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On the Gift of Art

by Hieromonk Silouan Justiniano

For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things…

Romans 11:36

A response to exhibitions " Gifts" (December 2013 - January 2014, State Museum of Architecture, Moscow.

Another version of this article is available at Orthodox Arts Journal website: http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/on-the-gift-of-art-but-what-art-2/


Art is a divine gift to man, an illumination, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights...” (Jam. 1:17) Therefore, it reaches its loftiest heights when it becomes once again a gift, an offering, a sacrifice of praise, a doxology, returned back to God in Eucharistic fashion. We see the divine image in man not only in his nous, speech, free will and capacity to love, but also in his works of craftsmanship. For the Archetype of man is the Divine Craftsman, the Logos, “by whom all things were made.” Hence, as craftsman, man fulfils his vocation using his gift liturgically, that is, by working in cooperation with divine energy, ordering, and shaping his soul in virtue harmoniously, thereby depicting within himself the divine likeness. This likeness is our reintegration in the Good, grounding in the Truth and participation in uncreated Beauty- the partaking of the divine nature. Thus, man becomes a living icon mediating the divine Presence. Indeed, the highest function of art is to mediate between the Divine and human, to give access to the Divine in the realm of culture. Art then, as attested to by all major world civilizations, is essentially inextricably related to religion (religi?) - which etymologically can be said to mean, to bind fast to the Sacred - hence, to an act of liturgical worship, to cult. It is often overlooked that cult-ure arises from cult, even secular man has his rituals, shrines and relics, so we begin to know the underpinnings, the worldview and devotion of a civilization, by discerning the forms of its art. “…By their fruits you shall know them.”(Matt 7:20) As Orthodox Christians we tend to live in two spheres at the same time, neither here nor there at times. We might hold traditional perspectives in some respects, but use secular standards in others. At times we even rely on secular presuppositions to judge Tradition, without realizing it. We tend to suffer from a lot of these blind spots. This, I think, is most apparent when it comes to the question of art. For the iconographer things tend to be a bit black and white, at least most of the time. Isolated from contemporary developments in the realm of non- liturgical art he guards his spiritual integrity. But for those who don’t have a calling to engage in liturgical art, such an insular attitude is not enough, what are they to do? How are they, as Orthodox Christians, to approach their practice as artists? And, what about those who have not become part of the Church, what are we to make of their work? Is non-liturgical art capable of conveying intimations of the Sacred? Hard questions, to say the least, but ones worth asking, although the answers might not be so readily available at the moment.


So it comes as a pleasant surprise that questions along these lines are being raised by the Christmas festival “Gifts” held at the State Museum of Architecture Schusev, in collaboration with the International Community of Christian Artists “Artos.” The exhibition includes a variety of liturgical art along the side of secular works having religious themes. It includes sculpture, installation, painting, icons, architectural models, mosaics, photography, etc. The exhibition is a good opportunity for the rapprochement of normally estranged artistic communities, with completely different philosophical perspectives and modi operandi as to the nature of art. The exhibition’s setting is appropriate, a lower subterranean looking floor, with exposed brick walls and low ceilings. It calls to mind the catacombs of Rome. This evocative setting reminds us that while the primitive Church suffered under its great persecutions, simultaneously Church artists were experimenting with vitality, frescoing their secret places of worship. These Christian artists took forms readily available to them from their Greco-Roman culture and with expressive dexterity reshaped them, in ways that would later impact the development of the pictorial language of the icon. Church culture baptized existing visual forms, distilling from them that which was in accord, and useful in communicating, the new life in Christ. It goes without saying that things are a bit different now. The pictorial language of the Church’s liturgical art has reached a level of clarity, of crystallization needing no arbitrary and willful revision. However, perhaps the organizers of the exhibition want us to just pause for a moment and consider whether or not we are taking things for granted and forgetting that Church culture can still have major impact, shed some light on the state of the civilization surrounding it, in particular contemporary art. Some might resist dialogue with the contemporary art community, but in doing so are they just breeding a fundamentalism that deprives both the liturgical and non-liturgical artist of unexpected revitalization, positive convergence and cross-fertilization? And believe me, by raising these concerns we are not here opening the doors of the Orthodox Church to the modernist trends that the Roman Church has suffered for many centuries now, but that became rampant after Vatican II. As mentioned earlier a civilization is known by the fruit of its art. So what “fruits” have I looked at recently? The other day I went to the art store to get a few materials I needed. And, as usual, it was a challenge to just focus on what I really needed rather than hastily dropping in the basket all the neat stuff that grabbed my attention. “Maybe this brush can be useful…Wow, that would be a nice paper to use…Do I have that color?” So went along the inner conversation and, for the most part, I managed to stay within the budget. Eventually, as I carefully inspected the isles I bumped into the magazine rack and started looking at the most recent art publications. I think the last time I purchased an Art News or Art Forum was about twelve years or so ago, when I was still in art school, finishing my graduate studies in painting. Since then things have changed, I’ve been in the monastery focusing on iconography, so it goes without saying that I’m a bit out of touch with what’s happening out there.


In any case, yes, I confess, although a monastic I occasionally do wonder about what’s going on with contemporary art, especially what kind of images and paintings are being produced. So, I couldn’t resist, I picked up one of the magazines, the one that seemed the most alluring and unusual, the most creative and playful. Creative in that it broke the mold of the standards I had been accustom to expect from the stuffy art publication in previous years. Painting might have lead the way at one time, it had a kind of preeminence, now it’s just another option in the plethora of possibilities. Duchamp opened up a can of worms with his urinal that ever since hasn’t stopped leaking. In art school I use to say that the ever changing and fragmentary modern art movements and theories resembled Protestantism’s ever multiplying theologies. But, happily, I thought, this magazine seemed to unashamedly embrace painting and drawing from a variety of angles, playful image making, the imagination let loose, yet stirred by masterful skill. Perhaps, most magazines representing the “serious” contemporary art discourse would consider it an oddity, a misfit in the crowd, irrelevant to the intellectually “pressing issues.” In short, in this publication aesthetic pleasure, playfulness and joy, took precedence over stifling conceptual qualms.


Anyhow, no, I didn’t get the magazine, I put it back on the rack. For all of its alluring visuals it lacked depth, the images skin deep. No redemptive value, no sense of the sacred. It induced a momentary aesthetic euphoria, but it left you with a bad aftertaste. Where did the images come from? In a way they resembled magical dream sequences, vivid, as if meticulously recorded by a great draftsman of the Mannerist period, with a flair for the Gothic. But like dreams they went up in smoke once the thrill was over. What started as a playful dream actually began to betray a darker undertone. In fact, the magazine can be seen as an image of “art” as we know it today, an alluring spectacle, a very seductive one, a mental scape, or labyrinth of ideas streaming out of the psyche, unrestrained. And in the labyrinth, door after door, you can open one enter and enjoy. It promises liberty, playfulness, joy, aesthetic pleasure, but does it deliver its promises, this Wonder Land of simulacra, can we find our way out from its twisting passageways?


Be that as it may, we can go on all day speaking of the miseries of the state of art as we find it today. But that’s not my point here. However, the magazine is just one example that reminds me of how we often take for granted our contemporary presuppositions of art as a norm, as if that’s how things have always been. Perhaps this is because we tend to buy into the notion of so called progress without even realizing it. Therefore, we might think, “Things always change for the better, the past is irrelevant, the present, the “spirit of the times” determines the state of things. We know better now than our primitive forebears.” And this amounts to a kind of derision of Tradition, which is not to be confused with institutional conservatism, formalism, or fundamentalist legalism. Rather, it can be described as “that continuum of knowledge which deals with the meaning and purpose of man’s life, and the possibility of his rebirth. It is a knowledge ever new, fresh, immortal, always present, not subject to time, which is the basis of all the great civilizations.#1 If the “progressive” anti-traditional sentiment is felt anywhere it could be said that it’s felt the strongest in our attitude towards art. Under the spell of this historicist mentality we sink into a kind of amnesia about how art was understood universally in world civilizations for millennia before the Renaissance. Yes, our presuppositions about art ultimately begin to bud in the Renaissance and finally bloom in the early 20th century, with the fragmentary avant-garde movements of Modernism. In short, our views about art arise from the abandonment of a religious consciousness in culture and the embrace of a secular mentality. Man replaced God and the museum replaced the Cathedral.


