In a video titled “The Idolatry of Modern Art,” Catholic YouTube personality Brian Holdsworth expresses an opinion regarding modern art that I’ve also heard from other tradition-minded Catholics. His opinion is that modern art is “intrinsically incompatible with Christian worship,” and that it may also be a manifestation of the Modernism condemned by Pope Pius X.
The proper goal of sacred art, he says, should be to make the spiritual “less ambiguous,” or less of an “abstraction,” by imitating Revelation and the Incarnation. Representational art (or art that depicts objects and people in easily-recognizable ways) fulfills a teaching function, making God and the spiritual concrete and understandable, while the abstraction characteristic of modern art (in which clear representation gives way to the interplay of colour, geometry, and other elements of form) is in fact the “opposite of revelation.” Further, he claims that this obscuring of reality through abstraction, when we are dealing with sacred art, can lead to idolatry—though I am not entirely sure of the connection he is making in this regard.
If this is true, and modern art is un-Catholic and idolatrous, then what should we make of Pope Francis’s admiration, for example, of the work of Alejandro Marmo, who created semi-abstract sculptures of Christ-as-a-worker and the Virgin of Luján out of scrap iron? These sculptures certainly fall under the category of modern art. Here you can see a video from the Vatican Museums of the artist with his striking creations:
There are, of course, innumerable other examples of the Catholic Church incorporating or showing an appreciation for modern art and architecture. For a vocal minority, this is simply scandalous, and that also seems to be the opinion of Holdsworth.
I feel compelled to provide a counterpoint to this attitude, since I am someone who was led back to the Church in part through modern art—in my case, by my study of the modernist movement in literature (which was, I should make clear, unconnected to theological Modernism). I do not deny that some modern art is nihilistic, self-indulgent, or simply bad. But good modern art, and the philosophy behind it, may be just as hospitable to the Catholic worldview as the more “traditional” art we hold dear. Our estimation of the value of modern art, as Catholics, is too often coloured by a sentimental and romantic understanding of what constitutes “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
For a reference-point regarding modern art, I recommend reading the amateur philosopher T.E. Hulme (1883-1917), who had a major influence on the modernist aesthetics of, among others, the British Vorticist movement. His thinking runs counter to what we might expect.
Hulme felt that the historical period circa 1912-15 marked the beginning of a great shift toward what he called a “religious” worldview, after the long period of “humanism” that began with the Renaissance. This new religious worldview harked back to the pre-Renaissance religious worldview, which was founded on a general feeling of alienation from nature, an anxiety about the unknown, and a desire for absolute values. Humanism, on the other hand, focused on the beauty of nature and the human body, along with the achievements and development of mankind. Hulme states:
The questions of Original Sin, of chastity, of the motives behind Buddhism, etc., all part of the very essence of the religious spirits, are quite incomprehensible for humanism. The difference is seen perhaps most obviously in art. At the Renaissance, there were many pictures with religious subjects, but no religious art in the proper sense of the word. All the emotions expressed are perfectly human ones. . . . When the intensity of the religious attitude finds proper expression in art, then you get a very different result. Such expression springs not from a delight in life but from a feeling for certain absolute values, which are entirely independent of vital things. The disgust with the trivial and accidental characteristics of living shapes, the searching after an austerity, a monumental stability and permanence, a perfection and rigidity, which vital things can never have, leads to the use of forms which can almost be called geometrical. (Cf. Byzantine, Egyptian and early Greek art.) (“Humanism” 9)
The humanist attempt to view religion as merely the highest expression of human life leads to, in Hulme’s words, “Romanticism in literature, Relativism in ethics, Idealism in philosophy, and Modernism in religion” (10). All of these are symptoms of end-stage humanism—and indeed, anyone who traces the context of Pope Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907) will discover that this great encyclical had little to do with twentieth-century modernism, and everything to do with the heritage of nineteenth-century Romanticism and Idealism, which according to Hulme was already dying out.
