Sacred Art in Profane Institutions

This weekend while reading a book about the development of the major art museums which we enjoy in America today, I was struck by something which always bothers me about the nature of the institution of the art museum itself.  Many of the objects we see on these shores were purchased by the American nouveaux-riches to give themselves some polish, so as to make up for the smell of their very new money.   They went about despoiling European churches, convents, and residences of spiritual objects to use as status symbols or expensive playthings, in a millionaires-only game where religious institutions lost out to profane ones..

For example as the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt went about aiding the Havemeyers, a sugar baron and his society wife, over the course of several years in seeking out and purchasing a work by El Greco, there was a noticeable lack of interest both on the part of her patrons and of Cassatt herself regarding the religious aspects of the pictures under consideration.  In a letter to Mrs. Havemeyer, Cassatt describes a 13-foot-tall altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, which the Havemeyers were considering buying but which was too tall to fit inside their Fifth Avenue mansion [N.B. the piece later ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago.]  In writing about it Cassatt notes nothing about the theological truths or spiritual virtues contained in the painting, but rather concentrates on the brushwork, the lines, and gives her verdict that it would be a good buy because the image of the Blessed Mother featured “a good head.”

If that’s all there was to recommend it, wouldn’t such a painting have been better-off being left in the church for which it had been painted? The counter-argument is, of course, that many objects such as these are better-preserved and cared for in museums, than they would have been had they been left in situ; in many cases such an argument is correct.  However, I can’t help but feel that the forest is being lost for the trees, in such an argument.

A similar back-and-forth over artistic  merit (and price) went on over the purchase of two of Raphael’s celebrated devotional images of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child, acquired by J.P. Morgan for the Morgan Library.  The issue in obtaining them was never about what such images of the Madonna and Child were supposed to teach the believer about the Incarnation.  Rather, the goal was to see how much Morgan could show off, when he would hold meetings with these private devotional paintings hanging on the wall: a more expensive versions of deer heads stuffed and mounted following a successful hunt.

Sometimes the unwillingness or inability of many of our great museums to wade into issues of Catholic theology – since the overwhelming majority of Christian sacred art in American art museums is Catholic in origin – is almost embarrassing, at times.  Placards and catalogue entries go into raptures over color choices and brushstrokes, linear perspective and chiaroscuro, and say little about the theology portrayed – often getting it wrong when they do.  Images before which generations of people brought their hopes and fears, to help them focus in their prayer life with God, are admired not for their ability to move the viewer to piety, but because of how bright the blue is, or how skillfully the tiny landscape behind the holy figures one is supposed to be concentrating on is painted.  There is a pointless superficiality and emptiness in this sort of collecting.  It is as if one was allowed to walk into the butcher’s shop and admire the marbling and the trimming of all of the fine steaks on display in the case, but one was never allowed to actually eat any of them.

This is not to say that one can never admire or appreciate an art object for its own intrinsic beauty.  However when it comes to the sacred art of the West, created by centuries and centuries of Catholics, the danger of allowing a secular museum to tell you what you ought to think about such objects lies in forgetting to question those secular shrines, and assuming their neutrality.  In realizing that profane institutions have many merits, but they are not the most trustworthy of guides, the smart museum visitor is the better-prepared visitor.  Learn what you can from these sources, but make sure you take their pronouncements about the art you see with some reservations.

"The Assumption of the Virgin" by El Greco (c. 1577-1579) The Art Institute of Chicago

“The Assumption of the Virgin” by El Greco (c. 1577-1579)
The Art Institute of Chicago

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Detroit’s Art Collection: Under the Hammer?

As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems already…

In the latest chapter on the ongoing woes of the Motor City, the entire collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (“DIA”) is now being targeted by creditors.  You may recall that late last year, Christie’s auction house was retained to value the roughly 1,700 works in the collection which had been purchased using public funds.  They concluded that these pieces were worth somewhere in the range of $454 to $867 million, depending on the often widely-ranging vagaries of the art market.

Not satisfied with that outcome, two different groups of creditors are now going on what we in the legal profession like to refer to as a “fishing expedition”, on the assumption that assets are being hidden.  One rather ridiculous demand is that the DIA give a full accounting of all of its financial and visitor records, going back to the founding of the museum nearly a century ago – which hardly seems germane to the issue at hand.  Another  is insisting that the DIA and Christie’s provide a valuation of the museum’s entire collection of well over 60,000 items, not simply valuing those objects purchased using taxpayer money.  You can read more about the details of these subpoenas, and why things have reached this point by reading this overview from The Detroit Free Press.

From a legal perspective, the attorneys for the creditors are simply doing their job.  There’s nothing at all strange about requesting thousands of pages of documents in a case, particularly when you are dealing with an unprecedented and enormous municipal bankruptcy such as this.  These are uncharted waters for everyone, not just the parties themselves, even though the bankruptcy rules themselves are quite plain.  Attorneys and courts have an obligation to clients and to the public in any bankruptcy proceeding to make sure that no assets are being hidden or left unvalued.