It is good to remember that the notion of “art” as a subjective statement, personal expression, in pursuit of originality or novelty for the sake of novelty, having no functional value, in other words, “art for art sake,” is nothing but an anomaly of recent world history. It betrays our fragmented, unintegrated civilization that values individualism over community, appearances over truth, opinion over revelation, and the contingent over timeless principles. It’s a notion that forgets the traditional doctrine of art, that is, the universal understanding of art as techne, a manufacturing skill, a fitly joining together, meant to supply for both the needs of the body and soul. Yes, and in supplying for the soul it embodied the Sacred. In this understanding symbolic and functional values converge and aid man in his union with God. As I think Aristotle put it once, “the general end of art is the good of man.” But unfortunately most of us don’t know what the Good is. Nevertheless, for all major civilizations from time immemorial, art has always had the religious function of mediating and manifesting divinity, it served as vehicle for the coming together of the heavenly and earthly realms. In short, for the traditional man art is incarnational, looking forward to the Incarnation.


For traditional man art is done according to a heavenly pattern, “And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was showed thee in the mount.” (Exodus 25:40) His cities, temples, habitations, armors and tools, were fashioned according to revealed archetypes. In this regard Annanda K. Coomaraswamy has noted, “For all the arts, without exception, are representations or likenesses of a model; which does not mean that they are such as to tell us what the model looks like, which would be impossible seeing that the forms of traditional art are typically imitative of invisible things, which have no looks, but that they are adequate analogies as to be able to remind us, i.e., put us in mind again, of their archetypes.#2 For traditional man the Heavens gave order to the polity, Jerusalem was a type of the Heavenly City. Therefore, art without the Sacred is cut in half, blunted. Art, without the Sacred as its first principle, becomes solipsistic, a skill without purpose or meaning, it gradually becomes an irrational luxury; that is, solely relegated to what pleases our lower appetites, rather than for the purpose of nourishing man’s highest faculty and innermost aspect of the heart –the nous. How can there be art without the Divine Craftsman ordering, guiding its activity, and imparting the illumination of the Holy Spirit? The traditional doctrine of art as expressed in past civilizations might be dismissed as an anachronistic only to our detriment. No, we are not calling to a return to medieval times. Tradition, as we mentioned, is “ever new, fresh, immortal, always present” and ever renewing those who partake of its waters. In fact, aspects of the traditional doctrine of art can still be found forming part of the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church, as can be seen in its liturgical art, in particular the sacred art of the icon. What for ancient man could only remain in the realm of things “impossible to be seen” actually became visible in the incarnate Logos, the Divine Archetype. The icon now depicts the circumscribable form of the Person of the uncircumscribed One, the Son- the image of the Father. What was an intimation in past civilizations, a type and shadow of things to come, becomes fulfilled in the complete work of art of Church cult, which in word and image, depicts through symbolic realism the Mystery of the Incarnation.


