In a few weeks we will celebrate Ash Wednesday and thus begin Lent. That is the time when Lucinda Naylor’s contemporary Stations of the Cross will be hung beneath the traditional Stations, once again. I know that many of us love these mono prints and are anticipating their return. Others simply tolerate them. And some of us really wish I would forget about them or that I would “donate them to the Vatican Museums” as someone suggested. Since I will neither forget about them nor donate them I thought I might ponder the role of contemporary art in the church in preparation of Ash Wednesday.
For starters, let’s be clear that all artists were contemporary artists at one point and like today’s contemporary artists they were revered by some and reviled by others. Take e.g. celebrated French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Out of gratitude to his teacher Gabriel Fauré (1845– 1925) Ravel dedicated a newly composed string quartet to him. Fauré told him that this was very kind but that he could not accept since the piece was ugly, had no meaning and was completely unintelligible. Publicly humiliated Ravel doubted his talents and he almost stopped composing. Thankfully, fellow composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who loved Ravel’s work encouraged him to continue writing music. Today, String Quartet in F is considered one of the great examples of French string music and Ravel’s work is known and loved throughout the world.
The vision of artists is often experienced as complex by their contemporaries because they are visionaries. Their art can be unusual and is sometimes not inviting. And their style may be abstract or at least stylized. All of this means that it is often more difficult to appreciate and understand contemporary art than traditional art. Traditional art is mostly pleasing and at least on one level more accessible because it is figurative. How often have you heard people say or maybe said yourself: “I don’t understand it.” And that is often why people don’t like the art. Yet, our inability to understand and our consequent dislike of certain works of art do not make them bad art.
Figurative art has served our church well throughout history as it clearly tells our Christian story. However, figurative art runs the risk of imposing imagery. Take e.g. the Conversion of St. Paul. The most popular depiction of this important moment in Paul’s life shows him falling off his horse. And though Scripture does not make mention of a horse that is how most people visualize Paul’s Conversion. And even those of us who have never seen one of these paintings or sculptures very likely imagine a horse as part of this scene as the horse has become part of our shared memory.
This is of course an innocent example, but what about Mary and Jesus being depicted with blond hair and blue eyes. What does that image do to our religious imagination? How does this “color” Christianity? And how does it perpetuate evil stereotypes?
By contrast, abstract art does not impose images, rather abstract art invites imagination. That makes it less obvious and more difficult. Yet, because of this abstract art enjoys the potential of a deeper and more genuine understanding of the Gospel message.
So, when you see our abstract Stations of the Cross please take some time with them. Read the mediations we post next to them. And while reading these, let the colors, shapes and lines speak to your religious imagination. You might be surprised how much you like them if only you would give them a chance.
[Based on an entry in my book “What’s the Smoke For? and Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy.”]