The exhibition Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation, which concluded at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, on Sunday, was worth seeing. Because it brought together art and Christian faith, it also left artists and believers scrambling to find words from their own traditions to explain why the Exhibition worked.
Christian theologians have not had much to say about art. Mercifully little, some would say. Early reflection drew on a classical aesthetic, according to which underlying the beauty of particular people or artefacts, was an ideal beauty in which they shared. Art was to embody this ideal beauty. When people contemplated beautiful images, they would also share in this beauty. So artists had a responsibility to make noble representations of reality. In the classical world, Greek statues embody this ideal.
When Christian thinkers adopted this approach, they made God the source of all beauty. The beauty of the world, and particularly of human beings, mirrors divine beauty. Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, fully embodies divine beauty in his human reality. Our beauty comes from our relationship to Christ.
This theory enabled the early Christian theologians to say two things that were controversial in their culture. They could affirm that the human and material world was not ugly and evil, but beautiful. They could also affirm that all beauty, including that of artefacts, was not autonomous, but was derived from God through Jesus Christ. Ideally, the beauty of this world would lead us to contemplate the beauty of God found in Christ.
Although they affirmed the place of art, Christian thinkers subordinated it to truth. The truth of humanity and of the world that art represented was Christian truth. This implied that the best art is representational, because representational art, that draws on Christian symbols and conceptuality, best conveys Christian meaning.
This theology is rich. It can encourage Christian communities to appreciate artistic expression and its place in faith. These are some of the goals of this Exhibition, which is sponsored by Carnivale Christi. The theology, however, fails to address contemporary art and its relationship to faith. For it, art without explicitly Christian inspiration and abstract art offer little more than material for conversion.
A reason for the failure of this theory of art is that it privileges representative art whose meaning can be put into words. It asks first, what does this painting, poem, play or cantata mean? It expects that the meaning will be put into words, and judges the work by the extent to which its meaning is consistent with Christian faith and values.
To focus so narrowly on the meaning of works of art neglects their importance and complexity as expressions of human creativity. Artists engage with aspects of humanity or their world that lie beyond words. They struggle to express this through a medium that resists easy expression. If their artefact works, it will be to the delight and surprise of the artist. When artists are asked what their artefact means, they naturally respond by saying, ‘Look.’ Those who do look may find illumination.
Christian theory needs to find space for this rich process. When theologians wish to give full weight to process as distinct from content, they usually invoke the Holy Spirit. The images of flame, of power, of the wind that blows where it will, of dove, of understanding that transcends linguistic difference, suggest freedom, surprise and fecundity. These images are central also to the making of art. They can form a place where art and faith flow together.
Reference to the Holy Spirit, too, invites us to explore the intimate connections between art and prayer that are glimpsed in this exhibition. For St. Paul, prayer involves a helpless desire for expression before a broken but tremendous world, a sense that what we express is a surprising gift. And that it remains beyond our comprehension. This process is mirrored in artistic creativity. Both require space.
The Spirit, too, links art to Christ in subtle ways. In Christian tradition, the Spirit has no face except the face of Christ. But we recognise Christ only through the Spirit. This suggests that we never possess Christ. The Spirit will lead us to him in many ways, including through artistic creation. This means that, in a Christian view, artists and believers have much to gain through an exhibition of this kind.
Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editor at EurekaStreet.com.au who also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.