Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty
Reviewed by Matthew J. Milliner, Art, Wheaton College
What is “theology and art,” this hybrid category of inquiry that has sprung up like bamboo in and across neatly divided academic plots? Should it be categorized as art practice, art history or musicology, philosophy, theology, or something different still? Whatever the answer (and there may not be one), what is certain is that the category frequently vexes artists, art historians, musicologists, philosophers, and theologians. Artists are understandably annoyed – if sometimes flattered – when told that their strictly aesthetic pursuits have been elevated to the category of theology. Art historians are legitimately frustrated when they see that proclamations of theology and art discussions, such as the need to deconstruct the Grand Narrative of Art or broaden the art category, have already been going on for decades in art history, which generally goes un-consulted. Professional philosophers have channeled their frustration with theology and art by annexing the discussion under the banner of aesthetics. And theologians, whose hopelessly vast terrain requires competency in multiple ancient and modern languages to navigate, are legitimately perturbed when someone claiming expertise in aesthetics expects to be issued a union card. Not every theology and art enthusiast, to put it mildly, is Hans Urs von Balthasar.
“Interest of contemporary theology in the arts is not a new story. Why should anyone want to draw attention again at this late date to themes which have been explored so variously and thoroughly?”1 So argued Roger Hazelton in 1967. And now, nearly fifty years after the topic was presumably saturated, theological aesthetics continues to generate monthly conferences, sizeable research grants, countless books, not a few tenure track positions, and – at least my experience as a student attests – consistently packed classrooms of youthful minds longing for just this kind of thing. The result of this sustained interest in recent decades is that the field is maturing. Theology and art specialists have now produced doctoral students of their own, one of whom is Cecilia González-Andrieu, whose training combined systematic theology with art and religion. Her book, A Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty, is not likely to alleviate any of the above-mentioned frustrations, but it does passionately convey the continuing allure of theology and art, which is developing enough muscle to prevent, in an era of academic cutbacks, being lopped off as useless fat.
A Bridge to Wonder uses an extended bridge metaphor to describe the intersection between religion and aesthetics just described. The terrain covered is a satisfying miscellany, as Luis Valdez’s play La Pastorela or the spiritually charged work of contemporary Chicago artist Sergio Gomez, among many other aesthetic encounters that have captured the author’s interest, are braided together with theological reflection. González-Andrieu thereby seeks to exemplify her assertion that “the interplay of art and religion is not forced upon either the arts or the religious by a scholarly agenda but is intrinsic” (87). While there is much talk of the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty), A Bridge to Wonder offers no Apollonian take on art as merely beautiful. Instead, “art’s responsibility to truth includes the representations of evil” (41). But the danger with such representations, in the words of Joseph Ratzinger (one of the book’s frequent inspirations), is the belief “that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true ‘reality’” (183). Should this be avoided, works of art can thereby “break our heart through beauty or its absence” (149).
González-Andrieu advances a fruitful proposition by suggesting that this complex account of art and beauty does not replace the verbal precision of dogmatic theology, but rather shows us what to do with revelation once it has been transmitted in more traditional ways. Art delves into “theological intricacies,”
not supplanting the Chalcedonian formula, but exploring it anew through human capacities that expand upon rationality and argument… Art can function simultaneously as theological reflection (speech about God) and as the experience that occasions such reflection (silence before God)…. (72)
On the other hand, however, González-Andrieu seems to sometimes contradict this assertion, such when she assures her readers, “we do not mean doctrinal assent… Art cannot thrive if it is subjected to the perception that it is ‘controllable’ and held to doctrinal standards of orthodoxy” (78, 82). The differing statements caused me to wonder if the author wants art to conform to Christian doctrine or be liberated from it. But should the art in question be within the church, to “transcend” Chalcedon or to fall outside of its “control” is not to encounter free-flying mystery, but dry, dull, logically comprehensible formulae (that is, heresy). To stay within orthodox doctrinal boundaries – which enclose the infinite – is to encounter the very freedom she properly, if inconsistently, recommends.
