Via Media

Via Media


posted by awelborn

A NYTimes article on a new exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art:

I am trying to figure out how the writer reads art and is able to distinguish between expressions of faith and aesthetic concerns. It seems that he doesn’t like the obvious Christian iconography in a work, but then if it’s subtle, it’s good because it’s no longer primarily expressive of faith, but rather aesthetic or some other philosophical concern.

That most of the works in the show are bound up in outdated, illustrative and technical clich├ęs should not necessarily be taken as an indictment of Christian faith as an artistic motivation. But in the show’s best works, you may find a different kind of ambition overriding the Christian purpose.

Two of the most impressive happen to be large collages. One by Mary Fielding McCleary, "Allegory of the Senses," pictures a family – father, mother, son and dog – in the living room of a suburban home. From a distance it looks as if it were vigorously painted in a Magic Realist style. Up close, you discover that it is made entirely of little bits and pieces of things, like string, rope, glitter, foil, sticks, nails, glass and painted toothpicks. Toy google eyes and used pencil stubs also punctuate the surface.

The technique creates an optical and tactile vividness bordering on the hallucinogenic. You may feel as if you are seeing through the eyes of a teenager who just came home from an evening of mind-bending pharmaceutical recreation. That the family is Christian, evidenced by a book on a foreground table open to pictures of Jesus, as well as by other symbols, makes the situation seem even more charged.

Anita Breitenberg Naylor’s collage "Revelation 3:5" resembles a Hindu or Buddhist mandala. On a diamond-shaped panel four feet square, Ms. Naylor has glued innumerable small images of Jesus, flowers and architectural elements cut from books or magazines. The effect is kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing.

What you feel more strongly than Christian faith animating the works of both Ms. McCleary and Ms. Naylor is a spirit that you might call Nietzschean – that is, a drive to play out the formal, technical and metaphorical terms of their projects as extremely as possible, without regard for orthodox limitations.

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Dan Crawford

posted August 22, 2005 at 2:38 pm

Kind of chills me to realize that people go to school to write crap like this, Every time I listen to some “rock” or other “popular culture critic” on NPR, I feel nausea. What’s even more chilling is that these same people get paid for churcning this stuff out.

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Dan Crawford

posted August 22, 2005 at 2:39 pm

churcning??!!? I meaning “churning” (Freudian slip?)

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Victor Morton

posted August 22, 2005 at 2:42 pm

I think what the writer is doing is acting out his preference (and it’s a stance for which I have much sympathy) for a subtle art that avoids overt or explicit surface thematics, of whatever kind, identifying such works as schematic kitschy propaganda. I’d need to be more familiar with Ken Johnson’s ouevre than I am to say whether he plays that out with decent (it’s never complete) consistency. But it may be in part a (very understandable) reaction against the NEA-ization and Identity Politics of much of the contemporary art world.

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posted August 22, 2005 at 2:52 pm

But it is hard to think of many great contemporary visual artists who have made Christian faith central to their work.
It was hard for me to get past this condescending second sentence. The reason for this, you see, is that the critics and intellectuals who decide what is good contemporary art and what isn’t are typical secular modernists who define “good contemporary art” to exclude anything in a Christian aesthetic tradition, and then complain that there is no good contemporary Christian art. On those rare occasions when a work with Christian themes is admitted, they dismiss any traditionally pious motivation and call it “Nietzchean”.
If you want to find good Christian art, don’t look in the official “art world”. It’s a damn hoax. The artworks that are admitted into the prestigious museums, trendy galleries, and art history textbooks are those that no normal, sane person cares about or likes.

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posted August 22, 2005 at 3:07 pm

“Christian faith as an artistic motivation”: we used to call the results of that motivation Western Civilization. I guess that’s the “indictment.”

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posted August 22, 2005 at 3:12 pm

I think he’s using a rather limited sense of the word “faith”. I’m guessing what he doesn’t like is art that subordinates aesthetic concerns or integrity to the work or what have you to proselytization–to sending the right religious message. But work that is expressive of faith need not be proselytizing.
There are often similar discussions that dismiss “political art”. Political art can be political because it shows the truth of what is happening, and that has political implications. Or it can be political because it decides that the truth is secondary to sending the right political message.
Religious art can be amazing or godawful, political art can be amazing or godawful. To suggest that the amazing stuff has ceased to be an expression of faith or of an idea and become a pursuit of aesthetics instead is a cop out.

