Is there such a thing as bad sacred art?
Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.
Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art.
When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place.
Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.
Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art. At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.
So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.