In exploring the famous year 2000 exhibition Seeing Salvation at London’s National Gallery,2 González-Andrieu navigates the crossroads of religion and the museum. She criticizes curator Neil MacGregor’s supposed attempt to reduce Christianity to a notion, but later in the same book MacGregor offers an aid to her art-as-theology proposition: “The theology of the Second Coming has always been hard to grasp… for this reason it has perhaps been most powerfully expressed through images.”3 González-Andrieu seems to find a place for museums, provided the difficulties raised by the housing of religious objects are acknowledged. Indeed, unless Christians are willing to demand that all Christian objects in museums be returned to their ecclesial context (alongside the staggering security expenses that would accompany these priceless treasures), we need to think in a more sophisticated way about how church art functions beyond the church.4
But what about when the church itself becomes a museum? One such example, the mid-twentieth-century church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce atPlateau d’Assy in the French Alps, is rightfully deemed a failure by González-Andrieu, even if modern masters such as Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Georges Rouault embellished it. This judgment, with which the church’s parishioners alongside most theologically attuned visitors will concur, is spot on. “If destined for use by the faith community, [art] must also provide a coherent support to the liturgical events that take place in the sacred environment” (140-141). And so, notwithstanding a few detours, González-Andrieu ends up (by my calculation) in the right place: Arguing for ecclesial art’s liberating submission to doctrine and tradition, and for a wider range for art in museums and galleries beyond the ecclesial sphere,5 knowing that beauty, wherever it is found – in the words of Pius XII – “cannot prescind from God” (217).
However, for a book representing the Catholic tradition, González-Andrieu’s preoccupation with American pragmatists is less than helpful. To borrow her own analogy, trying to connect art and religion with the help of John Dewey is like traversing the San Francisco Bay in a rickety canoe when one could use the Golden Gate Bridge already constructed by Jacques Maritain. While Dewey is ubiquitous, Maritain appears in a lonely footnote, even as his careful expansion of Thomist epistemology to include “Poetic knowledge” is exactly what González-Andrieu is after.6 In fact, the Dominican disregard of Maritain, combined with post-war trauma, is exactly what led to the showdown between traditional Catholicism and the cult of high art at Plateau d’Assy.7 Maritain, furthermore, might have enabled González-Andrieu to end on a positive architectural example. In his years at Princeton, Maritain reinvigorated the Catholic faith of the (unjustly forgotten) architect Jean Labatut, who in turn made Princeton’s School of Architecture a hotbed for theological engagement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. According to Jorge Otero-Pailos, it was these religious stirrings that helped break the stranglehold of modernism, resulting in postmodern architecture’s recovery of history.8 “The bridge to wonder is ours to build,” writes González-Andrieu. In some respects, however, it already has been – and is ours to cross.
In a book very similar to this one, but from a Protestant perspective, William Dyrness argues that, for better or for worse, “aesthetics has come to replace epistemology as the central preoccupation of Western educated people.”9 As a result, the field represented by A Bridge to Wonder is more urgent than recreational, less elective than core curriculum. González-Andrieu faults the Dominicans involved with Plateau D’Assy for “abdicat[ing] their role as effective guides and allow[ing] the artist to dictate what work they were willing to do” (144). Her refusal to make the same mistake signals theology and art’s maturation, even if much remains to be accomplished. Artists, philosophers, art historians, musicologists, and theologians cannot give up on this intersection, even if the best thing they can do to assist theological aesthetics is to pursue their own areas of study more thoroughly.10 Hybrid fields, and the amphibious scholars trained within them, have a necessary role in reminding us that knowledge is one, even as our disciplinary distinctions are many.11
Cite this article
- Roger Hazelton, A Theological Approach to Art (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1967), 5-6.
- Although the exhibition was some time ago, the catalog was recently republished: Gabriele Finaldi, The Image of Christ (London: National Gallery, 2011). See also the accompanying book, Neil MacGregor with Erika Langmuir, Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)
- Neil MacGregor, Seeing Salvation, 192.
- For a post-secular take on museology, see James Clifton, “Truly a Worship Experience? Christian Art in Secular Museums,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 52 (Autumn 2007): 107-115. “[N]ot to address the religious element in religious art—fully and unabashedly, though, where need be, also self-critically—is to offer a mutilated view of intrinsically interesting objects and of the history of image-making” (115).
- Daniel Siedell’s God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008)is also especially helpful in articulating the distinction between liturgical and contemporary art.
An accessible introduction to Maritain’s aesthetic thought is on offer in Poetry, Beauty, & Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011). Interestingly, Maritainians such as John Deely have appropriated the best insights of pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce. I thank John Wilson for this reference.
- Aidan Nichols, “The French Dominicans and the Journal, L’Art sacré, in Redeeming Beauty: Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 111.
- See the chapter entitled “Eucharistic Architecture” in Jorge Otero-Pailos, Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 2010. I thank Kostis Kourelis for this reference.
- William Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 9.
- One model for just this kind of attentiveness is Douglas Farrow’s Ascension Theology (London: T&T Clark International, 2011), which intelligently weaves medieval art into discursive theological work.
- All knowledge is a seamless whole” even if as “fallible human beings will inevitably fail to see all the connections.” James Turner, “Enduring Differences, Blurring Boundaries,” in Mark Noll and James Turner, The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue, ed. Thomas Albert Howard (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 88-89.