October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
April 22, 2009
Sacrifice is a dirty word. It is smeared with the blood of a thousand brutal religions and the ritual mob violence of much human history. Another dirty word is martyr, which seems to suggest a suspicious air of superiority or sanctimoniousness.
So why am I drawn to these words—sacrifice and martyrdom? I have an intuition that there is a connection between beauty and sacrifice, between the beauty of the physical body and our willingness to lay it down for justice and peace. What follows is a series of brief meditations on the possible connections between these seeming incongruities—beauty and victimhood—especially in the context of reintroducing beauty to the world of contemporary art.
The Victim and the Unveiling
The tradition of human sacrifice is ancient and nearly universal. Even the more “civilized” religions began with ritual mob violence against the innocent victim—Greece and Rome are no exception. Veiled as they may have become by subtle philosophy, publicity, and the anesthetizing effect of traditional religious rhetoric, the ritual cult practices of most pagan religions are easily traceable to these moments of sacrifice.
Judaism is the lone example, historically, that resolutely resists this pattern (and its grandchild, Christianity, goes a step farther by graphically depicting this resistance in the crucifixion). The history of the Jews is marked, in sacred writings of sound historical basis, by this resistance to mob violence and its ritual enactment in human sacrifice ceremonies. When the Jews entered the promised land of Canaan, they were accused by their own prophets of practicing human sacrifice, suggesting that they had a deep religious aversion to mob violence. The prophet’s indictment is the rejection of mob violence and ritual murder, the branding of these acts as something to be avoided and despised, as something wrong. And when the Jews assimilated to Canaanite customs of child sacrifice, their prophets again called them back to the right way—the way of Yahweh, the way of concern for the victim and the powerless, for the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Perhaps this refusal by the Jews to join in the ritual violence of their host societies is a result of their having been universally hated and hunted as the victim. Or perhaps they were hated and hunted precisely because they resisted the mob.
The willing, self-aware victim turns this mob violence, made sacred by the various tribal rituals, on its head. The martyr, in the Christian tradition, knows his role and willingly walks into the lion’s den without regret—often (historically) forgiving the victimizer. I believe these incidents of sacrifice and martyrdom can unravel the ancient pattern of victimization. By the innocent (and courageous) person consciously intervening with his or her body, the cycle of violent contagion is disrupted.
Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Bishop Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and countless unknown martyrs of this and the last century provide clear examples of the way that sacrifice undoes, unveils, and expunges the tradition of mob violence and the lynch mob, which justifies its existence through mystification, ritual, and political rhetoric. By laying down their bodies, these martyrs show violence in stark, clear terms and unveil the dark heartbeat of their respective cultures: the scapegoat mechanism.
Beauty and Sacrifice
What connection, if any, can be made between beauty and the horror of scapegoating and martyrdom? Nearly twenty centuries of sacred art in the Western tradition offers an answer: there is great beauty in the crucifixion and in the martyrologies of the saints, a moral and spiritual beauty that transfigures the broken body of Jesus and his followers. The treasuries of the cathedrals and museums of Europe are crowded with artifacts testifying to this beauty. When Ghandi stumbled upon his brilliant strategy for attaining political independence, he was simply following the example of countless martyrs before him. When the innocent victim bravely resists violence, something new and beautiful is released into the world, something revolutionary in human history: conscious and willing sacrifice. The art that was generated as a result of these lives laid down is everywhere, and its beauty is incontestable.
Linking martyrdom with beauty and aesthetic pleasure may seem a tortuorous connection, but a careful look at the great masterpieces of Western music and art suggests that the association is valid. It is not a fluke that Bach’s great choral masterpieces are all celebrations of an innocent victim, namely Christ. It is not a coincidence that the universally celebrated art of the Italian renaissance is primarily centered upon this same story, as is all of the great art and architecture of medieval Europe. All of this beauty stemmed from the same inspiration: the story of a willing victim who laid down his life to overturn human history, the history of victimization and unjust power.
