Good taste, bad taste, no taste: Liturgical Art and Architecture in a time of cultural exhaustion.

Detail. ‘Restored’ face of Saint George. Ca. 1500. Church of Saint Michael, Estella, Spain.

Recently in another Spanish cultural management debacle a 500 year old polychrome statue of St. George fell victim to the ‘restoration’ of a well-intentioned parishioner who teaches crafts at the local school. This new case quickly called to mind ‘the worst restoration in history’ six years ago in the north-eastern Spanish city of Borja. There a woman attempted to restore a fresco of the scourged Christ. Her efforts quickly went viral and the defaced image became known as the ‘Ecce Hommo Monkey Christ’. Professional art restorers then had to be called in to erase the intervention and consolidate the original image.

Opening gala of “Heavenly Bodies,” New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Party goers appropriate catholic ritual objects and symbols as “fashion”.

As much as one may wish these anecdotal cases where simply that, there are too many such incidents involving both existing objects but also new, to not accept the fact that the majority of art and architectural projects, though well-intentioned, are tackled by the non-specialist, to put it mildly. As the mayor of Navonne stated it when commenting upon the statue of St. George, “This is an expert job. It should have been done by experts”. The problem is not simply a lack of technical skills, it is also the lack of wholesale understanding of art-culture, both past and present, and either bad taste, meaning ‘I think that what is off-putting is actually attractive’, or the lack of taste, meaning, ‘I do not actually know what is artistically astute’. This is the case for both art and architecture alike.  

The Sistine Chapel Choir with a mitred Rihanna.

The point has been brought home recently in a different way with the Vatican participation in the current New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion exhibit. Here, technical fashion prowess appeared in glaring bad taste. While the Vatican tried to separate the opening galla from its participation in the actual exhibit, the presence of the Sistine Chapel choir at the opening, with singers posing with the likes of the mitred Rihanna, proved the PR sleight of hand.

Here is the underlying problem. In an age of cultural exhaustion in which metanarratives have been overturned in favor of the hyper-contextualized and subjective, there is no primary basis for agreed artistic judgement. Indeed, many social critics and philosophers of aesthetics proclaim art itself to be at its ‘end’. If art is everything, it is nothing, and my art is just as valid as yours. Art and architecture become a matter of taste – my most recent projection of my own thinking and creative self-assertion. The famous British art-historian Michael Baxandall traced this evolution of art decades ago.

Michael Baxandall. 1933-2008. British Art Historian and professor of Art History at the University of California, Berkeley.

He suggested that when culture began to see art, not as the application of Platonic-Aristotelian eternal principles, but as a question of beauty, the focus naturally shifted towards asking what it was that defined beauty. Hence began the ‘history of taste’, in which various epochs and cultures defined beauty differently. The shifting social conceptions of beauty gave rise to various institutions that sought to discern what was good taste and bad taste and enforce it upon wider cultures. Thus the Medici’s artists shaped principles of taste, and the Académie of the Borbone Louis’s set down national dictates of good taste. Eventually the question of taste usurped the question of art and became even more free-wheeling under philosophies of subjectivity and then relativism.  Today, taste-shaping institutions like the Académie no longer exist in the West. Rather, the primary taste-shaping force is capitalism and its insatiable need to create consumers to perpetuate its monetary harvest. The point is forcefully made in the movie The Devil Wears Prada when Andy begins to laugh at Miranda’s discourse on Cerulean blue. In a excoriating response Miranda unpacks the manner in which the fashion industry controls Andy’s desires, choices, and purchases. This dynamic of consumer creation is brought out in Joel Stillerman’s recent book The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach (2015), in which he argues that with the collapse of Tradition, marketing fulfills the individual’s search for meaning and identity through consumption. In order to promote consumption the market industry strives for the “aestheticization of everyday life” by which taste is dictated to the masses to drive consumption. Yet within a world of reflexive consumption (Reflexive Modernization, 1994) no one actually gains “taste” in the artistic sense, one is simply trained to automatically respond to and fetishize the new. In this process taste is no longer truly about aesthetics, but serves as a base stimuli to create a felt-need for the novel. Our visual worlds are therefore driven by the agendas of Target, Tescos, or Zara with us as mere participating spectators; I may ‘like’ something I have been served up on the shelf in the context of other shopping choices, but this is not the exercise of the capacity of a sensitive, critical, and practiced form of artistic judgement. The result is that the shopping masses have little innate artistic sense.

