1. Thank you, Richard for this highly interesting review. You have started to unravel a number of subtle problems with how people talk about liturgical art. Coincidentally, there is a major article in The Atlantic this month about these paradigms of the artist-identity. The author traces the evolution of the idea of artist from the master craftsman of the Middle Ages, to the romantic genius/hero of the 19th century, to the institutionally-sanctioned ‘professional’ artists of the mid 20th-century. He then identifies a new paradigm shift happening nowadays where most artists are small entrepreneurs with an intuitive aesthetic – more craftsmen than thinkers. And along with this has come the massive revival of old terms like ‘artisanal’ and ‘fine craft’. He decries this as a decline back to the craftsmanly status of art in the old days. But of course, I consider it a good thing – getting back to tradition and escaping the traps of both the genius ego and stifling academia.

    I think it will be a very good thing as liturgical arts again become the field of many small artists who find ways to make money at it simply because they love doing their craft. After all, the romantic artist must innovate to prove he is a genius and the professional artist must innovate to keep ‘relevant’. But the true craftsman has no such burden, and can defer to tradition and beauty as his only masters.

    1. Allison Backous Troy

      Andrew, could you put up a link for that Atlantic article?

    2. Thanks for the reference to that article. Interesting indeed. Though I think he gets it wrong in the end, in that final regret, as you also mention. In the ancient vision of art, it was not that the artisan did not contain the “higher” aspect the author is longing for, it is only that this higher realm of the poetic or the beautiful was anchored in the actual world rather than floating in useless objects of aesthetic experience. It is the difference between the sexual union of a married man and woman to the fanciful desires of a brothel.

  2. Nicholas Kotar

    Richard, you speak in several places modernism not being limited to an “atheist perspective.” Have you read Gregory Wolfe’s “Beauty will save the World”? He doesn’t speak about music in that book, but he approaches art and the beautiful in ways that many people find dangerous, precisely because he sees an artist as someone who creatively engages with tradition, without either destroying it or becoming too limited by it. We forget T.S. Eliot was the consummate Modernist.

    1. AndrewY

      I thought that T.S. Eliot knew and understood modernism, but didn’t like it.

  3. Richard, thanks for this reflection. I think the questions you raise are the ones which need to be addressed, that is the very core of what we think it means to make “art”, what it means to be “creative”. I think your last point is right on and I think the key to making it work is the notion of purpose. To use the language of St-Maximos, we should ask what is the “logos” of what I am making? What is the purpose? If we ask that question with serenity it will encompass almost all the answers of how to make something and will act as a steady guide for creativity. It is far more humbling and maybe not as fun as just “being creative”, but making an icon does not have the same purpose as a chair and if a chair, what chair? Is it a Bishop’s throne, then if so it can have more razzle-dazzle? Is it a chair for the parish hall, then if yes it should be simpler and not call attention to itself? But even a Bishop’s throne should not have so much “personality” as to stand out absolutely from its environment. And the question is much larger, what purpose do I have in making it? Do I want to call attention to myself? Do I want to stand out from tradition and make my mark, or do I want to complement, to participate and make contemporary people love, not my work, but the whole tradition of the Church.

  4. AndrewT

    Perennialism I have to admit is mighty enticing (you feel as if the whole world, or what is meaningful of it, is open to you), but it needs to be rejected as an ideology because it’s not the Gospel, it doesn’t have the Holy Spirit. There is Perennialism, and then there is the entirely benign kind of cultural contact that isn’t abstracted. I am delighted by the fact of the Japanese Orthodox Church, for example.

  5. aka

    There’s a lot here and I agree that the primary challenge is practical in relation to the quality of Orthodox art in churches. That is, it’s primarily financial. That financial constraint can be addressed in various ways, successfully or not. However, in the absence of more money coming in, a parish, diocese, and jurisdiction have to make choices about what is most important to it when spending its scarce resources. I don’t think anyone would, theoretically, desire a less good choir/chanter over a better choir/chanter, but practically speaking they actually prefer to spend resources on a host of other things first and are content with good enough (to bad) when it comes to a choir/chanter, if forced to choose. So, I don’t think the argumentation really needs to be about the value of art in the Church and whether it is respected, it’s really about how to triage the dozens of things the Church has that are of value from full time priest (or two), to a deacon, to the parish building, its purchase, upkeep, and beautification, to programs for children, adults, and cultural heritage, to care for the poor and needy, etc. (Choirs would seem to fall in with church beautification or cultural heritage, or ahead of care for the poor and needy, in my experience.)