Christ’s example of the overthrow of power by powerlessness is duplicated in the lives of the saints and martyrs—hence my interest in investigating the presence of that same beauty in the stories of these individuals. My hunch is that the engine of art runs on this same kind of beauty—a transcendent beauty that is not simply aesthetic, nor merely or narrowly “moral,” but rather, the confluence of the moral, the spiritual, the just, and the peaceful, the coming together of aesthetic pleasure with profound spiritual truths.
Our era has seen the engine of art history stalled by irony and other parasitic modes of thought and experience. I suspect that truly meaningful art can only come out of the wholeness of a humane vision: the courage of a Ghandi or a Romero engenders a greater vision of human community that is unmarked by the stain of violence and hatred, a vision that can reignite art history.
The suicidal violence of September 11 and other such terrorist displays is at the polar extreme from what I am meditating upon. The crucifixion is a true representation of mob violence turned upside down, and whenever a brave woman or man repeats this laying down of their own body this representation recurs. The violence that perpetually separates people and continues the legacy of hatred is shown for what it is and is neutralized: Dr. King’s refusal to fight fire with fire began to put out the fire of American racism; Gandhi’s refusal to foster and foment a typical rebellion pointed the way to a peaceful transition to Indian independence.
Of course, the problem with these examples, as with the prime example of Christ, is that the phenomenon of ritual violence continues in human history even after these beautiful events have occurred. The new humanity that is meant to emerge from nonviolent examples and the martyrdoms of saints never seems to stick. We appear to revert again and again to the same old program of demonizing our opponents and the fratricide that is the natural fruit of this ancient pattern. Cain is still with us, even after Jesus’s ascension.
Weakness, Brokenness, and Apparent Failure
The failure of the beauty of the self-sacrificial act—call it “full beauty,” which incorporates moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical beauty—to permanently transform society is a sad fact of history. Most theoreticians and critics would therefore reject the notion of art transforming society as naive, especially given the various failed art movements of the early twentieth century that overtly sought that end. How then can anyone accept the relevance of this sacrificial nonviolence to the discussion of justice and beauty in the contemporary context? This “broken beauty” appears at first glance to be a marginal aspect of this discourse at best.
I sense that looking again at images of brokenness in the context of sacred story may offer a way out of the impasse of recent art history. The aversion to sentimentality and earnestness in contemporary art stems, I feel, from an honest rejection of easy explanations for the violence and bloodshed of the twentieth century, a century that began with the millenarian promise that its first war would be “the war to end all wars.” Beginning with Dada and continuing through the various contemporary manifestations of social critique in contemporary art, there is a stubborn desire to connect art and justice—to connect beauty and goodness. But isn’t this just a modern manifestation of the same idea, namely, of the necessary bedrock connection between beauty and truth and goodness?
But goodness seems to have been cheapened by its association with sanctimoniousness and traditional religious language, and it has therefore become yet another dirty word. I seek to recover the idea that goodness is always connected with sacrifice—willing sacrifice that is untainted by self-righteousness and spiritual smugness. No one would accuse Martin Luther King or Bishop Romero of self-righteousness, yet no one could fail to see their goodness. Yet they would both be the first to declare the connection between beauty and truth and goodness. What is truly beautiful is also true. Whatever is truly good is also beautiful. And whatever is true is also good and beautiful. To disentangle these norms from each other would result in violence to the way in which they cohere. And the history of social violence is the legacy of trying to sever beauty from goodness and truth.
The martyrs’ lives, “laid down for their friends,” let loose that fullness of beauty which is fused with its twins, goodness and truth. By its very weakness and failure to topple the rule of power, the example of these lives laid down cuts to the root of the poison tree of mob violence and injustice. The cross refashions the sword into a plowshare and unveils the arrogance of power.
