Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The End of Art?

There’s a thought-provoking article in the June-July issue of First Things by Roger Kimball called “The End of Art.” You have to have a subscription to read it online, so if you’ve got one, sign in and click on the article, “The End of Art.” If not, I’ll try to quote enough of the article so you can get the thread of the post, and hopefully contribute! Please leave me a comment at the end, or email me at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com.

This is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, since I’m an artist, an iconographer, a writer and sometimes, a (very mediocre) poet. And while I’m being those things, I’m an Orthodox Christian. Why don’t I call myself a “Christian writer” or “Christian artist”? Because not everything I write or paint is “religious.” This is a distinction that I think many Protestant Evangelicals don’t make. There is much in their realm that is considered “Christian art” or “Christian literature,” etc. And many of them do call themselves “Christian artists” or “Christian writers.” But like Madeleine L’Engle, I prefer to say that I am a Christian who is also an artist and a writer. Here’s why the distinction matters:

When I sit down to write an essay, or continue work on my memoir-in-progress, or paint a whimsical watercolor, I do not have as my purpose the goal of evangelizing or preaching. My goal is to do good work. It’s for the work to touch someone else’s heart, soul, emotions. To elicit a response, yes. But not to try to direct how that response might be. At the same time, the fact that I’m an Orthodox Christian infuses the work. It’s just who I am.

The same would be true if my work were in another field, like science or education or business. Hopefully my spirituality would come through there, as well… in the form of a morality and work ethic, as well as an Orthodox Christian world view. But the work itself would not necessarily be “Christian.”

I tend to agree with W. H. Auden, as Kimball quoted him in “The End of Art,” saying, “There can no more be a ‘Christian’ art than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work.”
But the one arena in which this differs, for me, is iconography. Iconography differs from art in that it is specifically liturgical art. Its form belongs to the Church. I thought it was interesting that Kimball paraphrased the Welsh Catholic Poet David Jones as saying that “We have no specifically Catholic art… any more than we have a ‘Catholic science of hydraulic, a Catholic vascular system, or a Catholic equilateral triangle.’”

But I believe that iconography is specifically Orthodox art, just as traditional designs for Orthodox churches is Orthodox architecture, and the music used in our worship is Orthodox music.

But an architect who designs Orthodox Churches and monasteries, for example, can also design a residential home or a commercial business, and those designs would not be “Orthodox” or “Christian,” although they might be designed by an Orthodox Christian.

Okay, maybe this is too much “back story” for the point I’m trying to make here, but I think it’s necessary as we move forward into Kimball’s essay. Near the beginning he says:

“Traditionally, the goal of fine art was to make beautiful objects. The idea of beauty came with a lot of Platonic and Christian metaphysical baggage, some of it indifferent or even hostile to art. But art without beauty was, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a description of failed art.”

So he begins with beauty. But quickly shows how art (in his opinion) has moved away from beauty as it has championed innovation in contemporary art with “a tired repetition of gestures inaugurated by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, creator of the first bottle-rack masterpiece and the first urinal fountain.”

He quotes Leo Tolstoy (from What is Art) as saying that “art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost.” And that was in the 1890s!

Kimball says that there’s still good art today, but it is “rarely touted at the Chelsea galleries, celebrated in the New York Times, or featured in the trendier precincts of the art world. The serious art of today tends to be a quiet affair, off to the side and out of the limelight.”

He doesn’t say what or where he thinks this serious art is, and I’d sure like to know. Instead he delves into concerns that art can “counterfeit beauty in lieu of revealing it.” Quoting Iris Murdoch: “Art is dangerous, chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”

This is what I think much so-called “Christian art” does. Whereas iconography is spiritual. And “good art” doesn’t try to be something it’s not. But the place or purpose of art in the world today is defined according to one’s world view, one’s spirituality.

Kimball goes into considerable detail about the affect of the Renaissance and Romanticism on art, and later about how man’s Promethean nature—his emergence as a second god, as someone whose goal is to create something from nothing—has affected art.

“When human reason is made the measure of reality, beauty forfeits its ontological claim and becomes merely aesthetic—merely a matter of feeling.”

Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter (in my opinion)… this business of evoking feeling. Dr. Andrew Louth, in his essay, “Orthodoxy and Art” (in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World,) speaks to this issue:
“The Orthodox are defensive about the aesthetic because they feel, quite rightly, that the whole realm of the aesthetic is something immensely seductive. There is a danger that their own appreciation of the importance of beauty will be drawn into a way of looking at things that is fundamentally at variance with Orthodoxy itself.”