Detail. Altar frontal. Surrey, UK. Quilted and hand-appliqued, all sense of design and technical skill are lacking.

It seems to me that in general terms, this is one of the primary factors in the crisis of Christian religious art and architecture today – what we might call the dominant trend of amateurism, the masses of the well-intentioned but unformed and uninformed who then commission art and cause churches to be built or renovated. Some years ago I made a similar argument to Kevin Seasoltz who rather disagreed with my assertion that in the realm of liturgical art and architecture specialists were preferable – that those with good taste, rather than bad taste or no taste, should be promoted. Of course in saying this, I am reverting to an older sense of taste as an informed sense of artistic value.  Indeed we are facing what the writer Michael Harris (The End of Absence, 2014) terms the “crisis of critique” in which opinion and social media override the knowledge of the singular critic. Rather than listen to specialists, we “have mob-opinion and crowdsourced culture” (88-89). The liturgical reform of the 19th and 20th century certainly wasn’t on-board with such a situation. Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey planted images with the pages of L’Art Sacré as a means to stimulating the best of religious tastes. Their intention was that the reader would study the pictures even more than the articles (Françoise Caussé, La revue “L’art sacré”, 2010).  In the same vein, Sacrosanctum Concilium went so far as to insist that seminarians study art history. Implied was the assertion of specialism over inclusivity of opinion.  

Saint John the Baptist Church, Gildehaus, Missouri, USA. The segmented and harsh coloration overrides all architectural and liturgical sensibility.

Cultural and social trends have shifted such during the past half-century that the situation seems all the more complex today. Especially in the United States with the evisceration of art programmes, first in state education and now in universities, basic ‘art appreciation’ is on life support. The majority of Americans never visit institutions of art and music. In Europe, differing cultural sensibilities supporting art remain, but the lack of taste evidenced in contemporary ecclesial art and architecture is just as present (Simona Maggiorelli, Attacco all’arte: La bellezza negata, 2017). In light of these trends, if one were to attempt to redress bad taste, or its general absence, what would such a scheme consists in?

Installation, ceramic sculpture. Miquel Barceló, “Miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes”, 2009. Reservation chapel, Cathedral of Majorca, Spain. The ceramic panels create an unwelcome and incongruous cavity within the Gothic cathedral. Opaque both in material and meaning.

In first place a basic palette of artistic knowledge is necessary. A person with taste must be a ‘professional visualizer’, to use the term of Baxandall. This means understanding concepts of color relationships, compositional elements of proportion, balance, and harmony, technical skill, as well as understanding art history, especially the conceptual world out of which most contemporary art emerges (or, whatever the equivalent might be as applied to architecture or music). 

Detail of statue. Holy Trinity Church, Fairview Heights, IL, USA. The treatment of the sentimentalized image lacks all harmony with its bronze-casted form, appearing as molded plasticine. Its composition is as slick and easy as its emotional content.

Taste, then, becomes the skilled eye of evaluation in which a plethora of discrete elements are evaluated and found successful in the perception of the beholder. In this dialectic, learning to discern these qualities enables one to obtain a savoir faire, by which one is able to either critique as receiver, or give life to the same qualities as an artist/architect/musician.  Taste at this level is basically a discriminating capacity to judge the conformity between a work and its forming principles.

In second place, a person with artistic capacity understands the difference between taste and style. In this case, taste does not mean what I like, or what I think is liturgically appropriate in art and architecture, as it relates to a specific time-bound and culturally specific look (Gothic, Baroque, Post-Modern, etc.), which we call style.

Chapel of Adoration. National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. Belleville, IL. Designed by the celebrated architects: Richard Cummings and Maguolo & Quick, from Washington University, Saint Louis. 1961. The integration of form, materials, and color is considered flawless.

 

 

Too often in the church today supposedly good taste is conflated with style (the foundation of most of the conflict in the ‘liturgical wars’). In fact, a person of taste is able to discern that a given style is highly accomplished, or a disaster, on its own terms. Style in this sense, remains above judgement of artistic preference. Whether it is appropriate or inappropriate liturgically speaking is decided on other grounds.

