Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Art and Religion

by Doris Overland


An article which discusses modern art and inveighs against the unintelligible distortions and abstractions that frequently pass for art.

Larger Work

The Catholic World



Publisher & Date

The Paulist Fathers, August 1952

In the days of Michelangelo, it is probable that the art patron and the man in the street both marveled at the talent of the painter and the sculptor, but never questioned it. In the days of Picasso, however, it is impossible not to question genius. Its products are so startling— so utterly without rhyme or reason to the man in the street and so terrific a challenge to the intellectual, who finds a satisfying kind of snobbery in something beyond the appreciation of those of average intelligence.

And so the controversy rages long and loud. Is Picasso madman or artist extraordinary? Was Michelangelo merely an engineer of muscular construction? Are the squat, little deities of ancient Africa a finer, truer kind of art than the glories of the Renaissance? Where may men find the highest expression of artistic achievement as a guide by which to measure the cultural progress of the human race?

In ancient Greece the artist seemed to have attained the peak of perfection in sculpture. His model was Man, his proportions ideal, and his skill in the lifelike rendering of muscle, sinew and flesh upon bone was without parallel in the world.

By contrast the attempts of other nations to represent Man in clay and stone seemed pitifully inept and childlike. In Egypt and Assyria lifeless figures marched stiffly in profile around tombs and monuments and palaces. And the more isolated tribes of the world enlivened their devotions with horrendous stone idols crudely expressing the attributes of their gods.

Perhaps they would be startled if they could awake from their ancient sleep today and find the modern artist feverishly pursuing their "lost art." Perhaps they would look at each other in wonder and exclaim, "Why, we always wished we could do better!"

But what about Phidias who antedated our Christian era by hundreds of years? Votive incense burned before his mighty Minerva and daily devout Greeks poured into her temple to prostrate themselves before her and beseech her for wisdom in peace and strength in war. A pagan religion, yes—but it was all they had, all the noble qualities of man vested in gods and goddesses upon whom they relied to answer their prayers and guide them through life.

And to this, their religion, they gave the finest of their talent, the first fruits of their art. They looked upon the human figure and found it beautifully ordered and beautifully formed—an unsurpassed creation and a worthy shape for their gods. And so they paid tribute to the handiwork of their own Creator by seeking ways and means of rendering it perfectly in stone.

Perhaps Phidias would view Picasso and Henry Moore in horror, and exclaim, "What manner of art is this? What frightful chaos? Do these men care nothing for the order and harmony of the universe? Must they create, each for himself, a universe of his own as unlike the real universe as possible? If so, how can they live without going mad? It is indeed a mystery—the mystery of disordered dreams and eternal night. Upon my soul! What gods can these men have?"

But the early Church fathers, who daily offered the Mass of the true God and true Man, were not unmindful of the dangers inherent in the genius of men to create life and beauty in stone and pigment. As the hidden blight of original sin could rot away the foundations of all human action, this God-given talent could pervert as well as bless —could curse and demoralize as well as fructify. Pagan Greece and Rome had gone down in a frightful holocaust of bestial greed and brutality, leaving behind their magnificent works of art, which now seemed no more than the glorification of human flesh.

The human body, thus abused and rendered an exuberant temple of pride and lust, became a shameful thing suggestive only of pagan debauchery. And thus the formal, highly stylized art of the early Church was born. Flesh and blood reality gave way to the gentle symbol of the spiritual concept.

Looking upon these early faded frescoes of stiff, strange, rather childlike faces and figures, formally grouped as if going through the motions of a dance, one is not surprised that the first heresy was a denial of Christ's human nature.

The reaction to the fleshly horror and bestiality of pagan Rome could have obscured the full meaning of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, had it not been for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, the mind of man would have soon destroyed Christianity by gazing at those pale, abstract figures of our Crucified Lord and asking, "Can God suffer torment of the flesh and die?"

Possibly the Church fathers of the budding Renaissance were aware of this when they began to look with favor upon artists who could render flesh and blood on plaster, and sculptors who could exceed Phidias in the carving of the human figure. For Church art has always played a vital role in religious education — and more important than the artist's conception was the message it transmitted to the unlettered faithful.

Indeed, only the contemplative, the zealous monk, and the devout priest could know without an image that God had become Man and died most humanly upon the cross to save all men from the bondage of sin. Noble and serf had to be reminded again and again of the priceless gift which Christ had given him. And as weird and stubborn heresies constantly led thousands astray, the importance of the liturgical artist could not be overestimated.