Hulme makes the case that “the re-emergence of geometrical art may be the precursor of the reemergence of the corresponding attitude towards the world, and so, of the break up of the Renaissance humanistic attitude” (“Modern Art” 78). In other words, what we call modern art is not very modern in its orientation at all; it is actually less modern, at least in attitude, than the humanist art that preceded it. Modern art, with its tendency toward geometrical abstraction, reflects an attitude that has more in common with the pre-modern: with Byzantine or Egyptian art. Hulme saw this reemergence of geometrical art in the proto-Cubism of Cézanne, and—fused with the harsh aesthetic of the “machine age”—in the work of Wyndham Lewis and sculptor Jacob Epstein.
There is some truth in what Hulme says. I see this religious attitude, and its corresponding anti-vitalism and anti-humanism, in many forms of modern art. It is especially apparent, as one would expect, in modern art that deals with religious subjects. One can often discern a connection to the aesthetic of Byzantine mosaics and icons. Here are some examples of modern art that draw upon religious imagery and, at least as I see it, employ elements of the geometrical trend that Hulme described:
Pablo Picasso, Crucifixion (1930)
Here is one from David Bomberg, a Vorticist painter who was actually an associate of Hulme, which portrays the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones:
David Bomberg, Vision of Ezekiel (1912)
Here is a painting by Kandinsky that portrays the Last Judgement thorough pure abstraction in its balance of shape and colour, perhaps going beyond what even Hulme had in mind:
Wassily Kandinsky, The Last Judgement (1912)
I am not bringing up Hulme’s theory of the religious nature of artistic abstraction in order to denigrate Catholic art since the Renaissance—to paint it, as Hulme did, as irredeemably humanistic in its orientation. I do not subscribe to Hulme’s theory in its entirety, and only wish to show that we should be careful in labelling certain aesthetic forms as suitable or unsuitable for religious or sacred art based on loose or lazy associations of the “modern” with twentieth-century secularism and political radicalism. Modern art was not all anti-Christian or devoted to shattering the idea of the Logos. Further, I suggest we should at least recognize that the art we most commonly associate with Catholicism—that of Michelangelo or Raphael, for example—contains elements of a humanism that during the course of history gradually undermined some of the foundations of Catholic teaching in the West.
Hulme, of course, was just one theorist of modern art, and his understanding of it happened to fit with a focus on Original Sin and absolute values that fits reasonably well with Catholicism. The world of modern art, however, is vast and there have been many movements that have no particular religious perspective. Certainly some modern artists have been hostile to Christianity, but there have been many important exceptions.
The painter Salvador Dali, though he was associated for a time with a Surrealist movement that allied itself with communism, eventually became fascinated with the Catholicism of his mother (his father was an atheist). In 1949 he brought his Madonna of Port Ligat to Pope Pius XII, who blessed it. Soon after, Dali returned to the Catholic faith. Some of the paintings from his Catholic period, which lasted until the end of his life, are true masterpieces, including Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubicus) (1953-54) and The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955). Late in life he painted full-plate illustrations for certain printings of the Jerusalem Bible.
In the era of “postmodern” art, Andy Warhol is perhaps the most notable example of an artist drawing inspiration from his own deeply-felt Catholicism. His Sixty Last Suppers (1986), a silkscreen production that was one of his last works, uses repetition to both parody and break through the numbing familiarity of one of the greatest Renaissance creations, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
There are many other examples I could offer. All of this is to say that although some modern art may be un-Christian or anti-Christian, modern art and Catholicism are not inherently incompatible. They may even be quite suited to each other. Further, if we accept that Hulme is at least partially correct about art from the Renaissance to the early twentieth-century being founded upon humanism, then there is obviously space in Catholic sacred art for elements that so not align precisely with the Catholic worldview. Nobody would dream of putting Michelangelo’s Pietà into storage to protect faithful Catholics from its dangerous humanism. Catholicism is incorporative, and absorbs and changes what it incorporates. There’s no need, in other words, for renegade traditionalists to start throwing pieces of modern art into the Tiber. The Church is stronger, and more capable of engaging with the world outside it, than they think.
Hulme, T.E. “Humanism and the Religious Attitude.” Speculations. Ed. Herbert Read. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.
—. “Modern Art and Its Philosophy.” Speculations. Ed. Herbert Read. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.
Detail from Wassily Kandinsky’s Yellow-Red-Blue (1925).
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D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.