When I first read that, I was afraid that Louth was going to diss art completely. But then I read further. Louth makes an argument for an Eastern Christian justification for art, starting with his answer to this issue of an artist being a creator:

“For the notion that the artist is essentially creative has scarcely any roots in the Tradition that is the treasury and touchstone of Orthodox theological reflection. It is something that has grown out of the ideas of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement—all movements of thought and sensibility that bypassed the historical continuity of Orthodox Christianity…. The truth is not that Orthodoxy is an answer to the West’s problems, but that Orthodoxy transcends those problems altogether. So with icons and art: the truth is not that icons are a more satisfying form of religious art than Western art has been able to evolve…. The truth is rather that if icons are art, then this poses questions about the very nature of art that are quit different from those that have come to be taken as fundamental in the experience of the West.”

Yes. This is something I’ve tried to explain time and time again but I just don’t have the vocabulary for it. (I quoted from Louth’s essay in my article, “Icons Will Save the World,” which was published online at First Things in December, 2007.)

Quoting fom Hermann Broch’s novel, The Death of Virgil, where Broch says that the real artist “hears the call beyond the border….” Louth says that Broch gives us a different way of looking at artists (which includes poets and writers): “…as a seer, on who has glimpsed beyond the everyday, rather than as a creative personality.”

So, in Louth’s opinion, what does the artist do?

“He makes something: a poem, a painting, a musical work. He makes something that moves in the realm of the imagination and appeals to the memory.”

Like Kimball, Louth quotes the poet, David Jones, who explains the incarnational nature of art, tying his wisdom in with St. John of Damascus (who wrote On the Divine Images, in defense of icons.) And then he ties it all together:

“Art is important; it is concerned with things; it makes of these things signs or symbols whence they derive meaning….And perhaps it is this very capacity to make and use signs—which is the premise of art—that reveals our condition as created in the image of God.”

So, when someone (Christian or not) writes a poem, or a book, or paints a picture, they are making and using signs, and revealing their condition. Kimball agrees at this juncture, I think:
“Without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself; it is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive; but aesthetic experience itself degenerates into a kind of fetish or idol if it is held up as an end in itself….”

One doesn’t have to look far to see this in society today, with the profusion of pornography, which has done just that—made an idol of the image… or really, of a bad representation of the image. A few months ago, Andrew Williams, a student at Holy Cross Seminary, interviewed me for a practicum report he did for his Church History Class: “The importance of venerating the image: can iconography help defeat the power of pornography?” One interesting aspect of his report deals with the way pornography damages the image of God within each of us:

“So while iconography leads us into the communion of heaven, pornography destroys the communion designed by God for the human person as an icon of Christ, separates the image from the full personal reality of the person portrayed therein, and separates the sexual impulse from the essential aspect of communion for which it was created. Unsurprisingly, the end result of this is to damage pornography user’s ability to experience any level of communion. As one of the women interviewed by Pamela Paul (Pornified, New York, NY 2005) put it, “I don’t know any man who is into porn who has been able to be truly intimate.”

This might seem like a big rabbit trail in a blog post about the end of art, but I think Andrew’s thesis can be applied to other realms of what Kimball calls degenerate art… “art that has become a caricature of itself.” I think pornography is what happens when art degenerates to its lowest point. For those caught up in it, it truly is the end of art… and maybe the end of communion for that person, with God, with others, even with himself.

So how do we preserve true art, and the beauty that Dostoevsky said would save the world? I’m hoping to hear from some readers on this—please leave a comment by clicking on “comments” below… or if you’d rather, send me an email at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com and let me know if it’s okay to publish your comment.


Erin said...

Have you read Nikolai Gogol's "The Portrait?" I think I suggested it a while back. If not, I think you'd like to read it. I'm not saying I necessarily agree with him, but it will give you more thought on the subject.

And one more thought. What about the art of the writer/poet who writes hymnography and prayers? Are they not the same as an iconographer? What of Saint John of Damascus, Cassiana the Hymnographer, John Koukouzelis, or, for that matter, Nikolai Velimirovic (who wrote poetry) and Nektarios of Pentapolis (who wrote paraliturgical hymns)? And what about John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and Ephraim the Syrian. Are they artists in the same way that the iconographer is? Just more food for thought.

Susan Cushman said...

