I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
Enjoy the last days before Lent. If you intend to watch the Academy Awards on Sunday, you may be interested to know the backstory of one of the nominated documentaries, Cavedigger. A few months ago, I read about the documentary’s subject, Ra Paulette the cave sculptor, in “How a modern caveman could win an Academy Award.” It is worth your time to visit just to see the incredible work that the man does. From the article:
The caves are not enormous; mostly, their square footage would be comparable to rooms or perhaps small houses. His ambitions for them are outsize, though, as he describes in a new documentary shortlisted for an Academy Award, “CaveDigger,” directed by Jeffrey Karoff:
“These caves are designed as transcendent spaces. The fact that the cave is underground and you feel the earth around you yet the sun is pouring in: Those are the juxtapositions of the two metaphors of our life, the inside, the within, and the without. it’s a perceptual trick that brings out deep, expansive emotionality.”
And when he says “transcendent,” he isn’t just being flowery. “I want to subject mercilessly a person to the aesthetic in a way that stimulates a deep emotionality to the point where it becomes a transformative tool. That’s a big goal, but I’m ready for it.”
He doesn’t do it for glory, and he certainly doesn’t do it for money: When he’s been paid at all for his work, he’s generally earned perhaps $15 or $20 an hour.
“I don’t put any energy into being a success in the world,” he says. “My strategy is to wait for something from heaven to come along and lay it on me.”
He has taken a few commissions, not all of which have gone well.
“Ra’s not your typical person, which is what I like about him,” says his close friend, ex-girlfriend and onetime patron, Liz Riedel. “He doesn’t do things for himself, he does things for art. He does things for other people”—meaning the viewer of his art, not necessarily the person paying for it.
Riedel and her husband, Shel Neymark, commissioned a piece from him that was supposed to take two months and cost $2,000. They knew what they were getting into, though: They privately doubled his estimate, figuring that Paulette being Paulette, he’d take four months and $4,000.
It took two years—during which Riedel learned that she had cancer. She underwent grueling treatments. The couple asked Paulette many times to stop, and even believed once or twice that they’d convinced him. Still he refused to leave the project.
“When he has a shovel in his hand, he’s like a coke addict with piles of coke. He just loves to keep going and going,” Neymark said.
They admit, though: The work he produced for them was transcendent.
Paulette’s story reminds me of one of my first lessons in college, though I did not learn it at the time. In a freshman American political philosophy course, the professor (one of many Straussians in my formation) explained the liberal commercial republican ideal of bourgeois self reliance and then asked about the people who do not fit well into such a regime—like artists. I considered myself a libertarian at the time, and I reckoned that such a man would just live in poverty if not starve. I didn’t give it much more thought than a Social Darwinian sigh and a nonchalant tant pis pour lui. If our hypothetical man wanted to flourish, he would have to play the game like everyone else. Over time, though, I came to realize that a society impoverishes itself by not furnishing niches for human diversity in disposition and talent. Of course, the breadth that a regime can allow depends on its strength; a civilization under constant threat of martial annihilation necessarily focuses on making its people soldiers rather than artists. Yet, it is the less for it. Sparta is a fact to behold, but its excellence came at great costs. Regimes—and their lawgivers—must weigh such benefits and costs in trying to maximize the excellence of their people. A nation of shopkeepers has its value, but it offers a very narrow path for human fulfillment.
I recently learnt of the Beuronese School, which was a nineteenth century attempt to reorient, literally and figuratively, Western liturgical art. You may read of it at the New Liturgical Movement. The linked article has some lovely photographs, as well. The style is what results, I suppose, when one expresses piety with Belle Époque aesthetic sensibilities.
What a century!
I have a theory, probably garnered somewhere now unknown to me, that human societies experience creative explosions in moments of civilizational crisis wherein cultures or ages collide. There are many counterexamples, but the high points of human civilization seem to occur at such moments. Take fifth and fourth century ancient Greece, the Hellenistic period throughout the Near East, the chaos at the end of the Roman Republic, the transition to Christianity in the empire, the first centuries of Mohammedan expansion, the High Middle Ages, the swan song of the Eastern Empire, the Renaissance, or the consequent ages up until the world wars. I do not know if one may see a similar pattern in South and East Asia, though such seems true of Mughal India. The 1800’s—that tumultuous century of revolution and reaction—gave the world remarkable literature, music, architecture, urban planning, and painting. Please forgive an indulgence in Hegelianism, but it seems that the nineteenth century resulted from a somewhat hostile dialectic between tradition and modernity that nevertheless created an extraordinary age. Perhaps, though, we should not be surprised that the coming together of opposites begets life.
