sacred is its impact upon the choice of artists selected to produce work for the church in modern times. A characteristic scenario of ecclesiastical commissions nowadays is that artists are selected who openly profess no form of Christian belief (the shortlist for Chichester Cathedral’s proposed, now aborted, Walter Hussey Memorial Commission was typical for the absence of confessional artists). This is deemed no bar to their ability to produce work appropriate to a sacred environment. Even if, within the church, the notion of a ‘sacred reality’ almost always infers divine reality, the use of non-believing artists expresses a belief in the possibility inherent in sacred ambiguity, in the sense that other modalities of the sacred are available through non-sacred means. At the very least, even when an invited artist eschews explicitly ‘religious’ themes or conventional ‘sacred’ iconography, he or she is invariably willing to engage with some notion of the ‘spiritual’. Whether this is sufficient has, of course, been one of the defining questions in the aesthetic history of the modern church. Pere Marie-Alain Couturier is usually cited as an early defender of employing non-believing artists for the church, a risky agenda realised above all in the commission of works for the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grace at Assy (consecrated in 1950). Piety, he felt, was no replacement for artistic vision, and among those chosen for Assy were confirmed atheists like Richier, Communists such as Leger, Lurfat and Braque, and Jews such as Chagall and Lipchitz. This lack of concern for the religious persuasion of the chosen artists extended even to employing some who had been openly hostile towards the Catholic Church. Despite the scandal that erupted over Couturier’s choices, it was more important to him that each had an outstanding record of individual work than that they complied with any kind of religious belief. He was convinced, for example, that a secular work by an artist of Braque’s stature would be more fitting than a mediocre work from a self-professed believing artist. In other words, in urging the reluctant Braque, Couturier followed his conviction that artistic vision was of more sacred value than formal belief, defending his view that the spiritual power of a work of art relied upon using the best artists and not the best religious intentions.

Not everyone agrees with this line of thought of course. Others have argued, and continue to argue, for an ecclesiastical art that is entirely faith-directed or modelled upon theological truths. Many have gone a step further and have insisted that art in the service of the church must be liturgical, in which case, ideally, the artist will himself or herself be a practising Christian. Roger Homan (2006) for one has reversed Couturier’s argument, stipulating that sacred or religious art must demonstrate sacramental values before being considered for its aesthetic or affective qualities. This would seem to imply that art is only ever a material means to sacramental ends. Thus, the quality of the artist is of less importance than his or her religiously motivated purpose. A similar argument was made by Joseph Ratzinger, prior to his papal election, who required art for the church to be figurative, theologically correct and, most insistently, made by those who have been ‘inwardly formed within the Church’, a Thomistic notion of connaturality that resurfaced as late as 1999 in Pope John Paul Il’s Letter to Artists (Tsakiridou 2013: 111—112). Even if we decry these extremes, a more incisive criticism of Couturier’s attitude comes from the art historian Meyer Schapiro, who raised the legitimate objection that the lack of a personally felt religious sensitivity on the part of the artists at Assy (Rouault excepted) meant that:

They followed their own sense of what was appropriate and produced a whole that has impressed visitors as no more than a museum, an episode in modern art rather than as a church building that owes its unity to a single governing thought, to a program of decoration rooted in a living tradition of consistent religious thinking and art.

(1999: 186)8

Although we can understand the reasoning behind Couturier’s disavowal of the absolute necessity for Christian artists and at the same time concede that Schapiro’s criticism of the lack of an overriding iconographic scheme, whether true or not of Assy, could certainly be applied to a number of cathedral-based exhibitions of recent years, many of us would distance ourselves from the position of those like Homan or Ratzinger who insist on the confessional artist. Nevertheless, what this extant debate underscores is an issue that might well be situated within an Eliadean dialectic of the sacred and the profane on the level of artistic intention. Adrienne Chaplin has said as much with reference to David Mach, a self-confessed non-believing artist whose crucifixion piece, Die Harder, was on display in Southwark Cathedral during Lent 2012. She counters the conventional wisdom that religious art is necessarily made by religious believers: ‘Works like Mach’s challenge the assumption that only artists of faith can produce religious art. Indeed, it can sometimes be the artist without faith who does the better job, unencumbered by expectations of conforming to the standard interpretations of either the church or the history of art’ (Chaplin 2011).