Finally, the restoration of taste in ecclesial art and architecture means reasserting the role of the professional. This of course is not to say that simply any architect or artist is automatically a person of taste – this is obviously not the case (but it also requires a slightly different evaluation from the argument I’m making here). Many communities seem to believe that the democratization of art and architecture is appropriate because at stake is a higher value of inclusion, or that in the end art is simply opinion.  Both assertions are false and lead to liturgical incompetence and superciliousness. No one in the secular realm purposefully looks at bad art, attends an untrained orchestra, or pines for the banal, in an effort to be inclusive. This is in fact the perversion of the aesthetic experience. In the same way, liturgical art and architecture must adhere to the same principle, that is, professionalism and high accomplishment are appropriate.

Successive renovations. St Mark’s Catholic Church, Peoria, Illinois. Completed 2004. An obvious improvement over the disjointed renovation of the 1970s and on first glance generally agreeable. Yet the imitation/reproduction of Fra Angelico murals from the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence, decontextualized and reassembled as a pastiche, read as fake and their balance is problematic. That a crucifix has been mounted over the landscape of a typical proto-Renaissance baptismal scene is perplexing. While technically competent, the project is à la Vegas.

These two traits are particularly important for those who are artists and architects, liturgical consultants, directors of music and arts programs, or sit on diocesan or jurisdictional commissions and committees; When Sacrosanctum Concilium stated that the Church had the right to pass judgement upon art and architecture it was no blind assertion of power, but an assumption that the institution had the competency to do so. This can only be the case when those involved are truly recognized as professionals in their own fields of practice. Granted, the resourcing of individuals to take up such tasks can be uneven, but the lack of professionals is often the result of policy and inattention, rather than their actual absence in a given community. It is my belief that in an age of cultural exhaustion it is only through focusing the liturgy towards principle and excellence, what good taste enables, that our worship can maintain any enduring social appeal.

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20 comments

    1. Indeed. The angularity and coloration of the cathedra hav no relationship to the gothic building whatsoever. Why the cathedra has been envisaged as a monumental cross boggles the liturgical mind.

      1. The artistic-visual connection is this: gilt walnut. Connection exists at the surface, not merely metaphorically.

        Mind you, I acknowledge that object could “work” (as a gesture towards stewardship, not artful liturgical taste) in a very different context: a liturgy in a field or a stadium/arena, though I’d recommend much more space between the cross and the cathedra. I wonder if it will eventually be repurposed for special occasions of that sort.

      2. I realize the project intended to match the tonality of the wood to the building. I don’t find it very convincing on that front. My color critique was regarding the neo- mid-century modern color blocking with the upholstery, in shades of goldenrod and oranges. The angularity of the chair vs. the more organic forms of gothic is jolting.

  1. Fun fact about the Peoria church I read at Shawn Tribe’s Liturgical Arts Journal blog: The high altar/reredos added in 2004 is the original discarded in the 1970s. The art studio that did the work knew the people who had rescued it.

    1. I appreciate it when original artwork can be sensitivity returned home – even in the ‘young’ American context when such pieces cannot be said to be notable outside their own limited architectural surroundings.

  2. I’m in agreement that examples presented as bad are indeed bad. I observe that in some quarters (like the Christmas scene from Missouri) “dress-up” is seen as “decoration,” and was never intended as “art.” It’s temporary, and appeals to a single experience.

    Music directors form people in music, but even rarer among liturgists are artists who can do likewise with people who may have no less artistic potential than “professional” artists.

    1. I disagree Todd. Even floral design and arrangement is an art. I know, I did it to earn money while in college. When you study floral design there are rules of color, balance, symmetry, and even rules concerning asymmetry. I have done Christmas and Easter floral work and “decorations” for the seasons. The example from Missouri is how my church looked before I made everyone read the documents. They learned the difference between a splash of color and an assault of the senses. They learned that hangings (banners) are best without words. They learned that the sanctuary should never look like the outdoor landscape displays at the local garden and landscape exhibits. They learned that using leftover flowers from weddings and funerals may be convenient and cost effective but they are generally inappropriate for Sunday liturgy. The really difficult lessons were that less is more and whatever we do on Christmas Day must last through the end of Christmastime, that whatever we do for the Vigil of Easter must remain until Pentecost (with the obligatory red added in). That last criteria really shifted the design focus of the liturgy team.

