Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, August 29, 2005

In Place of Art, Nature

The other week I was looking for a quote that would go along the lines of “throw away art, the greatest gallery of all is the natural world (God’s creation, etc.).” I have no doubt that Emerson, Thoreau or Whitman said something like that, but I wasn’t able to put my hands on an exact statement, so I moved on. Well, I’m more or less living that kind of thing right now, spending some time in Alaska. The physical land is the overwhelming presence here. There are probably very good artists at work in the state, but the population is small and the landscape is so spectacular that I imagine it can swamp much of the hunger for art. I spent today (Saturday) in Denali National Park and am going back in tomorrow. It is grandiose and beautiful (perhaps we should say sublime). It causes you to change the way your eyes see detail and distance. Compared to other environments it is empty. Relatively few birds for instance. But this makes you highly attuned to the birds you do see. The tree coverage is thin – no trees over large expanses, and the trees that do grow are smaller and thinner than most places. But this means you can make out the shapes of the land more clearly. Space is not so packed with visual events, so you mistake distances. Someone points out a wolf to you and your eye looks for something much bigger because you can’t quite get your head around how far away a bit of land is.

The greatest thing Denali has to offer (and Alaska too to a great extent) is a chance to be alone. It is a trail-less park, so you walk where you want except some areas closed due to protection of wildlife ranges. There’s a single road in and out. Walk away from the road, and you can separate yourself from anyone else. The park is so big that it can absorb people. The chance to occupy a large bit of space by yourself for some time is a gift.

When I have an experience of a place like Alaska or Denali, I am aware of the fact that so many other people have experience of the place that is older, deeper, of longer standing and more personal significance that my initiate’s reaction of exhilaration at seeing the park’s space, scale, shapes, and colors. There can be a competition among people for who has the heavier connection to a place. Some people are real Nashvillians (or Chicagoans, or Alaskans, or whatever). In fact there is always someone who is more of the place than you, making you feel like a poseur. Their love is greater and richer. So although you encounter a place in the isolation of personal experience, and feel moved in a way that seems singular, if you talk to people the stories start coming in, and someone will make your experience seem to pale.

This process occurs with works of art as well. We have our personal experience of art, and feel like we took something away from that encounter that changed us and has great significance. But there are always people out there who seem to be trying to show that you do not know the work as well as they. Art writers of all sorts, academic and otherwise (like yours truly) are obvious culprits.

I believe there is a desire to own a work of art, and a desire to own a place. A kind of competitiveness of knowing. It is great to think that you might really know more about something than anyone. At one time I had that sense, after preparing an analysis of the Emerson movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata for my undergraduate oral exam. At the time (a long time ago) I really felt I had cracked this piece, and I hadn’t seen any analysis that I thought went into the same depth. So that raised the possibility that I might have actually gotten further with a piece than most everyone. But I’m not a pianist, and there would be those who had performed the piece. Almost any of them could make a case that they understand it better, although I know at the time I would have argued against that in many cases.

The anxiety to know and feel more probably has up sides and down sides, like everything. As a critic, I know I often don’t really want to hear other people’s ideas about a piece or an artist. I just want them to share my excitement in my own observations. That’s a pretty crappy way to operate in the world, and requires conscientious effort to actually hear people. On the other hand, the desire to know more creates some of that free market effect of pushing people, or at least certain kinds of people, to go farther. What would it take for me to have that sense again, that I understood even one piece of music a bit better than almost anyone else?

I have pretty good Alaska experiences. I come up here from time to time. It’s on business, so I get to know a lot of Alaskans in the process. I can recount their stories. I share work with them. I come at different times of the year. So I can feel superior to a mere tourist. But there’s all those people who came and stayed, and many others for whom Alaska is a persistent, tantalizing and motivating dream, longing for a visit or to stay “if only I could figure out a way.” I have no town or place to which I have the claim that comes close to superseding all others. In the end, maybe outside of the most compulsive and single-minded in their devotion to a place, artist, experience, the tourist and dilettante are people’s natural roles.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Sermon

From Ken Johnson’s review in Friday’s Times of a juried exhibit run by a group called Christians in the Visual Arts: “It is hard to think of many great contemporary visual artists who have made Christian faith central to their work.” http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/19/arts/design/19john.html I think he was hedging a bit, because by context I’d say he wanted to say “any” in place of “many.” Either way, the statement seems true. When you survey contemporary visual art, you just do not come up with major figures who explicitly trade in the Christian messages that characterized earlier eras in art. Sure, people use religious images, but it always seems to be to criticize and distance or to address more general psychological or historical insight and sensations. Bill Viola may portray angels, but it doesn’t seem married to Christianity. Johnson contrasts the visual arts with literature, where you have Flannery O’Connor (or Walker Percy) making Christian art.

