A stone to the sky. Contemporary Art and Beauty

Interview with Bishop Michał Janocha by Piotr P. Drozdowicz

PD: Excellency, it seems that beauty is in everything that surrounds us, that it has always been and always will be. However, looking from the perspective of contemporary art, this is not the case at all. We see that it is not interested in the beauty of the visible world. So what is beauty from the perspective of art?

 

MJ: First, I would like to emphasize very strongly that looking at beauty from the perspective of art is an amazing reduction, it is a narrowing. The basic category of beauty is primarily related, above all, to what is around us and what we have not created, namely the world, with the beauty of the cosmos (the words cosmos and cosmetics come from the same source, which means decoration; as Jan Kochanowski writes in of his song "And with gold stars you have embroidered beautifully"[1]). Beauty is contained in the macrocosm and microcosm, beauty is in man. I think not only about physical beauty, but also about spiritual beauty. Only at the end, as it were, is the beauty of what man creates, including with his whole life.

 

The Greeks showed their wisdom by using the word techne - they had no other word to describe art - by it they meant everything that was done according to the rules: raising children, swimming on the sea, gardening, also making sculptures, painting or designing. In techne, the category of beauty was very important. Whereas the whole subsequent history of aesthetics and art goes into incredible narrowness. Techne in the Renaissance begins to narrow down to the fine arts, and in the 18th century the reflection on beauty, this Greek pankalia, all beauty is limited to a very narrow human activity, that is, an activity that we call artistic. It is very important to have such a broad perspective when we come to talk about this tiny slice of beauty that is art, and a tiny slice of a tiny slice of modern art. It gives us a completely different perspective of the conversation.

 

PD: That's interesting. Is beauty defined, for example, by the need for perfection or by some kind of uniqueness?

 

MJ: Certainly the category of perfection was very important to the Greeks - and thats where we in our culture come from. Also important was the relationship of the three concepts from which our civilization grows, namely beauty, truth and goodness.

 

PD: In that case, why has classical beauty been rejected in the contemporary academic and artistic system? Has it become obsolete or unnecessary, or maybe it was simply misunderstood?

 

MJ: I think it is a very long process, and I will refer to the previous question and my answer, namely it is a process of reducing the concept of beauty. At the same time, in connection with this, there was a process of narrowing the concepts of beauty, truth and goodness, and their bond was slowly broken. It was obvious to the Greeks that beauty was good and goodness was beautiful. They even had their own  word, that we do not have at all today, which is kalokagathia. We cannot translate it, and if we do not have such a word, we do not have such a thinking. In modern times, beauty no longer has to be good, and good does not have to be beautiful, and that is just a step to negating goodness itself and beauty itself.

 

PD: Is it fair to say - continuing to reflect on the relationship between truth, goodness and beauty - that any option that distinguishes beauty itself without taking into account the truth and its moral consequences is wrong? Can it be separated with impunity?

 

MJ: Exactly. This is the eternal problem whether there is beauty that is not good and true. Already the Greeks sensed it, the ancients sensed it. In the Bible, in the Old Testament, we have such a sentence resulting from a wise observation of the world: What a gold ring is in a pig's snout, a beautiful woman is, but a foolish one. So there can be beauty that does not have wisdom, which is good and truth. This problem has been struggled with for centuries.Let me recall here the conversation between Dmitri and Ivan from Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, this will be a paraphrase rather than a quote: - Do you know, brother, that for many people the ideal is not in the Madonna, but is in Sodom (for Dostoevsky in particular the Sistine Madonna was the embodiment of all that is most beautiful, most noble, and therefore good and true). And let me tell you even more. The man who sees beauty in Sodom does not reject the ideal of the Madonna and lives with the two. Beauty is a terrible and mysterious thing. Enter the water and come out dry. Dmitri ends with a famous sentence: Too wide is the soul of man, I would narrow it down.

 

PD: Here we have a combination of beauty and the experience of evil, this existential evil. It seems to me that Christianity deals in some amazing way with the experience of beauty and holiness while being aware of the existence of evil. Why has contemporary art been so strongly negated, especially in the avant-garde, then in conceptualism, or in critical art, the existence of sacred and religious beauty?

