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Iconography to Iconoclasm

October, 2002

(Note: the following is the text of a paper delivered on Friday, September 20, 2002 at the Katholieke Universitiet, Leuven, Belgium. See ‘Peeks & Piques!" on page 2.)

As the title of my paper suggests, it is my intention to briefly trace the progression of the visual arts vis-à-vis religion as one of a dramatic reversal from its earlier role as an ancillary instrument of the Christian Church – that is, as iconography – to that of a denunciatory agent – or iconoclast – of that selfsame institution.

Because I believe some historical narrative is necessary in arriving at such a verdict, I ask you to turn back the clock – back to a time that long predates the subject and parameters of this conference. Though it is not my intention of outlining here a lengthy discussion of art history, I feel that it is necessary to lay some foundation for my conclusions, some framework that will hopefully support my claim that art has steadily and unmistakably shifted into a role reversal. I do this both in the interest of clarity and also because I believe that it will provide the background information necessary for my premise to bear critical scrutiny. Though our subject is the transformation of the Christian Churches since 1945 – and, for my portion of the discussion, the relationship of art to religion during that period – I ask you to travel back with me to the early unfolding of art's development in the hands of our stone-age ancestors.

Before I begin, however, I feel obliged to point out that my perspective inevitably carries with it some biases that I ought to readily acknowledge and, that I trust, will be granted by the participants and visitors to this conference. I have been writing art criticism for the past twenty years, but, as an American, the range of my expertise in matters of Western European Art – and especially that of Flanders – is not only limited, but in all probability slanted as well.

My knowledge of the course of European Art has come largely through the reading of major studies of classical masters and movements, with much of that reading supplemented by visits to the major art museums throughout Europe and the United States. In addition, I have written many essays on contemporary European and Chinese artists,1 including two major studies of the Cologne-based artist, Heinrich J. Jarczyk: the first a monograph on his life and work2 and, the second, an analysis of his etchings.3 However, the fact remains that my principal focus and writing in art criticism over the past twenty years has been confined to the United States – and that focus, primarily on contemporary art produced in the Northeastern Region of my Country.

The second bias that I bring to a discussion on the relationship between art and religion lies in the matter of the specific religious context in which this colloquium has been conceived. Though my personal critical stance has long measured the "value" of art against a spiritual standard, as a non-Catholic my attention has not been focused on that specific set of beliefs. Rather, I have attempted to broaden my frame of reference to the point of not excluding any one particular faith or sect while, at the same time, including them all in a comprehensive sense. In matters of art, it has been my practice to incorporate all religious beliefs under the generic term of "spirituality."

Therefore, whatever merit my remarks about the relationship between the visual arts and religion may have regarding the specific tenets of Christianity – Catholic or otherwise – would have to be weighed against that broader context. It should be noted that I make a clear distinction between the terms "religion" and "spirituality" and ask my listeners to keep that division in mind when I refer to one or the other designation. For the purposes of this paper, then, the terms are not interchangeable.

With these caveats understood, I return, then, to my look back into the history of art. Because I feel it essential to take the "long view" in any attempt to determine the relation of art to religion in today's artworld, I believe we must first try to see where art has been in order to properly evaluate how it might be perceived today. I am thus prompted to begin my discussion with the little we know of pre-historic visual art – if indeed, we may call it "art" at all. "Art" is a relatively modern term, and, like the classification "artist," would presumably be a designation that would have been an unintelligible concept to these pre-historic crafters. Although archaeologists have unearthed and amassed a great deal of such "art," we know relatively little of these makers – these "artists," if you will – and can only speculate on how they – or their fellows – thought of either the activity or of the products they made.

In its early manifestations, this "art" appears to have been primarily abstract markings and/or signs, simple scratchings on the face of rocks or cave walls that offered little or no clues as to their meaning or intent. What we can state with some assurance, however, is that since such "art" pre-dates written languages, it necessarily pre-dates religion – at least insofar as "religion" is understood as a codified set of beliefs.

