When is art art? When is it propaganda? When is it criminally offensive? Questions such as these exercise the minds of critics from time to time, and perhaps not often enough nowadays. As Christians we ask questions such as these every time an artist produces a work which directly, and usually intentionally, offends our sincerely held beliefs and people we hold dear. Given the nature of Western society today we tend to find ourselves asking those question more and more often. And now we have another opportunity to ask them as a Toronto gallery hosts an exhibition of works which include a painting of Pope Benedict which is riddled with bullet holes and is part of a section devoted to "evildoers". Also included in the exhibition is a work depicting American president Barack Obama as Christ on the cross. The works are by artist Peter Alexander Por. I'm not reproducing the images, but if you want to see them go here.
As expected the exhibition has received many complaints and the defenders of the works are giving the usual excuses which tend to be peddled out when an artist attacks Christianity, so no light there: I love art, and in the Fraternity we help artists as much as can afford, but sometimes the "artist-speak" used to defend works like Por's verges on the ridiculous and stupid, so we can safely discard those explanations.
So, the questions, when is art art, etc? Answering these questions is very difficult today because art has become so relativist in the 20th and 21st centuries. As the notion of beauty and truth waned as people began to make up truth and beauty for themselves, the standards set by the Classical philosophers and artists are no longer acceptable, but are considered bourgeois by many today (revealing the philosophical bunker they are in), so it is difficult to argue. Many today are offended by the idea of classical beauty and so cannot really accept that ordinary people who live in the "real world" could be touched by this beauty: it was too "exclusive". So art veered off in a particular direction. Art must be more democratic, ethnic, real, we are told, and so we celebrate these ideas with paintings like Por's.
As Christians we have a particular approach to art. We accept the classical ideal, but we also see the possibilities in the ordinary. As 20th century artists were trying to redefine beauty and truth (usually according to their own desires and agendas rather than looking to universals), another thinker was also looking at the question of art and beauty - theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. He situated art in the context of the great drama which exists in God, the Incarnation and redemption, and this I think gives us an new edge on what art is. Von Balthasar restored the idea of beauty and truth, not as that which can be manipulated according to personal tastes or ideological agenda or philosophy, but as universals centred in Christ himself. The movement of Christian art should be towards these universals, towards Christ. The Christian artist, then, can take the ordinary, reflect on it, reveal its significance and beauty, and what it is pointing to. In this light art can reveal man in all his dignity, and yes, sinfulness, but also as one redeemed. Creation, expressed through landscapes for example, can be seen in a different way, as a character itself in a great plan which is unfolding.
Interestingly, Richard Moore, the artist who painted the new image of St Genesius, tends to paint landscapes, and attuned to the natural world around him, when you look at one of his paintings you see that he sees there is a life behind it, a meaning to the world, a beauty which is given. He is a man of faith, and his faith informs his work.
So now, back to Por's work, and the works of those like him. If we apply the principles of von Balthasar we see Por's work falls short, as does that of many artists today. That may or may not be their fault - they have grown up in cultural environment which has rebelled against artistic principles. Art colleges no longer teach traditional, realist or figurative art - one of the reasons I believe they do not do so is because they do not want to promote real talent, real artistic genius is rare and it rises above the ordinary, so better not allow this talent to be revealed, less talented artists will be hurt, undermined, indeed the hacks will be exposed.
Knowing some very talented artists who could actually draw and paint, I saw they had an awful time in art school because they were penalised for revealing their ability in works of beauty and intelligence: they had to produce the mediocre trash like everyone else to get their degrees. Culture has to be renewed, standards do have to be restored and yes that means that not everyone can be an artist, not everyone has has that genius, only the few and they are the ones who have been chosen by God to work with him in the creative. We all have abilities and talents, but they are different, so we should not feel left out if we cannot reap the praise a good artist gains through their work. And that is part of the problem, in the age of equality, everyone must be the same, "all must have prizes" as Melanie Phillips puts us. And so to implement that equality we dismantle the true and the beautiful and worship the banal because then we are all the same - we are all in the same bunker. And in that bunker we endure the formless shapes and splattered canvases that we are told are art, or seek depth in a trash can balanced on a tossed bed with the artist slumbering within, or swoon in adoration at the instillation of naked people, slithering in muck and screaming their heads off in a recorded audio-visual experience. Isn't it all just too much? All this and heaven too!! Forgive me if I am laughing my head off! That too may be art.
As for Por, judge his work by comparison. Take out the Pope, replace him with a Jewish or Muslim leader, or even with Obama or a feminist icon? Now, is it art?