Modern Art Ain’t All Bad

Leroy HuizengaBlog3 Comments

Got an email tonight asking about the artwork I use for one of the sliders on my home page. The white one for “Teaching” is Marc Chagall‘s White Crucifixion, while the one for “CV” is Chagall’s Sacrifice of Isaac (the featured image for this post). Chagall also has another crucifxion, the Yellow Crucifixion. I’m a big fan of Chagall. Having written my dissertation on the Binding/Sacrifice of Isaac, I find his Sacrifice of Isaac poignant and profound. Sublime, even. Chagall’s experiences as a European Jew escaping Nazi-occupied France drove much of his work regarding biblical themes and Jewish-Christian reconciliation, and you see images of the Holocaust in his work (including the two crucifixions mentioned above.)

I took a group of students to Germany and Switzerland a couple summers ago, and made sure to stop by St. Stephan’s in Mainz and the Fraumünster in Zürich, as Chagall did stained glass windows in both churches. One of my chirpy students remarked, “Dr. Huizenga, how can you like these windows? I thought you hated everything modern!”

I do give off that vibe, I’ll grant her that. But it’s not so simple.

Modernity has its problems as well as its benefits. But it’s important to remember that modernity is not really a function of time; it’s an ideology, a philosophy, a worldview that engages in sleight-of-hand suggesting it’s a function of time. Thus, modernity presents itself as inevitable, the idea of progress simply a given only cranks would reject. It’s brilliant, really; an act of will-to-power, a tour-de-force.

But it’s also odd, when you step back and think about it. Michael Allen Gillespie in his wonderful book The Theological Origins of Modernity points out that it’s not obvious or self-evident that identities should be determined by time; it’s one way among many. Some cultures define themselves in terms of “land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods,” but Gillespie remarks that it’s remarkable “to define one’s being in terms of time.”

Mark well: To accept or reject modernity, then, is not to pick some arbitrary point and declare everything before or after that good or bad, whether 1968 or my own preferred date, 1274, when St. Thomas Aquinas died. Rather, any critique of modernity must involve a radical evaluation of the values, assumptions, and ideology of modernity. It’s a collocation of ideas and practices, not really an inevitable, inexorable function of time, though it presents itself as such. (You encounter it every time some politician or commentator talks about being on the wrong side of history.) And any critique of modernity must be differentiated, testing all things therein and holding fast to the good. Most of what’s good in modernity is the fulfillment of medieval ideas drawing on the equalizing, democratizing doctrines of Judeo-Christian faith — the Imago Dei, Original Sin, Christ’s sacrifice for all, and universal judgment, all of which function as leveling doctrines, as they pertain to prince and pauper alike. Most of what’s bad in modernity tries to start from scratch and serves wanton desire through will-to-power. A big topic I’ll leave unexplored and undefended here.

When it comes to art — and here I’m a confessed amateur, but a well-read amateur — it seems to me the issue concerns modernity’s rejection of form, one of modernity’s constitutive elements, part and parcel of modernity’s rejection of metaphysics.

Consider the stained glass window here. It’s the “Richter Fenster” (Fenster=window), a relatively new modern window in the great cathedral of Cologne. The archbishop of Cologne, Archbishop Joachim Meisner, hated it so bad he refused to attend the unveiling, as he wanted something traditional in style, and in particular he wanted twentieth-century martyrs. (If you’re wondering how the window got installed when the Archbishop didn’t want it it, it’s like this: The State took over a lot of thing, including the Cologne Cathedral, in the early nineteenth century, in the post-Napoleonic era of “secularization.” It means today that the State of North Rhine-Westphalia owns the cathedral, and so the good Cardinal is a guest in his own Cathedral, stolen from the Church back in the day.) In any event, the window isn’t what you usually find in stained glass windows — saints, angels, etc. Traditionally, stained glass is designed to emulate the gems of the earthly and heavenly temples described in scripture, and the figures are saints and angels in heaven. The function of such windows is not merely to remind viewers of heaven, but to enable real participation in heavenly realities. Here in the Richter Fenster we have colored pixelation — colored squares. Richter himself suggested the window might represent the diversity of the human race, but being a post/modern artist, refuses as Author to give a definitive interpretation of his work.

The window is much modern art in a nutshell: indeterminate and non-figural. Perhaps interesting in a museum or gallery, but wholly inappropriate, however, in a church. What Cardinal Meisner wanted was something traditional — figures of saints, particularly martyrs of the twentieth century.

I think this is why I like Chagall as an artist, and, what is more, find his art appropriate for stained glass windows in a church: It’s figural (if non-traditional and dispensing with the usual rules of perspective and order), portraying biblical scenes. Further, the colors are radiant, and in their radiance reflect the glory of heaven and thus of Heaven.

There are contemporary religious artists who are both “modern” and traditional, whose art glorifies God by drawing on tradition in the twentieth & twenty-first centuries — Daniel Mitsui comes to mind. May their tribe increase.


3 Comments on “Modern Art Ain’t All Bad”

  1. Perhaps you know about the as yet incomplete restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Rheims. All the windows were blown out, and much of the structure of this magnificent church was blown out nearly 100 years ago during the first world war. The stained glass windows have mostly been replaced by plain glass, but Marc Chagall did most of the ones that are stained- as I remember (from a self-guided tour a number of years ago), he was the only artist willing to take on this project who had the requisite religious sensibility. Here are some pictures:

    I love the religious work of Salvador Dali myself. His secular art is creepily fascinating, as surrealism tends to be, and his technique is terrific, but his sensibility translates especially well to supernatural subjects, and he’s not afraid of scale.

  2. I know so little about France and French churches, I was unaware of this. Thanks for sharing. I’ve lived in Germany, speak fluent German, etc., so I was much more familiar with his work there.

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