As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t buy the art magazine I put it back in the rack. Then, there are some of us have put back in the shelf the traditional doctrine of art as a thing of the past irrelevant to our predicament today. Likewise, others might have already gone further and put most forms of contemporary art in the trash bin, as dangerous spoiled food, contaminant to Church life. But, perhaps things are not so simple. My sense is that if gallery art suffers from the cult of novelty, on the other hand those immersed in the practice of liturgical art, and here as an iconographer I’m mainly concerned with the icon, at times suffer from a stifling and limited notion of Tradition. The secular artist might be on to something, his suspicion might not be wholly unjustified, when he sees that in most cases our icons lack vitality, life, evidence of inspiration, power according to the Spirit. At times we can be too satisfied with the regurgitation of old formulas, mere imitation of prototypes which we have not made our own. So in a way my initial excitement in looking at the magazine on the rack was exactly the vitality of expressive power of the artwork, although the content did not edify. And maybe the liturgical artist hides his envy of the “freedom” he doesn’t have. The secular artist wants authenticity. But have we made the Tradition our lives blood, as to be able to produce works, refreshing images that serve as an oasis quenching the thirst in our desert of simulacra? Can our icons compete with the flashing lights and colors of the virtual realities our civilization offers as an escape from the drudgery of mundane life? Yes, undoubtedly, but only if we experience Tradition from within. Only when we encounter the prototype, not as podliniki tracings in front of us, but as the heavenly reality that we commune with, apprehend with our noetic eyes, and that uniquely touches us, in such a way that our personal temperament is not quenched but is given freedom in the Spirit. Only when we paint from our experience rather than that of others.


Some tend to be so concerned with the problem of “artistic license” in iconography to the point of wanting the creative act of the iconographer to be as “canonically precise,” or rather, as mechanical as a product of a copying machine or as the glittery reproductions we often find in church supply stores today. But let us not forget, the iconographer preaches the Gospel in colors, so to speak, and chants a hymn of praise, trembling as he says in the words of the Christmas stichera, “how hard is to compose hymns of love, framed in harmony.” The iconographer paints the Word, plastically manifests, "enflesh" the Logos, if we can use the incarnational expression. This is indeed an "artistic license" of kerygmatic expression in free-will, for Christ ordained it so, "gave license," saying: "Go and preach to the nations." Indeed, the creative act is free in so far as it is guided by the nous inspired by Tradition- the Mystery. Techne, skill, or art, remain in the craftsman, for it is a science, a knowledge, residing in him. This art shapes, and molds matter, this is the servile or mechanical act. The object is not the art, but the artifact. The free and servile functions coincide. One pertains to nous, the other to manufacture. The two meet in the border of the imaginative faculty, which is not to be confused with fantasy. Rather, this faculty takes in sense impressions and combining these with images stored in the memory, serves to arrive at pictorial solutions in the creative act, through a process of mental editing and synthesis. If these distinctions are kept in mind then there is no fear of so called "artistic license" in iconography. We have been given a Spirit of freedom not of bondage. This brings us to the challenge that liturgical art presents to contemporary gallery art. If the artist today is unwilling to reassess the credence of the “art for art sake” doctrine, in which he feels no responsibility and places himself above good and evil in his aesthetic choices, then no more can be said. For him art has never been a gift from above and can never be returned back to God in thanksgiving. In his hands it becomes a tool for his solipsistic concerns and a detriment to society. But I’m sure there are those who would like to make of their art something more uplifting, transformative and spiritually significant. Yet, this concern also has its dangers, for “the spiritual in art” is at times a concept that is as ambiguous as “art” itself, redolent with a kind of sentimentality that betrays its romantic subjectivism. In this regard we should recall the experiments of the Symbolists and the pioneers of early Abstraction. Modernism has had at times overlaps and convergences with liturgical or sacred art, mainly the belief that art should go beyond appearances and tap into the essence of things, making the Divine, the Absolute present, and thereby change man and society. Unfortunately, in their attempt at realizing this lofty goal they had no recourse to living Tradition, preferring to put their trust on the so called progress of artistic evolution and Utopianism. They might have aimed towards an objective metaphysics, nevertheless at the end of the day they ended with subjectivity.


