Wednesday, October 27, 2004 +

Icons and Kitsch

Extracts from Edward T. Oakes, "Icons and Kitsch," First Things, March 2001.

Although our culture is now positively awash in images, this assaulting pictorial cataract from glossy magazines, slide shows, PowerPoint college lectures, air-brushed publicity photos, TV simulacra, and copyright rip-offs actually reflects a hatred for the true image, as Jacques Barzun noted in The Use and Abuse of Art (1975):

Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken in casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits for even a minute, it justifies itself and there's an end of it.... The Interesting has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, and the Moving. [But] if modern man's most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fair grounds, then the conception of Art as an all-important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways -- art as a sense-tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support. Nor is it the same art that revolutionists call for in aid of the Revolution.

Barzun's title deliberately alludes to Friedrich Nietzsche's essay "The Use and Abuse of History," and for good reason. For perhaps more than any other philosopher of modernity Nietzsche espouses the fiercest version of iconoclasm, an attack on the image that, for sheer ferocity, has its only philosophical counterpart in Plato. Now, no one has proved easier to gang up on than Plato when discussion moves to his intensely anti-poetical, anti-image aesthetics. But Nietzsche easily outdoes him here, especially in his polemical essay Human, All Too Human, where he roundly declares all art false to the core:

The Beyond in art.--With profound sorrow one admits to oneself that, in their highest flights, the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognize as false: artists are the glorifiers of the religious and philosophic errors of mankind, and they could not have been so without believing in the absolute truth of these errors. If belief in such truth declines in general, then that species of art can never flourish again which -- like the Divine Comedy, the paintings of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the Gothic cathedrals -- presupposes not only a cosmic but a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist's faith.

The hatred for art that now assumes the guise of so-called avant-garde art is rooted in that same iconoclastic polemic that animates every syllable of Plato and Nietzsche, not to mention a host of other art critics (in the literal sense of that word) from Origen, St. Augustine, and Blaise Pascal to those Russian commissars of art who ruled on matters of taste by diktat and ukase.

Besançon [Alain Besançon, whose book The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm Oakes is reviewing in this article] is eloquent and insightful in explaining the inner sources of Plato's hostility to the image:

[For Plato] the nature of the divine makes the image of the divine impossible. Art has an upper limit: it is confined to the earthly zone, where it performs a propaedeutic, educational, civic function. It prepares for its own dissolution. The lover of beauty relies on art in taking his first steps, then abandons it. In that sense, it is accurate to say that Plato is the father of iconoclasm.

The victory of the "iconodules" was the victory of incarnational theology over the Platonic template that Origen had imposed on Christian thought from the third century. For that reason, the Incarnation remained the most crucial argument of the iconodules centuries after Origen during the controversy in the reign of Leo the Isaurian. As early as the year 725, the patriarch Germanus asserted that to reject icons was also to reject the Incarnation. He absolutely refused to assimilate the image of Christ, who had delivered men from idolatry, to idols. Thus (and Germanus is quite open about this) the prohibition of graven images delivered on Mount Horeb became invalid from the moment that God manifested Himself in the flesh, sensible not only to hearing but to sight. God had "imprinted" Himself in the flesh of Jesus.

[Besançon] thinks that the Russian nationalists of the nineteenth century, among their other sins, killed the genre of icon-painting when they began to praise the icon's superiority over Western art. In one fascinating passage he discusses the visit by a Russian nationalist to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to see a Rubens painting. The man was disgusted by what he rather luridly described as Rubens' "ample quivering flesh that delights in itself, gorges itself on meat, and necessarily kills to gorge itself." Besançon replies in kind, identifying the cult of the icon with, of all things, an aversion toward the Incarnation:

