Thursday, November 20, 2008


THE COVENANT: An Agreement between the Church Artist and the Faithful
by Anthony Visco

When people ask me what kind of sculpture I make I tell them I make statues that old ladies kiss. I say this for two reasons: one, because old ladies do kiss my statues (as do young and older men and women alike) and two, because it spares me form any “figurative vs. non figurative”, contemporary vs. traditional art argument. In fact, I never say I’m figurative artist. I never say I’m “classical and I’m not academic or radical “Trad Cat”. I make devotional art and thus do the form it takes to make serve the needs of the faithful.

I could say that one of the most important decisions I ever made in my career was to stop making art about art, or art for other artists. I also chose not to make art for galleries or make art to be part of a museum collection. I realized that the work most important to me were those commissioned to reflect the beliefs of the viewer; in other words, sacred or devotional art that was functional. If the objective of sacred art is to exalt and console, then I was attracted to paintings and statues that held an agreement of sorts, a covenant as it were, between artist and viewer that the artist would make those beliefs manifest in the work.

It always appeared the best or strongest of these works, the masterpieces of sacred art, were those that maintained such a covenant and this covenant indeed existed before the works were ever made. I also came to believe that when the artist or their work denies the beliefs of the viewers, any covenant is nullified or at best doomed to the realm of isolated self expression. Considering what sacred art could do for the faithful, I decided that I wanted my work to come under this covenant with the faithful.

As those us educated in art schools of the Sixties, we all witnessed the wholesale destruction of beauty, of all representational art both secular and sacred, in painting and sculpture and architecture. As a result, the reciprocity between our origins and our beliefs seemed all but absent as if a covenant that once was, had been broken or as some would suggest a covenant that perhaps never existed. This destruction of beauty, conscious or unconscious, then and now, presents certain and profound questions not only of aesthetics but also of our beliefs if we are to continue making sculpture into the 21st C. Some of these questions can be asked and hopefully answered here in this forum.

1. First of all, can and did sacred art produce a covenant?

2. Does this covenant exist before the art is ever made? If so, how does it exist?

3. What does covenant mean here and how does it differ from the modernist “give and take” between artist, art object and viewer?

4. Can there be a covenant without a value?

5. Did “modernism” indeed break the covenant and if so how so?

6. How do we restore the covenant?

As for restoring the covenant, we must first all congratulate ourselves for having survived modernism. It is by no strange chance that we find ourselves here in this place dedicated to the art of the nineteenth century, perhaps the last group of artists who saw the marriage of art and craft, content and context as being at the heart of their vocation. But if we as representational artists of devotional or sacred art are to serve the faithful in the 21st C we must begin our conversation as we cross the desert of modernity.

Now as this season of Advent is upon us and our day of the Birth of Christ approaches, I invite you to join me in this conversation. Together we are leaving the dry desert we must congratulate ourselves for having survived modernism in the hope that in our travels across the barren waste we may have find some answers to these questions.

1. Can and does sacred art produce a covenant?

If the purpose for making art is to discern that which you want to receive which in turn will become that which you give to others than a covenant exists. Viewing great art becomes a vehicle a call to witness our beliefs together. Viewing becomes a method of conversion, of our mutual transfiguration. In essence it serves a greater good.

If modernism spoke at all, it said, “I will not serve.” With originality as its goal, it sought to invent its own language; it took metaphor and replaced it with irony.

As the Puritan saw all art , both sacred and secular, as something always inappropriate and out of place, the modernist declared something as art only if and when it is inappropriate and out of place. With definitions fused, under modernism and Puritanism anything could be considered art only if and when it is shocking, only if and when it was inappropriate, and only if and when it represented nothing.

When Beauty becomes the goal, to make sacred art is to receive. Thus artist is both giver and receiver here and the reciprocity of Beauty becomes a constant process that continues through day and night, lights on or off, gallery opened or closed.

2. Does this covenant exist before the art is ever made?

The agreement is not one of time but of beauty. Since beauty existed before art, so did the covenant.

In order for all covenants to be maintained, they must value truth. If that which is Beautiful is of truth than that which is of Beauty is truthful.

When artifice is separated from the goals of content and from the covenant, nothing but the artifice speaks. When content becomes formalist content, art about art, no greater good is served. Further, if the act of making art is seen as something quite special, a self reflective act, or an activity that one engages in only in special times than it more often out of context to our daily lives, a thing abnormal.

3. What does covenant mean here and how does it differ from the modernist “give and take” between artist, art object and viewer?