Further, not only does the creating of a visual artform appear to pre-date religion, but, according to some – Otto Rank, in his book Art and Artists, for example4 – it actually exemplifies some sort of proto-religion in that it signals mankind's early attempts at emblematically – or symbolically – visually depicting what for all practical purposes was invisible – that is, the maker of the emblem was trying to comprehend and graphically visualize a "something" that was outside of, beyond, greater than, himself. If we reflect on this for but a moment, we can get some inkling on just how audacious such an activity was. So audacious was it in fact that, in time, some cultures went so far as to forbid their people from making such images since by doing so, it was believed they were attempting to exceed the boundaries of human comprehension.5 As in the story of Icarus, man was warned not to fly too close to the sun. Whether, as Rank asserts, it represented mankind's early attempts at attaining spiritual immortality, it seems at the very least that such image making was an instinctive attempt at "picturing forth" the inexplicable.

In effect, the argument is that, since humankind had not yet developed any linguistic skills – ergo, not capable of devising any kind of "formal" belief system – it had satisfied its "spiritual" urgings through the creation of symbolic emblems and artifacts.6 It is, then, theorized that the germinating seeds contained within this pre-historic, pre-linguistic, Ur-religion developed, after language had come into being, into the organized and recorded dogmas with which we are now familiar and classify as "religions."

Whether or not such speculation can be proved, the fact remains that there is hard evidence that image-making long preceded the human propensity for investing its spiritual longings in recorded, systematized "religions."

It is only subsequently, as pre-historic man learned to better manipulate and control his tools and materials that he seems to have turned to replicating in his art what he could see. Thus in the making of his later cave drawings and stone sculptures we can readily recognize animals or human figures. Although we know more about these later image-makers, how or why they progressed from the relatively "simple" abstract symbols to the more complex figurative representation, we can only surmise. It is clear, however, that the innovation took the making of art one step away from its original intent of emblematically visualizing the invisible, the unknown. The step, as we shall see, was a significant one since it led man's eye away from the unknown, away from what was beyond his senses and, instead, turned it toward what he could see. The abstract and – for us – meaningless symbols that early man made would soon be enhanced and, at times replaced, by drawings of things that could be found in his physical world.

Here, it seems that we find an interesting development in the progress of image-making. Some, whom we might call the original "artists," continued in their attempt to depict the unseeable, the unknowable, while others lowered their sights so to speak, and became adept at depicting their world. Thus, we might say that it is at this juncture that we see the beginnings of a separation between the "artist" and the "artisan."

What is well documented and beyond doubt is the certainty that a mixed emblematic artform – and here we must leap far forward in history – would eventually become incorporated into and serve as handmaiden to systematized sets of religious belief. This is, perhaps, nowhere more famously evident than that found in the closely bonded relationship between visual emblem-making and the Christian religion during the Italian Renaissance Period. Here, not only is the image serving as a means of promulgating Holy Writ, but also, in point of fact, often serving as religious "text" for the non-literate.

That this art might at first glance appear to be strictly "figurative," that is, that it appears to depict what we can "see" and understand, is more the result of habit than of fact. A moment's reflection tells us that such imagery was clearly emblematic since no one has ever seen angels, or heavenly hosts, or heaven, or hell. Whether the artist used concentric circles and wavy lines or winged putti, he was still attempting to symbolize the invisible, the unknown, that great animating "something" that to this day continues to defy our creative abilities to delineate.

Art, in the service of the inexplicable – that is, of God – (in whatever system of devotion a particular culture turned to), would eventually stand in high regard not only in Renaissance Italy, but also in most of the world for many years to come. It would maintain this distinction and serve this purpose in the Western World, in fact, until religion itself encountered strong opposition – especially so after the so-called "Age of Enlightenment" when science and humanism began eroding the requisite bedrock foundation of faith that lies at the bottom of all religious systems.

