I write lots of religious art, mostly in the form of poetry. As anti-modernist as my sentiments have been expressed on this blog as, it would not surprise one to surmise that I hold contemporary religious art in very low regard. Recently, there was something called the “Martyrs” exhibition at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Firstly, the artists weren’t believers which is an issue because, while I generally would not have any problem with that, if they are making art for a church they should be believers because art’s purpose is to translate abstract truths into the tangible and if a particular artist does not believe in the truth of their subject matter then they can’t translate it.
That, however, is a minor point compared to the fact that the art possesses no metaphor or subtext. I am certain the artists and the clergy who put the art up would rationalize that it does have metaphor and subtext but it plainly has none. The piece is called martyrs and comprises of short videos on replay of actors portraying historical executions. The first red flag for it having no subtext is the fact that the art just seems to describe the title. They’re just people being martyred and that is the sum of it. What I really derive from the piece is they feel that if they say anything about how God relates to human life and the human condition or how God is relevant then God is not the deist God acceptable in contemporary society.
Once God provides actual guidance and becomes alive then lies the highway to fundamentalism and the worst episodes in the histories of theism or so they seem to fear. It was a British piece and their approach to secularism, which reflects the West’s general approach, is to sanitize into maximum reticence all religion. Court cases over in the UK have been waged over the fear of offense caused by a cross necklace. In such a setting, it is impossible to make an argument that a living God exists and the suggestion elicits irrational fears of theocracy and paleoconservative politics. Making a deep and meaningful statement about God would then be impossible. It must be castrrated to not offend the secular society petrified of impassioned and deeply held religious conviction.
Christian rock or any other contemproary Christian genre is, typically, little more than worship songs to Jesus. As if this religion has nothing deep to say. For a religion that is mostly metaphor of philosophy, the religious of it, now, suck very much at making metaphor. Which, really, feeds into the literalist interpretations of the Bible which atheists so often love to use as straw-man arguments. The story of Abraham and Isaac I have heard many an atheist arrogantly dismiss and decry as evidence of Yahweh’s insane sociopathy. Yet, if God represents morality, generally, and Isaac may serve as a stand-in for anything one holds dear. Then it is a fable about sacrifice for the greater good. That subtext is so close to the surface that one doesn’t need a scuba tank, a snorkle will suffice.
There also seems to be the sentiment that metaphor, real metaphor that speaks to philosophical truth and the human condition, is too vintage and too anachronstic and that such approaches to art are associated with less enlightened eras. For a few reasons. Any point made by those pieces of art would contradict the Rawlsian philosophy that most of the artistic community and left regards as ultimate. There is not much to say about the human condition and philosophical truth when one’s ultimate truth is the Rawlsian thin-good. Who is Robert Plant to moralize that it is wrong for a lady to think all that glitters is gold? Obviously, neither Robert Plant, Jerry Fawell, or the Hays Code has any place to judge another for anything which doesn’t affect the rights of another. That includes vanity, Robert!
One mode, and one I employ heavily, to make good subtext and metaphor is to be very romanticist and/or surrealist in one’s style. It is a vibe that rhymes with imperialist pomp and in an intimate context is easily considered creepy. Not in the safer-feeling Christian Grey type of creepy but in the old fashioned sonnet-type. Psychological realism is seen to be the most politically correct and safest feeling genre and it is the genre that almost all movies, songs, poems, and prose currently exist in. That includes religious art. Both for the reason in the above paragraph that expressing deep meaning would contradict Rawlsian morals and for the reason in the next paragraph that vintage aesthetics are associated with backward social views.
Whenever a wealthy person has vintage and old fashioned designs of period maximalism in their houses and other properties, the left eviscerates them more than if the aesthetics are like Scandanavian minimalism. It is not rational, Scandanavian minimalism is not more ethical than period maximalism, but the minimalism is emotionally less associated with outdated politics. Psychological realism and the lack of rhyme, meter, frill, and other poetic devices in art is irrationally juxtaposed to politics of misogyny, slavery, imperialism, and so forth. To put it one way, abstract art was contemporaneous with feminism and its artists were all against slavery. The same cannot be said for baroque or romantic art who claimed to their masters lots of slavery apologists and anti-suffragists.
It is much more difficult to weave meaning into hyperrealist art and there are far fewer meanings one can weave into a piece if that piece is limited by the constriants of proximite reality and facts when art is supposed to be about ultimate reality and truth. I don’t know if the people who run PureFlix could argue why they are Christians as opposed to Buddhists and I doubt their media would butress any argument in that direction because they don’t write poems with subtext expounding Christian cosmology and philosophy. Their aim is to provide wholeseome, Christian, entertainment as Middle-America understands that to be.
For all of the failings of contemporary religious art, vintage religious art also dearly lacks, as well. Not nearly as much. To use one of the most famous examples in art history, Michaelangelo’s “David” says absolutely nothing. The reputed artist took a character with a very rich bank of meaning to mine from and made him into a normal, handsome, naked guy who could be mistaken for any Caucasian male model with no symbolism whatsoever. For 16th century artistic masters, Hieronymus Bosch is the best. Few artists actually do a great job at expressing depth, even the famous ones.
The best meaning really required The Enlightenment and people south of the aristocracy having education and literacy and while Christianity and the classics are great, for the human condition to be fully examined by art it needed to have the experiences of that condition analyzed through the public discourse which required non-rich people to be literate and the feeling by the artistic class that those parts of the human condition are important enough to regard which required more universal ideas about rights and dignity. That is to say that non-rich people needed to be able to make more art and the literati had to be egalitarian enough to canonize their art and value the artistic subjects borne of their vernacular lives. Without those things, one does not, for example, watch Verdun and ask existential questions about the human species.
My style of relgious art and art, generally, is romantic surrealism. I use romantic and vintage poemy styles with subtext, metaphor, and meaning that is existential about humanity in the way of people disillusioned with their culture in the wake of The Great War. My views on religious art reflect my views on art, generally, since they both are meant to translate the abstract truths of humanity and philosophy into the tangible and I think the species of depth, metaphor, meaning, and subtext of the early to mid 20th century is the best. The Great War is a microcosm of humanity, the perfect microcosm in some ways. God watches upon his children as if the whole world were Verdun. To approach our perspectives on the human condition as one does looking back from 1919, I think one gets the best result and that is what we should do, as a general direction, with religion’s art.