A Broken Beauty

edited by Theodore L. Prescott,foreword by Bruce Herman.William B. Eerdmans Publishing ...

by William Swetcharnik

<i>A Broken Beauty</i>, Timothy Prescott

Beauty, loss, yearning for wholeness are rooted in the body, through which we experience beauty and brokenness. A shared artistic vocabulary comes of human physicality. But the breakdown of traditions that help make sense of our human condition has thrown us into confusion. Motivated by these concerns, artist/professor Bruce Herman, with the help of some friends and patrons, created a book, a traveling exhibition and a website. More perhaps by provocation than explication, Herman wanted the Broken Beauty project to challenge us regarding “the rich and problematic nature of beauty and human experience as it has been given to us via history and the Christian tradition.” By all rights, this ought to seem a timely enterprise. The various essayists of the book—Herman himself, editor Theodore Prescott, art historians Timothy Verdon and Lisa DeBoer, and historian/curator Gordon Fuglie—earnestly try to make that case. But by all wrongs—a conspiracy of wrongs, if we accept Fuglie’s critique of the art world—they may be doomed to admirable failure. Where does the human figure stand in the next crazy-quilt landscape of the art scene? Herman observes: “Every era witnesses the contest of various voices for the telling of a culture’s story, and most Modernist voices told a story that seemed to eclipse the possibility of the human presence as a meaningful image in a time of massive cultural change.”

Together, the Christian tradition and the Greco-Roman legacy generated the image of man that flowered in the Renaissance. It would not have flowered this way, argues essayist Timothy Verdon, were it not for figures such as St. Francis of Assisi, who opened the sensibilities of the Church to the glory and pain of creation. The legacy of Francis exercised a major influence on Giotto, Dante, Thomas Aquinas and successive generations of artists and thinkers who shaped the early Renaissance and staked out a new sense of contingency between heaven and earth. Verdon, whose luminous analysis takes us into the modern era, is priest and theologian as well as art historian. In the structure of this book, he serves as a sort of Virgil, sweetly helping us pick our way through the casualties and casuistries that litter the passage of our late great millennium. Along with the other essayists, he invokes the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy and refuses to assume that the story must remain stuck in hell or even purgatory.

It is not an easy passage, but for those willing to follow the arguments of A Broken Beauty, it provides some critical mapping of the terrain we have stumbled upon. Editor Theodore Prescott first locates us in today’s dark night of the soul by discussing four characteristic contemporary contenders—Philip Pearlstein, Cindy Sherman, Leon Golub and Kiki Smith—over the ways we may artistically regard the human body. Prescott persuasively argues that their agenda must be understood in order to appreciate the current predicament of humanist art. He does not offer any easy prescriptions, and he is respectfully skeptical of conservative art historians such as Charles Jencks, who see in postmodernism a convenient rubric for neo-figurative trends. To Prescott, “Jencks’s view of the new Classicism seems too eclectic and too open to ambiguity, irony, or pastiche—oriented more to questions of form and style than to the recovery of the humanist vision.” This is a tactful way to identify a common problem among curator-historians: how to package their product for easy public consumption. But with characteristic honesty, Prescott also points out that Jencks’s agenda suffers from the failure of so many new classicist artists to go beyond nostalgia and posturing.

Prescott’s own lack of posturing, frustrating though it may be for many conservative partisans, helps propel A Broken Beauty toward a credible set of critiques. Prescott, whose own art tends to skirt the edge between embodiment and abstract symbolism, has wrestled independently for many decades with realist/humanist issues. Though he sympathizes with many, he identifies with no single artistic camp or critical coterie. If anything, he belongs to the legacy of Erasmus, a Christian humanist who was respectful of the differing criteria that likeminded artists and thinkers tried to bring to the problems of that age. In this spirit, Prescott wants us to understand the Broken Beauty project as: “a loose enterprise. It is not organized by manifesto, confession, or creed, nor is it attempting to stake out stylistic or ideological turf like a movement. Rather, it is pulled together by a desire to see the old Christian image of humanity, with its core concepts of both sin and joy, inform the artistic figuration of our time.”


Timothy Grubbs Lowly, Carry Me, 2002  Courtesy of the Artist

Prescott first provides the disquieting contemporary context for the human figure in art and Verdon then provides a more comfortable set of bearings, beginning in the pellucid, idyllic landscape of the southern Renaissance. Historian Lisa DeBoer examines Flemish, Dutch and German art, opening up a distinctively sympathetic sense of human individuality, typified by the comically tinged tableaux of Breughel the Elder and his successors. In this largely Protestant tradition, artists felt free to examine and celebrate human ironies and idiosyncrasies as evidences of creational diversity. In this context, even heaven would comprise a comedic (in Dante’s sense) of surprised, joyous, particularized fulfillment. It reminds us of the mousetrap motif that often appears as a detail in Northern Renaissance altarpieces, in which Joseph the carpenter father is fashioning these little devices as an allegory for God’s fashioning of a history in which salvation serves as the sudden punch-line. But DeBoer then makes a jump that many readers will think peculiar: she suddenly skips to the present era, discusses the photorealist sculpture of Duane Hansen and asks why the modern mind finds it difficult to combine comedy and even farce with respectfully fashioned realism.