On the other hand the icon, based on Revelation, is an objective art that overcomes the traps of extreme individualism, while at the same time allowing the unique temperament of the person to flourish in creativity. This is the paradox of obedience to Tradition. The icon is part of the integrated traditional sphere of Eastern Orthodoxy, and as such has a living function within that context. But here I’m not saying that for the non-liturgical artist it will be sufficient to merely duplicate ancient religious artistic forms, within a cultural context that is no longer integrated, having lost a sacred worldview that permeates all aspects of life. Yet, the icon is a healthy challenge to the commonly accepted notion of “art.” Yes, the non-liturgical artist must use an artistic language that will be read and understood by his audience. If art is not intelligible what good is it? Mere pleasant aesthetic surfaces is not enough, this would relegate things to solely to the senses, and the arts, as Plato would say speaking according to the traditional doctrine, are children of the intellect, that is the nous. If what is being said is not meant to transform us for the better, by reminding us of our Origen, our Archetype, to whom we are meant to return, then I wouldn’t call such an art original.


As Philip Sherrard says, “A work of art which can bring us to the threshold of mystery is not the same as a sacred work of art, which discloses the mystery itself and makes us share in it.#3 This is a very important point, although liturgical art discloses the mystery of the Sacred, nevertheless non-liturgical art can point to it, even bring us to the border of encounter, and this is no small achievement. In fact, it can only be attributed to divine intervention. As I’ve said elsewhere, gallery art can, in its best moments, overcome the limitations of individualism, touch the depths of our common humanity, contain great beauty, point to the underlying harmony of the created order, offer hope in the midst of suffering, remind us of the innocence of Paradise, take us to the threshold of the mystery of the sacred, and have an edifying, powerful impact. Rare though these moments can be, they are still possible. However, I’m convinced, that those instances will become even scarcer if the traditional doctrine of art and the religious roots of art are forgotten as a thing of the past. Furthermore, the chances will be even bleaker if the artist’s faculty of spiritual vision, his nous, is not purified. It is not sufficient to solely rely on human efforts, the psychic realm of emotions, passions, the senses or rationalism. The spiritual in art should not be confused with the irrationality of the sub-conscious, it rather pertains to the supra-rational, illumination, life in the Spirit through initiation and participation in Holy Tradition. Our art will continue to wither if we don’t address the whole man as created in the image and likeness of God. The principles of sacred art continue to be relevant for us today, whether we realize it or not, and can help bring about a revitalization of non-liturgical art. The challenge is not only about producing alluring surfaces in art, but entails an inner, personal transformation. A transformation or rebirth which can begin as soon as we are willing to present the gift of art back to God.


The “Gifts” festival exhibition opens up a dialogue between liturgical and non-liturgical art that will hopefully continue in the form of future exhibitions, lectures and publications. The brief observations raised here only touch on the surface and barely answer all the questions asked in the beginning. But in any case, they give an idea about the complexity of the issues raised and hopefully will contribute to further the discourse. I think in the end, both communities will benefit from an interaction that is bound to be revitalizing in unexpected ways. It’s good to see that some of the iconographers included in the exhibition have tackled the problems discussed earlier as to authenticity of expression. They push the boundaries creatively, taking time to think through ideas when working from ancient models, getting into the spirit of the prototypes without duplicating the surface look, and yet always staying within the Tradition. If I had seen these icons in the pages of the magazine in the art store, I would have left the store with them. These are good examples of the gift of art offered back to God as a beautiful doxology.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


#1. Cecil Collins, Why does Art today Lack Inspiration? In Every Man An Artist, Readings in the Traditional Philosophy of Art, ed. Brian Keeble, World Wisdom, Inc., Bloomington, IN, 2005, p. 203.


#2. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “Why Exhibit Works of Art,” in The Essential Coomaraswamy, World Wisdom, Inc., Bloomington, Indiana, 2004, p.113.


#3. Philip Sherrard, The Sacred in Life and Art, Denise Harvey Publ., Evia, Greece, 2004, p. 16.