Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Corruption of Art Education in the Modern Era

The Church has always seen the need for art as part of the communication and sustenance of the Faith. The Seventh Ecumenical Council which closed in 787AD did not simply permit the use of images, rather it mandated the veneration of images of Christ, Our Lady, and the Saints as an essential aspect of devotional prayer and worship, where appropriate, of the prototypes that the images depict.

Every Catholic church therefore must have images that inspire in the faithful right worship and devotion. Such images will not only have the right content - what they portray - but also must portray that content in the right way - how it is portrayed. The style of the art is just as important as the content, in that it enables the artist who understands what he is doing to convey both visible and invisible realities through his painting.

The visible realities are conveyed by conformity to natural appearances. Put simply, we know that we are looking at a painting of Jesus because it looks like what we all believe Jesus to have looked like, as handed on to us through tradition. 

In a past post entitled The Fallacy that Christian Art Generally Portrays Christ as a Northern European Man, I discuss this last point in more detail.

The invisible realities are conveyed by partial abstractions - slight deviations from natural appearances that are introduced by the artist in such a way that we perceive truths about that person that appearances alone could not convey. For example, a man has an invisible and immortal soul. It is the ways in which the artist deviates from a strict naturalism that a skilled artist can communicate to the viewer that this person is alive and possess a soul, and is not simply a model that is identical to a man in every visible detail.

The precise way the artist deviates from strict naturalism gives him or her a distinctive and recognizable artistic style. We recognize a Fra Angelico, not by his adherence to natural appearances, but by the way he consistently deviates from them. Further, we recognize Fra Angelico as a great Christian artist because tradition has judged his stylistic vocabulary to comprise a partial abstraction that abstracts, i.e. “draws out”, and hence reveals, even greater truths than mere naturalistic appearances alone could portray. This is why, for example, the modern style of photorealism or the 19th-century realism of artists such as Bouguereau are not considered authentically Christian. They are too naturalistic.

Similarly, this partial abstraction can be done well or badly. Consider, for example, the work of Picasso. His works were a deliberate distortion of naturalistic appearances, originally inspired by traditional west African artistic styles. He wished to portray man as the innocent noble savage, uncorrupted (as he saw it) by a society of Christian values. This Romantic anthropology, which originated with Rousseau in the 18th century, manifests itself in Picasso as both a false (and not to mention highly patronizing) view of west African society and culture, and of Christian society and culture.

Given what Picasso was setting out to do, we should be highly suspicious of any attempt to portray Christian subjects in his style, or those that are consistently wrong in their anthropology. A painting of the Crucifixion in, say, a 20th-century expressionistic style will very likely have within it an inbuilt contradiction. The content might speak of Christ, but style speaks directly against it by design. To admit such works into our churches is to risk undermining the Faith. Picasso himself painted a Crucifixion which is so distorted that it is just about unrecognizable, and one should not be surprised that an avowed atheist should be so disrespectful of the subject. However, we see also what is to my eye a grave distortion of the 16th-century Isenheim altarpiece - or at the very least a significant departure from the Christian tradition - in the expressionistic style of the crucifixion painted in 1946 by the British artist Graham Sutherland. Sutherland was a convert to Catholicism, and so was presumably sincere in trying to portray the Christian message. This ignorance goes all the way to the top - a version of Sutherland’s Crucifixion is held in the Vatican Museum.

The reason that such works of art do make it, and so often in the recent period, into our churches, is that so few artists or those who commission their work, even committed Catholics, understand Christian traditions of art and, most especially how both style and content can work either for against the Gospel. There are some who hate the Faith and seek deliberately to use art to undermine the Church. However, they would not get very far if everyone else understood the traditional ways in which Christian traditions in art balanced naturalism and idealism so as to convey the mysteries of the Faith.

There is a need, therefore, for the re-establishment of the principles of a traditional Christian approach to the formation of taste and artistic skill. The essential elements of such a formation are as follows:

First, the observation of natural appearances, and the study, with explanation leading to understanding, of past works of great Masters. For those who wish to learn to draw and paint, this would involve copying nature and past Masters from a canon of works. The choice of Old Masters copied by artists in their training dictates the natural style of the artist. So while there is always a distinctive individual component as well, those who want to paint icons should copy lots of icons, and those who want to paint in the Baroque style should copy many examples of 17th-century Baroque art.

Second is the study of the mathematics of beauty. This is the traditional mathematical system of visual harmony and proportion that informed art and architecture prior to the 20th century. It comes from the study of musical harmony, the beauty of the cosmos, and the numerical patterns and symmetries that exist within the isolated world of mathematics itself. The figures most commonly given credit for Christianizing this field of study are St Augustine and Boethius.

And third is a general Christian inculturation and spiritual formation. This would involve not only the study of the Faith and Christian culture, but, for the greatest effect, a living of the Christian life according to this pattern. It would not have been so necessary to teach this in the classroom in the past. Artist would have been immersed in a Christian culture in which the very pattern of Christian living impressed itself onto the hearts of the faithful. Even those who rejected the Faith could not but help but reflect unconsciously aspects of a Christian culture in what they did. Today we are not so fortunate, and are at a point where even Catholic artists require such a formation.

Someone who went through such training would immediately understand why this 12th-century crucifixion, the San Damiano Crucifixion in Assisi, looks as it does. Every aspect of this style is carefully worked out to portray someone suffering as man, but immune to suffering as God.

The San Damiano Crucifixion; this version is painted by the author.
If we look at mainstream art schools at our modern universities, I cannot name one that offers such training. In fact, most have abandoned every single element described above. Even where the skills of drawing and painting are taught at all, it is rare that they be taught at the level that one would have expected 200 years ago. Most do not even acknowledge beauty as a property of being, and so most faculty at such schools would not even be aware that mathematics of beauty exists.

Finally, most not only do not offer a Christian inculturation, but also enforce an anti-Christian inculturation. This will be either a modern twist on the Romantic worldview that emphasizes any subjectivity and emotion, provided that it does not coincide with a Christian worldview, which is generally forbidden, or more commonly nowadays, an explicitly anti-Christian, anti-Western formation in which the neo-Marxist theories of Critical Race Theory dominates. Art departments, next perhaps to the English literature departments in our modern universities, are the most aggressive in pushing this propaganda and excluding people who dissent from their orthodoxy.

One thing is certain: I would not willingly send any children to any of our modern universities to study art. They will almost certainly be expelled for failing to conform or emerge as radical revolutionary Marxists.

This article first appeared in Angelus Magazine.

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