Archive for July, 2009

Ad Quid Venistis? Quo Vadimus?

July 28, 2009

BoltonAdamA detail from a window of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden – formerly in the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Media PA.

What follows is a fine essay by the remarkable sculptor, Anthony Visco, written for the retrospective exhibition of Morris’ work in 2000 at Villanova University.

Ad Quid Venistis? Quo Vadimus?

If imitation is a best form of flattery, then artists such as Bolton Morris have been trying their best to flatter their Creator since the earliest of all times. We, as artists, recognize it as the “created” imitating Creator, playing Creator in a great attempt to pay homage to our Source, our Cause. It is further an attempt to seek and find oneself as separate in order to seek and find oneself as part of a greater whole, as isolated momentarily in order to be better integrated into its cosmos. To make sacred art is then to wed one’s esthetics with one’s faith in order to bring even closer, to shorten the real or imagined gap between us, the made and our Maker, the created with our Creator, the called with the Caller. In response, sacred art becomes an invitation from the eternal to the artist in time. We can learn much by looking to other artists such as Morris who have heard the call and responded as contemporary artists. If we listen, we can perhaps gain a better idea of ourselves as the created as well as what the call asks of us now.

As contemporary artists, no group in world history has ever seen the works of art by so many artists from so many different periods. No group has ever witnessed so many different manifestations of “God flattery” than the society of the latter half of the last century. With its countless reproductions, in books, videos, photos, and slides along with traveling to these sacred places to see the work first hand as well as in museums, we have had an unprecedented overview. To date, more people have seen the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the last half century than all numbers combined since its unveiling over five hundred years ago. We also have seen more secular [art’ than any other society in our study of art history and we know now that most of that artwork done throughout world history has been religious or sacred. All have contributed to a view that none could have fathomed a half century ago.

Yet it is important for those of us contemporary artists of religious works, to take account of Bolton’s vast contribution here. Now that we have seen so much world art, now that we live in this “global village”, what is our location? We find that, like Bolton Morris, we can now have a number of views from which to choose. We can look to the past, try to look at the future or simply try to see where we stand now. The “Romantic” view is to look back, see the past as a beautiful fragment to which we can never return. It is a view of the past as bench marks, masterpieces that can no longer be attained, a period of craft and quality to which we can never return. Yet the past as our tradition still holds works that continue to stir devotion and awe and have not remained locked in time. On the other hand, the “Avant-garde” view is to look ahead, to see the future as an exciting and unfamiliar fragment to which we can never catch up. Yet to simply repeat our past would be formulaic and not keep us opened to the “call”, which, like the Church, is always in progress and never completed. Perhaps a “third eye” is needed here, an eye that tries neither past nor future, but the past, present and future together. After all, isn’t that the effort of most religious art? It has been certainly true for Bolton Morris’ entire career. Combined, perhaps all these perceptions can tell us, give us a view and even a location as to where we find ourselves “for now”. Yet we must be mindful that the masterpieces of the past, present and future are like the stars in the heavens. They can indeed give us our location but we must wait for the darkness and hope for a clear night in order to see them better. Then, once our location in the Third Millennium is learned, the greater question for the maker of sacred arts will be where do we go from wherever we are.

Perhaps our most recent past can provide us with some sense of where we may find ourselves as religious artists today. By the end of the Second Millennium, we had been working along side, if not within, the secular or the Modernist and Puritanical aspects of late twentieth century American art. It may prove to have been one of our most difficult periods. Never before in the history of the world was it acceptable for art to mean nothing, to hold no meaning, to offer nothing beyond itself. Modernism believed the artist was freest when not tied to the burden of representationalism. Puritanism, on the other hand, had always viewed art to be superficial, unnecessary, that it should always be confrontational, appear to be out of place. Non-representationalism, the former became challenging because as Christians, we are artists of the Incarnation. The latter, the Puritan aspect became difficult because sacred art, although worldly, is never to seem out of place. Hence, Modern Puritanism produced an art that was acceptable only if and when it seemed out of place, inappropriate for the environment, shocking, and most of all, non-representative, all of which religious art cannot have in order for it to best serve. The combination of the two ideologies made for a deadly fusion for anyone interested in making functional church art. Yet it became further compounded still as the Church now asked for “contemporary art”. Although his works are contemporary, Bolton Morris never followed the modernist secular model as much as redressing the answers of the Byzantine and the Romanesque.