Since the invention of modernism, the roles of making art and viewing art have been reversed. Thus the covenant is also reversed. Artist and viewer are separated. The artist gives something to him or herself rather than to the viewer. The viewer is now the giver rather than receiver. When the viewer is excluded, there can be no transcendence.

4. Can there be a covenant without a value?

If there is no truth there is no covenant. If there is no beauty there is no covenant. If there is no value there is no covenant. Modernism tried and to some extent succeeded in trying to make beauty untrustworthy. Yet to replace the irony of modernism with the metaphor of the epic will not be an easy task to say the least. To erase the century of “art about art” as being the sole reason to make art and collect art will be quite a feat to accomplish. We must bear in mind here that modernism had convinced an entire populace to expect nothing great from art or from artists. Art was and still is to some degree seen as something incomprehensible done by the tragically misunderstood. Our art must become trustworthy again.

5. Did modernism indeed break the covenant and if so how so?

If modernism broke the covenant it did so simply on the basis of not giving, by not serving, by its refusal to make art in the services of anything but itself.

The viewers, the audience, the faithful, have a right to a response from the artist, poet, composer and architect that is a reflection of their beliefs. Wherever, whenever and however this right is dislocated, the very notion of a serving aesthetic is sacrificed and thus omitted for and to the sanctity of individualism. Thus, so-called “inclusive art” will have no meaning other than the subjective meaning projected by the artist’s ego. Art without the visual and moral aesthetic is a parody and an injustice. The covenant is broken nullified.

We must be careful not to pick up the false burden of modernist art history and instead pick up and carry the real burden that is: how great art can be and what that great art can do. Young artists must know that Beauty cannot be linearly framed nor is there a chronology of Beauty to follow. We are not the 19th C Romantics or modernists who believed that “the figure” is some Darwinian tail that we once had and can never grow back. Nor must our students become the next generation of avant-guardists who must predict fashion of the future that once perceived must be abandoned in order to find the next and the next

We will have some problems here. Modernism tried and to some extent succeeded in making beauty untrustworthy. It had successfully convinced an entire populace to expect nothing great from art or from artists, public or private, secular or sacred. Now for the first time in global history, we have art schools where students are taught how to make "art about art", art for other artists, and art that can only to be seen only inside art institutions. The viewers, now numb(or bored) to the shock of anything out of context, of figures that mean nothing, the novelties of avant-guardism, has grown suspicious of themselves when and if they find art they actually do understand. In essence, they have grown accustomed to the covenant to be broken and even expect it.

The beauty due in sacred and secular art and architecture cannot be subject to political correctness as if it where a matter of rationing. Beauty contains the measure of gift within itself. Beauty is not the percentage allotted as in the 1 % for the public art budget.

The last but most important piece to replace will be that of sacred content. This is not easy as artists will have to exclude self expressions and include the viewers. But even as the artist includes the viewers, the greatest challenge of the artist of the twenty first century will be to restore the confidence of the viewers as to what beauty can do. It will be nothing less than to restore the covenant broken all too often. Above all we must remember that we are not returning to beauty in sacred art because that is the way it was. We are returning to beauty in sacred art because that is the way it is


Nathan said...

Mr. Visco,
Thank you for this post. As a young artist it is good to hear from a far more experienced creator of sacred works. Although I come from the Protestant faith I findyself agreeing with most of what you said here. My interest in sacred art is two-fold:
1. I know Protestants don't have the history of catholic artists or the appreciation of image and worship, I wonder if their is a common ground we can find here between our churches.
2. I believe the best place for art to be seen is in the House of God and therefore, this art should be ( as you've said) functional and beautiful like the rest of Gods creation.

I'm not sure in what way this conversation is possible since we are in such different churches but I think it's necessary for a discussion to occur in order for both sides to learn from one another. We are in fact, sons of God and should share our thoughts. Anything you care to say will not offend me concerning this, thank you again for this post. Blessings,
Nathan Stevenson.
Ps. I was a student of Neil's

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I came across your blog, I am, disappointed to see there is no recent activities here, but still could not hide the excitement form reading your posts, especially this particular one. There are a lot of points here I wish you were siting right in front of me for a discussion, to embrace Catholicism both spiritually and practically in the studio practice is something I have been thinking of, this is such a great inspiration!

J.R.Howley said...

Most happy to see another artist who strives for beauty in the sacred arts. I am inspired to keep going in this pursuit because of artists like you. Pax et Bonum.