The annihilation of sacred art

How did we get

from here…

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  to here?

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And here…
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  to here?
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There was a time when we  could walk into any church in the world, and we would see the best that we had to offer to the glory of God. In one of the many catastrophes of the modern age, that time is gone.

There was a time we could count on sacred art to raise the hearts and minds of man to heavenly realities. That time is gone.

There was a time when a choir of angelic voices were raised to God in beauty. That time is gone.

On the bright side, I don’t think that time is gone for good, and I firmly believe that the solution is not in the traddie camp who want to see no liturgical art that was made after 1900 and hear no instruments at Mass except the organ and, frequently, abandon the Mass of Paul VI entirely in favor of the 1962 Missal of Pope Saint John XXIII. None of these preferences are bad of themselves, but, if they come – as they so often do – at the expense of admitting the validity or beauty of the Roman Rite as it is expressed in the Mass of Paul VI, they leave the true course. I am a child of the post-conciliar Church. It is the Church I grew up in; it is the expression of the Catholic Church that I love. Now, at the same time, I dislike many of the things that have been done (and have gotten out of hand) in the “spirit of Vatican II.” I am, first and foremost, Catholic and obedient to those set in authority over me in the Church; it is from that starting point that I seek to serve as a priest in the Church.

Now, there are those who would say that this is simply a matter of opinion since beauty is entirely subjective. To this objection, I must admit that until I began my studies in seminary, I agreed. As time has gone on, and as I have increasingly learned and reflected on the question, I must say that the notion that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” simply does not reflect reality. I am forced, although I fought the notion tooth and nail, to admit that Aquinas was right; beauty is not purely subjective. Beauty is objective and, to a certain degree quantifiable. If you disagree, then hop a flight to Rome, and walk through the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. Watch anyone as he first sets foot into one of the great cathedrals of the centuries. The reactions are the same. If we cannot appreciate the art beyond that first moment of awe, it is certainly due to our own lack of understanding of the language of the art, not to some elusive “beauty,” that we define for ourselves. There is a deeper philosophy that you can click on the little section below to read, but I think that there is something to be said for the simple definition of beauty that is offered by the Angelic Doctor (That’s Aquinas): “that which gives joy when seen.” One note to make sure that this definition is not misread is that, in his usage, Aquinas is referring to an interior mode of seeing, that is, contemplating with the intellect and the will, not simply perceiving with the eyes; therefore, his notion of seeing is possible through any of the senses. I would suggest that, as I implied above, that a good quick litmus test of beauty is a person’s first natural reaction on encountering something. If that reaction is one of awe or joy, the thing is likely beautiful; if the natural immediate reaction is blasé or disgust, there’s probably not much beauty to be had in the thing.

Aquinas' on the transcendentals and the objective aspects of beauty
(Read this if you want more detail of the philosophy behind what I'm saying)

I shall try to keep this brief, but to fully understand where I come from, it is important to understand the metaphysical system on which I am building – and on which The Church has approached these questions implicitly since the start and explicitly for over half a millennium. Forgive me if this part is a little more formal sounding. It’s hard to explain these concepts without assuming quite a bit of underlying understanding.

First of all, In Thomistic metaphysics, we have the notion of the transcendental aspect of being. In short, this is that the idea of being itself, when approached from different perspectives, is fully convertible with other notions. To Thomas, there were, strictly speaking, three transcendentals: unity, goodness, and truth. I subscribe to some philosophers who have built on his thought and refer to four by adding beauty to that list. What this means is that anything that is, insofar as it exists, is one, true, good, and beautiful. Note that this is a metaphysical notion of good and beautiful, not a moral and aesthetic notion, necessarily. Hence, for something to be said to exist, it must have some unity; even if we refer to a swarm of bees, they are a swarm rather than just bees in that they have some unity. If we take something that exists from the perspective of the intellect, we view the truth in its existence. If we take it from the will, which, in its very nature is ordered to seek the good, we say that the thing is good. If we take it from the perspective of both intellect and will, we perceive a beauty. That beauty is something that cannot properly and fully be conveyed by anything except direct contemplation of the thing. For example, Ansel Adams photographs, while beautiful of themselves, cannot be said to capture the full grandeur and scope of the landscapes he shoots.