I think this observation starts from a comparison with earlier eras, but one factor that differentiates the current period is that Christianity is no longer compulsory. In earlier eras, how much of the religious art came from someone working within conventions to explore realms of sensation? Would artists have painted so many religious paintings if that wasn’t where the commissions came from? In Michelangelo you appear to have had a true believer, but what about the flesh of those Raphael virgins? Sure, it’s just the expression of inner spiritual energy.

Today, religious groups in no way represent a significant source of funds for advanced expression in visual art. For the most part church organizations do not fling money around for art like a High Renaissance pope, and when they do it is in the spirit of restoring supposedly long-lost artistic values, turning back the clock as opposed to accepting that art builds upon itself and promoting art that integrates what has gone before.

An objection to Johnson’s statement might be that the Christian expression is there, but in the best cases it isn’t expressed so crudely as to be immediately pigeon-holed as Christian art. It’s more like U2 – these guys are understood to be Christian, but they express that through something subtler and more universal. I don’t know of major visual artists whose work reflects a Christian identity in a similar way, but that is not to say there aren’t some. Of course one of Johnson’s complaints about this show is that some of the work is not Christian enough, open to other interpretations that do not necessarily have to do with the religion.

Johnson’s main criticism is that most of the work is “bound up in outdated, illustrative and technical clichés.” I haven’t seen the show, but I would expect this to be right. I imagine the work just isn’t as stimulating and energetic as what you would find in a Chelsea or Brooklyn gallery.

He does like several pieces, and he credits them with stylistic invention and a Christian context that makes “the situation seem even more charged.” He ends by arguing that there is potential for combining faith and artistic ambition, but the implication is that it is mostly unrealized potential.

If artists are to realize this potential, for one thing they have to avoid relegating themselves to a Christian art ghetto. There is encouragement in that direction: criticisms that the art isn’t clearly enough Christian, as if it must carry a sign so unsuspecting viewers don’t stumble into it; a separatist culture of Christian bookstores, schools, and social networks that fosters a protective, insular environment and also holds some prospect for financial reward (the exhibit reviewed is at the Museum of Biblical Art). Visual artists mist look for ways to deal with Christianity in substance as it exists today, variegated, troubled, dangerous and healing, and enter into the fray of the mainstream of art. The work will be better and more interesting.

Once upon a time Christianity was part of the West’s intellectual life, even long after the religion lost its political, economic, and intellectual dominance. Now too many Christians see that intellectual world as being another land, even the enemy. They want to destroy it, not act as part of it. That’s a lost opportunity.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Octavia Butler

In his comments on a post here about Alexis Rockman, Greg Pond brought up Philip K. Dick as an example that argues against seeing science fiction as limited or lesser than “non-generic” art. This made me think of other sci fi writers you would cite in a similar way, like Frank Herbert, and Octavia Butler.

Butler is a black woman, I think based in LA, and a MacArthur grant winner. I’ve read two related books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, set in a near future where the older characters were born in contemporary times. It’s a dystopic future where global warming has disrupted agriculture and economies, with Dickensian poverty, scarce oil, rampant violence, new drug scourges, the US politically disintegrating, and an ascendant and virulent Christianist movement taking over – a breed of totalitarianism taking advantage of social disorder.

I often think about these books when contemplating the trajectory and spirit of current political and social trends: the government getting out of providing services, people left to fend for themselves, a Christian movement dedicated to the domination of political structures, and of course every new scare about global warming.

I think there are problems with her vision, in particular she depicts a world in which the police and military are largely absent, where it really seems that the government is pushing to extend the reach of the state control of violence and trying to create a social order with a minimum of ripples on the surface.