 

MJ: It's an important question, and I think that in trying to find answers to most of your questions I consciously go down to the roots, to the sources, because without that we won't understand much. We will not understand a leaf without a branch, a branch without a trunk, and a trunk without a root. Well, it was Christianity that posed the problem of beauty, which can lead to a wasteland, which can be destructive. For example, the authentic beauty of a woman with whom you, a married man, or I, a bishop, fall in love to such an extent that you lose your head and go after the authentic beauty of that woman. There is a breakdown of marriage or a betrayal of priestly vows. Authentic beauty that causes drama and evil. Even medieval thinkers distinguished between two categories of beauty: material beauty and spiritual beauty. When we refer to a beautiful woman, we are talking about material beauty, external beauty, and it does not necessarily have truth and goodness in it. Outer beauty can be perverse, demonic, whereas spiritual beauty will always be associated with truth and goodness, it doesn't have to manifest in outer beauty. I think this is extremely important. Simplifying - modernity, which neglects the spiritual life, tends to focus on what is external and does not have to be good and true, it can be deceptive, until eventually it can be questioned itself and reveal its true nature, which is ugliness. We have plenty of examples of this kind of art. I think that this is a deeply spiritual problem, which lies in the nature of man created by God and called to divinization, i.e. to beauty, but at the same time inclined to evil after the original sin. Here is that drama between Madonna and Sodom that Dostoevsky perfectly expressed. Contemporary art is much more tempted by Sodom and is very willing to succumb to this temptation.

 

PD: After the dramas of the 20th century, after World War I, which so shocked the intellectuals of the time, after World War II, when there was "industrial" killing of millions of people, "Sodom" is also manifested in contemporary culture. Does art simply express the dramas of the era, or is it rather a kind of relishing in tragedy and evil, but also in ugliness? How to look at the next stage of rejecting beauty, consisting in putting ugliness on a pedestal?

 

MJ: The problem of art after the wars is very complex. On the one hand, the artist, as a person endowed with special sensitivity, realizes that the classical concept of beauty cannot bear the experience so brilliantly described by Eric Remarque in his novel In the West of No Change. A terrible indictment of war, showing its absurdity. I am also thinking of the great Polish artist of the postwar period, Andrzej Wróblewski, who knew that he had to use a completely new language to show the drama of what was happening in man and to man. There is no beauty in his play, there is dismemberment of the body, a drama that expresses the dismemberment of the soul. I think this play is true. I am talking about such a deep current which consciously renounces the academic, preserved beauty which was no longer able to express the drama of man after Auschwitz and after the camps (let's add the latter, because it is very important) and, therefore, looks for a completely different language. On the other hand, both after the first and the second war we have very clear classicising tendencies which try to unite this world broken into pieces. We have a whole current in interwar art of classicizing painting and sculpture. In Poland it would be the "Rhythm" Association, in Germany it would be the "New Objectivity". After WWII in free countries it was actually a continuation of classicism of the 1930s. In Poland we had socialist realism imposed on us, which also returns to a certain vision of the integrated world and classical beauty, in a way trying to save what had been broken. So the situation is very complex indeed.

 

PD: Following the concepts of contemporary art, we can see that from the 1960s onwards, art radicalized and went beyond an honest, real struggle with evil. However, there was an intermediate stage. Now we have another one, which rejects a priori any spirituality, God and the spiritual sphere in man, and deals very speculatively with form and this kind of activity oriented towards..., precisely towards what? towards the effect, towards provocation?

 

MJ: I think we are talking here about the most dominant trends in mainstream art promoted by mainstream criticism, which has long ceased to be criticism and has become an apologia for particular artists, and in fact specific political ideologies. Again, one would have to delve deeper into the Christian vision of man who is created in the image and likeness of God. Pope Benedict XVI in his very insightful analysis says that wherever God's likeness in man is negated, man's resemblance to an animal will be emphasized. Many currents of modern art are, in fact, a caption for this commentary. This is also the case in literature. Great literature, from Homer to Dostoevsky and the great writers of the 19th century, showed man in his very different dimensions, in his heroism and in his smallness, in his meanness, but the theme was always man in what is spiritual in him, what distinguishes him from animals. And spirituality is broken, spirituality is not only God, but also Satan. Meanwhile, the materialistic vision, which reduces man to drives, passions and the body, will emphasize man's resemblance to an animal, that is, physiology and all that is connected with carnality and which classical art discreetly omitted. This is what becomes the focus of interest in contemporary art, both literature and the visual arts.

 

PD: I think in art this shift has been happening for a relatively long time, for example the Vienna Actionists were active in the mid 20th century. Now it seems that these trends are coming down to the people, to the masses, and are beginning to take on a public, social dimension at demonstrations and protests. I say this deliberately because it was a Bolshevik idea to use art as a tool of ideological struggle and propaganda. What would you say about such a fight by means of art?

