Continued from yesterday.
In retrospect, my reaction to Pope Francis’s election makes so much more sense when I consider that during my tenure at the college my artistic guiding lights were St. Francis and the painter Francis Bacon. About as far from a saint as one can imagine, Bacon is infamous for showing us things that perhaps we would rather not see: nightmarish self-portraits, unnerving studies of screaming popes, and writhing and wrestling biomorphic forms.
But Bacon was not interested in merely horrifying us. He was painting, as he said in an interview, to “excite himself”; spreading paint in a way that was expressive of his anger, his lust, and his love of painting. In a rare explanatory moment, he revealed to an interviewer that his numerous paintings that reference crucifixion were not religious but “an act of man’s behavior to another.”
Some moralists have said that his paintings are corrupting and harmful, but I’ve always felt that they do no more harm than if one took to hanging around a butcher shop or meat packing plant. To me, his paintings, like all great art, make us confront essential questions about the human condition.
My rather vague and unrefined view of Bacon was tested when, in 2004, at a conference at Notre Dame on the future of art in a Post-Christian world, I attended a keynote delivered by the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre titled “What Makes Religious Art Religious?” Using examples of paintings by El Greco and Mark Rothko, he made the claim that what makes a painting religious is not subject matter but when a “religious intention is communicated to the viewer.”
Over the course of about forty-five minutes, MacIntyre thoroughly supported his thesis, and then impressively fielded questions bent on picking apart his thesis for another thirty minutes.