I find myself tempted to introduce Butler’s description of the future into conversations, say with my wife, about how things are going, but find myself getting into trouble with it. It ends up sounding extreme and not very well connected to reality. Which raises the question of the extent to which you take sci fi scenarios you find compelling – in my cases, from Octavia Butler – as descriptions of a likely future, a kind of perversely alluring fantasy, or some sort of commentary of the spirit of the present. It is tempting to go with the first, most literal option. “Don’t you see, this is exactly what she’s saying in her books.” But I’m not sure Octavia Butler would want it that way. It’s a crude reading, excessively literal. Then again, the topicality of the narrative is hard to leave behind. Does it blind us or overwhelm whatever else might be going on?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Jay DeFeo

In the last year or so I’ve read about a painting by West Coast artist, Jay DeFeo, The Rose. It must have been almost two years ago when it showed at the Whitney (http://www.abstract-art.com/abstraction/l2_Grnfthrs_fldr/g084c_DeFao_The-Rose.html). It’s a massive work, composed by building up oil paint in a thick impasto so it becomes sculptural. I haven’t seen this, but last week in San Francisco I got to see another work by DeFeo, along the same lines. Called “Incision,” it’s 10 feet tall, with a vertical orientation, filled with a mass of black and grey paint that seems as heavy and solid as stone (http://collections.sfmoma.org/Obj22$88176). A few pieces of string stuck in the paint dangle down. It’s a monumental work, taking patterns of abstract expressionist painting and giving them a sculptural presence that is implied in the thick surfaces of many of the painters but never fully realized when taken into stone or bronze. DeFeo’s work gave the colors a body to live in, and the colors, even if they are just blacks and greys, put Abstract Expressionist painting into motion.

Rather than referring to the color as living in this encrusted paint, maybe it’s better to say it was encased in it. The work feels like an ancient gravesite excavated from its location and displayed in a museum. You expect to see the bones of an ancient human embedded in the hardened stuff that used to be porous, shiftable, or liquid.

DeFeo was born on the east coast but lived and made art in the Bay Area, part of the Beat scene there in the 50s and 60s (“Incision” is dated 1958-61). She died in 1989 at 60.

SF MOMA’s collection is smaller than MOMA in NY, but covers a lot of the same bases, maybe going a little further back into Impressionism. It does however, have emphasis shifts, definitely including more West Coast artists, like DeFeo. There always seems to be this alternate history for the West Coast, whether it’s hip-hop or jazz, or painting. You could argue that DeFeo was stuck in an Abstract Expressionist vocabulary well after pop art was starting to dominate in New York, and therefore is more marginal to cultural history than someone working with image-based art at the same time. The massive power of a piece like “Incision” is hard to dismiss, and if she needs the proper historical context, the literary-artistic milieu she was a member of has huge importance. But no one museum can tell every story, and a good art museum has to have a story line. A West Coast institution has to take responsibility for telling a West Coast story.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Artists In the Bay Area See

Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco is currently running a regional show, Bay Area Now 4 (there’s also performing arts and film/video components to the show: http://ybca.org/ban4/index.htm). One thing that comes out in several of the artists is a real fascination with their physical and social surroundings, the place itself, which is something you come to expect from Western artists. The landscape imposes itself so forcefully onto your consciousness, whether it is in the form of mountain ranges, the ocean fog coming in and clearing, or the prospect and aftermath of fires and earthquakes. There is also the fetish of the West’s own relatively short (white) history, with caricatures of miners still knocking around the visual landscape. The potential for contact with wilderness, a brief glimpse of being alone in the natural world, also gives the physical environment more power to exercise overpowering psychic effects. Jack Dingo Ryan, recently returned to Middle Tennessee but a child of the Northwest, talks about this in his work in terms of the Kantian category of the sublime.

This fixation with the place shows up in three forms in three artists in this show. Sasha Petrenko has constructed a low wooden shack that looks like a crude frontier shelter. You walk into it to find a fragmented diorama of a Western landscape with models of modern vehicles like RVs and trucks scattered around, the contemporary conveyances of a people still in motion through this landscape. Adriane Colburn turns her attention to a more contemporary landscape, a big grid made from cut paper that runs along a wall and down onto the floor, representing the sewage system of San Francisco. The grid has been coded to reflect the city’s natural waterways which have been diverted into the system. She even opens up the gallery wall and some conduit inside it to integrate cables pulled from it into her piece’s grid. This grid points to one physical manifestation of the interconnection of people in a city, and of their connection through such structures to the physical landscape. The size of the piece gives the sense of it being an enveloping network of connection, and by integrating the architecture of the gallery the piece merges the viewer’s experience directly into that network.

Christine Shields deals more purely with the social characteristics of the place in a series of portrait paintings. These include a set of pictures of young hip-looking men who all have beards, the members of the band Vetiver, and an iconic portrait of the musician Devandra Banhart. The accumulation of pictures makes you aware of artist’s being surrounded by people that she is able to draw lines between to form connections on various grounds. Banhart and the musicians in Vetiver are friends, part of a scene in San Francisco that gets labeled neo-hippie or something else equally reductive. They appear on each others’ albums and tour together. The portraitist comes across as seeing herself linked to an exciting network of creative people, which you imagine is central to her experience of the Bay Area as a place.