Much is made of the idea that the artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were enslaved in the service of the Church. But the Venus of Botticelli and the Venetian lovelies of Titian testify to the uninhibited lust for "life" in the brush of the Renaissance artist. And some of the Madonnas of Raphael, Murillo, and Correggio, looking like shallow, plump, pretty village belles tell a sad story of the artists' fall from grace. They set out to tell the human side of the Gospel story and they often ended in reducing the humanity of the Holy Family to the ordinary level of just any family.

The consequent weakening of faith is easy to understand. Christ's family was a human family—but it certainly cannot be regarded as just any family—not any more than a family, which prays the rosary every night could be regarded on a par with a family which gets drunk every night.

To tell the story truthfully the family of God Incarnate must be portrayed with a certain dignity—a certain sensitivity—and above all, with reverence. The artist who dashes off a mother, father, and child of ordinary flesh and earthly appetite and calls it his own down-to-earth conception of the Holy Family is making free with material for which he possesses no personal copyright. Indeed, he is infringing upon a copyright, which belongs to Christ alone—the story of His life copyrighted in His own blood.

Genre painting was obviously the next step—more honest at least than religious painting without reverence. Those clear-toned Dutch interiors with a quality of sifted sunlight falling benignly on homely domestic scenes—men and women with characterful faces, children playing, young lovers wooing, old folks snoozing—it was all delightful, true to life, and beautifully rendered by masters of form, color and content. All the skill and talent, which had been devoted to enriching the religious life of man was now devoted to enriching his natural life.

It was no longer of prime importance to bring Christ to the masses —pictorially—it was more important to bring humanity to them. The emphasis had shifted in the artist's life from the study of salvation to the study of existence. And more's the pity that these two vital studies should have been completely disconnected in men's minds— as if the discovery of existence had rendered salvation obsolete.

El Greco is often presented as the forerunner of the "modern" artist, because he elongated his figures. From this, one is persuaded that the distortions of Modigliani and Picasso and Matisse naturally follow. Undoubtedly no modern artist of Picasso caliber would fancy himself as an extension of El Greco —the "modern" ego is too painfully sensitive to be submitted to such mental torture. We can more readily imagine him thumping his chest and screaming, "I am an extension of me "

El Greco elongated, it is true. But this writer was amazed when reminded that this was the technical secret by which the amazing Greek obtained his effects. I was not at all aware that he elongated. I simply thought his figures were beautiful, breathtaking, ethereal and mystical. I found his Christ somehow poignantly true, his Mary sometimes a little too chill and withdrawn, but for the most part far more satisfying than the plump, coy, most untruthful Madonnas of certain great masters. All in all, his paintings always evoked a feeling of reverence and thoughts of true piety—even in poor reproductions. It seemed to me that it would be easy to pray in the presence of an El Greco.

But the idea that El Greco—or even Van Gogh whom I admire— would win me over to the savage distortions and from the savage distortions to the manic depressive abstractions — that idea has never worked out, although it's supposed to. The advanced critics will tell you that El Greco—or Van Gogh— is the point of departure from the stuffy old academic past to the glorious, "anything goes" present— the beginning of your liberation from form and content in harmony with Creation to the arrangement of volumes in space—in harmony with the inner vision of the artist.

Alas, we of the lower classes, with whom the artist once generously communicated, can have no share in this new, inward gazing art of the elect. To say that there is nothing of value in modern art would be a ridiculous claim of blind prejudice. But to insist upon the acceptance of any distortion or abstraction which springs from the brow of a Picasso is also a ridiculous claim of blind prejudice. If the modern artist wishes to carry his "exclusiveness" to the point of resigning from the human race, there is no reason why he must take a large, doting "public" into this earthly limbo with him.

Now to resign from the human race you must first get yourself in such a state that you despise other human beings. And despising them, you naturally no longer wish to communicate with them. Therefore, you must say something, which no one can understand. Other human beings must learn that you can communicate only on a plane, which is unintelligible to them—and, of course, much superior to their lowly plane.

This feat may be accomplished with brush on canvas, with chisel on stone, and with an endless flow of words on paper. And of course this revolt against the demands of universal brotherhood is only symptomatic of a much higher revolt—a revolt against God and the order of the universe.

Only the Communists—the Devil's advocates—are wise to it. And they—with puritanical rigor— will cast out all chaotic and meaningless art — because Satan has taught them well to make use of the order and harmony of God's universe to defeat Him. And so the artist who is a rebel against the order of the universe finds to his ecstatic delight that he has succeeded in becoming a martyr of Communism and a symbol of freedom.