Historical examples notwithstanding, whatever its merits I am not entirely convinced by Chaplin’s argument. Personally, I suspect that Mach’s religious works are unlikely to have the kind of long-term religious significance of a Henry Moore or Henri Matisse. They rely upon too great an attachment to our contemporary times and contemporary culture. Nevertheless, Chaplin draws our attention back to this issue, which has been such a cause of contention for the church over the years, as does Aidan Nichols in his own evaluation of Assy. As Nichols reminds us, ‘the problem of pious artists producing banal art, and the difficult issue of the relation between spiritual quality and artistic quality, will not go away’ (2007: 123). It persists in the vacancy or deficiency of art as visual theology that sometimes emerges when working with artists who claim no personal Christian belief but perhaps espouse a kind of secular spirituality. Equally it spills over into the misappropriation and blatant misuse of religious terminology within the secular art world.

In answer to these difficulties, a far less dramatic but rather more eloquent work that does seem likely to continue to maintain a significant presence, but is again by an openly non-Christian artist, is Guy Reid’s carved limewood statue for St Matthew’s Church, Westminster.9 Madonna and Child is a small but striking work — about 18” in height — and stands on a tall, square column, giving an impression of ‘enthronement and elevation’ (Boss 2001: 235). It is a controversial work, for several reasons, but primarily for the fact that Reid’s Madonna is entirely naked, as a result of which it was subject to some extraordinarily harsh critical judgements in certain elements of the Catholic press. For its critics, the sculpture was an affront to both aesthetic and liturgical values. Censured in the Catholic Herald as ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’ and ‘offensive’, the author of one defamatory article thought it ‘so profane as to be almost blasphemous’ (Brindley 2001: 12). Yet when I went to see the work for myself, I was soon convinced that it did not deserve such opprobrium. I was deeply impressed by its sensitivity both to the space and its devotional purpose, as well as by its skilful craftmanship. According to Fr. Philip Chester, the current incumbent of St Matthew’s, following a period of acclimatisation to its unconventional nature, Madonna and Child has been warmly accommodated by the local congregation. For Chester and his congregation, the artist’s lack of personal belief did not preclude his ability to produce a work capable of great religious sensitivity, sacramental efficacy and theological insight.

Prominent ecclesiastical rows over the presence of apparently nonsacramental art within the sacred environment periodically resurrect this question of what may or may not qualify as sacred. Charges of ugliness, irreverence, sacrilege and worse raised against certain works expose blindness to other potential modalities of the sacred, and to the possibility that hierophanies may come from unlikely and unexpected sources. This potential for the work of art as a locus for diverse realities and diverse encounters with the ‘really real’, alongside its vilification as entirely irreligious, was played out in a particularly

David Mach, Die Harder, 2011, Southwark Cathedral, London. Image courtesy of the artist and Southwark Cathedral

Figure 3.3 David Mach, Die Harder, 2011, Southwark Cathedral, London. Image courtesy of the artist and Southwark Cathedral

Guy Reid, Madonna and Child, 2000, St Matthew’s Church, Westminster. By permission of the artist and the vicar of St Matthew’s Church. Photograph by

Figure 3.4 Guy Reid, Madonna and Child, 2000, St Matthew’s Church, Westminster. By permission of the artist and the vicar of St Matthew’s Church. Photograph by

the author

interesting case, which only recently came to my attention. This was the Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation exhibition in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, in 2006, an exhibition of contemporary works by religious and non-religious artists alike, arranged throughout the cathedral. From the slides that I have seen, and through discussions with the curator and others connected with the project, it appeared to have been a well-conceived, well-curated and sensitively handled event. And yet it occasioned an extraordinary outburst of vitriol, including a to-and-fro of critical attack and praise in the press, the former pursued with a punitive fervour that echoed the controversy around Assy some half a century earlier. Among other repercussions, at least one of the works was attacked and destroyed beyond repair. The exhibition had been due to travel to Sydney Cathedral, but due to the media scandal surrounding its Melbourne appearance, the second show was cancelled. Critically, the event had the support of Rosemary Crumlin, a highly respected figure within the field of art and religion not only in Australia, but also internationally. She assured me that there was nothing in the show that merited the degree of hostility it received.10 She believes it was simply the presence of unconventional art and contemporary media that sparked the backlash.

 
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