Even though Cain is still with us, his power base is slowly eroding. We can no longer look at his murderous act without seeing it for what it is—the pathetic attempt of power to masquerade as truth. All of the followers of Cain commit his essential deed: out of jealousy and arrogance and greed the act is wrought. Here is the ugly, in the heart of envy and hate, and truly, it is here alone that ugliness exists.
But at the heart of God is a willing sacrifice that overturns the legacy of envy and hate. Extravagant beauty flows from this mystery, that in Christ, God willingly becomes the victim of the scapegoat mechanism of barbarous human history in order to transform history into the world of perfect love.
Tradition, the Body, and a Broken Beauty
T. S. Eliot suggests that no genuine artist operates in a vacuum. Whether she accepts it or not, she is a participant in a tradition, both as a beneficiary and a contributor.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead [. . . .] what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them [. . . .] And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.1
Since our house fire seven years ago, in which all of my undergraduate and graduate school paintings and nearly all my work from the 1980s were incinerated, I have gradually lost interest in the explicit religious narrative painting I practiced during that time. Perhaps this is an abdication of my responsibility to the tradition to which Eliot refers, but these days, I find that I am drawn to a more allusive means of evoking the human presence and sacred themes. One reason for this shift is a frank acknowledgment that we live in a post-Christian society—there are few people in this new culture who can decipher older religious symbols. Another reason is more personal, perhaps brought on by the destruction of so much of my former work: I am more aware of the weakness and marginal status of a religious artist in a secular age. Eliot’s dictum seems out of place in a time wherein not one, but hundreds of traditions coexist in the same time and place.
We live in the new cultural panoply, not the tidy preeminence of the “one great Western tradition.” We live in a complicated setting where no single set of symbols or references exists, no grand narrative reigns, not even the Holy Bible. As far as global culture is concernted, the Quran, the Bhagavad-Gita, or even American television might be on equal footing. And if this is true, Eliot’s plea seems quixotic at best. To my mind, a painter concerned with the human form and story must come to grips and seek transcendence with both the issues of our times and the mess of human history.
Hans Urs von Balthasar argues in his book Seeing the Form that the incarnation of Christ is the guarantee of meaning in and through this “wrestling with the mess.”2 In Christ, God fully entered the chaos of human history, even to the point of dying an ignominious and horrible death, yet overcoming it in his resurrection and drawing his broken human form up, into the formless divine light. According to von Balthasar, this assumption of the wounded human body into heaven underwrites our own artistic wrestling with brokenness and finitude, as well as our attempts at transcendence in and through our art. The physical world, and thus our own bodies and the materials we wield as artists, has been sanctified and made wholesome for our life and work.
My own wrestling with the human form and story began early in my development as an artist, and I think that the primary motivation behind everything I’ve done since 1973 has been a looking for the human face and form—beautiful or painful.
In his book Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, James Elkins says:
Every picture is a picture of the body. Every work of visual art is a representation of the body. To say this is to say that we see bodies even where there are none, and that the creation of a form is to some degree also the creation of a body. And if a splash of paint or a ruled grid can be a picture of a body—or the denial of a body—then there must be a desire at work, perhaps among the most primal desires of all; we prefer to have bodies in front of us, or in our hands, and if we cannot have them, we continue to see them as after-images or ghosts. This is a beautiful and complicated subject, the way our eyes continue to look out at the most diverse kinds of things and bring back echoes of bodies.3
According to Elkins we seek the body in every image, even seeing ghosts of bodies when we’re denied access to the real thing. To illustrate this idea, Elkins narrates the story of Alberto Giacometti’s famous obsession with painting a portrait of the Japanese philosopher Yanaihara. Elkins describes how Giacometti paid for the philosopher to make four trips from Tokyo to Italy to pose for him in order to complete his obsessive painting of the man’s face and body.
In the end, Giacometti felt his fifteen portraits of Yanaihara were all failures. He said that the canvas could not hold the body of the philosopher. His paintings, in Elkins’s words, took on a surface like that of a religious idol— “shiny, undulating, like the wood of a cult statue that has been caressed until it is smooth.”4 The artist’s repeated attempts to locate the body of Yanaihara within the pictorial space of his canvas yielded a set of ghostly images and after-images.
