Friday, July 22, 2011

Some Thoughts About Art Criticism That Might Encourage Constructive Dialogue

It seems to be an aspect of human nature that criticism flows more easily than praise, and this is never more apparent in the comments at the bottom of blogs! However, some subjects particularly seem to attract the ire of readers and whenever I feature art that draws on the iconographic prototype but deviates from Russian or Greek variants, I always hold my breath. I know it will attract a hail of criticism from people who worry that it does not conform to what they believe to be the standard for all sacred art. Criticism and differing opinions are not bad things in themselves. After all, we are trying to re-establish a culture of beauty in the West and beauty by its very nature it is difficult to pin down precisely. One should expect differing reactions and ideas of what is good. So please, let’s have them. However, I would like to make some points about the nature and tone of some of the criticisms made.

First, a request: if you are stating opinions, please do so in the spirit that concedes that others may have other perfectly valid opinions. Like email, blog comments seem to be a forum in which it is difficult not to express things abruptly and so appear rude. It’s not always easy I know, to make sure that what we write has a gentle manner. I would ask us all to try. Aside from discouraging the more timid to respond, for fear of getting more of the same thrown back at them, my concern here is for any contemporary artists whose work I am portraying. Artists must expect criticism of their work, but they should not have to put up with rudeness. Sometimes in embarrassment, I have felt compelled to contact the artists to them for tone of the comments.

If you can explain why you think as you do, that would be helpful, especially if you don’t like something. If you do not, then what you are giving us is just a subjective opinion. I am not suggesting that we always have to justify our opinions. After all, we’re not always sure ourselves why like or don’t like something. But if they are opinions, let’s make it clear that this is all they are rather than presenting them as indisputable truths.

For example, one work of art was dismissed brusquely ‘pseudo-Byzantine fluff’. Without explanation this amounts to little more than the equivalent of blowing a raspberry at the artist (albeit elegantly articulated). The writer could have stated in addition: how the art in question deviated from the iconographic prototype (which I am assuming is what he was referring to by using the word Byzantine); why he felt that it was wrong to deviate from the iconographic prototype at all (this is not a given); and also, what does he mean by fluff – if he is saying that it is superficial and lacking in meaning? If so what is lacking? Is it possible to characterize why? Otherwise, 'I don't like his work' says it far more accurately; and less rudely.

There are recurring themes in the comments left in the combox which seem to indicate assumptions about what Catholic art should be that I feel are not correct. I make the following points in respect of these:

The iconographic prototype: I am referring here to the art of eschatological man, the form that portrays mankind redeemed and in the heavenly state. The icon is not the only legitimate form of liturgical art and there is no basis for saying that as a form it is superior to any other tradition of liturgical art. And Catholics are not bound by the iconographic form. Therefore, it is simply not a valid criticism in itself to say only that it deviates from the iconographic prototype. If you are going to say this, say how and say why this is problematic. Furthermore, the analysis of the stylistic features of the tradition and the theological explanations for them as we most commonly hear about today didn’t happen until people started to re-establish the form in the Eastern Church in the 20th century. This analysis is still developing. For example, I was taught certain painting methods used in Italy were never used in icons because they contravened the theology that I was told was the foundation of the Eastern method. Subsequently X-ray analysis has demonstrated that this 'Western' method was used in early Eastern icons and might well be the older method of the two. This caused a revision of the statement of allowable methods, and the theology amongst the people who originally taught me.

Catholics especially should be aware that this modern analysis of iconographic form, though largely very helpful and important, is a work in progress and can sometimes reflect the narrow focus of the predominantly Orthodox who developed it. I have spoken to many people emerge from icon painting classes with the mistaken impression that anything that differs from the form they studied (most commonly Russian and or Greek) is not an icon and not true liturgical art. This is a prejudiced view that doesn’t take into account that there are many other forms, including Western forms, that are consistent with the iconographic prototype; and that the Western artistic tradition is richer, in the sense that it includes the icon but has in addition other authentic liturgical forms that not iconographic.

Archeologism: the comments of some seem to stem from an assumption that culture existed in a perfect form at some point in the past and that the work of man over time has caused it to degenerate. The main concern for those who believe this, therefore, is a strict conformity to the past glorious (sometimes arbitrarily assigned) age. Working from tradition, in contrast, is more nuanced. It respects the past and does not seek change without good reason, but always seeks to understand why something was done in a particular way. It accepts that sometimes we must develop and reapply the core principles in response to contemporary challenges or if there is a need to communicate something new. Sometimes this development will be so great that a new tradition is established. The gothic is an example of this. It developed out of the Romanesque, which is an iconographic form, and became a distinct tradition in its own right that presented a different aspect of man.

Dealing with imperfection: even if something is partially wrong or in error or even just disliked, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from it. Christian art has always drawn from non-Christian art forms. It has been able to do so in the past because it does have some objective criteria which it can apply in order to discern what is good and what is bad. So for example, you see the first Christian art it developed from the late classical form. Some of the styles and subject matter remained unchanged, some were rejected (for example the nude), and then some features were added that were uniquely Christian. Readers will know that I am very interested in the re-establishment geometric patterned art tradition. Islamic art is likely to be one place that we look to in order to invigorate the Christian tradition today.

As a general principle, given that we are in a process of re-establishing a culture of beauty, I would generally advocate a conservative approach to what goes in our churches at the moment. However, in the context of this forum, I am always interest to look at work by Christian artists that draws on these traditions even if it steps outside the bounds of what would be ideal for the liturgy. Flexibility and adaptability underpinned by good discernment is the source of richness and vigour in Christian culture. To come back to the gothic again. At some point an artist will have added shadow to the painting and although this had not been seen before, some who saw it will have had the confidence to say that although this is new and does not conform to the existing tradition, it is good nevertheless. No doubt along the way there were innovations and experiments that were rejected as a whole, but nonetheless contributed something to what eventually became an acceptable variant.

To this illustrate this piece I have given some that probably fall into the last category. A reader recently brought the work of the Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov to my attention. He worked in the period around the turn of the last century and died in 1926 and his work is typical of much Russian sacred art of this period. This is a late 19th century naturalistic/iconographic hybrid and is neither baroque nor the style of Russian iconography (it makes me think of an Eastern version of the Pre Raphaelites with its highly coloured, hard-edged forms). I probably wouldn't commission such a work today but I would be a lot happier walking into a church adorned with his art, as shown below, than the vast majority built since the war. There is enough here, I would suggest, for us to benefit from looking at it. When these hybrid styles always look better when painted in fresco, rather than oil, I always feel. Fresco is a medium which tends to look flatter and less sensuous than oil and so naturally diminishes some of the excesses of a naturalistic style.

The Church of the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

A portrait by Vasnetsov which, shows the baroque balance in its variation of colour and focus and which differs from his religious art style. I like this very much.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: