Meaningless Art

I have a new hero. He is a janitor at Dortmund’s Museum Ostwall, and he’s in big trouble for accidentally cleaning up a puddle that turned out to be an essential part of a 1.1 million dollar work of art. This piece…

…is now ruined.

And I’m roflin. I am instantly reminded of C.S. Lewis’ incredible essay, on Good Works and Good Work, in which he stated – with wonderful appropriateness to the current situation:

But [...] I doubt whether we have a duty to “appreciate” the ambitious. This attitude to art is fatal to good work. Many modern novels, poems, and pictures, which we are brow-beaten into “appreciating” are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children’s story. These are often sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labor successfully used to do what is intended. Do not misunderstand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not a work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines have gone into it.

Speaking frankly, C.S. Lewis is the man. He is the man because he understands that art is not the mere conveyance of self for the mere enjoyment of self. It is a gift to mankind. It is a symbol. It is a part of a triadic relationship between artist, art and viewer, not a dyadic relationship between art and artist, that the viewer – with luck – is let in on. This is a truth we must, must, must bear in mind when considering the art of the Church, whether it be our architecture, Stations of the Cross, crucifixes, tabernacles, or monstrances. Is it good work? Is man lifted up by it? Or are our creations mere artistic riddles one may or may not solve?

Take this, for instance:

Now the Traddy might get up in arms that the thing is blasphemous, but he’d miss the point. The point is that the very existence of any argument over the piece’s meaning, beauty, and appropriateness means that it has failed as a piece of work, no matter what it has achieved as a piece of art. No matter how potentially awesome it is, for the simple fact that it does not take into account the “existing tastes, interests and capacity” of the faithful, the work has failed.

It all comes down to a certain humility in creation. I, writing this post, could begin to spin and weave in my favorite Renaissance poetry so as to create within my words some artistic flair. (Actually, I couldn’t, but you get my meaning.) I might wring out of this writing some semblance of art. But that is not the point. The point is to convey.

And it is in that simplicity and humility of art that beauty is found. For one of the three principle parts of beauty is claritas, clarity or conveyance. If your work is unbelievably gorgeous but does not convey, it has failed in art’s great end; to be beautiful. And don’t be afraid to see this same principle applied in areas that aren’t considered artistic creation. In our relationships, our prayer lives, our families and our jobs, always we should consider the question; “Are we doing good work? Or are we mere spilled puddles, ambitiously seeking some end other than goodness, truth and beauty?” It’s worth mulling over.

So let us continue converting the entire world by way of beauty.

Puritanism, Hedonism, and Nudity
In Defense of Stupid Conversions (God Exists!)
The Best Porn in the World
The Glory of Being Shut Up
  • Chloe Austyn Holley

    where is that third image from?

    • Marc Barnes

      Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist

      • David

        It’s actually at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee Wisconsin. By the way, Holy Name Cathedral is in Chicago and it is a beautiful Cathedral.

    • Christopher Mathieu

      No idea. All I can say about it is that my first thought on seeing it was, “That’s hideous.” So the artist only succeeded if his goal was revulsion.

      • Justin Kolodziej

        Less hideous than having a “Risen Christ” where the Crucifix should be… just my opinion though.

        • Chloe Austyn Holley

          agreed! I just saw those for the first time in a parish supply catalog. Was shocked!

  • Kenny

    I am so with you right until… “The point is that the very existence of any argument over the piece’s meaning, beauty, and appropriateness means that it has failed as a piece of work, no matter what it has achieved as a piece of art.” That line is terrible thinking.

    I actually like the third image, and as I don’t usually like modern art, especially in a church setting, that is a very strange feeling for me. But consider that same Traddy who loves Gregorian chant and wants Gregorian chant heavily featured in the mass. I find Gregorian chant to be fairly boring and tend to pay less attention to a Mass where it is heavily featured. Has Gregorian chant as an art failed as work because it failed to reach me? It may be a partial failure, but I wouldn’t condemn the work itself.

    The reality for us mortals is that we are consigned to look at God’s Creation and our own with imperfect lenses. The kicker is that the lenses aren’t even the same. I absolutely agree with you that there is such a thing as objective beauty, but what I also believe is that our fallen nature causes us sometimes to fail to perceive that beauty.

    While there is little more irritating than the “artist” whose arrogance places him above the people he is supposed to serve, we should use restraint when trying to judge which artists fall into that category.

    • Joseph K.

      Gregorian Chant in the context of the Mass is not art. It is not performance or entertainment. It isn’t dealt with in the same way that the Crucifix is, in terms of judging its appropriateness. The Church herself has spoken, and Chant has “pride of place” – it isn’t because of “taste” but because it *IS* beautiful; even if it doesn’t appeal to your sensibilities. Beauty in this sense is the same as “healthy” – there is an objective nature to it which Marc has previously discussed. A food can be “healthy” even if we dont like it.

      Similarly, Chant has “pride of place” and belongs in the Mass because the Church has said so. It has said so, because it is beautiful.

      • Kenny

        I used to think going to Mass was like eating my vegetables. I know plenty of others who thought the same way. Most of them eventually stopped going. I committed the equally grave heresy of finding a Catholic church I wanted to go to.

        The idea that music is not art or that Gregorian Chant is a Sacrament on the same level as Confession or Matrimony is absurd. Chant has “pride of place” because it’s incredibly important to Catholic Tradition, and Catholics of most stripes tend to care a lot about tradition. I have no objection to your declaration that Chant is beautiful, but I definitely fail to perceive it’s beauty.

        But seriously, if all you can read into my comment is a dislike for Gregorian Chant that you find heretical, I don’t think that’s my failure to reach you.

        • Joseph K.


          First, let me say I was not trying to attack you, so if I came off as hostile, please forgive me.

          Next, I was not equating obligatory Mass attendance with “eating your vegetables.” I don’t think could ever be a proper way of looking at Mass attendance. I don’t think “finding a Church you want to go to” is heretical. It *MIGHT* be sinful, but that is not a judgment I am willing to make. That being said, I do think it is vital to our faith, that we learn and understand, to the best of our ability, exactly what the Mass is… or at least what it is supposed to be. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what it isn’t, or shouldn’t be.

          As to the statement about Music, Chant specifically, being a Sacrament, I would never say that. It just doesn’t make sense. I also am not saying that Music isn’t art. What I did say was: Chant, looked at in the context of the Mass is not art. I should have explained further what I meant. I mean that it isn’t art in the sense that it isn’t a performance, or something we create. Liturgy is not created – it is given, to us from God. It is similar to icons. Icons are not painted, they are written. There is a spiritual nature to them that transcends creativity inspiring creation. There is a spiritual quality, something objective at the intrinsic level.

          As for its “pride of place”, it isn’t solely because it’s “important to tradition.” Sacrosanctum Concilium says: “116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

          But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.”

          It acknowledges that Chant is “suited” in an objective way, for the Liturgy. Again, my point that this isn’t about taste or sensibilities, or even tradition. It is an object statement. It goes towards what beauty is, in the same objective way.

          I also never made a statement that I find your dislike of chant heretical, nor would I make that statement. I don’t think that the dislike of chant is heretical anymore than I think dislike of the shape of a vestment is heretical. It just doesnt make sense.

          I understand your point about the brokenness of man, and the warping of our lenses. I agree that sometimes we fail to see beauty for what it is. Yet, it cant deny that beauty exists and we should strive for it. We should strive to make those things which are made for the worship and glory of God – beautiful. That is why when we make things FOR the liturgy, it is especially important. Since we do not CREATE the liturgy itself, we must use those things which are as close to objective beauty as possible within the context of the Mass. This takes our fallen nature out of the picture as much as possible.

          • Kenny

            I think I was being a little flippant for my previous post, which was inappopriate and for that I am sorry.

            I will say that when you said “Beauty in this sense is the same as “healthy” – there is an objective nature to it which Marc has previously discussed. A food can be “healthy” even if we dont like it.” it definitely read like Gregorian Chant was healthy like eating your vegetables was healthy. And I found this both depressing and amusing because of the fact that I and others had perceived not just one element of Mass, but Mass itself, in precisely this way. And the problem with this is that it’s absolutely unhealthy. That Mass is an obligation is unquestionable, but perceiving Mass as a chore puts one in danger of losing their faith.

            The Liturgy is something that God created to serve his people (i.e. us). In this sense the Liturgy is art, God’s Art, if you will, and we are obligated to study and understand it (though, it should be said that much of the Liturgy was created by people, much like the Psalms were written by David) However, throughout the past 2000 years it has become obvious that some, though not all, elements of the liturgical service are flexible and influenced by us. When I lector or cantor at a Church, I am unquestionably an artist and my responsibility as an artist is only enhanced by the importance of the work that I am speaking or singing. If I sang as a cantor or psalmist at a mass without preparing and warming up my voice beforehand, I would be ashamed of myself. Mass is not a “performance” in that it is for entertainment, but many of it’s components are nonetheless art in and of that they require the work of artists to execute.

            I would suggest that if you have a congregation that for whatever reason, is more attentive and involved in a Mass with one style of music than another, “all else” has more or less stopped being equal.

            My theory on Objective Beauty is that it tends to be larger than individual preferences. This is certainly true when we apply it to people, as God’s love for us suggests that we are all beautiful, and yet it is not the case that I find all of his children physically or spiritually beautiful.

            Brian Jay Stanley wrote “I love to hear of people devoting their lives to pursuits that sound dull to me, for I know that their enthusiasm is right and my boredom is wrong, and I am happy for the rebuke.” And while I certainly won’t deny that there is bad art, and bad theology and bad a lot of things, I strongly suspect that those categories are smaller than we tend to perceive.

  • Joseph K.

    This is the most important point you have made in this post:
    The point is that the very existence of any argument over the piece’s meaning, beauty, and appropriateness means that it has failed as a piece of work, no matter what it has achieved as a piece of art. No matter how potentially awesome it is, for the simple fact that it does not take into account the “existing tastes, interests and capacity” of the faithful, the work has failed.

    • Addie Marie

      Joseph: I agree- that’s the most important part of the post, but Marc, honestly it’s one of the times when I think you’re completely off the mark.
      While it may indeed be inappropriate in its orientation- pandering to the tastes of the congregation rather than glorifying God- it it not argument over a piece’s meaning that means a piece has failed.
      Rather, I think it’s a LACK of argument- a lack of mystery or intrigue, and a lack of discomfort- that betrays a meaningless piece. If all questions are answered (or if there is no question in the first place- as is the problem with many modern pieces), there is nothing to draw individuals into conversation, and thus contemplation, of the piece.
      What is this crucifix trying to say about the Crucifixion? This is one of the questions that can defend this piece as a work of art.
      Who is it trying to give that answer to? This is perhaps the question that determines appropriateness for inclusion in worship or in Church architecture.

  • Erica

    Couldn’t agree with you more about this & I love your posts!

    .. but why do you still get “your” and “you’re” mixed up? :( It makes me sad..

    • Marc Barnes

      ah, good catch! thanks!

  • Hfohagan

    The identification of the location of this crucifix is incorrect. It is in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee and is the work of Arnoldo Pomodoro whose work is also prominetly displayed in the court yard of the Vatican. I have no idea of Pomodoro’s sexual orientation. Regarless, the crucifix, while not to the artistic taste of everyone is a true depiction of the enormity of the suffering (represented by the 14 foot crown of thorns) that Christ endured for us.

    • Marc

      thanks for the correction!

    • Guest

      No its not a true depiction. Jesus died on a cross not a lightening rod

  • R.

    I don’t like icons. I do like Gregorian chant a bit.

    I love what you write about beauty, but people always argue. I?think there will always be the “existence of any argument over the piece’s meaning, beauty, and appropriateness.” Take the Sistine chapel for example. LOADS of argument over that piece’s meaning, beauty and appropriateness.

  • Anonymous

    LOL, I love how you posted the image from St. John’s Cathedral. That’s in my diocese. The janitor in question is a freaking hero.

  • Anthony S. Layne

    Actually, I agree with Marc. Art has its roots in communication; while there is a place for the mysterious (think of Mona Lisa’s smile), overall the relationship is triadic. The piece should be mysterious only when the artist is trying to convey the transcendent; I fear most modern pieces are “mysterious” only because the artist, in contempt of his audience, is hiding his meaning from them. Granted that not all of us are granted the vision with which to understand the meaning of all art, it still doesn’t follow that art should be an encoded message whose crytographic key belongs only to a specially-trained elite. So far as a piece does fail to communicate its meaning, it fails as art.

  • Anonymous

    “So let us continue converting the entire world by way of beauty”….because, contrary to what much of the world thinks, beauty and goodness are inseparable.

