Friday, July 23, 2010

Fill These Hearts; Sacred and Secular Art

I cannot describe how much I am liking "Fill These Hearts", which is a tour put on by TOB evangelist Christopher West and others in which TOB is made accessible through art (visual art, music ect...). In reading the content of the website and watching this trailer there is a sense of "coming home" for me. Art and TOB baby!


Watching this trailer and visiting this website stirred up my stuggle this summer to understand the distinctions and relationship between sacred and secular visual art and trying to figure out how my art fits in. This has been particularly challenging for me as the terms "sacred art" and "secular" can mean different things when used by different people and in different contexts.

For example in one article I read the writer listed religous art, sacred art, and liturgical art as being distinct terms. He didn't clearly define what constitued each of these categories but I inferred that he meant sacred art as being less encompassing than religous art and liturgical art being the most exclusive, narrowly defined category.

More commonly in material I have read, artists' webpages I have looked at, and in conversations I have had, two categories of art; sacred and secular, are expressed. Here "sacred art" is defned as being art with explicitly religious imagery, usually directly and unambiously illustrating a biblical narrative, church doctrine, story of a saint, portayal of Jesus, Mary or another saint, and gets us in touch with the divine through the subject represented. Also I have read in a few places the idea that sacred art as defined this way involves some stylistic limitations, e.g. not being overly naturalistic; idealizing figures to some degree. (This point perhaps I will explore more in depth and write a blog post about another time). Some people who define sacred art in this way are more "rigid" than others in their definition and others somewhat less so. Just to note I've read that Eastern Orthdox Christians define sacred art very narrowly as including only icons, but in this post I'm dealing with the Western tradition.

Still I have seen another, looser, defintion of sacred art as any art that is communcative of the sacred. This would define even, say, a more ordinary portrait of a person that is meant to draw out and communicate God's image and His glory in and through the person represented. Another example could be the painting of a landscape that is meant to communcate the grandure of God through His reflection of Himself in nature. So "sacred art" as such could have subject matter ranging from expicitly "religious" themes to more subtly communicating God.

I appreciate aspects of both the more "rigid" classifactions of sacred art and the"looser" attemps at defining it. I feel that both are onto something. I belive that I am seeking a more nuanced veiw to adopt myself.

On the one hand, I believe that distinctions and categories serve a purpose and can be helpful. For instance I belive that, generally, artwork that has more explictlly and unambiously religious themes is more appropriate for a lituragial setting.

On the other hand what I can appreciate about the "looser" or "less technically correct" defintion of sacred art is the attampt to bring together the sacred and everyday life by helping us to see the sacred in an through common human experience and drawing attention to the sacramentality of all things (how all things that God has created discloses something about Himself, sort of like how the work of an artist can be self-expressive).

Perhaps what I'd like to see is an exhange between sacred art (as defined as art with more explicitly religious themes) and secular art (secular here being defined as art which ideally would glorify God but may not meet the criteria for being classfied as sacred art per se). This would preserve appropriate distinctions without which an abusive "anything goes" attitute could develop which could threaten the integrity and rootedness of sacred art while at the same time avoiding the error of being overly rigid which would prevent cultural exchange; the mutually enriching interpenetration of the sacred and the secular.

What Christopher West said about finding that "sweet spot between the sacred and the secular" and not succumbing to "a kind of religiousity where there's often a very rigid line between the sacred and the secular" really resonates with all this. West said that "what we are really looking for is the universally human", which really resonates with me and what I strive for as an artist.

It has been made clearer to me, ever since studying Theology of the Body, that God's heart as revealed through His Catholic Church desires to bring back together what has been seperated. The faith is ALL about re-integration. This all hinges around reintegration of the human person, body and soul and the human person in his or her entirety partaking of the very inner life of the Holy Trinity, which is a communion of persons- an exchange of love. St. Ananasius' said it well in saying that "the Word was made man so that we might be made God". Of course this marriage of the human and divine is made explicitly clear in the person of Jesus Christ, and our partaking of Him- His full humanity and divinity through reception of Him in the Eucharist.

I believe that this same impulse toward reintegration is the driving force between authentic art, to bring back together what has been seperated or disintegrated. In the garden there was no distinction between "sacred" and "secular", neither will there be such a distinction in the eschaton. Today's gospel at Mass was where Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer. The line of the prayer "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is particularly relevent here, in this quest to reintegrate the sacred with culture at large. Although this reintegration, when the distinctions between sacred and secular will pass away, won't reach completion until that day, God havs given us real power to start living redemption NOW, bringing heaven to earth NOW.

Really what it's about is striving to be in touch with what is most real, a.k.a. God and ordering things accordingly. As Fr. Tom says mystics are the only ones really in touch with reality. A lot of the time people think the mystics are the ones that are out of touch with reality when just the opposite is true, they are in touch with what is for real. One line of reasoning I have heard for not embracing the faith, particularly along the lines of sexual morality, is that some people believe that it is out of touch with real life, actual human experience and is more or less a set of arbitrary rules disconnected from a person's experience. What has to happen, and what artists have a particular role in bringing about, is bridging this unnatural and irrational disconnect between so called "real life" and God.

So I guess to sum up this post I'll say that although I appreciate and affirm a degree of categorization and differention of sacred art as helpful and affirming that it serves a purpose to "historical man" (i.e. where we are at now- man fallen yet in the progress of being redeemed in Christ), I propose that this categorization shouldn't lend itself to a "cutting off" of or an overly severe and rigid divide from the secular (the culture at large) lest "sacred art" become irrelevent and inaccessible and the general culture becomes cut off from that which is "religious", that which is meant to call us higher. Because ultimately these distinctions will pass away in the Marriage of the Lamb when creation is wed intimately with it's Creator as it was meant to be. This is my take on these matters at least, they are open to tweaking so if you have any thoughts on the the subject your input is appreciated as always.

By the way if you haven't noticed I'm putting so many words in quotes because of the multiple connotations they have.

This blog post is pretty loaded so I'm sure I'll revisit some of the concepts I have explored here and further elaborate on and refine them as I (hopefully) gain some more insight. I'd say that in most of my art I'm drawn to reach that "sweet spot" between the sacred and the secular that West mentioned. More on how my art relates to all this later though lest I get carried away write too much for one post. I'm trying to make sense of all this myself, this is at least a start! Comments would be helpful, I could use some people to help me as I struggle through this question of the relationship between the sacred and secular in art (and life in general).