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Monday, May 15, 2006

Creative Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation

Icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, ca. 1410
Perpetua has already commented on the Crisis, Catharsis & Contemplation exhibition being staged at St Patrick's Cathedral and having viewed it myself, I thought it was time to add my voice to those who were 'scandalised by this sacrilege'.

I will not dwell on the appropriateness of using the cathedral as a gallery and installing profane works inside a sacred space. It is sufficient to say as the temple of God and seat of the bishop it has a specific function for the community of believers for which its administrators will be held accountable at another time.

Therefore let me turn my attention to the works themselves which include the prophetic (a crumbling redgum altar), profane (defaced pages from Genesis), pathetic (mocking of an individual who happens to be schizophrenic), puzzling (several feathers inside a neon lit chamber entitled The Visitation), pantheistic (the presence and worship of God in nature as seen through film stills) and political (twisted wire figures representing the struggle in the Holy Land).

Cardinal Newman in his Idea of A University wrote the fine arts are "high ministers of the beautiful and the noble ... special attendants and handmaids of Religion; but ... are apt to forget their place, and, unless restrained with a firm hand, instead of being servants, will aim at becoming principals." A few lines later he explains the consequence of unrestrained art, "Put out of sight the severe teaching of Catholicism ... as men now would put it aside in their philosophical studies, and in no long time you would have the hierarchy of the Church, the Anchorite and Virgin-martyr, the Confessor and the Doctor, the Angelic Hosts, the Mother of God, the Crucifix, the Eternal Trinity, supplanted by a sort of pagan mythology in the guise of sacred names, by a creation indeed of high genius, of intense, and dazzling, and soul-absorbing beauty, in which, however, there was nothing which subserved the cause of Religion, nothing on the other hand which did not directly or indirectly minister to corrupt nature and the powers of darkness." Now it is aptness to forget their place, use of pagan mythology in the guise of sacred names and ministering to the corrupt nature and powers of darkness which I charge against these exhibits in the cathedral.
The works are meant to engage the gothic architecture and art of the cathedral but instead enrage those who have a true sense of decency, devotion and discernment. The works are meant to react to liturgy, scripture and history but detracts from them everything which is good, holy and true. The works are meant to reflect the Christian story but deflect what is most unique to it by introducing elements which are foreign. The works are meant to express the tension between the past and the present but repress the tension between the supernatural and natural, all too often reducing the former to the latter. The works are meant to show beauty attuned to modern culture but throw light on how that culture no longer knows what it means because it is divorced from harmony, perfection and radiance. The works are meant to transform the space but deform its nature and purpose.
Perhaps as a conclusion I should let Pope Pius XII speak from his encyclical Mediator Dei, which although referring to liturgical art could be applied to this exhibition in a liturgical space: "Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided ... the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist ... Nevertheless, in keeping with duty of Our office, We cannot help deploring and condemning those works of art, recently introduced by some, which seem to be a distortion and perversion of true art and which at times openly shock Christian taste, modesty and devotion, and shamefully offend the true religious sense. These must be entirely excluded and banished from our churches, like anything else that is not in keeping with the sanctity of the place."
Edit: Jude has posted the following at his blog - I thought that it would be helpful to archive the comments in one place (here) for future reference. Wonderful work, Jude. The feathers make me think about sacrificial hens. -P.

For the last two weeks the Archdiocese of Melbourne has been hosting an exhibition of contemporary art, Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation, inside St. Patrick's Cathedral. Now what must be stressed is the exhibition is of contemporary art and is inside the cathedral, not in a gallery or museum.The exhibits themselves include:

A film of a monstrance morphing into the Divine Mercy image, the television being located inside the baptistery.

A fibreglass boat representing the arrival of the first Catholics, located adjacent to where deceased archbishops are commemorated.

A floodlit confessional representing the light of Christ from His tomb.

Pages from the book of Genesis used as a canvas to write the word HOPE.

A suit with large crucifix inspired by an eccentric Melbourne figure who "wears a crucifix around his neck but carries a heavier cross in his mind."

Stills on a television depicting the four elements.

A series of distorted images projected onto a sheet directly behind the high altar.

Several white feathers illuminated by a neon light.

Inside a cage shattered wine glasses containing a stone, fir tree planted in red ochre and feather representing the persons of the Holy Trinity.

A film on places of worship in Japan.

A three panel icon depicting abstract figures reminiscent of animist masks.
A television set on St Brigid's altar.