For the artist who sought to raise his fellows above his human limitations, calling into question the validity of a relationship to a Divine Source would prove to be more than a little traumatic. Once thought to be an "inspired" being – literally "breathed into" by God Himself – the artist would soon find himself no different from his fellow image-maker who merely replicated what he could see, reduced to being little more than a mere artisan, a maker of things for no other reason than for their own existence. Cut from the traditional role as spokesperson or "interpreter" of the Divine Will, the artist's original purpose was therefore sorely compromised. Slowly but surely whatever relationship an artist might have with his or her professed beliefs would begin to weaken and, as the relationship waned, so also would the art. Once so potently capable of lifting man above the limitations of his senses, art begins to lose its former, other-than-self, focus.

Not everyone, to be sure, found the breach to be a cause for concern. There were those who happily embraced the separation of art and religion. Many, in point of fact, saw the erosion of the relationship as a liberating force, and the rallying cry for many of the now disenfranchised would become "Art for art's sake."

Nevertheless, today many serious artists – and critics – see and deplore the result of the lost relationship. It is more than evident that art – significant and meaningful art – does not flourish in a world that glorifies materialism and marginalizes spirit. Sadly, the gulf, which now separates the artist from his spiritual roots, renders much of what we now call "art" to be trivial and sterile. Art, dispossessed of its vital connection to a force greater than and outside of itself, becomes no more significant than any other artifact man devises – whether it be image or stone axe. Such art may please, tease, titillate, shock or outrage us – but it does not enhance us, will not enlighten us, can not elevate us. Shorn of its deeply rooted purpose of bringing man to a greater awareness of himself and of his condition, art for its own sake thus becomes little more than lifeless and meaningless cries in a dark night of lost souls.

The pity is that of the two legacies that early man has left us – the making of images and the stone axe – modern man has chosen to develop only the latter. He has thrown his time, energy, resources, and intelligence into transforming the axe into a nuclear weapon, while allowing the art that once held out to him the promise of his rising above his limitations to languish as little more than a diversion for the rich and idle.

Such severing from a sense of a Divine Providence, from a Greater Unknown, was, for the artist as well as for all mankind, amplified in Europe (as it was in the United States) in the aftermath of the two World Wars. The remnants of belief that survived the World Wars – in which both sides, ironically, appealed to the same "God" for victory – were quickly reduced to tatters. The sundering left a shocked and disillusioned people on both sides of the Atlantic – indeed, around the entire globe – leaving mankind to fend for itself insofar as spiritual solace was concerned.

The disillusionment that clouded the worldview and infected mankind following the Second World War not only marginalized religion but, in politics as well as in art, caused many to set themselves up in hostile opposition to it. For many artists, art could no longer serve as handmaiden to a God Who, as far as the artist could determine, had abandoned him. If religion was rejected as an "answer," then for those who still craved spiritual fulfillment, art must instead serve as an individual statement of spirituality. Art must become, in effect, a "personal religion." Ironically, then, the "civilized" world from 1945 to the present placed the artist in the selfsame position as his Stone Age predecessor, for like his pre-historic colleague, he now had to invent his own symbolism, had to re-interpret that animating force which still stood outside of and beyond himself. Admittedly a simplistic overview of art history, this brief synopsis nevertheless offers a broad frame of reference upon which we may base our conclusions about the relationship of art and religion today.

In an attempt at characterizing the nature of this relationship in our times, it might serve our purposes to begin with the most obvious kinds of artistic statement I find currently being expressed by those who have abandoned religion – specifically, those expressions of art that clearly take an adversarial stance. For the extremist, art must not only disassociate itself from what is now perceived as a bankrupt system of beliefs, but it must actively and, at times, vociferously call any such systems into question.