Oh, I definitely think that hymnographers and those who write prayers, akathists, etc. are also artists in the same way that iconographers are. I thought I mentioned them, along with (church) architects. Thanks for recommending the book... I'm sure you mentioned it before, but this time, I wrote it down:-) Thanks for commenting, Erin!

Erin said...

"The Portrait" is just a short story. It's in the collection of Petersburg Tales by Gogol, in case you have trouble finding it. It's included in translation in this collection:

Susan Cushman said...

Laura Wilson, an inquirer at St. John who previously taught art at a Church of Christ college (and took one of my icon workshops) sent me an email tonight in response to this post. She said to cut and paste the parts about the post here. Thanks, Laura! Here are her comments:

This speaks to me in several ways.

First, I have become very aware of the way I view the world, and my own religious tradition because of my art history studies. I think a study of art history is pretty much a study of the history of popular philosophy, and I realized as I studied some of the modern fundamentalist painters (especially Mondrian and Kandinsky) that their philosophy of art was very similar to my church's philosophy of Christianity (an emphasis on the fundamentals, stripping away everything else, a rejection of history, and a reliance on self). No big coincidence that the artistic and religious movements occurred pretty much simultaneously. This is partially what made me begin to question my beliefs.

Second, as an artist I've had this sort of artistic dilemma pretty much since I left school. My painting teacher is very postmodern, and my training is really very modern. I have very little classical training. I felt like if I needed to get outside of my modernist box both religiously and artistically, but I haven't really known where to go. I've made many failed attempts to start in a new direction.

It does seem like painting is spent. It has been questioned and redefined so many ways that much contemporary painting is either a mockery of itself or is simply replaced by installation or video art. (Very much like church history - which has been questioned and redefined in a million different ways too.)

I think that modernism is a dead end, but that hopefully postmodernism is our way back to something. Postmodernism perhaps gives us a chance to return to the history modernism rejected, hopefully having learned something.

I had hoped that studying iconography would inform my art and hopefully get me back into some sort of productive art form. I feel like you finally showed me how that my be possible - by returning to the original goal of art in the first place. I have already been trying to do this with my faith - return to Christianity's original beauty.

Feel free to cut and paste anything I said about art in your blog. I hope to hear what others have to say as well.


Erin said...

I'm wordy tonight. Last semester when teaching a university Russian culture class, I taught two lectures on Kandinsky, Popova, Malevich and other modern Russian artists. I'm no art historian, but one issue that came up in my class conversation was the fact that modern abstract art began to flourish at the same time that photography became more commonplace. Photography ended the need for the artist who could exactly replicate the way a person or place looked. Painters didn't need to do this anymore because photos could. Then painting became something else; it began to focus on a different kind of artistic expression. And in fact, when we teach "culture" for the second half of the 20th century, we teach very little about painting as an art form and more about film as an art form. Film studies has become a big part of culture studies, and I think it is a legitimate part of what art is today. So how does film fit into this discussion? I can think of some examples off the top of my head, but I'll leave the question open.

Susan Cushman said...

My friend, Herman King, from my Mississippi writers group, sent me the following email and said to post it here. Thanks, Herman!

And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart, till the Devil whispered behind the leaves "It's pretty, but is it Art?" --
Rudyard Kipling

To me art speaks for itself. If there is a Christian element to it, that speaks to the viewer. There is little need to title it as such. What you are as a writer also speaks for itself. If a Christian writes something that shares his/her faith there is no need to title it, unless you are placing them by category.

Priscilla Neale said...

A very lofty blog entry, Susan. "...the end result of this is to damage pornography user’s ability to experience any level of communion."
Communion = beauty. The level of technical skill in writing, drafting, musical composition and performance may be low or extremly high and we may find it beautiful: and we commune with the "message". There is so much "art" that doesn't measure up to communion.
I don't consider a toilet placed in a room labeled as a museum or art gallery as ART. A new design may qualify for an industrial design award as some tankless ones have recently. Cross out ART and discuss COMMUNION WITH BEAUTY.
Isn't BEAUTY one of the Beatitudes? (I'm new to Eastern Orthodoxy and Christianity.)

Sue said...

Beauty... art... those words always boggle my mind. But what resonates with me is art that communicates truth - the joyful and tragic and everything in between. And communicates it beautifully.

And, for an interesting and entertaining read about the art world, check out an excerpt from Tom Wolfe's book, "The Painted Word." It was written a while ago and some of his predictions haven't come true, but it's still insightful and thought-provoking... or to some, just provoking.