 

MJ: I would make a significant difference here between avant-garde artists and post-avant-garde and contemporary mainstream currents. Since you brought up the subject of Russia and Bolshevism, I think of Malevich, El Lissitzky, or Tatlin. They were idealistic artists who deeply believed in what they were doing. They deeply believed that the art they were making was building a new world and a new man. It was revolutionary art, for them a form of confession of faith in man. For politicians, on the other hand, speaking the language of comrade Stalin, they were useful idiots, i.e. people whose zeal and talent support the merciless revolution which wants to transform the old world and build a new man, but not on universal peace, happiness and prosperity, but on the KGB prisons and gulags. I would defend these avant-garde artists because many of them (we have too many historical testimonies) would be able to defend their vision of the world sometimes at the cost of their lives. And this deserves respect, even when we do not agree with them. The problem is that in contemporary post-avant-garde generations there remains a certain revolutionary form, but this serious attitude to art is no longer there and the artist treats it as a game and play. It is no longer a matter of life and death, as it was for Malevich, who had his black square placed next to the coffin, as one places an icon. It was a religion. The measure of a modern artist is an episode that took place in New York. A well-known modern artist of his time (we know that nothing ages faster than modernity) invited people to the opening of his installation, which consisted of a table, an ashtray; there were some petals, a hanger with a pallet hanging from it. The next day after the opening the cleaning lady decided that it was simply a mess. So she moved the coat rack, put the overcoat back in its place, and cleaned up the table, putting it back where it had been before. When she found out that it was an installation insured for a huge sum, she was horrified. Imagine if such a situation would have happened in the time of Duchamp, Picabia, or the avant-gardists. They would have challenged to a duel, they would have become furious. And how did our artist react? He laughed long and heartily. And here is the difference between the avant-garde and the post-avant-garde. The avant-garde treated art as something that is most deeply connected with life and for which life is sometimes worth giving up. The post-avant-garde treats it as a game.

 

All fashions, all styles

Equally beautiful they are - and that's it.

(Or, if you like, equally ugly -

No consequences at all).

Awe is worth as much as scorn,

A bow as much as a bow,

Truth as much as no truth,

Taste as much as no taste.[2]

 

This is Postmodernism by Jacek Kaczmarski - a great diagnosis of postmodernism with such a mocking, slightly kitschy tune.

 

PD: Is beauty without acknowledging God even possible?

 

MJ: This question is formulated in such a way that one would have to answer yes or no. It seems to me that the issue is more complex. I think it's about a certain openness of man to the mysteries of life or existence. I know many artists who never declared themselves as Christians, but who were gifted with great talent and who created works that today have entered the canon of the highest art. I think, for example, about films and about Andrei Tarkovsky, who probably never declared himself as a Christian. Besides, he had no chance to learn about Christianity because he was born in a country in which almost all Christians had already been killed or were dying in the camps. He had some great inner nobility and openness to the Mystery, which, with his great talent, created: Rublev, Stalker, Nostalgia, Solaris. Such examples can be multiplied. I can also give examples of artists who are deep believers, but gifted with little talent, whose works will not lead to God, because God gave them not ten, but one talent. These artists do not know this and sometimes think they have ten. So the issue is more complex. I think it is really a question of being open to the Mystery and ultimately to God, who is a hidden and unspoken God, or closed to Him.  It is not a question of declaration. Of course, I am deeply convinced that Tarkovsky was in fact a very evangelical man. Let's take another area of creativity that is very close to me, namely sung poetry: Bulat Okudzhava - the genius. These songs will outlive us. He never declared himself as a believer, he did not know faith. In Okudzhava's songs there is so much longing for truth, goodness, and there is so much beauty that when I learned that Okudzhava asked for baptism before his death, it did not surprise me.

 

PD: Indeed, Tarkovsky's works are excellent and stimulate metaphysical reflections. So let's take the next step - it is about profanation, which is so much exposed in contemporary art. Here we have a very conscious attack on the sacrum. How would you comment on the phenomenon of profanation in art, how to evaluate it?

 

MJ: The phenomenon of profanity is as old as art. Art has sacred roots and without the sacred, art cannot be understood because art is part of culture and culture derives from worship. As Goethe said: Culture that falls away from worship becomes a waste. Strong words. Let us recall Herostrates, who decided to burn down Artemisia, the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the wonders of the world, in order to go down in history. Unfortunately, he succeeded, we still remember him today after twenty-four centuries. Thus, the motives for profanation may be different. It seems to be growing enormously in our time. It is a certain element of a rebellion against Christianity, a fight against Christianity, and at the same time an artistic strategy. Profaning artists can count on seasonal popularity at a very low cost. It is much easier to exist for a few moments in the media world, when you do well-publicized profanation (and this self-publicizes), than when you create solid, serious art that asks deep questions. Therefore, profanation is today an element of a strategy that is really aimed at gaining temporary popularity. An artist who performs such an act can always count on kind media and a taboo of kind critics who will see this profanity as an act of artistic courage. I would suggest here, and I am saying it completely perversely, that such an artist would try to make fun of Muhammad in this way, or, for example, of the victims of the Holocaust. This is where "courage" ends. Fortunately! Christianity can be slapped and we as Christians are supposed to turn the cheek.