      1. Thanks, Ron. I would agree that floral design and arrangement is indeed an art. The biggest challenge I see for people who “decorate” churches is a lack of understanding of the scale and, as you mention, appropriateness. I’ve seen flowers plucked from wedding remnants and funerals and put into a vase that would fit in a dining room. Also, people who thought that a hundred lilies was better than twenty. My point is that in *some* churches, decoration is a temporary thing like it was a one-off dinner party. But yes, just like a musical presentation is “temporary,” so too feast and seasonal designs in a church are also art.

      2. Some of this may have roots in the fact that there have been centuries-old customs of spectacular decorative arrangements for single-event feasts. Not just the great processions of Corpus Christi or Holy Week, but in particular regarding tabernacles, the decoration of altars of repose for Holy Thursday (originating in a long period where the liturgy occurred in the morning, and the rest of the day was typically an occasion for church-to-church pilgrimages on foot – the visitation of altars of repose in seven churches being a very common example. It would all have to be taken down before Good Friday liturgy and the hours-long post-liturgical sermons and devotions). Thinking about this brought to mind a description by an old friend of mine, who was raised in Bogota, Colombia in the 1930s and 1940s: among her descriptions of the Triduum there, she mentioned that the altar of repose in her old church was not decorated with flowers, but with large displays of sheaves of wheat, some parts of which were apparently gilt or plated, and that the austere effect was mesmerizing in the focused light. I’ve not been able to find historical photographs of this type of display, but I just came across this more contemporary example as something that brings it to mind:

        https://fotos.miarroba.com/fo/4959/2353DE309F1C537262B10D5372618B.jpg

  3. Looking at the pictures made me think (for once) of how refreshing the aesthetic of English Puritanism can be. I looked up pictures of the famous Jordans Friends’ Meeting House and sighed with relief.

    AG.

  4. Bravo for this post!

    I would just add that, when it comes to artistic matters, while formation is critical, there is also an “it” factor that, as far as I know, isn’t conveyable like knowledge. I.e. there is an art to art, it isn’t all science. Some people have it. Those of us who don’t, should pray for the wisdom and humility to acknowledge it and defer gracefully to those who are blessed with it.

    And magnitudes harder: those who don’t have “it” but unfortunately have embraced the artistic field as a profession, need to to be graced with the honesty and self-critique to find another field to embrace.

    1. Yes, I agree. Thank you for your observation. The notion of “it”, as you put it, is something of what I had in mind when I sidestepped the question of evaluating the taste or competency of artists and architects above. As you observe, true art, and really special artists have the ability to express something that is greater than the sum of parts. Hence why simply commissioning artists and architects is not a done deal. When I was completing my STL a professor said to that the majority of students in his architecture program were not artists, but engineers and space-planners. “The artist and the space-planner are two very different things”, he said.

    2. I think we need to be careful here. This “it factor” is starting to sound like “The Force”–either you possess some magical power beyond mortal man or you don’t.

      I have been a musician since I was 6, and I have lived around musicians, artists, writers, and the like my whole life (as well as doctors, engineers, and IT professionals). While there are some people with unique vision for, say, visual composition / design or orchestral arranging or literary character development, this does not mean that others cannot develop these skills through varying levels of study and effort. This same concept holds for scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. as well. True, a given person may not attain the same level of skill as another, but that’s not the point.

      We need to give up on this magical idea of “talent” (or “it”) being the deciding factor and develop our skills in whatever area we pursue while we can. All “talent / it” does is provide an over-worn excuse for not trying our best at a skill we have not yet mastered. How many people failed over and over before attaining proficiency at a skill? If they threw up their hands and claimed, “well, I’m just not talented”, where would medicine be? Where would music be? Where would art and architecture be? Where would the Italian Renaissance be?

      Again, I will not contest that some people are well-suited to certain skills or careers, and that these people can guide others who are less skilled. However, I do disagree that some innate ability not accessible to the common person actively impedes our progress. We should not–we cannot–constantly limit ourselves by invoking “talent” or an “it factor” as the reason for not investing time and effort in developing all our potential skills. Christ Himself tells us in parables to take what we have and develop it to its fullest extent rather than burying what we have to no avail. That is the essence of good stewardship and part of our baptismal calling.

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