In Shields’ portrait, Banhart is placed on a vibrant red background with orange streaks radiating out from his like an aura or corona. It turns him into an icon, bringing in a note of self-importance that characterizes the interest in place everywhere it occurs in this show. It’s not enough that Banhart is a musician and maybe a valued friend, but he is endowed with the trappings of sainthood. The invocations of local civil engineering and the history of Western settlement can have the feeling of “the epic story of the West.”

My sense that there is a grandiosity in this work is colored to some extent from my experience in traveling from Nashville and arriving in San Francisco. It is a much more ambitious city, with more obvious displays of community wealth, and it generates much more fascination from other parts of the world. It is awash in tourists in a way that Nashville never is, for all of its status as the home of country music. People do not swoon over our town the same way. Institutions in SF are bigger and there are more of them – the Yerba Buena complex, with its gallery, theatre, and whatnot is directly across the street from SF MOMA, with its landmark building and a collection that reflects the presence of very great wealth. Just on this one block.

Among the other work in the show, it was good to see Chris Ballantyne’s work again after his Cheekwood show. Christian Maychack makes site specific works that incorporate architectural details from the space like a staircase or a gallery divider wall and transform them in ways that confuse perspective. Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh collaborated on two sound installations. In one, a series of small speakers was mounted along a two-story wall, emitting the sounds of shell casings hitting the ground. The sound was gorgeous, ringing with a clear high pitch, and of course creepy – the retort of the shot removed, just leaving its aftermath. The other piece placed speakers behind a large pane of glass, giving off wet smacking/kissing sounds. It could have represented the sound of bullets entering flesh, again stripped of the rest of the sounds like the cries of agony.

An auxiliary to this show might be a work across the street in a photography show at SF MOMA. The show displays pieces lent by a single collector (I think this is one of those cases where the museum is courting the collector to try land a donation of the works at some future date). It includes a panoramic view of the city of San Francisco taken from a high point in 1877, by Eadweard Muybridge, the guy who did the sequential photo studies of a horses and people in motion. The 360 degree view is split into several photos. There’s nothing unusual in landscape as a topic, but it does go along with a sense of “take a look at this place” that seems to come across a bit more strongly than with artists in other places. In Nashville I think the engagement with place takes a more personal form.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Woonsocket

During our trip to Rhode Island we ventured out of Providence into the Blackstone River valley, a corridor of old mill towns ending in Worcester, Mass. Woonsocket, RI was at one time a leading center for manufacture of woolen fabric, but it suffered through an earlier era of deindustrialization as mills moved to the Southern US in pursuit of cheaper labor. There was a listener commentary on NPR recently in response to a piece on Southern mills closing due to overseas competition, where this guy remembered how basically the same process occurred in the early and middle 20th century to bring those jobs to places like the Carolinas in the first place. It left behind cities with anemic economies. And maybe in an earlier time, Woonsocket was the beneficiary of a similar process. During the height of the city’s industrial economy, before and after 1900, the mills there were staffed with lots of workers from French Canada, who were the cheap immigrant labor of their day, giving the owners a way to undercut the wage demands of “native” workers. At one point 60% of the population was French Canadian.

Woonsocket still seems down on its heels. One thing to say for them is that they have preserved many of the old mill buildings, and converted them into housing – but unlike Chicago or a big city, it doesn’t look these have become luxury lofts, but appear to be used in a lot of cases for subsidized or affordable housing.

We wandered into the historical museum in Woonsocket. Usually I skip these, most due to laziness in the face of something that seems too close to being in school, but this was very well done. It is small, and with minimal resources its presents a version of the town’ history structured around a passionately pro-worker point of view. Its name gives an idea about it: The Museum of Work and Culture (http://www.woonsocket.org/workandculture.htm). The museum lays out the economics behind the experience of French Canadian immigrant factory workers and their families. The exhibits address the transition from self-sufficient agriculture in Quebec to paid factory work, the nature of the work and of the relations between owners, supervisors, and workers, and the role of the Catholic Church in preserving French identity and maintaining industrial order. The galleries include simple games to demonstrate basic factory tasks, like sorting bobbins and installing yarn spindles. It allows you to time yourself and explains the time requirements you would have had as a worker (demonstrating you how hard the work was). It also gets into the mechanics of control on the shop floor, like time sheets and technical expertise. This may sound dry, but rather than relying on long text explanations, oral history recordings play and you can handle artifacts like an original copy of a thick operating manual for a complex automated loom in use in 1960. Just leafing through this volume shows you how the complexity of the machine vested power in whoever had full knowledge of its technical operations. There’s a great display that shows what went into home work production of costume jewelry, including the loose “jewels” and stock settings used.

