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Essay

IN past editorial statements, we have pointed out the resurgence of religious ideas and experiences in contemporary art and literature. We have argued that this phenomenon is part of an important cultural shift. Moreover, we have celebrated this movement as a hopeful sign, one of the primary justifications for the existence of Image.

But many ambiguities and ironies attend this new openness to religion, and it would be wrong to ignore them. As G.K. Chesterton reminds us, an open mind, like an open mouth, must eventually close on something nourishing, or perish. For some decades it seemed that the Judeo-Christian vision was going to be replaced by another strong, all-encompassing system, such as Marxism or Freudianism. The demise of those overconfident systems did not, however, entail a renaissance of religious orthodoxy. What we now see is a culture dominated by subjectivism and the notion that the individual creates his own set of beliefs. This has led not only to the popularity of syncretistic New Age religion, but to the spectacle of churchgoers picking and choosing among the doctrines espoused by their historic denominations.

What used to be bracing “either/or” issues of faith and conviction have now subsided into easygoing “both/and” scenarios. In popular culture, the use of religion is often little more than nostalgia, a salve to the consciences of Baby Boomers who are beginning to feel intimations of mortality. In high art this type of sentimentality is less frequent; cynicism and despair are more common. The art establishment continues to be hospitable to a number of nihilistic pranksters who desperately search for modes of mockery and blasphemy that have not yet been used against traditional religion.

What disturbs me, however, are the number of serious works of art that seem to bring in religious experience as a source of imagery or paradox or drama, but fail to engage that religion at the deepest levels. Take, for example, the late works by Andy Warhol that manipulate images from da Vinci’s Last Supper. I don’t doubt that Warhol’s Catholicism was deeply-rooted or that these late paintings represent a struggle to renew his religious sensibility. But cropping, re- coloring, masking, and duplicating da Vinci’s images do not constitute a new vision of faith. Warhol was unable to emerge from the detachment of conceptual art to a passionate engagement that placed his own life and art on the line.

Or consider the case of Brian Moore, a novelist of consummate skills. Several of Moore’s recent novels focus on Catholics caught up in terrifying and complex political and moral issues. Catholicism, with its high moral demands and theology of suffering, offers Moore a dramatic framework for his protagonist. But there are times in Moore’s fiction when that religious dimension seems more a source of paradox than a sustaining force in his characters’ lives.

How does one distinguish between art that merely uses religion from art that conveys a vision of the world seen through the eyes of faith? In trying to answer that question, I have found myself returning to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous definition of the imagination:

The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will which we express by the word choice.

Coleridge’s differentiation between the secondary, or artistic, imagination, and the fancy, goes to the heart of the matter. When religion merely functions in a work of art to enhance mood or frame a paradox it becomes a fixed and lifeless thing, a piece of cultural memory used by conscious choice, not organic and alive. However cleverly these counters are moved around, even in the hands of such talented artists as Warhol and Moore, they do not catch fire, or take us inside the experience of faith. They do not possess the seamless unity of a fully imagined work.

Does that mean that religious orthodoxy is the measure for determining the imaginative vitality of art? No. Plenty of third-rate work has come from the pens and brushes of the pious. And there are works of passionate searching, such as those of Camus, that are not produced by the dogmatically correct. But there remain the great integrated figures, from Dante and Rembrandt and Hopkins to T.S. Eliot and Rouault and Flannery O’Connor, whose integrated faith and art leave us transformed by their creations. These artists are Image’s patron saints, precisely because their works echo the creations of the original “I AM.”


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