The true and most irremediable trace of the iconoclastic spirit lies in the icon's incapacity also to depict the profane world. Even though this world, as Western art has abundantly proven, also tells of divine glory, it is absent from the almost exclusively religious art of Byzantium, the Balkans, and Russia prior to Peter the Great. An art that is wholly sacred, wholly made to be worshiped, forms a desert around itself. Of course, that is the limit of the icon, the fact that it cuts off from its sight the greater part of creation. Hidden iconoclasm -- combined with iconolatry when it cares to cast anathemas on Western art -- conceals a contempt for the world, which all the discourses on the Incarnation cannot completely dissimulate.... A neo-Platonic horror of the body and nationalist religious pride are in league together, constituting a practical iconoclasm theoretically capable of casting almost all images made by men onto the pyre: all profane images, whose claim to express divine grace is not taken into consideration [by Orthodox writers]; all religious images, because they do not bear the stamp of good theology.

The author is quite serious when he calls Eastern veneration of icons "iconolatry." In what must surely count as the most polemical passage in the entire book, Besançon even makes bold to claim that iconographers have substituted their art for true religion and even believe that their art comprehends God:

But there is a more serious reason behind that elimination of nonreligious art, or of noniconic religious art. It comes from the intimate feeling that the icon truly allows us to grasp the divine image, and that, as a result, nothing else is worth the trouble of being represented, [only] God, His glory, the transfigured world, the resurrected body, the Kingdom. After that complete vision, which fulfills every expectation and elicits every prayer, what is the point of falling back into the ordinary world, what reason is there to condescend to look at inferior sights? We are touching here on the hubris of the icon, which is part of the hubris of Byzantium.

In a way, the tale is even sadder in the West than in the revanchist East. Art never lies. Even bad art. The ubiquity of those biannual shows that so many museums in the West now mount testifies to the truth of Nietzsche's observation that the sense of transcendence has quite disappeared from the minds and hearts of the elites in the so-called First World. Even writers and artists who have never read a word of Nietzsche are carrying out the program he dubbed the Transvaluation of All Values, and his influence can be found in every corner of the culture. The witty repartee in the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, for example, depends entirely on the pleasure audiences get from seeing traditional values turned upside down, as in Shaw's remark, "Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you: you may not have the same tastes." This bon mot (which could just as easily have slipped from the lips of Wilde) testifies to a now taken-for-granted inversion of values that seizes on biblical reversals like "the last shall be first" and reverses them. The problem is that "it takes an omniscient God to bring justice out of these overturns," as Jacques Barzun notes:

To a godless age, the negative part of the inversion alone remains potent. The negative perpetuates itself as a habit of thought -- it becomes the highest form of self-consciousness -- and it destroys everything in the most direct way; not by physical means, but by corrosion at the seat of faith and action, the human mind. That is how, today, we come to find thinkers for whom dissent is a routine, sex is a rhetoric, and violence is love.

It is for that reason that I have said that art never lies. This truncated view of man now prevails almost universally throughout the artist's world. In his lectures on aesthetics at the University of Berlin, G. W. F. Hegel observed in the 1820s that "thought long ago stopped assigning to art the sensible representation of the divine." It surely can't be entirely coincidence that shortly after these lectures were published the Catholic Liturgical Movement began to experience its first stirrings in the Benedictine monastery at Maria Laach in Germany. No doubt the good monks of Maria Laach never intended such an outcome, but in effect they began a movement that inflicted on the Roman Catholic liturgy the same fetishizing attention that the Russian nationalists were contemporaneously bestowing on the icon. Roman Catholic worship had now become a thing, an object to be poked and studied to death. As everyone now knows, this movement eventually terminated in one more dreary episode of modernist iconoclasm. (Besançon's book ends with a treatment of Soviet art, but it could just as well have concluded with a treatment of the Liturgical Movement.) From being studied to death, the Liturgy soon came to take on the contours of T. S. Eliot's famous "patient etherized on a table," and appalled observers (and worshipers) had to witness after the Second Vatican Council the destruction of Catholic piety in the name of "renewal." Once the mandarins of liturgical renewal got done "interpreting" the documents of the Council, it was as if Leo the Isaurian had issued a new Byzantine ukase, ordering Montessori English for the Eucharistic Prayer and Madison Avenue Americanese for the Bible, demanding all the while that all vestiges of warmth and color be stripped from the churches.