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posted August 22, 2005 at 4:47 pm

I don’t think he’s all that far off.
The visual arts world has much in common with contemporary music.
Try a substitution in the offending sentence.
“But it is hard to think of many great contemporary COMPOSERS who have made Christian faith central to their work.”
The Taveners and Goreckis are few and far between, and the Haugens and Kendricks are thick upon the ground.

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Christopher Fotos

posted August 22, 2005 at 8:15 pm

Every once in a while I forget why I stopped reading art criticism.
It’s coming back to me.

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posted August 22, 2005 at 10:41 pm

Is Salvador Dali still considered contemporary? His work struck me as pretty devotional, and as I understand it, he was highly criticized at the time for it.
I know I’d probably be considered pedestrian in my thinking in the fine art world (I’m a lowly graphic designer!), but I think if you have to explain a piece of artwork a lot, it’s not really great.
Well, that’s how it works in graphic design anyway. If it’s not apparent to the viewer without explanation, I’m fired.

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posted August 23, 2005 at 12:03 am

There’s a term for this extremely irritating type of argument, by the way–the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Reply: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Rebuttal: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”


Here you have–
Argument: Christian faith is not the source of good visual art anymore
Rebuttal: Ms. McLeary and Ms. Naylor did good visual art that was partly an expression of their faith.
Reply: Ah yes, but McLeary and Naylor were not truly expressing their Christian faith; rather they were following a spirit you might call Niestzchean.
Here’s a question I wonder about though: is art Christian because the artist is Christian & his work is informed by his faith, or is it a question of the effect on the viewer? I recall learning about one of the great Renaissance artists losing his faith for a time; I can’t remember which one. But say that Leonardo was an unbeliever when he painted the Madonna of the Rocks or the Last Supper, or Michaelangelo was when he painted the Sistine Chapel or sculpted the Pieta. Say also that you have a piece of artwork which the artist considers motivated by his or her faith, but the viewer would have no idea of this. Which one is Christian art? Are both? Neither?

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posted August 23, 2005 at 12:03 am

(fixing screwy html)

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Will Cappelli

posted August 23, 2005 at 3:45 am

Not so sure about Leper’s comments on contemporary music. Of course, it depends on how far back you go but many of the creators of the modernist style made Christianity central to their aesthetic. For example, you have, in the first modernist generation, Stravinsky and Webern, both writing much music around explicitly Christian themes, and Schoenberg, wrestled musically and dramatically with Christian issues as he moved between Lutheranism and Judaism. In the second generation, you have the towering figure of Messaien, virtually all of whose works are spun around Catholic themes and Janacek as well. Finally, among contemporaries, in addition to the composers Leper cited, you have Penderecki, Part, and MacMillan. There have, of course, been great modernist composers that were either explicitly atheist (Bartok, Shostakovich) or not musically concerned with Christianity (Carter, Boulez) but, far from being secular, modernist music is largely a Christian, or, perhaps better, Judeo-Christian phenomenon.

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posted August 23, 2005 at 5:06 am

Just like to say “amen” to W. Cappelli’s 8/23 3:45:02am post. There’s a lot of great modern music that is profoundly Christian (though you’d never know it by listening to what was used at WYD).
Arvo Part, who is a devout Catholic, is considered by many to be the greatest composer of the 20th century. If you haven’t listened to his Te Deum, you’re missing out on a devotional work of extraordinary beauty.
So many of our great modern writers have produced works that are profoundly Christian– Solzynitzin, Tolkien. And then there is the great Jewish writer Singer, who wrote as beautifully about God as anyone ever has or will.
But when it comes to the visual arts, I find it difficult to think of a modern painter, sculptor, film maker who has produced a body of work comprable to a Part, a Solzynitzin or a Singer.
I wonder why? though it could just be my ignorance.

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posted August 23, 2005 at 7:02 am

“but, far from being secular, modernist music is largely a Christian, or, perhaps better, Judeo-Christian phenomenon.”
Huuh? Cage, Rorem, Copland, Cowell, Bernstein. It is also a largely homosexual phenomenon in the 20th Century. A much, much larger percentage than the normal population, also in academia. Read what Ives had to say even 100 years ago.
I will have to walk over some lunch and check this exhibit out.
Signed, huge fan of Messaien

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posted August 23, 2005 at 8:43 am

I noticed that the suggestion that secularist critics are to blame for the exclusion of contemporary Christian visual artists from the current canon of great art lacked any specific examples. The examples came only when music was mentioned. I myself can think of only a handful of good Christian painters from the 20th and 21st centuries: Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, David Jones come to mind. Perhaps the only great 20th century Christian painter I know of is Balthus. I’ve often wondered why so many of the great writers and musicians of last century were Christian (and specifically Catholic), while so few of the great visual artists were. Unfortunately, I’ve come to no conclusions. Anyone have any insights?