 

PD: Hence the conclusion that such profanation is not too dangerous for culture and all our humanities?

 

MJ: It is a very short-term activity, artistically most often devoid of any value. It can be and is socially destructive, because one mocks at someone or something that is sacred. It is very often an act of contempt for human beings. This can be applied to elementary human feelings.  If one were to mock a loved one - a mother, a father, or a wife - one would be hurting that person, and that hurt would be to the measure of the love that person has for him or her. In the case of profanation it is exactly the same, it is an act aimed at man, because it is difficult to profane God - it is impossible. However, it is possible to profane a human being. When we throw stones in the sky, they will not reach there, but will fall down and will smash the heads of innocent people.

 

PD: Many people long for some kind of concrete, material beauty contained in a work. We look for beauty in nature, in relationships between people, in design, in pretty objects. As an artist, I also long for and look for this beauty in works of art. Does this mean that beauty needs concreteness, matter, to be socially effective?

 

MJ: You say this as a visual artist, and in this field it obviously needs to matter. For a singer or writer the answer would be different. Beauty has very many dimensions, but the material dimension is also its consequence. I think it's very important what a person looks at, listens to, reads, because it creates them. When we look, listen, read about what is beautiful, what is greater than ourselves, then we grow. And then what we ourselves begin to say, sculpt, paint, write becomes as if inspired by that beauty. If we're stuck in a world of media trash, feeding ourselves garbage, our creativity will become garbage.

 

PD: Maybe I'll try to summarize how I understood the beauty we're talking about. Can we then say that it is simply a state of mind that allows us to notice the beauty that is in the world, even in seemingly difficult or ugly places?

 

MJ: I think that being open to the beauty that we didn't create, but that is there - to the blue sky, to the green of spring trees, to the person I'm meeting and their face where their life is written - that openness makes us attentive listeners. Then the creative process becomes a liberation of what is deep, beautiful, noble, but also dark, difficult and disturbing in each of us. Art reaches the depths of man and makes him more human - and I'm talking here about art with a capital "S", about art open to truth and goodness, which cannot be closed in any formula or rule, or system of notions.

 

PD: The art that carried classical, eternal beauty was very much experienced and tested in the 20th century, precisely by the avant-garde and so-called critical art. However, there are many people and circles that are trying to recreate traditional artistic techniques, craftsmanship. There is a return to education in accordance with classical philosophy and to a proper understanding of man. Will these experiences of art in the 20th century somehow just purify Beauty and make it rise again, though wounded?

 

MJ: I would distinguish two threads here. The first is the problem of artistic education and the attitude towards the so-called classicism. This is extremely important because these are our roots. One could view our cultural history as oscillating between two extremes: on the one hand, we have classicism, which is canonized and at some point becomes closed and dead (and that was probably one of the reasons for the avant-garde and the rejection of such mummified beauty, in which there is no life), and on the other hand - just completely rejecting it and succumbing to the illusion that everything begins with us. Oh no! We were gone, the world was. Soon we will be gone and the world will be and art will also be there. After all, we are entering a current that has flowed through the ages, in which we are to create something.

And the second thread is the fundamental one. The Lord reached for the paschal mystery, the mystery of suffering and resurrection, which is the heart of Christianity. I think that it is constantly happening in the history of man, in the history of the world and culture. That's how I see it. That doesn't mean I'm optimistic! I am a pessimist when it comes to the future of our culture. Optimism is not an evangelical category at all. The Lord Jesus did not say anything about optimism - that it would be better - not at all. Today's Gospel passage says that you will be thrown out of the synagogue and killed. The Lord Jesus speaks of hope, and this is something completely different. I think the Apocalypse is worth reading. When we lose the perspective of God in it, we will simply find horror and despair. But if we look at it in a spirit of faith, it is a book that shows us great hope that permeates all the nonsense, drama and cruelty of this world.

 

PD: I console myself with the thought that after the worst cataclysms that can happen to us, good art will always bring hope and comfort to those who survive.

 

MJ: Yes. And I think this is an important thread. Maybe it's good for it to ring out. One has to distinguish mainstream art, promoted today by influential circles and powerful media, from wise, good art, which is very often silent, which does not scream, but has a great chance of survival, and which inspires hope and goodness in people.

 

PD: Thank you.

[1] Kochanowski Jan, Song XXV, 1562

[2] Jacek Kaczmarski, from: https://www.kaczmarski.art.pl/tworczosc/wiersze/postmodernizm