According to many sociologists, — Pitirim Sorokin stated, — as little as 4% of works of art were of religious kind in Europe in the middle of the XX century while 96% of them were secular. These figures vividly illustrate the true position of the religion in the modern culture; especially in comparison to the reverse proportion of the XVII-XVIII centuries: 3% of secular works and 97% of religious ones. The whole picture appears to be depressing. Traditional religions have been almost completely driven away to the periphery of cultural continuum. Secular art occupies their place, having been turned into a quasi-religion in a new shape.
However, since the beginning of the new millennium we can trace an important tendency. Decades of leftist Marxist discourse had suddenly passed and theoreticians of art switched to the theme of religion. Important international artistic assemblies are now paying more and more attention to such challenges. I firmly believe that this tendency is not a random occasion. Waves of deepening crisis of consumption society shake the whole tower of modern culture: how can we avoid doubts whether abstract humanism—its foundation—is sustainable at all? We haven’t seen any progress in development of artistic systems in a long while. It now almost exclusively exists in cycles, like seasons circulating within fashion industry. It’s typical for those pseudo-ritual cycles to lack body of evidence, formal criteria of quality, — all of these were washed away in the XX century. No one seems to be able to present a determined opinion on what is art and whether it exists at all. It’s just a personal “Credo”.
As for me, I’ve come to religious conception of modern art through attempts to unite Ethics and Aesthetics in discourse of Beauty in my works: nowadays this pair of categories is perceived as almost antagonistic. Beauty can’t be explained, unlike ugliness. Roland Barthes wrote it can be found but can’t be described in direct way, hence the discourse of the process addresses us to the code underlying any beauty—the code of art. It’s at least excess to describe ugly things with artistic language—the point of interest of the contemporary analytical (critical) art. The applicable popular Russian saying calls such activities “to drive in nails with a microscope”. I was studying the history of the subject for the bifurcation point and realized after all that this pair of categories has been present in Christian worldview in indivisible and inseparable way for two millennia already. It’s widely believed that Christian virtues are the opposite of sensuousness or passion while actually they represent rationalization, harmonization of passions. Bernard of Clairvaux wisely elaborated on this in his sermons on the Song of songs, reading in Song of Solomon 2:4 – He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love – Τάξατε as harmonize. I’m positive that this deep crisis of postmodernism can be overcome only by religious attitude towards art. As the matter of fact, first of all, art was born by religion and it remains deeply religious in its essence. Getting closer to the very nature of art, we can’t but notice that artistic action has always been about the act of exposure. An artist changes something invisible (unnoticeable) to a profane view into viewable, he or she articulates and materializes a new phenomenon, often standing against public opinion, social reality, since he or she is certain in own righteousness and eager to prove it with very life. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). Substantiation of things hoped for can take years, but finally even blind ones will see and the society will join the worldview that once used to be the artist’s only. The thing is, the creativity itself is based on faith. This lets us say that there is no art without faith, the only difference is what goes first: whether it’s God-and-Man’s or Man-and-God’s. since I’m a Christian, it’s obvious to me that the ideal is God-and-Man’s. The Church can help the modern culture to evolve via choosing the proper way, being much more wise in matters of faith then any single artist.
On the other hand, I recollect a remark of hieromonk Makariy (Markish) at the round table dedicated to the exhibition “Dvoeslovie/Dialogue” (“Dialogist /Dialogue”): the Church can’t go on without modern culture too. The Church is God’s as much as it’s Human: people change and it changes as well. These days the Church grows into power that acts outside of parochial walls. The missionary energy of the church is a perfect match to various genres and aspects of modern art.
I have to admit that the dialogue of modern art and the church has more or less successfully evolved since the middle of the XX century. A museum of modern Catholic art in Vatican was opened in 1973. Centers of modern religious art are widespread across many European cities. There’s been such event as The Long Night of Churches in Austria (similar to The Long Night of Museums, already well-known to Russian audience) for several years already. Cathedrals and churches of Linz, Graz, Salzburg, and Vienna held concerts of modern religious music, video art shows, installations, and performances of popular artists. The churches remain open all night long and attract huge number of people, especially the youth.
In November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI met 250 world-known representatives of the artistic world in the Sistine Chapel for a discussion of reviving active dialogue between the church and the art. A magazine “Art and church” is published quarterly in Vienna and New York: its solely dedicated to the problems of this dialogue. The latest Venetian biennale featured a pavilion of Vatican for the first time: it held an exhibition of modern religious artists from different countries. In 2015 I’ve been invited to participate in the Medina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale in Malta etc.