Like Giacometti, I’ve been attempting to evoke not just an image or effigy of a body, like some wax-works, but the real presence. And by real presence, I am explicitly referencing the sacred worship tradition of Christian Eucharist. Like the icon painters of the Eastern tradition, I attempt to offer my images as a means of encounter with the divine; I search for a means of communicating genuine presence, not mere appearance. Unlike those early Christians who felt the need to distance themselves from the pagan artistic traditions of physicality, I feel that it is in and through the physical—in the very earthiness of the human form and story—that our redemption happens. In contrast to the Gnostic or Neoplatonic refusal of the body, we glimpse true transcendence in Jesus’s kenosis, in his self-emptying and taking on the mess of physical existence.
The Roman philosopher Lucretius offers an interesting lens for understanding physical seeing. He spoke of seeing as the idea that the membranes of a form come to us through the ether like shed snake-skins and they thereby give us a means of touching bodies that are distant from our own body. And so, art is a means of making real presences of our thoughts, our feelings, and our faith. I’d even go a step farther and say that making art is a way of reaching toward hope. The artist makes an image to see if it will stick, to see if it will become permanent. Our own internal sense of impermanence is ever increasing, especially as the war wears on, and I don’t mean only the current war in Iraq or the oft-cited war on terror; the most wearisome war of all is the battle with our own self-destructive tendencies and our dance with death. This is also the war Saint Paul speaks of in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, that war which is “not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12).
I said that making art is like looking for hope. Like a man stranded on a desert island who sends out messages in his empty soda bottles to see if anyone is looking or listening for him, we are always attempting to communicate, to commune with the other. If, as Elkins says, every picture is an image of the body, and our hungering eye seeks always and everywhere to be sated with the human presence, then not only our eyes, but also our hearts and minds are filled with real presences, with eucharistic images of the human person.
In his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” T. S. Eliot speaks of the crucial need for artists to heed the “dead poets.”5 These presences—of the dead—are no less real in the traditions of art and literature than the person next to us in a literature class or on a train. And the presence of the dead, of the past as a present voice, is the very essence of tradition. Tradition in this sense is understood as a sacred conversation unbroken by death or the passage of time, not as a means of stopping time or preserving some precious thing. It’s not so much preservation as it is a means of transmission. Every act of transmitting tradition, according to the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, is simultaneously an act of translation.6 In other words, when we stand in a tradition, we are not simply trying to maintain a status quo; we are in the business of translating what is past into what is truly present, and thus we extend and elaborate that tradition. This is what Eliot refers to at the end of his essay as “what is already living”—that is, tradition is a means by which the past presses on us and forms us and lends meaning and purpose to our lives through a sense of continuity and coherence.
The art of the Italian Renaissance—particularly the architecture and streets in places like Orvieto or Rome or Florence—serves as a medium of transmission to me, a means of communicating with the dead poets. And what the poets and painters of the past were always seeking was the same hope for transcendence in the midst of our complex and contradictory lives. In order to forge images that evoke this hope, poets like Dante continually resorted to the Bible—as did Michelangelo, Signorelli, and countless others. The themes of the great art of the past were not chosen to satisfy a powerful church or aristocracy (though these pressures undoubtedly played a pivotal role). Rather, an entire culture of religious yearning existed out of which these great artists emerged and from which they drew inspiration to make their images, images of a universal hope and reckoning.
