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Thoughts on Art (by a Christian art lover)

In Art, Catholicism, Christendom, Christianity, Conservative, Criticism, Culture, Culture War, Debate, God, Jesus, News, Opinion, Philosophy, Religion, Theology, Thoughts, Values on July 6, 2008 at 03:04

A bargain Rembrandt? The very idea is priceless! According to a fascinating report a while back, a painting of a man laughing with his head titled back, which was priced at only $3,100 and sold for only $4.5 million, was actually an early self-portrait by the Dutch master Rembrandt. Says A Student of History, “[b]efore the recent investigation, others assumed it to be by one of Rembrandt’s students or a Rembrandt imitator”, but subsequent study by, among others, the Rembrandt Research Project revealed its true origins and its market value: about $30-40 million.

For more, the story on the painting is reproduced at La Fleur De Lys Too. The story of its rediscovery was discussed in some detail by culture journalist Lee Rosenbaum, who also provides useful links to several analyses thereof. On the place of Rembrandt in history, one may read “Art Through the Ages“, a brief but quite comprehensive survey of European art.

My quite ranting comment: Good for the buyer! for he is a very fortunate man indeed. However, I think the valuation of $30-40 million is unjust, because a Rembrandt, like all great objets d’art, is priceless. I suppose we have to price it for the market, but markets treat everything as interchangeable via currency, whereas, as E.F. Schumacher pointed out in Small is Beautiful, some things defy all fungibility. We cannot make a complete list, but one need only cite St. Peter’s and Angkor, El Greco and Tagore, Dante‘s Commedia and Verdi’s Dies Irae–we have to stop somewhere–to realize that some things express (and dare I say, contain) a fragment of a higher realm that is simply beyond material exchange.

Admittedly (and given some reservation about periodizations, which can be asymptotically but never totally correct), I have a bit of bias for the Baroque,–for the sculpture of Bernini, the music of Bach, the paintings of Rubens (especially his haunting “Raising of the Cross”)–which bears a majesty I like more than the serene (or rigid) Renaissance or the flowery (or frivolous) Rococo.  In Latin Baroque the majesty is tempestuous, dramatic, a dynamic ascent on the wings of grace, deep answering to Deep. It sings of the ultimate mysterium tremendum et fascinans, God ever great, ever worthy of awe, in Whose Divine light even ordinary things are bathed in that quiet majesty revered by the Northern Baroque.  It is therefore little wonder that to this day, the Baroque retains its influence in church architecture, and that it was virtually de rigeur in Latin Christian iconography until the 1960’s.

How much was lost in the centuries after, when art began to fabricate the new where once it worshiped the timeless! True, we see no diminution of form, but we do discern a descent of spirit. As the fruitful marriage of Western art and Christianity demonstrates beyond all doubt, religious awe has ever been the soul of art, even so diminished a religion as wonderment at the human person, that masterpiece of God. But in an age that thrives on post-structuralism, can we be surprised at the vapid sculptures that litter office buildings, at the actual blasphemies funded by the NEA?

Art today is conflicted between its nature and its ideology, and is thence looking for the very meaning its logophobia rejects; so, needless to say, I share Otto Rank’s pessimism for modern art, having seen its decline and fall. But maybe that’s too negative an assessment. Even errors are but alterations of truth, and art, even dehumanized art, will retain a memory of what it is: both mimesis and creation–and one cannot know where mimesis ends and creation begins. Hence, as with many problems confronting culture today, what we need is humility; for if art is to remarry beauty, it must stop being a revolt and become again a reverence, at the very least for the beauty that lies in being as being.

Mark you, I’m not promoting some Talibanic monism, like the  Evangelical penchant for making every song explicitly religious. I admire their devotion, but it is misplaced; for the fundamental dichotomy is not between sacred  and secular but between sacred and profane; and any work of art, whether the subject matter be religious or not, would be sacred if it stays true to the nature of the subject and its station in the great scale of being.  Thus Picasso’s Guernica is not religious in intent, but by showing humanity’s God-wrought dignity through the stark relief of its violation, the work becomes sacred in nature.

Otherwise stated, all things, even “secular” things, are good and beautiful by the very fact that they are–even the teen romance, even the business deal–and to the extent that they truly are; and since beauty and being is the song of God, then to praise the song (as in art through imitation, that compliment of compliments) is to praise the Artist. And so as Christ, the Exemplar of all things beautiful, gathers up unto God all things human, even human art from the Mona Lisa to Casablanca, so I pray that He may save modern art and give it life anew. Art had died in Dada and Deconstruction; but I believe in the Resurrection.

May God, the Maker of all things visible and invisible, bless us all.

  1. I agree with you that for Art to re-marry Beauty, it must re-acquire a reverence for the deep mystery of existence itself. But I think that to relocate such reverence and sense of awe of the Universe in such a things as God and Religion is now an impossible thing and a fruitless nostalgia. The air has gone out of those balloons and the vast atmosphere into which it has escaped cannot be recompressed into such tiny vessels. What has replaced them are Science and Reason, which point to an even deeper end of the pool, to a greater limitlessness than Christianity or Islam or other organized religion. I am not at all pessimistic about Art as such. What is derided as modern art has been a century long exhalation of bad vapors, to be sure. But it leads to an opening of our eyes and ears and other senses to vistas beyond the Cathedral of superstition and human vanity. Modern man is tired of looking at himself in the mirror of religion and exclaiming “God!” — for it turns out we are the Great Artificer in disguise. Accepting that is a more genuine humility.

  2. To DJB Rizalist: Thanks for the comment. I must clarify though that my stand on artistic reform is Thomist and therefore twofold: in favor of the sacred (i.e., for reverence, and against denigration, of the intrinsic and God-wrought value of people and things); and against what I called a Talibanic monism of thinking that ONLY explicit religiosity is sacred.

    Re: the principle of artistic reform, I believe that we must return to the ancient reverence for both Faith and Reason as a means of finding the “true, good, and beautiful”, and not for either Faith or Reason exclusively.

    I must therefore disagree with your rationalist stance as leading not to the enrichment but the impoverishment of human life. Husserl rightly noted the limits of science as THE basis of meaning; and even natural science is founded on principles like non-contradiction and empirical perception that, in the final analysis, cannot be proven and must be assumed. As Newman put it: “to live you must assume, and that assumption is faith.”

    That said, I agree that science is A basis for meaning, only, it cannot be isolated from the immediate participation in being that in fact forms the basis of knowledge and life itself. That participation in what is never completely comprehended, what is ultimately noumenon, makes inevitable that awe that leads to faith, science, and art…

    God bless you.

    BTW, I agree: The Hubble images could well be the new Baroque–and if they are, they indeed worthy successors to all the splendors of Bernini.

  3. Thanks for indulging my little comment with a reply. My own tastes in art run more to the aural and musical than the visual, to poetry rather than painting. Here, I must say, there have been a lot more freethinkers and even atheists that have produced a lot of great art. Brahms and Beethoven come to mind, though an old favorite in Henry Wadworth Longfellow was steadfastly Christian, if not indeed Thomist. I might mention that there is clarinet playing marine biologist who likes playing symphonies with whales and thinks they may be imitating and syncopating his divertissements back to him. I mention him only because I do agree with you about science having to be in the realm of life and being, which we eagerly await confirmation is not limited to human intelligence.

  4. […] recorded first by nezoca on 2009-03-02→ Thoughts on Art (by a Christian art lover) […]

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