Although I am peripherally aware of such anti-religious voices in contemporary Western Europe's artworld, I am more familiar with the appearance of such dissidence in America – none more so, perhaps, than two such blatant examples of anti-religious art as Andres Serrano's aggressively titled "Piss Christ" (1989) or Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996). For those unfamiliar with the two examples I offer as illustration, the first, "Piss Christ," was an immersion of a crucifix in the artist's urine, and the second, "The Holy Virgin Mary," is a collage that included elephant dung and snippets of pornography in its fabrication. Granted that these examples are extreme and offensive statements against the Catholic Church and its system of beliefs, they graphically serve to point up just how far art has traveled from its previous role as a form of religious iconography into one that clearly endorses and exemplifies outright iconoclasm.

Yet, as angry as these examples strive to be, such "art," in my estimation, ultimately remains impotent since it lacks the conviction that can only come from a vital connection to an absolute morality. Though intended to shock and outrage, these visual outbursts against the Catholic Church must come across to the critical eye as petulant and feeble, lacking in any real power because they have forfeited any link or association to that moral imperative which is only derivable from a sense of Divine Omnipotence. In brief, it is "art" that has cut itself off from anything greater than itself. Today's attempts at yoking art to gender, to politics, to social ills, or any other such human concern still does not redeem it since its focus remains on the human level. It is, after all is said and done, no more or no less than "art for its own sake."

If it is true that not all of today's art is so flagrantly irreligious as the two examples I use as illustration, much – I might say too much – of the art I see in my day-to-day role as editor and art critic of an art journal, is, I believe, mainly amoral, a-religious. Art, at least in the United States, is by and large a secular activity which, when not overtly anti-religious, is largely indifferent to it. Today, the artist who is still alive to the ancient need for "belonging," for counting himself a member of a defined group – whether religious or otherwise – now sublimates that need into aligning himself with an art "movement" or "school" rather than with a congregation of like-minded believers.

This is not to say that I find no evidence of spiritual longing in today's artists. Indeed, as I have stated previously, I feel that many consider their art as formal expressions of personal spirituality. Keeping in mind my distinction between the terms "spiritual" and "religious," for many moderns, their work becomes individual "ritual," their art a pseudo "religion" that embodies and validates their own particular brand of spiritual belief. Many modern-day abstractionists, in fact, have argued this very point, categorically stating that their art, while not pictorial, is yet a visual and tangible expression of their own inner minds and/or souls. Thus, the work of art becomes a statement of faith, a religious "text" that is strictly personal. Yet, because it trains its vision on a purely individual system of emblems, such art remains esoteric, a stillborn symbol that has no power to enlighten others – if indeed it can even enlighten the artist who created it.

Where I do find some traces of a more traditional sense of a Divine Providence, some recognition that there is a God-Man "connection" which the artist must discover – or uncover – is in the work of some of today's landscape artists. Though unlike such early landscape painters who attempted to imbue their work with a sense of Divine sublimity,7 many modern landscape painters – who may or may not be members of a particular religion – often give voice to a belief that it is through nature – and through their depictions of it – that they experience some relationship to a Divine Presence. If they are loath to define their art as an affirmation of a specific faith they are yet eager to affirm their art as "spiritual" – as personally individualized as this spirituality may be. There are, of course, those who are both serious artists and deeply "religious" – that is, persons who diligently practice both their art and their faith. Generally speaking, however, it appears that the "modern" stance would be to maintain a strict separation between the two.

In summation, I feel that the falling away of art from its historic connection with matters of the spirit, already weakened by the advance of science, has taken a precipitous downturn since the aftermath of not only the Second, but of the First World War as well. The once-strong connecting ties that held art and religion together appears to all intents and purposes to have been unmistakably and permanently severed. Art, it would appear, has indeed traveled a long way from its original aim of looking beyond itself, indeed, of looking beyond the artist who created it toward a world which he intuited would lead him out of his cave and into a world of light. Thus, in keeping with the parameters of 1945 to 2000, it is my contention that art, on the whole, stands not only outside religion, but is also at times defiantly opposed to it. Consequently, other than in a very narrowly defined sense, I believe it is of little value to seek a meaningful relationship between the modern world of visual art and the Christian Church.

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