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posted August 23, 2005 at 10:30 am

My new favorite science fiction/fantasy writer, Sergei Lukyanenko, is a convert to Russian Orthodoxy; and the film made of his book Night Watch is very strong for traditional morality — even stronger than his book, which was written a couple of years pre-conversion. I suspect we’ll see a big crop of great Christian writers and artists from out of Eastern Europe.
Of course, first we have to be able to get to see their stuff….

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Will Cappelli

posted August 23, 2005 at 12:48 pm

tk does make an interesting sociological observation about 20th century musical culture but aren’t Cage, Rorem, Bernstein et al, relatively minor footnotes to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern? I am not talking about taste here. The group tk mentioned use a musical language that is inconceiveable without the work of these very religiously minded composers.
Now, is there a linkage between the language they developed and their religion? I think so. Roughly, it was the attempt to strip away cultural accretions to form and structure and find the pure form in and of itself. Like Von Balthasar, they saw this pure form, not as a void, but rather as the very form of God. There is, of course, a fine line between this quest for pure form and the desire to strip away form in order to make room for unhindered expressions of desire and, for many reasons, these composers were interpreted as doing the latter. With regard to the visual arts, I’d suggest that Picasso, while initially in quest of a similar pure form, early in his career started to market his work as a liberation of desire and so, almost from the start, modernism in the visual arts took the second path. I know I’ve simplified, leaving out the influence of politics on the origins of modernist art but I think it’s basically right to say that modernist music fundmentally pursued the discovery of pure form while modernist visual art fundamentally pursued the liberation of desire.

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posted August 23, 2005 at 1:56 pm

Will Cappelli:
Interesting post, but I have reservations about your characterization of modern art as pursuing “the liberation of desire.” Wasn’t it the pursuit of formal purity that led to the dominance of abstract expressionism and nonobjective painting during the 60’s, against the objections of humanist painters such as Ben Shahn? It would seem that these trends followed naturally from much of early modernism’s concerns.

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posted August 23, 2005 at 3:27 pm

The Times botched the Worcester [Mass.] Art Museum’s exhibition as well:
The exhibition:
Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800.
The Times’ review:
Desperately Painting the Plague
My comment on it:
Rude and provincial at the New York Times: the Worcester Art Museum exhibition article

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Will Cappelli

posted August 24, 2005 at 2:45 am

JH, excellent point! I think that two things happened as the 20th century progressed. First, the ‘metaphysical intentions’ which charaterized early modernism, whether theological or hedonistic, lost their force and deployment of the languages or styles created became more eclectic, perhaps more thoughtless. Second, one response to the growing eclecticism (and this is, I think, the explanation for at least some of the hyper-abstraction of the 50s and 60s) was to reinterpret early modernism purely as a quest for structure but this time, without any metaphysical resonance whatsoever. (Boulez, by the way, characterizes this move on the musical side of the development perfectly.) Bottom Line: Whether to unveil the face of God or to cast away the strictures of converntional morality, the early modernists stripped away structures for specific purposes. Later modernists just played the stripping away game thoughtlessly and later still, some tried to make a conscoius program out of stripping away for the sake of stripping away.

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posted August 24, 2005 at 6:51 am

Interesting, and the three leaders of the 20th Century Minimalist Movement (sorry, Mr. Young), Reich, Glass and Riley, all are very religious, but all in ways non-traditional to their upbringing. (part of the search?) Reich a revert to Jewish Orthodoxy, Glass a Tibetan style Buddhist, and Riley a Hindu. Not only a revolt against serialism, but also against the early 20th century modernist-gay-academic cult. All three of these guys did not come out of academia, but did everyhting from play piano in bars to driving cabs in NYC.
and of course, minimalism manifested itslef in eastern europe in a very different way, and very religious – Part, Gorecki, etc…

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Anita Breitenberg Naylor

posted August 24, 2005 at 8:23 am

Artistically, my expression revolves completely around worship and motivation from the Holy Spirit. A critic’s interpretation will be based upon their experiences; therefore, I am never offended by their comments regarding my representation of Christ, only grateful for the opportunity to bare witness to the embodiment of truth. The only critic I desire to please is our Lord.

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