Unstuck Art

December 12th, 2004

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Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix immersed in his own urine, thrust Serranos into the culture wars of the 1990s.  During that period, Serranos touched on social and religious themes, using bodily fluids such as milk, menstrual blood and semen.   Many art critics praised his works as expressing “concern about the Church’s position on many contemporary issues” or simply exercising his “freedom of expression.”

Still, many people of faith — and especially Catholics — are offended and argue that some of Serrano’s pieces take inappropriate liberties, or license, with what is properly considered to be art.  At this point, the conversation is stuck.  Religious folks mean well, but argue against some artwork by lazily falling back on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  On the other side of the cultural divide, art critics are no more inspiring when their justification for all art is to “make a statement” requiring that artists enjoy unfettered “freedom of expression.”  If the world of art is “stuck,” that raises some questions.  Here’s the first one: so what?

You could argue that if some art is junk, you don’t have to look at it.  We live in a TiVo world.  What’s the fuss?  As a person of faith, I suggest art matters because it helps us imagine the difference between good and evil.  I’m not being original here.  C. S. Lewis, for example, believed that reason and imagination have distinct roles: reason has to do with theoretical, conceptual, or analytical truths; imagination has to do with the very conditions of truth.  In other words, imagination makes truth reason-able and attractive.  Good art helps us imagine what is good and true.  And if art shapes the imagination for truth; that leads to the second question: who cares?

Well, pardon me, but I think all of us should care about truth and beauty.  Art — in the best sense — ought to tell the truth about the human condition.  It should elevate the conversation beyond being about “freedom of speech.”  Many years ago, Water Lippmann noted that, “If there is a dividing line between liberty and license, it is where freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth and becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance, and to incite the passions, of the people.  Then freedom is such a hullabaloo of sophistry, propaganda, special pleading, lobbying, and salesmanship that it is difficult to remember why freedom of speech is worth the pain and trouble of defending it.”  I think freedom of speech is worth defending, so who’s discussing art this way?

To be fair, most artists believe they are seeking the truth.  Andres Serrano has said, “I have always felt that my work is religious, not sacrilegious.”  He sees himself as carrying on a tradition of religious art.  That’s not readily apparent to me, but I’m not an art critic.  I’m a teacher who helps people imagine all of life through a four-chapter story.  The four chapters are Creation (telling us how life ought to be), the Fall (lamenting how life really is), Redemption (describing how life can be), and the Restoration (hinting how life will be).  I help people understand life, including art, through these four chapters.  So if everyone believes they are seeking the truth, how can we sort out good art from bad?

I’m also a collector of stories, and received this email about a Chinese art professor who is discussing art through this four-chapter story.  It happened a few months back in Shanghai at a highly-regarded art exhibition that draws thousands from around the world.  One exhibit was nothing more than a blank canvas.  But since it represented “freedom of expression,” the piece elicited the usual oohs and ahs from the art critics.  But when the art professor was asked to comment on this piece, she responded that it wasn’t what art ought to be.  The email goes on to say: “The critic was astounded by the thoughtful response and — essentially — agreed.  He went on to ask if he might learn more about this view of art; and has since become a believer.”

You need to appreciate that Shanghai, a city of 20 million people, has fewer than 20 art critics.  You should also know that my art professor friend has been asked to join a review board for the arts.  She was able to get the conversation about the arts “unstuck.”  That’s what we need today.  From the testimony of friends to findings from opinion surveys, it is clear that people of faith often cannot imagine how to communicate their faith in natural settings all around them — such as in business, education, medicine — or at an art exhibit.  They are stuck — and so is the conversation.  The four-chapter story can grease the wheels of your next conversation.

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