Aquinas set forth three elements that together make objective aesthetic beauty: unity, proportion, and clarity. Because these tackle something bigger than just taste, they are, to a greater or lesser extent, objectively quantifiable. For those who are interested, I am going to spend just a moment to discuss each of these because these are the aspects that I assume in my concrete examples.

Unity: Something beautiful must be able to be seen as a coherent whole. It is useful to note that this overlaps the transcendental of the same name. That is why, I would argue, a painting by Jackson Pollock cannot be said to be truly beautiful since it frequently lacks any unifying characteristic other than the fact that it is on a single canvas. It’s colors may be striking; a person may be entranced by the lines within it. However, in my opinion, beautiful is something we only say of Pollock’s work if we are trying to impress a person with our knowledge of art.

Proportion: We naturally see beauty in proportion. The best example of this lies in the external beauty of persons. Whether we like it or not, our brains do a sort of mental mathematics when we look at a person. Well trained artists are fully aware of this, and they take advantage of it when they produce portraits.

Clarity: The last of the three of these aspects is, in some way, a bit elusive. The Latin, claritas, is alternately translated as “effulgence” or “splendor of form.” For something to be truly beautiful in the way we are speaking, it must call out to the will as good as well as the intellect as true. If it is impossible to see any clarity of what is happening in a work, then it cannot rightly be called beautiful.

Finally, it bears noting that there are some applications of art that have no place in sacred art, but can rightly be said to be art because of the excellence of their craft rather than the beauty of their product. From the visual perspective, we find excellent examples in propaganda and marketing graphic art. Both of these serve the transcendental of truth far more than good; this is not bad, it just speaks to the purpose of the specific piece. Rarely can we truly speak of a piece of graphic art or propaganda as beautiful in the strict sense.


Now, each person is perfectly allowed to take pleasure in something that is not, of itself, beautiful; that is a matter of taste. I would contend, however, that those people are not enjoying beauty, but rather some other aspect. There is nothing wrong with that, but we must not confuse other aspects that draw us with beauty. The person who enjoys the extremes of deconstructionist art, for example, is not enjoying beauty; he is enjoying a philosophical statement. The person who submerges himself in contemporary rap or hip-hop music is not doing so because his will is attracted to beauty, but because of the emotional thrill that the beat, the rhythm, and the lyrics provide. Indeed, I am willing to even say that there is no little skill that is necessary to produce words to fit into the beat and meter of these musical styles, but skill does not, in and of itself, equal beauty. Again, there is nothing wrong with enjoying any of these things. We just must understand that we are not speaking of beauty.

The problem of art in the modern age can be distilled to a single word that I feel my philosophy professors at the seminary would be pleased to see as my conclusion: Nominalism. We are trapped in a culture that rejects any notion of objective reality or universals. If there is nothing objective, no universals, no notion of something having any form beyond the tangible, how can we say that such an elusive concept of beauty can be defined? Since we can’t define it and since the modern world has declared it unacceptable for me to tell you that my belief about something is right, beauty has been devalued to the question of merely “what I like.” But I can like something for a plethora of reasons that do not make them beautiful. I like lazy-boy chairs, but I would not consider it beautiful in an aesthetic sense – indeed, frequently they are rather puffy and ugly, but they are still comfortable and I like them.

In a way, I think that this problem can be concretized by a short story. I know an artist (I am changing the names because I don’t want to embarrass any of the actual persons involved, but the context and events are nearly precisely as they occurred) who was at an exhibit including his work at a gallery when he stopped in front of one of his abstract pieces that was being admired  by one of the local artsy folk. The little sign next to the piece read, “Stone Mason, $1000.” He asked the man admiring the work what he thought of it, and the man gleefully replied in attempt to show off his knowledge of art. The patron told the artist that he could see in the piece the stone mason working the day away; he could see the sweat and the hammer; he could see the futility of labor. The man went on like this for a few minutes, and finally asked the artist what he thought. The artist grinned, looked at the man, and told him, “Actually, I’m the artist. The piece is untitled. My name is Stone Mason.” In short, we have allowed art to be anything that is declared to be art. There are many far more vulgar or repulsive examples, but I think you get my drift.