In Russia, unfortunately, such dialogue, in fact, appears to be almost non-existent since the Bolshevik’s take-over in 1917. In believers’ eyes modern art remains synonymous to the Bacchanalia, sacrilege, and trampling on sanctities thanks to escapades of radical anti-clericalists. Positive experience of collaboration between the Church and “mystical” Russian avant-garde artists in the beginning of the XX century is almost eradicated. Even nowadays an opinion on Russian avant-garde as a Satanist, destructive influence on the culture dominates in the conservative society. What this society ignores is several centuries of new European art with its outright denial of icons that had passed before the art of modernism came into existence. The avant-garde denying of contemporary aesthetics was in fact a dialectic negation of negation that created the possibility of synthesis of religious art at the new round of cultural evolution. I’d like to remind that the second avant-garde of the 1960s was also deeply interconnected to religious search of soviet underground artists: many of them found faith after all, some even mastered church arts. Unfortunately, when Perestroika put an end to repressions against both the Church and modern art, their ways parted again. The Church started rebuilding ruined Christian culture. The contemporary art was ignored by the state along with many other social spheres; international artistic community exclusively supported its most radical and destructive appearances, hence discrediting, wishing or not, both international cultural image of Russia and national status of contemporary art within the country. So to say, the territory was cleared for import of Western culture in the way the local market was reformatted to ease import of Lamborghini or Mercedes.
I stumbled upon the idea of dialogue between the Church and modern culture in 2003: several scandals at radical art exhibitions followed by legal proceedings made Christian theme almost tabooed for curators and heads of artistic institutions in the metropolis. Many religious artists of Moscow, including myself, realized the necessity to withstand growing polarization in the cultural environment. I succeeded in organization of the first dedicated round table in 2008. By the way, it was initiated by the Orthodox magazine “Neskuchny Garden”. After that, I took part in a whole chain of events gradually evolving the dialogue of the Church and the modern art. I suppose the most vivid way to describe them is through the conceptual visual solutions of the exhibitory space.
The first step. The aforementioned exhibition “Dvoeslovie/Dialogue” in the narthex of St. Tatiana's Church of the Moscow State University. The church opens its doors and lets contemporary artists, interested in Christianity, in. It proves its openness and eagerness to discuss matters with modern culture. Despite controversies revolving around, there is no doubt the exhibition attracted major public interest of both secular and religious audience.
The second step. An exhibition project “Art and Religion in the Space of Modern Culture” at the Russian Academy of Arts. One exhibition space presented expositions of church and secular Christocentric contemporary art in neighboring halls. The exhibition was a success with no negative coverage whatsoever.
The third step. “The Gifts” exhibition in the State museum of architecture. Secular and religious contemporary art were united in a single exposition that included modern canonic authors’ icons, church mosaics, secular Christian paintings, sculptures, objects, multimedia installations, works of both church-going and more distant artists. The exhibition set the museum’s record in number of visitors and gained impressive positive feedback, especially from believers.
To my mind, this exhibition has totally proved possibility of constructive collaboration of church and secular contemporary Christocentric art in a single space of culture. The language of contemporary art is no obstacle to Christian culture. The very atmosphere of the exhibition demonstrates that artistic languages of both church and secular society do not exclude each other; on the contrary, they augment each other's potentials. Concepts and problems of contemporary society get connected with historical traditions, liturgical activities and sermons, prayers and theology. Connected they are, not mixed altogether. This polyphonic mode of the exhibition looks like a reference to me, highly suitable for large-scale public artistic projects that can attract viewers of various worldviews, stylistic preferences, life and cultural experience. I’d like to emphasize the fact that this mode is not eclectic, but polyphonic, growing into a symphony. This task is a difficult one, but our experience proves it’s realistic. I hope that the day will come when we could start a professional institution, dedicated to this specific dialogue. It would be dedicated to the space of Christocentric* art.
*) I can see the term “Christocentric” as a holistic concept of several nested circles of art of modern authors: all of them refer the sacral, all of them are connected to each other and supplement each other’s works. The radiuses of the circles are proportional to the variety of artistic tools available. The narrower the circle is, the higher the responsibility of the author appears to be, the less space for an experiment is left. Obviously, the more distant we get from the center, the more difficult it is to describe the exact borders; however, the overall structure appears to be as follows.
The first circle is the narrowest. It’s liturgical, canonical church art, grouped around the very center: the Lord's Table, the altar. We can put here uniquely designed icons (this area started growing immediately the militantly atheistic state’s repressions against the Church ended), church plate, liturgical music and hymnography, and church architecture.
This circle is partially interconnected with non-canonical or secular modern art that speaks on Christian challenges in modern artistic language, connecting concepts and challenges of the modern society with historical traditions, prayers with theology, liturgy with sermons, mission, confessions, sharing one’s personal sacral experience.
The third and the widest circle unites works of art that are connected to Christianity indirectly, being spiritually and mentally close. The very character of such art has been shaped as the result of transforming influence the Christianity has had on the whole global culture.
Gor Chahal. Moscow, 2015. (Translated by Ivan Lukov).