For Catholic artists in particular, the great collision occurred in the Sixties when the secular art, as the “pop form” and “folk form” were adopted and met with a most misinterpreted version of the Vatican II, encouraging the use of contemporary art and music in liturgy. For the first time in its history, the Church, instead of leading secular art, now followed secular art. For the liturgical artist, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Its outcome can best be summed up in the words of Pope Paul VI, a global advocate for the entire world of religious and liturgical arts, in his meeting with artists in 1964:

We can say that sometimes we have placed against you a leaden burden; please forgive us! And then we have abandoned you. We have not explained our things; we have not introduced you into the secret cell where the mysteries of God make man’s heart bounce with joy, hope, happiness, exaltation. We have not had you as students, friends, interlocutors so you have not known us. Thus your language for the world has been docile, yes, but also tied up, labored, incapable of finding its voice. And thus we have felt this artistic expression unsatisfactory… We have treated you worst, we have turned to surrogates, oleography, to works of art of little value and less expenditure, also because we did not have the means to commission things which were great, beautiful and worth being admired.”

Since then, the past thirty-five years, although cloudy at times, nevertheless has given us a view. It is from this view that we learned in Bolton that our beliefs had just put us in alignment with a great circle of artists too large to grasp but nevertheless always there regardless of period and style. We learned, like them, that if our beliefs come into question during the process of making our art, then – all the better. For if they do not, our work becomes a mechanical process, a loveless labor, an empty act. E know through these “Modest Tasks” that from now on, that in every piece of work we do, in every commission we make, we must grow spiritually as well as artistically. After all, if we ourselves are not somewhat moved spiritually by what we make, then neither will those for whom our work is intended to serve. Bolton has taught us that at times we must isolate ourselves in order to do our work where it becomes both physical labor and contemplative prayer at the same time. However, while in our solitude, seeing ourselves as a separate part of creation may draw us closer to the Creator, our works cannot draw attention to our separateness if they are to be successful. Church art and church artists can never be so individualized as to draw attention to themselves. Yet, with no attention given, our ministry remains stagnate; our solitude turns to isolation and without proper attention our works remain undone. This has become a dilemma for the liturgical artist as well as for the church itself. For the most part, as much as we know about our church artists who have lied in the past, no one knows where to find those living among us today.

We have learned from Bolton’s life of work that religious, sacred or liturgical art can not serve the art community, as art does secular world. The artist of religious work is usually self-educated in the signs and symbols, the colors and geometry of sacred art. We meet others like us but it is the smaller if not the smallest circle of artist friends. Once installed, our commissions are not reviewed by any art reviews. Our work is often reproduced on holy cards, church calendars, books, we remain “anonymous”, we see our work reproduced with credit given to the photographer for having photographed the work with no credit given to the artist. Our slides are not submitted; we are not eligible for any NEA grants. We are called “Church Ministers” yet most often our names are intentionally deleted or omitted from our works. Too often, many artists like Morris have remained “anonymous” – something that Paul the VIth knew in the long run hurt the Church more than her artists. If we have learned anything from this and our history as church artists, we know that religious art does not receive notoriety for being novel, from being ironic or being clever. To have one’s work be such an attraction in the secular world is to be a success. To do so in the religious sector, is to have failed at your mission, something that Bolton has never done. His work tells us that obviously this is not work for those without a calling. The paintbrush or chisel in the hand of the “un-called” is as worthless as the crosier held by the “hired hand”. The former would open windows that lead the flock nowhere while the latter would simply close our church doors leaving the flocks to scatter.

