Thursday, April 03, 2008

An open NLM debate: Development in Catholic Architecture and Art

I was having an interesting discussion with a friend today on the topic of sacred architecture. It raised in my mind that it would be interesting to open up these issues to our readership. So with that, let me build up a framework:

Some tradition-friendly Catholic artists would propose that our tradition is one characterized by development, and therefore, to have "revivals", such as building gothic temples, or styling a church to look like one built in the Italian renaissance, is really outside of our tradition for we should instead be trying to develop our own particular style that is not divorced from the tradition, but which doesn't simply emulate it either.

Others would argue that there is room for this development provided it is soundly rooted in our tradition, but at the same time, there is nothing inherently problematic with having "revivals" of particular styles that have been a part of our Christian tradition, because, after all, we are a people of tradition. One might appeal to the Christian East for example who have tried to retain a sense of the permanent relevance of these traditional forms even for the modern day. One might even argue that at some level, being too concerned about development may betray a certain kind of "cult of progress" and one that may not give enough weight to the objective value and relevance of our tradition.

Circling around this is a consideration as well of how development has occurred.

Some might argue that artistic modernity is simply one more style that Catholicism must appropriate for its own purposes. One can think, for example, of the new Italian lectionary which incorporates semi-abstracted forms of modern art in the tradition of manuscript illumination -- note: one may not agree with the particularities of that example even if they agree with the principles of the argument; the matter of note here is about the principle -- NLM. Others might suggest there are modern styles that developed in the mid 20th century which borrowed from elements of the gothic, but which included the more sharp-edged angles and styles we are accustomed to seeing in modern architectural culture, and that this is a good example of continued development that takes both the tradition and modernity into account.

On the other side, one might argue that artistic modernity actually represents a kind of rupture in a way similar to the way we think of rupture in the liturgical reforms. That previously, sacred art built upon certain received principles that were consonant with each other. So for example, we can see a core relationship between the Greco-Roman classical world, the mediaeval world, the Renaissance, the Baroque and so on. This allowed for a more natural course of development. By contrast, the art and architecture of the post-industrial, machine age made one of its principles to break with what came before; it was a kind of rejection and rupture. Insofar as that is the case, these principles act contrary to Catholic principles and this explains the struggle of Catholic artists to try to successfully adapt this style to Catholic purposes, and should cause us to ask the question of whether it should even be attempted, or whether a kind of "ressourcement" is in needed in this area -- a going back to the tradition as it was developing prior to this.

I now would like to open the floor for your own principled arguments. Please note, what we are after are arguments and not simply opinions. It is easy (and less profitable) to form and state an opinion, but less easy (and more profitable) to formulate and defend a considered argument.

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