Some thoughts on the religion and arts controversy

Posted: August 7, 2008 in society
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Traditional imagery, has been challenged by contemporary work including Leon Ferrari’s Western Christian Civilisation , centre, Adam Cullen’s Only Women Bleed , top left, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary , top right, and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ , bottom right.Photo: Harry Afentoglou

Like with any other marriage, the church/temple hierarchies all over the world seem to think that the one of art and religion needs to be sacred too and therefore is in need of their approval to avoid becoming subject to eternal condemnation. While modernity has many disadvantages, I can only say I’m glad we are not living in the Dark Ages anymore (even though church leaders might either regret this fact or think we do anyway).

Jethro Lyne in today’s Sydney Morning Herald gave what I consider should be a good reminder to those self-appointed grail keepers: if they think certain art expressions are blaspheme they should come clean first and get rid of their own. There actually is a ‘Second Commandment’ in the old testament; it states: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”. Well, well … I think churches and temples throughout centuries would have been very barren places if their owners would have felt a sense of commitment to their own sacred scriptures – and these interiors would not just haven been barren, but also unattractive enough to keep Abrahamic world religions at the level of mere sects.

In fairness to at least the Christian religion it needs to be said that its art, which today appears to us as approved within the religious universe, was not necessarily always universally accepted. Lyne, an art historian, provides some interesting facts about the struggle within the Christian religion. It seem to have started from the moment in the fourth century where Christianity moved from being an outlawed cult to constituting a kind of coherent religion. And all that time it seems the arguments over religious images were an expression of the struggle to reconcile the demands of the Second Commandment with both, people’s desire to enhance the experience of worship and the need for clerics to increase the effectiveness of religious instruction (some might say brainwashing). Here are some excerpts from Lyne’s article:

“The early Christian art of free-standing figures and relief sculptures on sarcophagi retained many aspects of late antique pagan imagery, but adapted these to the new stories with no small degree of awkwardness.

“Things really came to a head in Byzantine lands during the eighth and ninth centuries in the controversy which raged between the supporters of the art of mosaic and painted icons and their foes, the iconoclasts. Such a heated debate resurfaced in the early years of the 12th century in Western Christendom with the celebrated attack on images by Bernard de Clairvaux. Conversely, St Bernard’s advancement of the cult of the Virgin would only lead in the long run to an exponential growth in the demand for devotional images.

“It was not until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that the issue of religious imagery would again occupy centre stage in European intellectual culture. Extreme Protestant reformers destroyed whatever art they could lay their hands on.

“The Catholic response was to increase the scale, majesty and drama of their pantheon of saints in the fashion of the Baroque; but not before they had imposed certain restrictions on religious imagery under the aegis of the Council of Trent (1545-63) – no more breastfeeding Madonnas, and fig-leaves had to be applied to the naughty bits of Michelangelo’s great Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Both sides of the new religious divide argued that theirs was the only appropriate means of honouring God and the tenets of their faith.

“The real demotion of Christian imagery to a second-class artistic genre came with a more gradual and peaceful revolution, the Age of Reason of the 18th century. One might surmise that the modern crisis in religious imagery, expressed in a vagueness in which any reversion to more traditional iconography can appear kitsch, is an effect of the Enlightenment. Certain 19th-century Romantic painters sought to revitalise Christian iconography by relocating it to mysterious and sublime mountain settings. In the 20th century the various arms of modernity produced intensely moving religious expressions, ranging from the stained glass windows of Chagall and the cathedrals of Chichester and Reims, to the subtle rhythms of Le Corbusier’s church of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp.”

There seem to be two trends here that are interesting. One is that certainly the Catholic Church moved from questioning the existential validity of imagery depicting the divine to simply being concerned about nakedness and sexuality. (And while I am sure that prudishness was a prime Protestant mover as well, it would be interesting to find out what motivated that movement to ban most images from their places of worship; they did keep the cross though). The other interesting trend is, with the arrival of modernity, the demotion of Christian art to a second class or even kitsch existence. And with having to submit their stranglehold on people’s everyday life and culture to the new rule of Reason, Christian religion lost not only its punitive influence but was also forced into a dialogue with the expressions of freedom of thought, like the arts.

Looking at the reactions to controversial works like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1989), Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1999), Leon Ferrari’s Western Christian Civilisation (1965), on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney or Adam Cullen’s Only Women Bleed, whose selection for the Blake Prize shortlist has been cause for the latest biff, it looks like this dialogue does not show much commitment on the side of its religious participants – and I am not saying that they have to accept just anything or that artistic expression is beyond critique. It just seems that their argument is not very sophisticated; it is still burdened by the mustiness of centuries of old thought.

Lyne, who by the way encourages public debate, asks whether modern art depicting religious symbols “mean solely to subvert or shock, or whether their form causes some deep reflection in the viewer regarding the spiritual experience or the nature of human history”. And he points out that shock value certainly is not new to religious art itself: “… great medieval sculpted church portals are often shocking in their vigorous depictions of the physical tortures of hell; Matthias Grunewald’s great Isenheim Altarpiece is intentionally distressing for its graphic portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion and the demons who attack St Anthony”.

Let’s summarise. First: the Church in a secular and (ideally) free society can’t really complain about the use of public religious symbols in works of art, especially since it created them in the first place against the dictate of its own teachings. Second: Lyne directs our attention to an important point: ‘asking for the artist’s intention’. That in turn should open a dialogue, one that is free of dogma on either side and certainly of religious righteousness on the part of the Church.

The question here is not who is allowed to shock, but what is intention behind shock and subversion. Furthermore: does this intent have a right to exist in a society in which diversity and freedom of expression are honoured as playing fields in which we all can learn to deeper reflect – on what it means to be alive as well as what it means to be a member of a social group with a rich culture and history. We certainly don’t learn through knee jerk reactions; sometimes perceived provocations do perform an important role. And in addition: it seems to me that a willingness to learn though sitting down together, and starting a dialogue with open minds and hearts is much more part of a true Christian spirit than outright condemnation and censorship attempts.

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