Looking over Bolton Morris’ shoulder, we can see tow thousand years of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian art. And we see for sure that religious art must always transcend itself, as well as transcend its own artifice. It can neither be “art for art’s sake” nor be “art about art”, that is, to have art as a means to its own end. Yet, in order to serve, it must have artifice, good artifice. It can neither be so poorly done as an attempt to project a feigned sense of humility or so lavish as to project a false sense of pride. Here, Bolton Morris always gives us the proper balance. He maintains that this work cannot get its mysticism from being ambiguous. That it must have a proportion of craft in order to project its image and have that same icon transcend itself. It is to walk a line between temporal, and the eternal, a walk between the enduring and the timeless. There can be no art for art’s sake in these “Modest Tasks”. Bolton has heard this call, knowing all along that his work and the work of those like him would never receive the attention of an elephant-dung Madonna, or a corpus in urine. And rightfully so! For the artist of religious works, by the time the work is completed, installed, it is time to become part of the whole again, time to find our place within the flock again. Thus, Bolton never worked without including himself as “believer” if he was to succeed in wedding his art to his faith. Yet he has always maintained that it must move us as equally as individuals, as equally as our brothers and sisters whom it is intended to serve.

We have learned together with Bolton that we are artists of a liturgical palette, a calendar of seasonal colors that changes within a spiritual spectrum. And although we spend a great deal of our time in the “liturgical green”, in the ordinary “studio” time, it always seems to be Advent for the liturgical artist. Perhaps Advent, because like our fellow artist we always seem to be preparing something for a future coming. When we find what we were looking for, we celebrate our Epiphany no matter what time of years. Yet our Lent can come as late as August when we are designing Stations of the Cross in the midst of a heat wave.  We are artists called to the vineyard and we do the work. At times we find ourselves much like the first to come, complaining that the others who come later always get more respect, more attention, more pay. We try to remind each other that we were the lucky ones, the ones to have heard the call; lucky in that we got to do the work; got to the vineyard sooner than the others. On seeing religious artwork some will still complain with the charity of Judas, – that is, “the money should have been spent on the poor.”

Much of our work is learned over the kitchen table, over the breaking of bread. As for our teachers, we, like Bolton, take on Matthew who gives is the human proportion; Mark offers us a course in the heroic scale; Luke for lessons in pictorial perspective and John the mystical and visionary. For our treatise on beauty we take our notes from Aquinas. We still learn to model light and shade on the flesh of Christ from Francis of Assisi. And how Ignatius of Loyola gives us exercises to use our senses in order to describe the Glory of God to others, as if to say if you thought the flesh of the Renaissance was bad, watch out for the muscle of the Counter Reformation!

But now, with Bolton Morris, we stand ready to work, ready to give back our talents to what will “herald” in the new Millennium, we must look again at our spiritual as well as artistic evolution. Having two thousand years of Christian Art around us, the question is do we ever really find ourselves at a new beginning in church art? Is there, was there ever a non-traditional church art? Can there be? Whether it be made today or fifteen hundred years ago, if it reveals something within us never realized before, isn’t that new? Perhaps is we look up a try to locate the stars, the darks and lights of a map to guide us here below, we can find a greater understanding. If we look, we will notice that at times, in the history of sacred art as well as within our own personal history, we have stood on vast continents surrounded by seas and mountains, stretches of what seemed to be endless beaches. At other times we noted that we were like small islands, distant but within good sight of each other. Still at other times we find ourselves dry, in the desert surrounded by wind and sand. But now, from here, we must see that there is no great continent beneath our feet nor are we on a desert island or in the middle of the sea. But perhaps there is an isthmus where we go from one point to another, trying to find those points past, present, and future where our art can make time and eternity meet. We carry all that we can muster, looking for a place to stay but not for too long. Yet we do know one thing; the call has never stopped.

©Anthony Visco

from an introduction to:

“Bolton Morris, a Retrospective”   – “Tâches Modestes”

10/23-12/22/2000

Villanova University Art Gallery

[transcribed by Davis d’Ambly]

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