Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Art as incarnation today

That God is greater than any attempt to describe or represent Him is universally acknowledged in religion. Yet, this basic insight leads to different implications for visual art. In some cases (Islam, Judaism) it results in a prohibition of any representation of God and even of other living beings. E.g., the second of the Ten Commandments prescribes that “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (Exodus 20:4), adding in the following verse that “you shall not bow down before them or serve them.”

In fact, in Christianity too the use of “holy images” was prohibited by Emperor Leo III in 726 AD. Strong opposition followed immediately though and its source was deeply theological. St. John Damascene put his counterargument, which eventually prevailed, as follows:
“Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (cf. Baruch 3:38) I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation.” (Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images)
In other words, the root cause of the visual arts and material objects in general having the potential to contribute to one's spiritual growth and salvation is the incarnation itself - “God […] clothed in flesh.” Just like Jesus, God “who became matter for my sake” instead of appearing as pure spirit, who took advantage of matter to spread His message and be present in the world, we too can use matter even for the most spiritual of activities, following His example.

The key though is a heeding of the second commandment's admonition that we “shall not bow down before […] or serve” matter, which St. John Damascene too insisted on: “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter.” The difference between the Ten Commandments' warning and St. John's position is not about whether the worshiping of matter is wrong or not (they - and I - all agree that it is). It is about a much more subtle point, and one that again derives from Jesus' direct teaching. It is about looking beyond matter and about the capacity that matter has for pointing beyond itself. Remember Jesus himself saying: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) and note the significance of His reference to visual sensory perception. He didn't say “whoever has understood my words,” or “whoever has felt their spirit united with mine,” but “whoever has seen me.” He takes sensory experience and makes it project beyond itself.

Make no mistake though, this topic is not only of historical interest but of currency even today, as also demonstrated by a recent pair of articles:

The first was Rev. Giles Fraser's energetic defense of the theological basis of protests like those seen in front of St. Paul's in London some time ago and now in Gezi Park. There he underlines that “God is not some thing that can be wielded out and beaten into the shape of a national polity or political programme. Such a god is an idol.” Such “idolization” is “the deathly move whereby something living is turned into something dead, into a thing.” What Fraser is concerned about is precisely what St. John objected to and called the “worship of matter,” which is a mistaking of the signifier for the signified, rendering the signified inaccessible. Fraser looks at the question very broadly - from a perspective where art and political protest fall in the same category - and I couldn't agree more with his conclusions.

The second article by Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith sets itself up in opposition against Rev. Fraser, by stating that “great Catholic art does precisely the opposite of what [Rev. Fraser] fears. It makes clear to the viewer (or, better, participant) that God is always greater than the sum of our thoughts about Him. God is not made into a thing, rather, great art cracks open the things we create and lets in a shaft of divine light.” While I do agree with Fr. Lucie-Smith's positioning of art, I don't believe his reading of Rev. Fraser's position to be comprehensive in that an analogous reading of St. John Damascene's treatise would make even him come across as an iconoclast.

While Fr. Lucie-Smith has a lot to say about art that is close to my heart, including that it can “communicate something about the transcendent nature of God, without words,” I have another gripe with his article, which is that the most recent of the five examples of good, towards-God-pointing art he picks, is from the 16th century. It is as if human creativity and striving for closeness with God concluded or at least peaked in a distant past, which we have to keep looking back to and imitating. Not wanting to re-visit this topic again, let me point you to its previous coverage here, and instead pick five examples of contemporary art that I consider to be in this category:

Banksy s

Banksy (2003) “Love is in the air”

Damien Hirst  Valium s

Damien Hirst (2000) “Valium”

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Antony Gormley (2003-2008) “Feeling material”

Kusama s

Yayoi Kusama (2013) “Fireflies on the water”

Salgado Sebastião Salgado (2011) “They stand, and they withstand”