Monday, March 3, 2008

Postmodern Lectionary Art

The Italian bishops' conference has recently adopted a new lectionary that is new, not because the readings are different from before, but because it is illustrated using the work of contemporary artists. Some people do not like the work. There is an article about it here. A well respected art historian, Fr. Timothy Verdon, defends the new lectionary (note: he was appointed by Ratzinger several years ago to choose the images for the book), and some other guy - Pietro De Marco - attacks them. It is well worth reading.

I can appreciate any art that is done well: renaissance to postmodern. Unfortunately other people are not that way. De Marco is one of these men, and he makes a number of assumptions about modern and postmodern art that just do not, in my opinion, hold water. He thinks that "modern" artists have "abandoned their foundation in reality in favor of emotion and mere ornamentation". But baroque art is supremely emotional, and utterly fantastic and unreal in so many ways too (e.g. Il Gesu church in Rome), so it seems to me if he criticizes modern art for this, he is also criticizing his cherished baroque art. He also assumes that "reality" boils down to painting the human figure in a "photo-realistic" way, completely ignoring the illusory nature of those styles. Emotionalism and illusion in art is not bad, and different eras show them in different ways. In another place he says that in past centuries artists were guided by theologians and biblicists, but today that is not the case, and so artists paint all sorts of "errors". But even theologians and biblical scholars can certainly guide artists the wrong way... for example, when artists from the renaissance and baroque eras would paint John the Baptist and Jesus as not being around the same age. Where were the infallible biblical scholars and theologians then?

I can't comment on everything he says, but it's a good article that you should read. Basically, take everything De Marco says with a grain of salt. Anyone who has studied art history will know what I mean. The same people who cannot appreciate images like the one above probably cannot appreciate many good and beautiful things in life, such as the symphonies of Mahler and the string quartets of Shostakovich, because they are not "immediately" accessible and take some time and effort to appreciate. But patient viewing of this type of art, like patient listening to the composers above, pays back big dividends in the end.

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