How Bland Thou Art: Religious Art Should Challenge and Inspire Our Lives of Faith-Not Put Us to Sleep

Article excerpt

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A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO MY PROVINCIAL SUPERIOR appointed me to a committee charged with developing a monument for a new burial plot for the friars of my Franciscan community. After spirited discussions about the statement we wanted to make, meetings with a sculptor, and the approval of our provincial leadership, we met with the administration of the diocesan cemetery.

After reviewing the drawings and model, the director, a priest, told us our proposal was "unsuitable" and could not be installed. In an attempt to explain what would be acceptable the assistant director advised us to put up "a cross, a lily, or a lamb." In the end, to satisfy the cemetery officials, we agreed to add a cross to each corner of the monument's low pedestal. (Yes, a cross on just about anything will christianize it.)

In the committee's mind, we had proposed a simple representation of the dying and rising of Jesus. Though I viewed the design as bland, the cemetery administration found its abstract nature provocative. It was clear who would judge our plan; the director of the cemetery informed us that "I'm the pastor here, and what I say goes."

Enter any Catholic institution today--a church building, school, or hospital--and you will mostly likely encounter art selected from a catalog. The offerings from such sources typically replicate representations from another era with updated materials. Most of them resemble something you've seen before. Are you still thinking about these artworks a month later? I would venture that, in the majority of cases, the answer is "no."

Rather than selecting artworks for the ways they4 can inform our lives of faith, what we choose is an object that fills up a space with a nostalgia too often justified as "traditional." But rather than harkening back to a fabricated sacred tradition, we should call catalog-style art what it most often is: dull, saccharine, wishy-washy.

DESCRIBING WHAT MAKES ART appropriate, the U.S. Catholic bishops' document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship notes that works of art "must be capable of bearing the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder." That's a tall order, one rarely realized.

We put up a cross, a lily, or a lamb with little thought because, when all is said and done, we really don't expect art to make a difference in anyone's life. Would we tolerate a preacher failing to give a homily because the scriptures are something we've all heard before? Not every homily makes a difference in our lives, but we remember the ones that changed us, challenged us, and comforted us. Why don't we demand the same thing from our religious art?

FOR CENTURIES THE CHURCH WAS the principal patron of the arts. When people go to Europe, they visit churches or museums filled with art that used to be in churches. The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy notes: "Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's [sic] genius." But the American church largely reflects a culture that does not value or understand the place of the arts in either communal or individual life. Funding for the arts is what our states, cities, and schools eliminate to balance their budgets.

A cross, a lily, or a lamb uses familiar language, disturbs no one, proposes nothing new. But art's function is not endless repetition of what we already know; art should, in part, help us discover something new, deeper, or more complex. If it doesn't stretch our thinking, touch on our experience, or nurture our faith, why have it around?

As a college student, I joined my classmates in making fun of a statue of Mary in the college chapel. Lacking the prepubescent modesty of body that most images of Mary possess, this Mary was clearly a woman--an older woman who had lived long enough to be wise (and to have seen her son crucified) and who was not going to win any beauty contests. …