I had a friend in college who was an abstract artist.
She was a phenomenal figurative painter and could handle realism with great sensitivity and finesse, but her pursuit of her abstract work was passionate and tenacious. She took it quite seriously. There were days when her creativity flowed easily, and days when she struggled to paint at all. In critiques, however, some of our classmates often questioned the validity of her work. They would say it was too easy, that you cannot pour a couple of cups of paint over a canvas and call it a painting. What they were really asking, though, was “is this good art, is it even art at all?”, and this would eventually lead us to the same question that artists and critics have been asking for ages.
What is good art?
Who gets to decide what is good and what isn’t? We may be able to measure how popular art is, how technically difficult a painting is, how much it went for at every auction its ever been sold at, how successful the artist is or was, but does any of that tell us whether or not the art is actually good? Do critics define what is good? Curators? Historians? Perhaps, but there have been wonderful artists who have gone entirely unnoticed by the world. So how is it quantified? Maybe it can’t be.
Maybe it comes down entirely to personal preference.
It’s easy to dismiss abstract art as childish nonsense, especially when we don’t understand it, but for every painting that “a third grader could have done” there was at least one person who thought it was worth taking the time and materials to create it. Maybe that effort alone makes the work valid. I am unsure as to how to go about answering these questions and maybe I will never find concrete answers to them.
When it comes to art in the Church, however, I think we have to find a way to define what is appropriate and what is not.
I love abstract art. I find the tooth of canvas and the texture of paint attractive. I love the creative process. Abstract art is all about those things, it focuses on the materials of art and on the act of creating. I think it is valuable, that it can beautiful and moving, and perhaps it could be useful in personal prayer or meditation, I’m not sure. I wonder, though, if church is an appropriate space for that kind of work.
Everything we do in the Divine Service says something significant.
Every time we stand up, sit down, or kneel, we are told something about our relationship to our God. Our hymns are wordy and profound, through them we sing the Gospel to our fellow congregants and they sing it back to us. From the second we step foot in the sanctuary to the moment we leave, we are told over and over again who we are and who our God is in no uncertain terms.
Church is not abstract; our faith is not abstract.
It is grounded in Christ and in real, physical means of salvation. I’m usually very hesitant to tell others what they should and should not be doing with their art, but in this case, I believe that Liturgical art should have a clear and readable message, and that message should be the Gospel. Liturgical art has a job to do and it must be purposeful. The delivery of the Gospel is too important to be vague.