Growing up in the midst of a traditional American childhood of cartoons, cereal boxes and kid-friendly illustrations in school readers, I also knew crucifixes, statues of saints, a portrait of Mary in the living room. which I have subconsciously associated with my own mother and the bright spots. glass figures in my high school church. I grew up immersed in Catholic art.
For years, however, virtually the only sacred art I have experienced has been traditional. This art helped light up my mind; I still love him. But as an artist myself, I usually work in a modernist way. Some might see this as a rejection of the traditional. It is in fact the opposite.
Part of the church’s greatness is its long enjoyment and encouragement of the arts. It reflects a fundamental belief in the essential goodness of creation. Nonetheless, throughout its history, some members of the clergy have sought to restrict the full expressiveness that artists naturally need. Bernard de Clairvaux, for example, castigated Father Suger for, above all, Gothic architecture. And Catholic prelates invented the use of fig leaves instead of statuary genitalia. More recently, superb artist-priests like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Merton were forced to put an end to their creative work by superiors who saw their art as a selfish threat to spiritual engagement.
The church’s enjoyment in the arts reflects a fundamental belief in the essential goodness of creation.
But innovations in spiritual art are often new manifestations of the transcendent. Even as an immature high school student, I found spirituality, for example, in rock’n’roll. It opened and opened for me, as I leaned over my little white plastic record player listening to Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (Pete Seeger’s redesign of Ecclesiastes), “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall “by Bob Dylan (which struck me as a dark but ultimately positive twist on the prodigal son), and many more. My parents didn’t like these records at all. I breathed them in.
My experience of art is affirmed by, of all things, the Third Council of Constantinople in 681 CE:
Because all the more frequently they [sacred things] are
seen in the artistic representation, by so much more easily are
men raised to the memory of their prototypes, and to a
want them …
Now there is an ancient language resonating in my contemporary heart.
My embrace of modernism has nothing to do with novelty, and it is as theological as it is artistic.
It was from this reverberation, in fact, that I looked for non-traditional forms of expression. My embrace of modernism has nothing to do with novelty or a simple “keeping up with the times”. And it is as theological as it is artistic. An artist always pursues what can deeply seize the spectators. But he or she also understands that the best art merges form and content. Spiritual thought is at the heart of what I create. I discovered, for example, that even while doodling in a meeting, I am continually drawn – almost unconsciously – to the figure of a sun beaming intensely in all directions.
If it’s not a spiritual image, I don’t know what it is.
A theological principle imposes me particularly. The traditional attributes of God include his infinite being. The implications of an Infinite God are that He is both personal and impersonal, static and kinetic, male and female, unchanging and ever-changing – and fundamentally mysterious. Who are we to say the opposite, to restrict the nature of a transcendent being? For me, crucial things follow.
God is both personal and impersonal, static and kinetic, male and female, unchanging and ever-changing.
Modernism was born mainly because artists continually seek ways to create compelling works. They are always looking for new forms to carry their images and ideas. But it is even more difficult in sacred art. I’m looking for the spiritually powerful image, and for that I have to be very open, travel to many different countries, so to speak. What could be more natural than to renew faith by expanding traditional forms, by reimagining spiritual impulses? God is white light, existence a prism. We should rejoice at the sacred variety of colors thus lavished on the world.
My painting “Center”, for example, bears no explicit identification as religious art. It’s by design. Think of the Zen koans; you plan to “clap with one hand” in order to be shaken out of complacency. We can become complacent in our conception of the divine (we are only human after all), but it is also deeply human to desire the release of this indulgence for the rekindling of our faith.
In much of my work, I try to do just that, to rekindle the faith and to free ourselves from our usual ways of seeing God. I’ve been doing this since I first learned a bit of theology as an undergraduate student at Creighton University, including from a Jesuit who introduced us to JB Phillips’ school. Your god is too small and the “foundation of being” God in Bishop John AT Robinson’s book Honest before god. When I later went through an intense spiritual crisis, these books, I realized, had laid the foundation for resolving that crisis. What was old has been refurbished, and I was able to live on it.
We can become complacent in our conception of the divine.
Doesn’t everyone perceive, consciously or not, some warm, radiant, benthic, infinite center of all things? I think of Kong Qiu, better known under the name of Confucius: “At the top of being, all see and know the principle of the One. If I can somehow evoke this center with a force of freshness and mystery, which neither expresses itself nor asks for specific theological reactions, then I am satisfied. Of course, my image is quite insufficient. But if this causes discomfort, a sudden imbalance, if the viewer is content previews a dark and incandescent essence, then he or she can be placed on the spiritual path, or moved further along it. I consider that to be a hell of a result.
Some people are endlessly nourished by traditional art and do not need artistic expansion. Good for them. But even traditionalists often feel their hearts beat faster during a new presentation. And after all, even the most traditional forms were new at one time. Imagine what it was like in 1144 CE to contemplate the newly completed Suger’s Church in Saint-Denis, to revel in the slender qualities of Gothic design, to bask in the heartwarming colors of those windows. Everything that was “modernist” at the time, as the 12th century sacred artists also sought out what was fresh and compelling, wherever they found it.
For all its apparent strangeness, modernist sacred art generally does something quite traditional: it leads us to the contemplation of the Divine, and therefore to the center of our own being.