The situation differs somewhat when attention turns to that "art" that is universally recognized (or at least should be so recognized) as kitsch. Such art seems to have begun its invasion of the churches from as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, when St. Bernadette of Soubirous expressed horror at the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that supposedly matched her descriptions of her visions of the "Lady." Nowhere is Nietzsche's observation about the death
of transcendent art more verified than in the phenomenon of religious kitsch. What strikes one about the ubiquity of such religious artifacts is how rarely the devout are offended by what they should regard as blatantly obvious assaults on their devotion. For some reason, retreat houses and pilgrimage shrines in the United States have turned themselves into veritable nesting holes for such cloying artifacts, a dreary reality that prompts one to wonder what would happen to the aesthetic sensibility of the Catholic faithful if the Church were ever to declare bad art a sin.

Yet even kitsch reveals. Perhaps it represents the resistance of all those hapless bourgeois citoyens who were so hated by the Romantic, Byronesque "misunderstood artists" of their day, holed up in their Paris ateliers and tubercular attics. As Barzun points out, some kind of resistance must be expected:

If we adopt Picasso's formula of art as a weapon to fight the enemy and the enemy turns out to be the public as a whole, the first question is how long the surgery --not to say butchery -- ought to last. If we need to be shaken and shattered, if we go to the artist in order to face again and again what an enthusiast of Ezra Pound called "his celestial sneer," then it is proper to inquire how the treatment is succeeding. The object presumably is to cure the beholder of his detestable complacency and materialism. (There is about this purpose a curious air of Victorian moralism, scarcely brought up to date.) Yet the cure is to offer him in visual or imaginative shape nothing but visions of deformity. He naturally identifies himself with the misshapen and the malcontented that (says Art) is the way he is. No doubt, but it ought not to cause surprise that the patient continues deformed and malcontent. Add the angry artist's will to humiliate as he teaches, and you perceive why the process has no end -- or rather, it ends in a higher complacency, the complacency of the hopeless.

Barzun's insight is the only one I can think of that adequately explains why the ubiquity of kitsch in religious art today is so complacently accepted by the laity in church without it ever seeming to arouse what would otherwise be their fully justified ire. And connoisseurs, who once were the "pickers and choosers" in the world of art, have become overwhelmed by the glut of "art" that the latest technology makes available everywhere. As Barzun sardonically notes, "The hotel elevator dribbles Vivaldi into our unstoppable ears, just after the cab radio has interlarded gobbets of the Ninth Symphony with the driver's loud comments on the weather."

The problem stems from the fact that, as Nietzsche saw, there is no going back. Very few people, I imagine, in their heart of hearts would consider the "art" at the various biannual shows in Paris, Venice, or New York that trumpet "the Shock of the New" to be greater works than what, for example, Praxiteles or Phidias bequeathed to humanity. But attempts to revive Greek art in the twentieth century either seem stodgy (the federalist style of WPA New Deal architecture in the 1930s) or, frankly, Fascist (Albert Speer's designs for Hitler's postwar Berlin); and this faintly Fascist aura clings as well to deliberate riffs on that style by photographers like Bruce Weber (who does the Calvin Klein underwear ads).

This situation leaves artists in a bind: either they hearken back to long-dead eras and create art that is, at best, derivative; or they capitulate to the offensiveness that seems now to have become the one and only hallmark of originality in the art world. (Tellingly, Besançon is nearly as critical of the modern art wing of the Vatican Museum as he is of the Paris Biennial.) Of course, Barzun is right: this dilemma cannot go on forever, any more than a starving man can eat his own body to assuage his hunger. But what is the alternative as long as the falcon cannot hear the falconer?