All who experience this revolt within themselves can communicate with each other, provided that they find some common language of revolt in the arts. But often the rebels are as pathetically alone as those abstractionists who have committed suicide in protest over the darkness of the universe.

The universe is, indeed, dark with the blackness of human sin in wars, murders, rapes, diplomatic deceits, and gigantic social frauds against the life, health, and property of the meek and lowly. But Kaethe Kollwitz could portray hungry children and gaunt, desperate mothers in bold lithographs, which cried out against the cold charity of the defrauders. This was her message forged in a pure flame of love, compassion, and righteous anger. Contrast this work with the mincing abstractions of Klee who fashioned his own universe within the real universe and found it too cold and lonely to sustain life.

The real universe is full of human suffering, and perhaps it is only to be expected when the more talented human beings employ their God-given talents to escape reality and all that it implies—responsibility for sins and identity with frail, faulty, humanity. The human ego will vaunt itself by whatever means it can. The child will gibber nonsense for attention, the ordinary man will beat up his neighbor to prove superior strength, and the extraordinary artist will paint a picture which communicates confusion to ordered minds.

It is a pity when these pyrotechnics of talented egos invade the realm of liturgical art. That is not to assert that it is a sin if Christ is not always portrayed as Hoffman portrayed Him. Dali, too, can portray Him with reverence. It is possible to be as broad as the Church and have no quarrel with any artist's conception, which does not outrage the truth, even if one often finds a conception, which does not please one personally or fails to evoke pious reflections.

However, the zeal with which some modern artists attack the liturgical seems to be a little less holy than egotistical. They are so consciously concerned with the arrangement of mass in space or patterns on canvas. They seem to make us want to sit up and take notice by portraying Christ as He has never been portrayed before. Prayer and meditation seem to be conspicuously absent in their conceptions.

Much scorn has been spent on the saccharine horrors of nineteenth century art, and much of it is, perhaps, richly deserved. But to condemn all the quaint sincerity and the childlike purity of Victorian expression would be narrow-minded, indeed. One little Saint of that derided era dipped her brush in paint and created an artlessly sweet little portrait of her beloved sister. She also dipped her pen in ink and wrote in an extravagantly flowery language of her own of the way to the Heart of the Infant Jesus. Her name was Therese.

If we but had the taste to see all beauty as God ordered it—and the taste to find it all sweet and stimulating and good—how well nourished we would be!

Poor, tortured Vincent Van Gogh dipped his brush in the spectrum and wielded it madly over canvas— now in wild sweeps and now in intense little dabs. Academicians were horrified—but most Van Gogh canvases remain today experiences of life and light and color beyond the scope of any artist. He saw life as it was—only not in the precise, mathematical formula of length, breadth and volume—but pulsating with color and rhythm. Life may have dismayed him in the end—undoubtedly because of ill health— but while he painted, he lived—not withdrawn into some unintelligible world of his own—but in the real, God-created universe of which he sang in fervent paint-poetry.

Today the purpose of art is constantly being re-defined, altering as nervously as a compass needle in a magnetic area. True north seems lost forever as giants like Picasso and Matisse change their lives as often as a woman changes her hat. Because the goal, which this type of artist seeks, is within himself: it is apt to be replaced overnight with another quite different goal. Thus arises the need of preparing the public mind for anything that might issue from the brow of genius —be it a recognizable dish of prunes, an assortment of eyes, noses and women's breasts, or a thing of lines, dots, dashes and colors which the cerebral nerve centers created without any help from the outside world.

There are so many definitions of the true purpose of art, that one is safe to make one's own. Today, perhaps, the Picasso would say that art has no purpose beyond the expression of the inner self of the artist — that even the refuse and garbage of his mind is worthy of canvas and stone and hours of toil. Yesterday more people agreed that art was a God-given talent intended to enrich all human experience— an articulation of a sane and healthy love of life. And once upon a time the noblest purpose of art was to bring the life and Person of our Redeemer to the people.

Once again this may be so. But so far not enough artists seem willing to give themselves up to find themselves. In his feverish passion to be different—to make his own mark in the world—the artist is losing a precious chance to achieve true individuality—the individuality of Fra Angelico and El Greco. For individuality is not achieved by devising tricks, which no one else has ever thought of. It is achieved only by prayer, humility and submission. It is a gift from God—not a personal attribute. And if God is not allowed to take care of the garden, the talents will never grow and bear their own glorious, individual fruits. They will only become stunted and diseased and sterile—and all bear a nauseating resemblance to one another.

The strange thing about the work of the liberated rebels is — you really can't tell them apart.

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