Monday, October 26, 2009

Christ Dead in London

As I strolled through London thanks to a felix culpa of a missed flight connection, I saw a truck that had a grizzly close-up photograph of a bleeding, crucified Christ who looked out intently, accompanied by the words, "Look what he did for you! Don't go to hell!" It's just the kind of thing that the sophisticated Londoner would balk at - except that it isn't. The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery made the truck - and even the inevitably two dimensional canvass of Mel Gibson - look somewhat tame. Though they couldn't have planned it, this exhibit turns out to be a sort of complement to the Vatican initiative to welcome Anglicans. It's as in-your-face Spanish Catholic as an exhibit can get, but rather than recoiling, onetime Cromwellian London - from the reviews I read - seems to love it.

It was difficult not to. If art shows got Oscars, this show would get one for lighting. Walking through the exhibit is like inhabiting a chiaroscuro dreamscape. These images hover on the edge of kitsch, nevertheless, they somehow avoid the charge, at certain points only barely. If, as Oscar Wilde remarked, sentimentality is having an emotion without paying for it, then these sculptures and paintings - despite potentially saccharine themes like Bernard of Clairvaux's erotic visions - definitely extract a fee.

In a brilliantly defiant essay to introduce an exhibition on crucifixes, Leon Wieseltier once remarked in admiration, as only an unbeliever can, "What would art have been without religious nonsense?" I imagine he, and many unbelieving viewers, might be brought to a similar place by this exhibit. But, Martin Gayford at the Telegraph issues an important reminder:
Christ Carrying the Cross (1619) by Montañés is still carried through the streets during Holy Week on the shoulders of 30 men.... the realism was not intended as an artistic sensation, but as an aid to the religious imagination.
In a meditation on Irving Kristol's passing in this month's First Things, Jody Bottum wrestles with the charge that Kristol saw religion as merely useful.
[Kristol] had an utter conviction of the social utility of Judeo-Christian religion, but the rebuttal of social utility arguments is easy: The good social effects of religion are not gained when people practice religion for the sake of its good social effects; those effects come, instead, only when people practice religion for the sake of itself.
Replace the word "social" in that paragraph with "artistic," and one has a gentle retort to those who, with alleged magnanimity, applaud the aesthetic utility of Christian faith.