Are the days of great “Church art” gone forever? Not if James Flood has anything to do with the matter.
As executive director of the Bethesda-Md.-based Foundation for Sacred Arts, he looks back at history to envision what can be in the future. “The fine arts — classical music, great literature, great art — seem to be on the cutting edge of culture change. The popular arts seem to follow later,” he says, explaining why he and his wife, Jeannette, launched the foundation in 2002. (It’s online at thesacredarts.org.)
“I felt that, if we are going to re-evangelize our culture,” he adds, “this is one piece that needs to be given far more attention.”
Flood spoke with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.
What was the first thing you did with the Foundation for Sacred Arts, and what do you have going right now?
The earliest thing that we really put out in the public was, I had formed the Sacred Arts Chamber Choir, and we did mostly contemporary sacred choral works. Then we had our first traveling exhibit, which was called “Contemplating the Sacred: Religious Works of Contemporary Artists.”
The foundation’s main activity now is putting on these traveling exhibits. Our second one is going on now. It’s called “Redeeming Beauty: Religious Works of Contemporary Artists.” The first exhibit was made up of 35 works. This is made up of 47. It contains paintings, sculptures. It also has a work of stained glass. Not only are there more but we have some larger works, paintings and sculptures, that are quite large. Both exhibits are made up of artists from around the country. (To find out where to view the exhibits, go to thesacredarts.org and click on the “Traveling Art Exhibit” tab.)
Given the dearth of contemporary sacred art, is it difficult pulling an exhibit together?
It’s not. The good news is there is more out there than I thought. Artists who do religious works are very eager to have an opportunity like this. The first exhibit was made up of 10 artists. This second one is made up of about 35 artists. There is some honest-to-goodness talent out there.
Art once played a catechetical role in the church. Does it still do so today?
Absolutely. We don’t realize just how much our intellect is formed by what we see. It really has quite an effect, our surroundings, on forming our opinions, beliefs. So as a result, the visual arts, even in a time when practically everyone is literate, it still functions to teach the faith. If it’s good art that is holy, it influences us toward God. Unholy art that is artistically done, artistically well, is the most dangerous. It can be particularly effective in leading us away from God.
When religious-oriented art is in the news today, it seems it’s typically related to blasphemous art. Is that reality or perception?
Well, blasphemous is out there. It truly is. I would say that art that specifically blasphemes against religion is in the minority. I don’t think most modern art is directly attacking Christianity. But there definitely is that sort of subgenre. One of the reasons why I wanted to start the foundation was, it seemed like the only religious art that could be considered justifiable by the art elites was art that somehow undermined what is the traditional understanding of Christianity and Christ.
What is the most important step needed to revitalize Christian art today?
I don’t know if I could distill it down to one specific thing, but I would say we need to educate. We need to educate the public about the value of religious art, and what is art that is appropriate, especially appropriate for the liturgy, and that includes music as well. I hope that we can educate priests because they really are such leaders in the Church.
And we need to educate the artists themselves so we can recapture the tradition of sacred-art training of the past. This would include training in artistic techniques as well as training and understanding and knowing authentic theology. And, if they happen to be doing art that is tied to the liturgy, they need to understand how art and music fit into liturgy.
Can Christian art ever become as popular it once was?
That would be rough, at least in the foreseeable future. But I wouldn’t rule it out. I think it can be a larger force than we have seen over the last 100 years or so. Artists need to be encouraged to feel the freedom and to not be afraid to express their faith in their art. There has been a kind of repression of the religious imagination. I think that, once it’s allowed to be released, we’ll see a lot more quality religious art.
Is there a particular mode in which most Christian art today falls, for example modern or postmodern, and does mode have anything to do with lack of popularity?
There are a lot of problems as far as the visual arts go. I see a lot of well-meaning, devout Christians trying to reconcile Christianity with the modernist aesthetic. I’m all in favor of new creativity and new styles, and I think that has been the tradition. Art should not be merely mimicking art from the past. The great art has always been unique to its times, and that’s what we need today: art that is unique to the 21st century.
But reconciling ugliness with beauty — with God, who is beauty — I don’t think is reconcilable. I’m not saying that we can’t present the ugly realities of living in this world. We can do that so long as we show what St. Thomas Aquinas would call the “intelligible beauty.”
As far as art that is intended for liturgy, I think we have a problem of cutesiness and a certain triteness. I don’t think that has bolstered the faith of Catholics, and you could probably say the same for evangelicals and other Protestants.
What are the challenges facing today’s artists who want to create sacred art?
There’s no financial support. The Christian artist today has to compete with prefabricated art that can be ordered out of catalogues by churches. He has to compete with the world of fine arts, which looks down on the idea of making Christian art. He or she has very few venues, which is why they’re so excited to have our traveling exhibits.
Anthony Flott writes from