But how can we hope for transcendence when our lives are continually marked by brokenness and failure and war? Even a cursory look at history tells us that war, disease, and hunger have always been with us, so our own era differs little except perhaps in scale. Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s idea that the broken body of Christ, now residing in heaven, ensures the value and meaning of our human attempts at transcendence helps me in my own striving for this goal. Because of Christ’s willing sacrifice, a broken or weak body can be an image of transcendent beauty, even as it continues to acknowledge the reality of pathos and grief. This is my central thesis, that images of brokenness are actually more honest, more true, and therefore more beautiful in a fully developed sense than the truncated vision of beauty that is held out for us by a popular commercial culture of youth, celebrity, and fashion. The very truth of a broken beauty speaks into our era of loss, historical dislocation, and anomie.
Elaine Scarry, of Harvard University, says in her book On Beauty and Being Just that the opposite of beauty is not ugliness but injury.7 Her thesis seconds the idea that a fully developed theory of beauty must at least deal with truth and justice. If Scarry is right, how are images of the body that show injury to be taken as beautiful?
I argue that the central image of the Western tradition is the broken body of Christ on the cross and that this very brokenness and injury is the source of beauty, goodness, and truth in our lives as we contemplate the redemption offered in the Eucharist. Another prime example of this is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. He painted this triptych for a quarantine hospital that cared for people whose bodies were broken by Saint Anthony’s fire (a disfiguring disease that often led to gangrene and loss of limbs). The triptych opens at the center, revealing in its interior the narrative of Christ’s life, from the nativity to the resurrection. But to open the central panel of the crucifixion and see the glorious images inside the altarpiece, the right arm of Jesus must be “severed” by opening the side panel, along which a seam runs right through Christ’s shoulder. We open the altarpiece’s central panel, and Christ gives his right arm for us. And inside, we can find healing and hope through images of sacrificial love and resurrection.
Grünewald and his generation understood that behind and within the pain of Christ’s crucifixion, in his eucharistic self-offering, there is hope to be discovered through images of the broken body giving way to redemption and healing. This is a far cry from the current culture and its obsession with idealized images of physical perfection. Unlike Grünewald, I find myself painting within a contemporary art culture that is deeply compromised by worldly values that attach to prosaic, shallow standards of female beauty and masculine power. Our generation has a very confused notion of beauty and a deeply suspicious stance in relation to truth.
The beauty we see is often disconnected from truth, and it is seldom associated with goodness. In fact, the very word goodness brings sneers from many of the sophisticated members of the intelligentsia, and this is presumably because the word has been debased and no longer carries the authority and awe of holiness. Goodness has been diminished to mere sentimentality, and truth has been truncated to mere subjective experience. Consequently, beauty is an orphan, and it is often put in service of the worst forms of barbarity and futility—as the Nazi art of the past century proved. I believe that the antidote to this miscarriage of beauty is to be found by revitalizing our vision of beauty and attempting to reunite it to its two sisters, goodness and truth, through the broken body of Christ.
I will conclude with a final word from von Balthasar:
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.8
Von Balthasar is at pains in this passage to hold out hope to our generation, but it is a costly hope than cannot be had by indulging in escapist philosophies that seek to bypass the cross and human suffering. Authentic beauty is only seen, from this side of the veil, in the face of one who gives himself away. My hope is that in my paintings viewers may glimpse a broken beauty that points toward that face.
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1. T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London, UK: Methuen, 1920).
2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form: The Glory of the Lord, volume 1 (London, UK: T&T Clark Ltd., 1982).
3. James Elkins, Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 1.
4. Ibid., 2.
5. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (Fort Washington, PA: Harvest Books, 1975).
6. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 48, 49.
7. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
8. Von Balthasar, Seeing the Form, 18.
Bruce Herman is a painter, and Professor of Art at Gordon College, near Boston, where he is currently Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts. Herman’s artwork has been exhibited in over seventy-five exhibitions in major cities in the United States (including Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) and abroad (England, Italy, Israel, and Japan). His work is housed in many private and public collections including the Vatican Museums in Rome; Grunwald Center at Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles County Museum, Cincinnatti Museum of Art, and the deCordova Museum. Visit http://bruceherman.com, http://www.abrokenbeauty.com, and http://brucewherman.blogspot.com/ for more from Dr. Herman.