    Oh, the beauty in the Church and the splendor of truth…incomparable to anything else.

  • Anonymous

    I so appreciate this mature and inspiring perspective on the role that art has in proclaiming the goodness and glory of God. I recently published a book on how to lead others on wilderness experiences for the purpose of helping them see God’s true character through his creation. From being trained as a Landscape Architect (which is an artistic vocation), a perspective I have regarding guiding others in the outdoors is to view your leadership like “artistry”. Here is an excerpt from page 305 of my book, entitled, Christian Outdoor Leadership:

    “I knew at that moment that life was not a work of art.
    And that this moment could not last.”
    — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

    “A work of art hangs on the wall. Staring reflectively into it, a man is elevated out of the narrow perspective of his circumstance. He considers the more lofty ideals that busyness has crowded out of his soul. This is the affect a masterful oil painting can have on us. But relationships are not works of art in the same way. Moments pass by, people move on. You can’t capture life and hang it on a wall; it is more organic than that. Yet, ironically, it is precisely because of this reality that we ought to approach life more like an artist approaches her canvas. Color and texture only derive meaning when the artist’s hand moves it across the page into something recognizable. There is a method to the mess.
    There is thought and heart that goes into the creation of something. I approach guiding others in the wilderness as an artist when I try to paint a picture in my mind of what the week could look like in terms of building relationships with God and the others on the trip. Like a canvas, the landscape is waiting for us to walk through it. Like painting a picture, guides get to map out a route their group will probably remember for the rest of their lives. That’s much more valuable than a Rembrandt on the wall. I hear many people say after their week in the wilderness that this was the “best week” of their lives. That is how an artist feels when she puts down her brush and stands back with pleasure to see the story she’s spread out on the canvas. That is also how a guide feels when she has approached her trip with a prayerful and theological rationale for how she led the experience (Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice, Denton, p.305).

    About the Author of this post: Residing in Fort Collins, CO, Dr. Ashley Denton is the director of Wilderness Ministry Institute and the author of Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice. He holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from University of Arizona, a Master’s in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Doctoral degree in Missions and Cross Cultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Involved in over 25 countries, he was formerly on staff with Young Life for 15 years and served as their National Director in New Zealand. He also serves as a professor of Outdoor Leadership at Denver Theological Seminary.

  • Ben Hatke

    Good post! Things I’ve considered time and again in my own life as an artist. We would all do well to start cleaning up the puddles left by this brand of subject-less art.

    Oh, and C.S. Lewis is most definitely the man.

  • Pratcrat

    much great art was underappreciated when it was created so I’m not sure that creating for the viewer is always the right approach. However, no artwork should be so unintelligible or ambiguous that it is taken for a spill and wiped up. It should at least be identifiable as an attempt at art and not simply a “statement”.

  • mary york

    Well, I agree to a point. Just look at the public university campuses of this nation, and you will see art (architecture) gone awry. The modernists of the 1960′s could not build their monstrosities in Europe (where they honed their ideas) and instead experimented on the soil of America and India. They were more concerned with shock value and making a name for themselves, than paying any attention to the fact that actual human beings inhabit, work and play in built structures, and thus those structures should accommodate such basic human needs as natural light, the ease of finding an entrance, and some connection to the vernacular.

    It is a hard thing, as I find Guernica to be quite moving, and the highly stylized Buddhist art of Bhutan, for example, to be uninspired, but you have hit on the problem: is the purpose of the artist larger than the exaltation of his own ego?

  • Ahubbell27

    Ahhh, how I love reading these articles! As an art student at a small, south Louisiana university for the past 4 years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the really good, and really bad, works of art throughout history. Your article is spot on regarding the nature of truly beautiful art, and how much of it has digressed with the steadily growing introverted vision if “modern” artists.

    That being said, I’d like to pose this question. Would the message of the sculpture in Photo 3 be different if it were not in a cathedral, say if it were on display in a gallery or an open public location, like a park. As a diocese’s corpus, I agree, a better choice could have been made, because the sacredness of a cathedral demands a certain solemnity and austerity. But I don’t believe that the depiction of the subject matter is ugly or even irreverent.

    Like dancing. It can be uplifting, it can be cringe-worthy, but it shouldn’t be in Mass. The quality of the piece is informed, but not defined by, the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the setting.

    But I’m rambling now. Thanks for your writing, and PLEASE, never stop.