Yet lost in the shuffle here is the very sad fact that should these efforts lead to a massive sell-off of the DIA’s collection, it is the people of Detroit who are going to lose.  If the DIA is dismembered and sold on the open market, no amount of return will really be enough.  To paraphrase Aristotle, the value of an art museum as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As an institution, an art museum preserves the past artistic achievements of mankind, while serving to educate and inspire those who want to admire and learn from such achievements both at present and in the future.  The study of art is just as much the study of our own history, as it is the appreciation of beauty.  When we go to a museum and look at a painting or a sculpture, we learn not only who made it, but how, when, where, and why it was made.  We all benefit, general public and scholars alike, from the work that they do to remind us of who we are, and where we come from.

It is a pity that so many decades of incompetent management, corruption, and single-party governance have led Detroit to this point, where the haunting eyes of Constanza da Sommaia, one of the elegant Mannerist painter Bronzino’s favorite muses, may be about to disappear into some collector’s Swiss bank vault.

Detail of "Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia" by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540) Detroit Institute of Arts

Detail of “Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia” by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540)
Detroit Institute of Arts

That’s About the Size of It

Often we are told that in order to truly appreciate something, we need to physically go and look at it.  We understand a foreign culture better, or can marvel at the wonders of the natural world more readily, if we take these things in for ourselves.  Yet while oftentimes people think nothing of trekking off to an insalubrious part of the world to experience a completely foreign culture, I wonder how often they take the time to explore the genius of human creativity in their own culture, when given the opportunity to do so.

No doubt looking at the Himalayas in person tells us a great deal more about them than simply watching a documentary on television.  Yet so too in art, we learn far more from actually examining the historical treasures of Western civilization than we do from flipping through a book or clicking on images.  The benefit of going to see such things can truly change our perceptions of the subject matter, and increase our admiration for the level of skill and achievement which these artists were able to reach.

Seeing something in person fundamentally changes one’s perceptions, there can be no question.  I was at a Christmas party at a rather swank Washington hotel a couple of years ago, when two very well-known reporters from CNN showed up.  Both were of far, far shorter of stature than I had imagined them to be, which made them less imposing than I had imagined, and more approachable.  This is a common occurrence, for when we see someone on-screen or in print on a reasonably regular basis, we develop an idea in our heads as to their size, which sometimes bears no resemblance to reality.

The same holds true when it comes to works of art, for good reason. A book or a computer screen displaying a photograph of a famous painting is not necessarily displaying that painting at its true size. Rather, the image is blown up or shrunk down to accommodate the limitations of the display space. This is why although one can learn a great deal from books, in the end it is the experience of actually seeing the art that brings its full impact and increases our understanding.

Take for example the sculpture I chose yesterday for my Lenten Facebook wallpaper, before logging off. “The Merciful Christ” by Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), a realistic portrayal of Jesus on the cross, probably completed sometime between 1603 and 1605. Someone dropping by my Facebook page may look at the photograph of the sculpture, and associate the image with the type of wall crucifix that one often sees in Catholic institutions, such as schools and hospitals.   In fact, “The Merciful Christ” is almost life-size, as one can see in the photograph accompanying this post.  This is not a wall crucifix for most people, unless you happen to have the acres of wall space necessary to be able to accommodate something this large hanging over your desk or bed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lady or a gentleman’s education was not considered complete until they had made a tour of several countries in Europe.  Part of their education was to see famous paintings, sculptures, buildings, gardens, and so on.  The value of this practice was viewed primarily as being educational: they or their families thought that it was important to get a sense of Western heritage, of taste, of history, and shared values, which they would be able to employ in order to help lead their communities back home.

Visiting great works of art does not necessarily have to involve trans-oceanic travel, of course.  There are many fine museums in the United States where one can go and understand better why we are fortunate to live in our present society, whatever its myriad of faults.  And the objects contained in the galleries of these places are physical expressions of why we have the ideals, values, and freedoms we do have in the Western tradition.

A great painting or sculpture is something made by human hands, however many centuries ago.  Someone individually crafted an expression of their own human experiences – faith, love, sorrow, joy, hope, loss, etc. – which chances are you yourself have experienced and thought about.  The artist expresses that which they value, by using the creative talents they were given by their Creator.  So by going along to see their work, and hopefully recognizing that mutual bond you share, you will realize how much good and beauty our civilization has achieved and is still capable of achieving, as well as how much we need to remember and celebrate those good things we have managed to create, as much as we do natural wonders or exotic cultures.

Carmelite admiring the "Christ of Mercy" at an exhibition in London

Carmelite admiring the “Merciful Christ” at an exhibition in London