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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.