Leonardo Da Vinci, “Study of Hands”

Christian art, as it stands, will die.  It has been presented with two dangers: (1) ossifying with old forms and gestures, so that it becomes incomprehensible outside of its narrow confines; (2) sinking into the nihilism of the modern age, so that its contours could no longer said to be Christian.  This second temptation is obvious enough: Church buildings look like warehouses; Christian music sings vaguely of God to second-rate guitar riffs.  The first temptation, more seductive for its stubborn dignity, finds its home in the reanimation of the past: this is why Catholic poets all sound like G.M. Hopkins, who died 120 years ago.  We are faced with the following paradox: when Christians try to be cutting-edge, they are derided as counterfeit; when Christians don the habits of their past, they are cursed as Luddites.  Such a paradoxical reaction is certainly true of modern culture as it confronts Christianity.  It should be true of Christians, because there is truth in this modern revulsion—even if it is too addle-brained to account for its own accuracy.

Western culture is haunted by the Christianity from which it is unchained.  And Christianity, ghost-like, moves among us voiceless.  So we stand now as one who knew love once, or saw it in a movie, pantomiming the past with fixed gestures removed from their meaning:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone. – T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

The paradox and its contradictory dangers cross each other at a hidden center: we have failed the past, and so we fail the present.  Christian art, its culture, dies now because it neither grasps what it once was or the situation in which it now stands.  In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot insists that in the poet “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”  Only the Christian artist most vividly linked to the tradition of Christian art is the most unique and outstanding.  This cannot look like a mere repetition of the past, since in such a case the tradition has not been encountered—it has been mimed as a thing already dead.  Nor can it presume to press its own unique stance at the edge of history, celebrating its newness, for now it only commits the same sin by impersonating the present.  Christian art cannot know its newness, much like the saint can never know his own sanctity.

This difficulty is only complicated by the miserable fact that modern culture is nihilism: its forms of expression spread and die  like petals over a grave.  Art has been wounded by worse than relativism, since it can no longer find it in itself to relate.  It can only create and create and create. It creates ex nihilo, demonic as it caricatures the original moment of creation, in a furor that tastes like the bitterness of nothing.  So how can the past recapitulate, alive and old and new, in nothing?  This why art’s new tinge is desperate, shouting against faceless skies.  If there is no meaning, then we cannot even feel the despair of asking “Why?”:

Music survives, composing her own sphere,
Angel of Tones, Medusa, Queen of the Air,
and when we would accost her with real cries
silver on silver thrills itself to ice. – Geoffrey Hill, “Tenebrae”

Can Christian art echo this strange non-despair?  Is there a place for the grotesque predicament of finding no face in the mirror?  Or must we categorically reject it, address it with all the neglected strength of the anathema?  Christian art will die, living on in small irrelevant corners, and it yet may live…  If it answers like Peter did to the “Quo vadis?”

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