The Normative and the Exceptional

If the universality of art can be seen as an impetus towards the normative, could it be argued that an agenda of exception is the only possibility for a living the- ologico-aesthetics that seeks to repeatedly inaugurate anew communities and subjects receptive to, or called into being by, the art event? How viable would such a model of exception be in the domain of ecclesiastical art? We have come to expect art to trouble fixity and rigidity, to resist the normative, but art is equally capable of entrenchment and preservation, of normative practices. Indeed, manifestations of art can be crudely reduced to two objectives: a representation or reflection of the world as it is (or, otherwise put, an object of recognition); a radical disjuncture in the way things are (an object of encounter). We could argue that the vast majority of ecclesiastical art has tended towards this former normative direction, including contemporary ecclesiastical art.1

What is of particular value to us in the exception is the vitality it brings to a policy for art as exceptional event, notwithstanding all the practical difficulties this entails. Here we find ourselves arguing against the proposition that any conditions for art can be generally assumed. Indeed, when it comes to art, Samuel Laeuchli, in an odd formulation, puts it succinctly: ‘In general’, he says, is the enemy of art (1980: 172). The exception cannot operate according to a set of pre-existing possibilities or a notion of the ‘in general’. It deals instead and on each occasion with the singular. Any art that truly takes the exception into account will necessarily encounter this demand: that it deal with each as the case may be and not fall back upon tried and tested methods.

This calls for an heuristic rather than hermeneutic approach to art where, as Simon O’Sullivan puts it, the emphasis is always on ‘attending to the specificity of an art work, and the specificity of the milieu in which the art object operates’ (2001: 130). Each project must be analysed individually according to its specific aims, its particular participants and its local effects. With this thought in mind, we should qualify our use of exception as a conditional and contingent term. The German jurist Carl Schmitt, that renowned theoretician of the exception, once wrote that a philosophy of concrete life cannot avoid the issue of the exception, but must be interested in it to the highest degree. His proposition was that in order to understand a situation, it is not the ‘in general’ that we must study, but its exceptions, since whatever stands out or fails to fit that situation throws light upon the entirety of its suppositions. Schmitt might seem an odd authority to draw upon here, knowing as we do the dangers of the sovereign exception bequeathed by his work (and notwithstanding the parallels sometimes drawn between Schmitt’s thesis of exception and Badiou’s concept of event). However, at one point in his validation of the exception, he makes a compelling claim where art is concerned, if art is to be understood as a passion for the real that inveighs against the formulaic and sclerotic: ‘In the exception’, he assures us, ‘the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition’ (2005: 15). On one level, the purpose of ecclesiastically sited art can be understood as the propagation of a particular tradition, an affirmation in visual form of a certain history, creed or doctrine. We would not necessarily accuse the tradition, say, of icon painting, of torpidity because of its adherence to a codified treatment of image production. On another level, however, there is an argument to be made for art in the church to fulfil a rather different function: to break through the ‘crust’ of tried and tested mechanisms of art production or, rather, reproduction in an effort to release ‘the power of real life’. Put in the terms of this book, where exception enables the possibility of encounter, torpidity results from the repetition of recognition. On a purely practical level, therefore, fidelity to the art event calls for it to be treated on each occasion on its own terms, for each case to be taken as it comes. In this respect, overly prescriptive policies for art and over-policed installations close down unpredictable possibilities for the sake of predictable outcomes. In other words, whatever rule governs the implementation of art in churches, that rule must always be measured against its necessary disruption by a dynamic art of exception.

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