Monday, October 18, 2010

The Byzantinizing of America

In yet another piece on the decline of the humanities that he did so much to accelerate, Stanley Fish paraphrases the cutback mentality: “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’ Nothing.” Or you could say this:

America has had a longstanding fling with the Gothic and Romanesque, but there is good reason to think we’re in the midst of her belated affair with the other medieval style – the Byzantine. Need evidence? How much time do you have? It’s too easy to point to the countless Orthodox churches in the Byzantine style, so here are some Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic ones as well. More recently, consider the Museum of Russian Icons that sprung up in the bosom of New England, or the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art & Culture that opened just this month.

Yes, Byzantine art is currently experiencing the benefits (and drawbacks) of being "so hot right now," and the fact that Fish repeatedly refers to its study as the quintessence of academic obscurity only tells us how much he is not. For example, last weekend, realizing I could not avail myself of all the opportunities to hear fascinating papers on the subject, I had to compromise, splitting my time between the Byzantine Studies Conference, and the Rubin Museum of Art icon symposium that compared Eastern Orthodox and Buddhist imagery.

At the Byzantine Studies conference, Yale’s Robert Nelson reminded us that at foundation of this country’s official art collection – the National Gallery of Art – lay two icons chosen for their Byzantine characteristics, the Kahn and Mellon Madonnas. At the Rubin Museum conference, two Russian Orthodox priests explained to a packed auditorium how post-Soviet Russia (not to mention the rest of the Orthodox world) is currently experiencing an extraordinary resurgence of icon and fresco painting, one that is naturally being reflected on this continent as well. Faced with incisive questions from New York Times Moscow correspondent Ellen Barry, Archpriest Igor Vyzhanov won over the room with witness and wit, as if Richard John Neuhaus had returned, this time with a thick Russian accent.

On the next day of the Rubin conference, Gary Vikan of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum remarked how one of his Byzantine exhibitions resulted in a noteworthy conversion. When compared to Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the Christian icons, not surprisingly, emerged very metaphysically distinct. The Sepulchre is empty, the Stupa is not - and that has made all the difference.

Beyond museums and conferences, one could also point to practice, as evidenced by the yellow dots on this map for the Prosopon School of Iconology, a training center for the making of icons. There are numerous similar studios, such as Eileen McGuckin’s, and even indigenous American thaumaturgic icons such as the Virgin of Arizona. Still, can icons really be considered distinctly American? Recall those that were lifted from the ashes of lower Manhattan’s St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in mid-September, 2001.

Glen Peers has suggested that the icon is a chief means of understanding American modern art, and the same goes for contemporary art. The ecumenical Christian endorsement of icons, wrote Jean Luc Marion, "formulates above all and - perhaps the only - alternative to the contemporary disaster of the image." The Renaissance-centered art history through which most of us learned about painting has long been undergoing serious revisions; and a chief way this is happening is by understanding the Renaissance’s closeted backstory, which is – you guessed it - Byzantine art. (This, you'll recall, is why there is a menacing cloud over Giorgio Vasari's Florence pictured above). Yes, icons can be faddish, especially when embraced by the theologically nescient - but understand the history of icons, and the superficiality dissolves.

So yes, there is good reason for a taxpayer to believe that Byzantine art is worth studying. What there is less justification for is the fishy thinking that generated the crisis in the humanities in the first place.