I recently discovered Beautiful-Libraries.com, which showcases, unsurprisingly, beautiful libraries in various categories. I recommend a visit. The site also reminds me why I love the internet. Why not create a compilation of the world’s loveliest libraries?
Yesterday, I mentioned the Orthodox Church of the Third Caprican Fleet in “Cypriot Mothership.” Today, in the spirit of ecumenical misery, I offer you the Roman Catholic parish of Saint Francis de Sales in Muskegon, Michigan. You may take a virtual tour on the parochial web site to get a closer look at this Massassi Temple. See, I suspect that the church is where George Lucas filmed the award ceremony on Yavin 4 at the end of A New Hope. I report; you decide:
Saint Francis de Sales:
I shall say this for the design—it is bold and unrelenting. It pleases one’s inner fascist rather well. Next up, we shall discuss whether the Air Force Academy Chapel belongs in Colorado Springs or in Coruscant . . .
If Roman Catholics find Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles difficult to appreciate, I wish to let them know that they are not alone. The Church of Saints Barnabas and Makarios in Cyprus is our Orthodox space age equivalent.
It was built, to no one’s surprise, in the 1970’s. You may see more pictures of Patriarch Kirill’s visit to the Cypriot temple on the Moscow Patriarchate’s site.
At least, this building conserves traditional iconography, and one cannot argue that the design does not manifest the naval aspect of Christian architecture rather spectacularly. Still, I prefer traditional domed structures—and I hate a chaired laity! Even the Greeks in the old lands are succumbing to those hateful restraints! Toss out those chairs! Burn those pews! Let children crawl in the Lord’s house with abandon!
Have a good civil new year over the weekend!
At times, I delight in human beings. I just discovered the Ozark Medieval Fortress project in Arkansas, and I have another reason to visit the Natural State. The story starts with Frenchman Michel Guyot’s decision to purchase and renovate Saint-Fargeau Castle in Burgundy. He financed the rebuilding by turning the castle into a tourist destination. Guyot has assisted in helping others save derilict castles, as well. His experience in restoring castles gave him the idea of building a new castle with the technology and materials available to the castle builders of past ages. Such a project would help students of medieval architecture better understand the objects of their discipline. It is the history department’s meeting the faculties of natural philosophy, where one reproduces an experiment in the laboratory. Guyot’s lab is Guédelon, also in Burgundy. The new castle’s construction began in A.D. 1997, and Guyot’s team expects the building to take twenty-five years.
A French couple who moved to Arkansas two decades ago, Jean-Marc and Solange Mirat, decided that they wanted Guyot to establish an architectural-historical-touristy fiefdom in the Ozarks. The project started two years ago, and now one may visit, volunteer at, or become an intern for the Ozark Medieval Fortress in Lead Hill, Arkansas.
Less historically careful but still fascinating is Loveland Castle, not far from Cincinnati. I have visited “Chateau Laroche” since I was a child, and I still marvel at its wonderful weirdness. I often lament civilizational decline and the ruin of the West, and I think that my pessimism is well founded. However, remnants will always remain. A segment of mankind will always be too beautifully odd and indifferent to the masses to go along with whatever dominant development in social evolution. Whether it is a monastery in Wyoming during a new dark age or Christian settlements in Appalachia that thrive while former American cities decay in a Mad Max style apocalyptic wasteland, civilization will survive. Like seeds of mighty trees destroyed by a holocaust, pockets of the West will experience rebirth after the ruin. I still lament the impending fall, but I suppose that there is always room for justified hope. On such a note, I wish you well on every good endeavor in the new year.
Der Spiegel has several photo galleries of the destruction of German cities during the Second World War and of the consequent architectural decisions taken after the war. The pictures reveal horrendous devastation. I must repeatedly ask myself what lunacy must have prompted Europeans to engage in such fratricide—and suicide—in the first half of the twentieth century. To consider the amount of human, social, and civilizational destruction that occurred in the last century, with two world wars, totalitarian dystopia, and the alienation of Europeans from their past is profoundly disturbing. So much was lost, and what was gained? Wisdom? The West is full of fools finding themselves wise in their decadence.
The photographs of German cities before and after the war manifest in images what I think of the recent evolution of the West. Consider:
“Germany Comes to Terms with its Ugliest Buildings”
with its photo gallery: “When Architecture Goes Wrong”
“A New Look at Germany’s Postwar Reconstruction”
with its photo gallery: “A Century-Long Project”
Other related photo galleries:
“Architecture Out of the Gray”
“Emerging from the Ruins”
“An Endless Sea of Concrete Apartment Blocks”
“Problematic Postwar Architecture”
“Women in the Rubble”
Do we see an end to the madness—to the modern dark age?