The person at the museum’s front desk attributed the exhibit concept and design to the site’s co-manager, Ray Bacon, and it is almost inconceivable that a museum with such a strong point of view would have come about through a committee process. The exhibits put forth a clear narrative of the French-Canadian workers’ experience in Woonsocket, they deal directly with their hardships, and do not try to cast the “golden age” of Woonsocket manufacturing as an Eden. It makes the case of workers’ rights rather than resorting to saying in some form “we told you so – wasn’t it a lot better when at least there were jobs here.” This museum refuses to take that false exchange, and they end up as one of the "reddest" (as in red diaper baby, not red state) museums I've ever seen.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Le Tigre, one of my favorite bands

Le Tigre played the Exit/In in Nashville last night. They're one of the few bands that I really want to hear. They have a very polished stage act, not much punk chaos. The band trades off delivering spoken, rapped, and shouted lyrics, with occasional steps into punkier scream-singing, over bouncy samples and drum machine tracks with live guitar on top. Like a hip-hop act, there’s dancing all the way through, and synchronized moves as they trade turns at the guitar and the sampler keyboard, and a video backdrop perfectly timed to the samples – an anti-Bush number included footage from protests in New York with the voices of the speakers on the sample tracks. The act is immediately likable, eye and ear candy for boys and girls, but unapologetically rooted in a feminist-progressive-lesbian (or sexually free) milieu. They did songs like “What’s Your Take on Cassavetes” which pitch-perfectly captures a kind of conversation that only can occur in an intelligentsia hipster relationship, and “Hot Topic” with its shoutouts to a long list of feminist heroes – if you can track all these references, it positions you in an alternate world (that deserves to be the prevailing world) where these writers, musicians, scholars, and artists are the culture guideposts. An exhibit last year in Cincinnati on political art in the 80s reminded me of how the art of that progressive world was pretty dreary back then. Nowadays guys like Le Tigre make it fun – a hell of a lot more fun than the prevailing culture, which is filled with killjoys and worse. The tables have been turned, and this seems more the rightful order. Le Tigre reclaims pleasure as an essential counter-cultural value.


Be Your Own Pet opened the band, at a time shockingly close to 9:00, so I was in line on the sidewalk during their set and still haven't really heard them. It sounded good from the street. I talked to two friends at the show who also got there late and haven't heard BYOP yet, and these guys go to a lot more shows than I do. Maybe it's becoming a thing, how long can you go without hearing the band. I have seen one of their side projects, Jimmy Cushman! (the apostrophe is an official part of the name), just guitar and drums, good straight forward hardcore, and my friends rave about another BYOP side project Deluxin'. But I haven't heard that yet either.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Alexis Rockman, Sci-Fi Wannabe?

Spent a pleasant weekend in Providence, Rhode Island, taking a break from the Southern summer. I was a bit surprised to realize that RISD runs the primary art museum in town, but it is quite good. It’s a small facility, with a little bit of everything (I think – most of the European galleries were closed), and well chosen. I get a lot more out of Roman or Greek art on this scale, rather than the Met.

One of the temporary exhibits was Alexis Rockman’s Manifest Destiny, a monumental painting of a speculative view of the Brooklyn waterfront in the year 5000, after humanity has burned itself out and the world is a lot warmer. Water covers everything, and the view is a cutaway to show the submerged remains of human civilization, the decayed infrastructure of tunnels and bridges, and all variety of swimming creatures, many sporting deformities from centuries of poisoning and genetic abuse. Here’s a couple of sites with pictures.

http://newsgrist.typepad.com/underbelly/2004/11/human_vs_nature.html
http://intranet.risd.edu/pdfs/Rockman.pdf

I saw this painting a couple of years ago when it was part of the Brooklyn Museum’s inauguration of its renovations. The painting is big, 24 feet long, with lots of detail to pick out. RISD has done more with displaying it than Brooklyn did, pointing viewers to some Hudson River and American Luminist paintings in the collection that are sources for the colors, the scale, and some of the atmospheric effects.

