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Horror and holiness: God, the arts, and the 20th century.

Christianity has been wrestling with the "arts question" for some time. It is already difficult to decide how to integrate artistic expressions into church life, but it is especially hard for Christians to decide how they will deal with secular art at all. There are issues of nudity, violence, questionable moral content, and so on and so forth.

Before we start judging which works of art (be it painting, dance, song or cinema) are acceptable or appropriate, let us prioritize two things: First, an understanding of the context in which religion and art find themselves (be it bound or unbound) in the 20th century. Second, let us try to articulate a theological approach that will allow us to dialogue with those works that may offend us, rather than dismiss them.

There are two marking phenomena in this era as far as the church and the arts are concerned. First, a general death of the church's patronage of the arts. Second, a series of human tragedies and atrocities (such as the Holocaust), which inevitably scarred the contemporary art world since 1945, and its artists' understanding of all things bright and beautiful. As a result, poet and painter have been freed up to approach God in any way they choose, regardless of how the church feels about it. The Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon exemplifies this.


Upon Bacon's death in 1992, his paintings were selling for millions, rendering him one of the world's most celebrated artists. One New York Times critic wrote, "If paintings could speak, Bacon's would shriek." The harshness of his critique of humanity is surpassed only by the grotesque nature of his images. Open bleeding flesh, exposed bones and carcasses fill the canvas. The violence in his art is palpable.

His negative view of humankind was not unfounded. He was abused by his father, a lifelong alcoholic, and he survived two world wars. Gary Tinerow, curator of the New York Metropolitan's 2009 show of the artist's life work, said this in an interview: "Here is the problem. He was constantly rubbing our face in our own mess, the mess that men and women are capable of doing to one another. He is constantly reminding us of our own bestiality."

What is even more interesting (and touchy!) is that Bacon had recurring themes of Christian religious art in his work. He loved working with the image of the crucifixion, but not for its Christocentric significance. He was fascinated with the cross because it symbolized the horror of how one human being could treat another, and by the irony that others would gather around to watch this horror.

His Crucifixion from 1965 is a good example of this. The crucified figure is comprised of two decrepit bones and a sagging rib cage hanging on the universal symbol of Christendom. The ghostly white shape on black background exudes stark death and hollowness. It is, by all definitions, a dark piece, with not much sign of redemption or hope, let alone resurrection. It is apparently untouched by any hint of theological principle or by 2,000 years of tradition. His are works that rely solely on his own personal view of Christ's death.


The difficulty of Bacon's work is that it plays with themes and an imagery that have always belonged to Christianity and yet his treatment of them is seemingly the opposite of what Christianity stands for. Tinterow commented: "His message is clear. We are meat." There is not much redemption in this! But let us come back to the guiding reflection: the 20th century's artists, in general, do not need to adhere to the authority of ecclesiastic patronage, and many of them, especially Bacon, have lived through the failures of humanity in the forms of wars, famines and cruelty. Does this mean we should ignore them? Absolutely not! We simply need to figure out how to dialogue theologically with those works that offend us.

Here are some thoughts to open up that dialogue. First, understanding the arts begins with an appreciation of them. Bacon's may not be the paintings you'll hang in your living room. But if more people came to grasp how fine the technique, colours and lines are in his works, we would be less hasty to wave them away. We would probably be more inclined to respectfully reflect upon them.

Second, there are works of art whose content is so blatantly immoral or amoral that they deserve no further consideration. But there are other works whose messages do deserve our careful reflection, even though they are not being preached from a pulpit or executed by people of our own faith. For instance, Bacon's approach to the crucifixion is a reminder of the violence and cruelty that humans are capable of. What do we, the church, have to say about that? And while we may not agree with Bacon's final conclusion on the meaning of the crucifixion--that it is simply a symbol of human death, torture and apathy--we would do well to be reminded (even though Bacon does the reminding quite bluntly!) that Christ did die a physical, painful, humiliating death. This too is a theological principle of our faith. I may not agree with Bacon's holy-less Christ, but his human, material, wretched approach to the crucifixion is nonetheless striking.

Finally, we need to articulate a theology of imagery. God the Creator is the ultimate user of visuals. Our world is full of colour, line, texture and detail. Imagery is a very powerful tool--it can inspire, disturb, excite and strike. It deserves a bigger place in our theological and ecclesiastic lives. How can we begin to integrate them into sermon, speech, text or studies? This theology of iconography should defend the importance of images.

Artists help us face the darker aspects of our own world. This too is part of God's creation--a part we may not seek to explore. But if reactions turn from offense or fear to dialogue and reflection, we may just open the door to a world of beauty and originality.

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Jenna Smith is getting her master's of theology in interdisciplinary studies at Universite de Montreal.
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Title Annotation:Theology 101
Author:Smith, Jenna
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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