    What I think the wrong answer is is what is too often seen by those trained in music outside of the Church who, laudably, want to offer their best to God and have no sense of proportion and no respect for the necessary prioritization a parish has to undertake. This too often results in a chanter “blowing away” the priest and deacon. While some to many may be compensating for lack of profession singing work (and notoriety), it’s also simply for lack of respect for proportion and the overall aesthetic of choral singing and the interplay between clergy and choir. That is, offering “my best” is not the point; the parish as a whole needs to offer its best, and that means there needs to be proportionality between clergy and chanter/choir, and each singer among the chanters/choir. I would argue that if one can only sing as if onstage at the Met, then the vast majority of parish choirs are simply not places you should be singing – unless as part of a choir and clergy of equally talented singers. To do otherwise is pretending to offer God one’s best while really just wanting to do what one wants for oneself. There is also the example of the bitter, petulant artist who refuses to offer what he or she can because the parish just doesn’t respect him/her, the art, etc. – which is usually code for not providing them a living (see finances above), not having enough other equally talented and committed people, or that the preferences in the parish are too modern or old-fashioned, etc. For singers, both Greek and Slavic, one can also sometimes get the sense they are attempting to make up for Orthodoxy’s relative lack of change in theology and liturgy by seeing how many new and exciting pieces of musci they can jam into the services over the course of a year. Some to many may enjoy that musical diversity or a change in musical style (from 4-part to Byz chant, from Obikhod to Kievan, from familiar to newly composed, from one composer to another, etc.). I would suggest that many to most want something familiar because they are there to either pray, either the words or to reconnect with a familiar memory of prayer in melodies (and languages) they remember.

    None of that is to say there isn’t a place for wonderful music and art in the Church, that we shouldn’t commit more resources to supporting it, and that we should just keeping singing what we are already singing and never be open to new compositions and arrangements. It’s just that it has to be done carefully, mindfully, respectfully, without ego, with a sense of the whole mission of the Church in mind. I think it should also be done without assuming that a real commitment to music in the Church must sound like a paid tsarist choir or a protopsalti of the Great Church on the other. The Orthodox Church in North America has more in common with more simple parish, even peasant, traditions. We should be looking to the small cities, towns, and villages of the Old World for guidance – and, truth be told, to those parishes now in majority non-Orthodox lands, e.g., Albania, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia, Finland, Syria, etc. where the Orthodox are struggling against entropy and gravity from their surrounding culture, and where church and art aren’t part of a larger cultural war meant to beat back the Left, the West, secularism, or to bring back past glory. That simpler, local, more parochial (in the best sense of the word) style is not a “spiritualized” preference for mediocrity or the like, it is simply simple, and the best that can be offered given constraints of time, talent, and treasure.

    1. Richard Barrett

      This are certainly some well-made and thoughtful points here. Where I might disagree is in your classification of music (and that’s mostly what you discuss here) as something that amounts to “cultural heritage” or “church beautification”, implicitly saying that music (and “church beautification”, for that matter) is add-on, rather than something fundamental to what the Church is doing as a worshiping body. I think the base assumption of Orthodox Arts Journal is more in line with the latter idea.

      From where I sit, something that we do a lot of in America is figure out bare minimums that allow us to get by. We do this with buildings, we do this with music, we do this with clergy. In general, we do it a lot with the elements of our worship — and, to be fair, the elements of our worship are expensive; I agree that this is about resources. I said as much: “Some of this, bluntly, comes down to economics; art done well costs money, and in our day, for some, it represents a poor return on investment.” The trouble is that minimums tend to become maximums, and when we disregard the fulness of the musical tradition and ignore models of doing things well as being not even worth consideration because “well, we’re just a poor ‘village church’, so that doesn’t really apply to us”, then they’re never going to be any thing else. And, I should say, village churches still have the big city choirs as points of reference.

      To put it another way, it may be that resources have to be prioritized, but that never means that we would put up stick figure “icons” drawn on newsprint in church. By the same token, I would disagree with what I read as your proposition that a tone-deaf priest necessitates a tone-deaf choir.

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