Friday, December 11, 2009

Does God have all the best art?

Shirley Dent responds to that question with a "Yes," adding "I detest the cynicism about humanity that clings to the conceptual nooks and crannies of secular, ironic, postmodern art." She declares the best art to be religious, even Christian. She lists some awful examples of contemporary art, and sounds the praises of a Christian altarpiece. Dent is not writing for a conservative religious publication, but participating in a forum sponsored by Britain's famously secular newspaper, The Guardian. Of course, Guardian readers will require from the author a few disclaimers lest she be deemed too religious herself, and here they are, three firm knocks on a wide open door:
1. no god of any shape, size or hue owns those great works.

2. Religious art may be framed by the iconography of a Christian tradition but its starting point is human.

3. This is not art simply in thrall to an abstract divine but art working through the Christian narrative to transfigure and transcend the confines of lives that were for the most part "nasty, brutish and short".
Somewhere, there may be a religious person who thinks (1) a god of some particular size, shape and hue "owns" an art collection, (2) Christian art just drops from the sky - no human participation is involved, and (3) Christians worship an "abstract divine" that has no bearing on the difficulties of human life. Wherever they are, they can consider themselves soundly refuted.

It's a shame that the irreligious ethos of Britain requires Dent to attach such tortured disclaimers to her straightforward and refreshing observations. There is, in fact, no contradiction between Christian faith and a thorough celebration of human dignity (with all the happy artistic consequences), for the best kind of humanism naturally springs from belief in the God who became human. As for contemporary art, yes, things are bad, and we should not hesitate to say as much. But for a more nuanced analysis, one might have better luck with conservative religious publications, or Dan Siedell's God in the Gallery.