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Bad art and the Church

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I have to admit it. Like many, I’m something of an art snob. I know what I like and dislike, what attracts or repels me, what I find provocative or deathly dull. I am somewhat surprised, then, to find myself defending the use of “bad” art, at least in religious settings, and I should admit from the beginning that I write in partial hope of persuading myself in the wake of Trinity Sunday, when we’ve realized the degree to which our conceptions fail to grasp the mystery of God’s being.

I think there are at least three purposes for bad religious art (including painting, sculpture, music, etc.).

The first is the most important: bad religious art cuts against our desire to portray our faith exclusively in terms of our current canons of beauty, harmony, and order. It prevents us form assuming that God, the angels, or the saints are actually like our portrayals. I am guided here by Pseudo-Dionysius, in his treatise The Celestial Hierarchy, regarding the purpose of shocking or ‘base’ imagery in Scripture and liturgy:

There is a likelihood, with regard to the more sublime representations … that we should be led astray … and, in order that those who had considered nothing more exalted than the brightly shining beauties might not suffer, the upwardly-ordering wisdom of the hallowed theologians descended sacredly, even to unfitting dissimilarities, not allowing our material part to remain fixed in these shameful images, but urging the ascending part and goading it by the ugliness of the composition … (Celestial Hierarchy 2.3)

We find the mystical theologians sacredly plastering dishonorable forms not only around the revelations of the heavenly orders, but also around the revelations of the divinity … but I will also add something which seems more dishonorable and unfitting: those magnifying divine things have handed it down that God plasters around himself the image of a worm. (Celestial Hierarchy 2.5)

The wisdom of the scriptural authors has itself “descended sacredly” into ugly images. God has chosen the shameful for himself, forcing us to admit that the Holy One and his saints are not like our portrayals. There is no neat correspondence. Bad art, perhaps even deliberately bad art, can thus prevent us from lapsing into idolatry. We have to remember that when God wanted to show us the beauty of his love, he put forth the bleeding, wracked body of Jesus Christ and his profession, “I am a worm and no man” (Ps. 22:6). Bad art humbles us and our aesthetic pretensions and reflects God’s own manner of portraying himself. It is not that God is more like the “ugly compositions” than the beautiful ones. It is rather that he is unlike our most beautiful ideas and representations and unlike our ugliest. The hideous simply does a better job of reminding us of the divine dissimilarity.

The second purpose of bad art, therefore, is to retrain our taste. If we cannot trust our own conceptions, we must submit to a long discipline and learn to embrace what repels us, albeit for a specific purpose. We are not the arbiters of the ecclesiastical aesthetic, a point for which we should be thankful. We might otherwise be enslaved to one era’s artistry.

This brings us to the third purpose of bad art, which could be misleadingly considered the populist purpose: namely, even signally tasteless, sentimental, discordant, schmaltzy, and jarring art, music, and writing may shine with the radiance of divine grace, in that it serves a specific purpose by which God transforms us. There is surely a place in the Church for the highest productions, executed by the greatest, most eminent, and well-trained artists in the world. But God has “scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart; he has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-2). If it were not so, the Church would be some sort of godly salon, an institution of elites and for elites.

Now, assuming (perhaps wrongly) that you are cut to the heart, I will answer the question, “What, then, shall we do?”

Ideally, let every church and household have a mix of beautiful and base religious art, in order to reflect the God whose name is “Love” and “worm.” At least one piece of kitsch, please, prominently displayed. The same applies to church music: let there be one song of unabashed, disgusting cheese each quarter, preferably ill-composed (“I can’t believe it’s not Rutter,” as one friend said), or one Sunday when the choir just ruins everything. We need that sort of thing. It’s good for us.

We also need to travel, though, whether locally or through more extended pilgrimage. It’s a good thing to see art, hymns, and liturgy outside the narrow confines of our own locality, even though we return. For nothing is worse than an idolatry of place, nothing more abominable than a church of “taste.”

Of course, it can’t be all bad all the time. That would simply be another distortion; there remains a place for the beautiful. We can’t reduce our variety to some sickening mean of precisely measured mediocrity. In other words, there is no formula. Rather, there is a warning and a lesson. Bad art has its purposes. It can, no less than the beautiful (and often more than it), lift our minds to the praise of God. It can detach us from the false belief that wonderful, beautiful, orderly art or liturgy is necessarily more honorable to God. It can detach us from the idea that such beauty is what God has chosen for himself.

For he has not chosen such things, not exclusively. He has chosen the base, the meek, the shameful, and the ugly; he has plastered imagery around himself such as no one would choose for him. He has hallowed bad art, as well as good.

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