My wife, who is very smart (I could put together a blog just of perceptive and trenchant comments she makes in my presence in the course of a day), asked rhetorically how this painting is different than any sci-fi illustrator’s vision of Earth’s future. The realist style would fit in, and all of Rockman’s research is not so different from what someone in that realm would do. This painting may have more referential levels: to earlier schools of American painting, including its title which turns upside down their role in building the myth of a manifest destiny of white Americans over a majestic landscape considered empty; to vernacular museum painting, particular dioramas (his mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History); and finally to the enterprise of contemporary art, whose home base is the Brooklyn pictured.

One question is what separates something that is treated as “art” and given the museum treatment and “popular” art that runs through other channels. Or whether there really is any difference. I had a friend in college who used to argue that the most profound art was psychedelic album covers and whatnot. He said that sort of work carried him the farthest mentally, led to more insights and new experiences than traditional art – especially when tripping, but not only then. To some extent he was trying to get a rise out of those of us who had more conventional notions. A psychedelic design was cool, but not great like Rembrandt. But he was also serious about this argument, and it prefigured the current situation where there is no reason an artist can’t start with that kind of visual vocabulary and continue to pursue its basic pleasures. Still, one wants to see someone take that sort of genre base into a more nuanced engagement with experience. You look for things like whether the work takes into account its own status as an object, or whether the image is presented unproblematically as pure image. I think if Rockman does this in Manifest Destiny, it is by virtue of the scale of the work, which calls to mind different museum contexts and a body of monumental painting one can call to mind. A smaller work with a similar theme, Washington Square, also on display at RISD, is a straighter painting, but other paintings which I’ve only seen on the web are more surrealistic. There’s some range of painting vocabulary at work here, but I haven’t seen enough to get into it. And he consistently pursues a voice of strong ecological protest.

Here in Nashville, there is a student at the Watkins College, Mike Bielaczyc, who has had some success as a fantasy illustrator and is now getting his BFA (http://www.aradani.com/frameset.htm) . I’ve only seen a little of his work, but I’m sure I’ll see more before long. I’m interested to see what he does to synthesize his background in fantasy painting, drawing, and even costuming, with the contemporary aesthetics Watkins offers. It could lead to something really engaging, or be a combination that never quite gels. If Rockman is an art-school artist moving into popular modes of visual art, Bielaczyc might be making an opposite progression.

Monday, August 01, 2005

NY Times Review of Religious Art in Context

Holland Cotter had a great review in last Friday’s NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/29/arts/design/29cott.html?oref=login). It’s on an exhibit in Worcester of art that was produced in response to the plague in Europe from 1500-1800. Cotter explains that the curators have presented the works within their functional religious context, as acts of or prompts to devotion, talismans, and manuals offering instruction in piety. The paintings are viewed “through the eyes of a believer for whom a picture of the Virgin is a moral lesson and an emotional encounter before it is a Tiepolo or Tintoretto.”
Maybe because I’m part of the church-going world, I’ve been aware of the oddness in how we experience religious art in a museum – taken from its altar or chapel, lined up with other disparate paintings along a wall. In church we to some extent integrate the visual elements (sculpture, carvings, stained glass, painting) into the rest of our liturgical work. It’s not always great art, but it does the trick, and there’s no reason it can’t be great art. The Rothko Chapel works superlatively as a functional space for meditation, and you can never quite reach the same psychic space with a Rothko in a gallery, no matter how sensitively staged.
All you have to do is think about music to see Cotter’s point. We have different expectations of church music than concert or club music. I wouldn’t want to listen to a crowd singing the doxology, but I look forward to it as part of a service. There is unquestionably great church music (start with Bach). And you can go to some churches where it is performed at a stellar level – I have a friend who sings in the choir at St. Bartholomew’s on Park Ave. in NY, and it sounds like a superb group. But most people also tolerate something less perfectly executed. The purposes and expectations are different than a concert.
Cotter’s last paragraph is great:
“This approach also prompts an encouraging thought. Maybe someday in the future, when we are not here, a few bright scholars will re-examine art produced in response to AIDS in the United States in the late 20th century, and in Africa at the beginning of the 21st century. And maybe those scholars will choose to focus not on the comparative quality of objects or styles, but on intangible elements that science tends to be shy of: how art provokes emotion and conveys belief, and how a certain kind of art, at a certain time, gave certain people who felt the earth had been swept away beneath them a place to stand.”