Discussion about art or beauty often regresses to a familiar conversation stopper. “Beauty,” someone inevitably will say, “is in the eye of the beholder.” End of discussion.
Many of the parishoners of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Denver are living this frustrating stalemate. An NCR story yesterday explains the rift between them and their Pastor, Benito Hernandez, over a mural of its patron in the church’s sanctuary painted by a local artist, Carlota Espinoza. Since 1977 the mural has been a focal point of the parish’s liturgical life, which nourishes what NCR characterizes as an active social ministry. Last year, Fr. Hernandez had a wall built in front of it claiming in a statement cited in the Denver Post that it “detracted” from God’s presence in the Eucharist.
Detracted or distracted? The potential for distraction has long rendered art and theology, and likewise, art and faith strange bedfellows. Augustine, who had a real affinity for the arts (in his case the theater), warned against the seductive powers of beauty to distract us from the glory of God. And art in sacred spaces was a bone of contention for the Reformers.
Distraction aside, is this mural detracting from God’s presence in the Eucharist? The implications of such a claim warrant examination in light of the insights that faithful persons (including the 435 who have signed a petition to the Denver archdiocese), have made through the centuries regarding the role of the arts in heightening our awareness of God and facilitating our relationship with the divine. Although I could site many (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius, von Balthasar, Rahner and the more contemporary Richard Viladesau, Susan Ross, Michelle Gonzales, or Roberto Goizueta are but a few), Jacques Maritain comes to mind because I’ve been trying to connect the dots between his thoughts on the common good and his less known writing on creative intuition. He suggests that artistic expression and engagement in the arts assists us in “the intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human ‘Self.’” Maritain claims that this intensified subjectivity gives rise to “flashes of reality” that are “infinite in [their] meaning and echoing capacity.” This sounds as though art augments rather than detracts.
This claim of detraction is also troubling since it seems to be based on the false assumption that art is best understood as objects to be “seen,” evident in a comment by the archdiocese’s vicar in the NCR piece: “Anyone who wants to see the mural can go behind the wall.” But art is about more than seeing, especially in the Catholic tradition. The Catholic sacramental imagination, perhaps most regularly nourished and exercised in the context of Eucharist, suggests that art is an experiential encounter, a source of contemplation, a call to ethical action, a way to participate, in von Balthasar’s language, in the ongoing “theo-drama”of the Triune God.
Just one last point. If there’s one form of visual art that suggests art is about more than simply viewing, it’s muralism. Murals are a particularly democratic form of artistic expression that make art available to those without access to institutional or high art. It also functions in a particular way in communities. In the tradition of muralism in the Latin American context, for example, murals were concrete canvases that prophetically proclaimed authentic identity in the midst of cultural imperialism or public voice during campaigns to silence calls for social change. Theologian Ana Maria Pineda notes that the icon of Guadeloupe in public spaces has functioned as a signpost along immigration routes in the U.S. Contemporary mural movements around U.S., such as the one I'm studying in Philadelphia, are distinctive in their organic muse--the wisdom of the community--as well as their intention to build community rather than further fragment it.
So, in this case, as in most, there is more to beauty than meets the eye. Perhaps guided by the insights of many on the role of faith and the arts, particularly in the context of muralism, this image might become a conduit for engagement and encounter. And not just with the Divine but with others.