Many readers will be perplexed by the idiosyncratic perspectives that continue to unfurl. Gordon Fuglie’s first essay, largely a text of cultural complaint, concludes with a paean to an abstract organic ceramic sculpture. He starts with a discussion of Art Nouveau sculpture, with a nod to Charles Jencks’s “witty characterization” of fin-de-siècle eclecticism as heir to the radical Protestant Reformation, and parenthetically, poses the possibility that its eclecticism could be seen as a prototype for postmodernism. One soon gets the sense that there is mischief afoot, that Fuglie is indulging a revisionist agenda. Indeed, as a curator/historian, Fuglie seems personally acquainted with the sense of exclusion that The Art World (a term he uses so often he abbreviates it to “TAW”) imposes on anyone unlucky enough not to inherit that magic, silver, New York spoon. He cheerfully cites critics such as Arthur Danto and Peter Schjeldahl, insofar as they might legitimize a neo-Christian esthetic of beauty and meaning. So eager is he to pry open the parameters of that little/big box, he gives little thought to the possibility that Pandora is peering over his shoulder. And this is one of the ironies of a revisionist agenda: even if it holds secret hopes of creating a new orthodoxy, in its early phases it is typically anarchic.

This brings us to the difficult terrain where markets and motives intersect and diverge. The art and thought embodied in the Broken Beauty project cannot reach a significant audience without substantial patronage. We may sympathize with Fuglie’s sense of embattlement as he talks about all the ways that the art world has co-opted each successive threat to its hegemony. These are not paranoid imaginings: respected historians such as Robert Hughes have also commented on the ways the modern art establishment shrewdly re-cast modernist artists in postmodern terms. This is the same establishment that hijacked the neo-figurative movement of recent decades and subsumed it into neo-expressionist and postmodern rationales. Exclusion and legitimation have always been features of cultural competition, but the key problem addressed by this book is that traditional Christian perspectives are losing currency. For example, Prescott and Fuglie cite Paul Tillich and Jacques Maritain, whose thinking accommodated the kinds of expressionistic ethos that arose during the early twentieth century, including the deliberately ugly and disjunctive styles that represented a reaction to the modern horrors of war. By mid-century, however, these voices were being drowned out by the intelligentsia that would largely call the shots for the remainder of the millennium. New Christian voices are now struggling to emerge, some trying to accommodate their agenda to the postmodern ethos, some trying to subvert it to their own purposes.

To a traditional audience, A Broken Beauty may feel disturbing. Its stylistic mélange would strain the curatorial talents of most historians, especially those who take their cues from the secular world. And here lies the rub: the artists in this project, while employing traditional forms and formats, also take many of their cues from representational paradigms that emerged in a more secular era. In large part, these artists represent a reaction against the rampant banalities of neo-Christian and new classicist art, and they are contending for attention in an art world whose diversity of ethos was forged amidst previous processes of reaction. It is instructive to consider how angst-ridden German Expressionism—which gained renewed currency during the neo-expressionist boom of the 1970s and 1980s—influenced Broken Beauty artists such as Bruce Herman and Ed Knippers. In Knippers’s Adam and Eve, the figures are shadowed by a lowering bower; her expression of foreboding may also remind us how easy it is for artists to fall from grace. When Knippers’s large religious paintings were shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, audiences were enthusiastic about his ironic, farcical interpretations of Biblical figures. Knippers, ever sincere, was baffled. Likewise, Bruce Herman’s own Eve (on the cover of the book) has been dismembered in a semi-expressionist manner, her body in half-shattered ruins.

This brings us to the problematic core of the Broken Beauty project. According to Bruce Herman, it “suggests possible ways out of the angst-ridden miserific vision toward a recovery of the beautific vision of hope—something that is badly needed in our troubled times.” However, a work of art with beautific intent may seem ugly to an art establishment that feels threatened by any agenda it cannot co-opt or to a conservative audience that would otherwise want to embrace its message. We all want Eden, in fact, without dealing with the mess that followed. Part of the mess that followed was the art world itself, with all its historiographic and hagiographic quirks. In his second essay, Gordon Fuglie turns from critiquing that world to commenting on the fifteen artists who were selected to round out the premise of this book. He fits these comments into several thematic schemes, including “After the Fall” and “The Terrors of History,” used to structure the Broken Beauty curatorial choices in collaboration with anthropologist/curator David Goa. It is a well-crafted effort, and much of the artwork is impressive. But as often occurs with such an enterprise, it casts an irregular net. Symptomatic of the cultural problems it addresses, the result is an artistic panorama unlikely to please very many audiences. Critics and connoisseurs of a progressive stripe will use words such as reactionary and retrograde; traditionalists will say that that too much is unaesthetic. We have inherited a world that discredits and distorts both the beautific vision and the miserific.

What can we finally say about beauty and the human body? We could cite some emerging, legitimizing voices—Elaine Scarry’s, for example—in support of this book’s theses about beauty; we could cite others about the human form. We might even find a new voice or two in the wilderness, calling out for a traditionally Christian view of figuration in a broken world. But it may be hoping too much that these currents will merge into a real tide. They may meet with too much antagonism at the elite end and too little at the popular. Although Prescott and his fellow-artists/essayists conceived this project as a big-tent effort, others will suspect that some sort of old-time revivalism is stirring under that shady cover. In 2004, the popularity of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ forced a reluctant critical establishment to reckon with the message of incarnation and crucifixion. Mentioning that film, Prescott talks about how Jesus’ embodiment has traditionally informed Christian views of ugliness and beauty in art, devotion and social action, and transformed the Christian view of the body in light of his resurrection, which acts as a harbinger of hope for all—including, some readers will devoutly hope, the reluctant critic.

Will the real problems of pain and hope be mainly shunted to a private domain? Among all the artists shown in this book/exhibition, none distills that possibility more than Timothy Lowly, who lovingly paints his severely handicapped daughter. No matter what kind of art crowds out the rest in the contemporary temples or huddled malls of our culture, our own human bodies will remind us about the presence of pain and need for hope.

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 23, number 1