So, allow me to return to my initial question. What happened in the realm of sacred art and music? Well, the same trend that was in the secular art world took hold. This was combined with one of those Spirit of Vatican II mantras that everything should reflect “noble simplicity.” The former led to deconstructionist art I can only describe as frequently weird painting and sculpture, and the latter to the minimalism that removes sacred art (almost) entirely.

interior4One example I think holds water is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. No one could deny that it displays several themes from the centuries of tradition in the art and architecture of the Catholic Church. It is in a cruciform shape; there is statuary in key places; there are murals on the walls (well, tapestries, but the actual material of the art is not concerning) depicting the saints. It has all of the glorious stature and size of any of the cathedrals of old. Yet, for all of its grandeur, something is missing. It doesn’t naturally raise the heart and mind to heavenly realities, but instead it surrounds the person with shapes and designs. If the Lord were the Lord imagined by Pythagoras, that would be one thing, but mathematical expression itself is not enough to draw the mind to God.

The tapestries are hyper-realistic; if I understand correctly, they were actually scanned and computer-made. I must admit that using the best technology available to us to create such an architectural work is impressive, and it is good that we express our gratitude to God by using every gift at our disposal to make our places of worship as worthy as possible their divine object. There are those who argue the minimalism that is present in the surfaces and shapes of the cathedral that it expresses the “noble simplicity” that the Church desires. The problem is that the Church has never called for noble simplicity in art and architecture. The desire of the Church is noble simplicity in rite and ritual. If we go back to the actual texts of Vatican II, we see that art and architecture are to be of “noble beauty.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 124)

Another challenge that has brought about the failure in sacred art and architecture is that the modern artists producing it frequently seek only emotion as the goal of their art. They no longer try to convey a specific message. When they do, they no longer understand the nuanced language of art that developed over the centuries in art, be it statuary, painting, mosaic, iconography, music, or the architecture itself. Most often, I have seen this fact play out frequently in modern attempts to use the shapes and “look” of the ancient icons of the Christian Church; the problem is that those making them are frequently just trying to copy pieces that they like, but they are ignorant of the language. Therefore, they frequently end up with a piece that may be visually striking, but it fails to speak except to the emotions because its language is garbled.

So, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? The first step, as it is with so many things, is to understand that there is a problem, and it runs deep; it is not just a superficial question of taste. Then, we as Catholics, laity, priests, parishes, and communities, must reclaim the heritage of the Church. It is not somehow unbefitting that churches be beautiful. It is not stealing from the poor to beautify places of worship to the glory of God. The Church is not a charity organization that sometimes worships; She is, first and foremost, ordered to the right worship of God. A natural outgrowth of that worship is service to the poor along with other charitable acts.

Finally, I firmly believe that we must look to train new artists. It is imperative that we reclaim the skills of the masters. Pablo Picasso was once asked what a student needed to do to begin study in cubism; the answer was that he must first absolutely perfect naturalism. Even to Picasso, it was only with the perfection of the grammar of art and an intricate understanding of each rule that one earned the right to break them. The modern crop of artists no longer studies that grammar to any meaningful extent. From the earliest days, the modern art world drives artists to self-expression instead of the tedium of technique. If we are to see the renaissance of Catholic art and architecture that I hear desired by many, both in the pews and in the seminaries, it will require skilled artists and technicians who know the technique and grammar of art, not just techniques of self-expression.

As I said at the start, I do feel that hope is not lost. We can reclaim the artistic heritage that we have inherited, yet cast aside, from previous generations. In the youth of today, I frequently have seen the beginnings of such desires. In more cases than I can count, those young people are seeking something better than the minimalist and emotivist art and music of the last half century. I think the greatest challenge is that they no longer have anywhere to look for an example of it.

To give credit where it’s due, I pulled most of these ideas both from both my philosophical studies here at the seminary and lectures while I was in Rome this past summer. The man who gave those lectures, Dony Mac Manus operates the Sacred Art School to help train artists to bring about this modern renaissance in sacred art.

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