Veils with silhouettes, one of Christ Crucified, hanging near the sanctuary.

A redgum altar which has been partially hollowed out.

While I am sure the works were exhibited with the best of intentions, unfortunately their presence in a sacred place is clear evidence that the road to hell is paved with such intentions, so let me describe them and the impression they give to the observer. (Here I draw on verbal and written comments on the exhibit.)

The morphing monstrance in the baptistery and lit confessional have a Catholic focus, so there were no complaints except they prevented the use of those rooms.

The pages from Genesis is perhaps a comment on the hope springing from God's decision not abandon humanity but out of his love, to seek to redeem and restore it. Yet by using pages from the bible as a canvas it gives credibility to claims that Catholics are ignorant of and do not honour the Word of God.

The 'eccentric' figure referred to is actually a gentleman with an active interest in the Christian faith, where he finds people who share his interests and treat him with the dignity he deserves. Though he may have a terrible cross to bear, it does not need to be born aloft for passersby to stare at and no doubt mock.

The stills of the four elements has a label referring to the presence and worship of God in nature, which could easily be interpreted as saying the Catholic Church advocates some form of pantheism.

The stills projected behind the high altar can only be described as ghastly and ghostly, while the illuminated feathers entitled 'The Visitation' has no bearing on the mystery and only conjure images of poultry having been plucked for voodoo rituals.

The shattered wine glasses, which the artist refers to as chalices, are a tribute to the painter Rublev and his icon of the Holy Trinity, yet they are also meant to be a return to primitive worship in the forest, which again has pantheistic overtones.

The film on Japanese worship might be what the curator referred to as a "thoughtful interruption in the [sacred] space". It may also be intended to appeal to Japanese tourists who visit the Cathedral.

The icon panel is completely abstract and to the observer looks more like pagan gods in headress with their mouths wide open and bellies empty, waiting to consume the viewer. There is no Christian element whatsoever and this 'icon' fails to provide a window into that world populated by angelic spirits and saintly men.

The television set on the altar is a comment on how worship of Christ in the Mass has been superseded by worship of celebrities on the television. Now there is some truth to this statement but surely it can be depicted without desecrating a consecrated altar which though not in use remains sacred because it contains the relics of the saints.

Perhaps the only pieces which might be considered of having any bearing on the Catholic Church are the fibreglass boat and the redgum altar because they possess prophetic qualities. The boat represents the first Catholic priests and bishops who endured hardship first in coming to the country, then in establishing the Church. However in its indoor setting it is more like St. Peter's barque having been grounded on the shores of modernity, driven off course by the 'Spirit of Vatican II'.

The redgum altar, partially hollowed out with the broken fragments scattered on the ground, has been placed in a side chapel. In its broken condition, it represents the sacrilege perpetrated in many churches since Vatican II, and in its position relative to the old side altar which is still intact, it represents a contrast between the modern and traditional liturgies.

From these comments it appears that most of the exhibits were a waste of [sacred] space and this leads to an important question: How can the Archbishop allow St Patrick's to be so used? (Or should that be abused?) I will not presume to pass judgment upon he whom God has appointed to be my shepherd and who stands in greater favour with Him than I ever could. Instead I will refer readers to St Paul's words to the Thessalonians, "Omnia autem probate quod bonum est tenete, ab omni specie mala abstinete vos" and to paragraph 195 of Pope Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei, in which the subject of modern art in a liturgical context is addressed. I think that if His Grace was aware of these lines he would not have consented to the exhibition being staged in the Cathedral.

I shall end with a brief reflection on the exhibition's title, Crisis, Catharisis & Contemplation. Looking back it has proven there really is a crisis both in contemporary art and the Church. It is a crisis brought about by a catharsis of the supernatural, traditional, transcendent and virtuous. It can only be solved by contemplating and returning to the eternal truths made known to us through scripture and tradition.

As Jeremias said, "Confusus est omnis artifex, quoniam falsum est quod conflavit et non est spiritus in eis. Vana sunt et opus risu dignum in tempore visitationis suae peribunt."

Comments [2]

Blogger Perpétua:

Tip of the mantilla to you, Jude. Just wonderful. God bless you. Fonse would be so pleased.

Mon May 15, 11:09:00 PM GMT  
Blogger geoff:

just a little suggestion, could you consider citing the chapter-and-verse for your biblical citations? It's a bit of a best having to google in the text to find out what on earth you're refering to. My Latin ain't that good yet..

Thu May 18, 11:57:00 AM GMT  

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