The problem of art in Anglophone Orthodoxy: a review essay

By Richard Barrett on January 24, 2015
Recently, an online exchange about public outreach efforts with respect to various aspects of Orthodox music and music of Orthodox composers led the following comment by a discussant:

What exactly is so “Orthodox” about any kind of pure music? […] [T]o associate any composer with the Church is an empty exercise, since music has only a secondary role in our faith. It’s for the same reason it makes no sense to glorify the great iconographers… [G]reat composers who happened to be Orthodox are known for their secular works, unlike Western composers who are known for their sacred works as well. That’s because “sacred music” is a Western concept. Music in the Eastern Church is artless… because it is secondary and serves the prayers and lessons, and even when Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, or Rimsky[-Korsakov] wrote Church music, they followed the rubrics of the Church, not their personal compositional styles.

In a different exchange about a related topic, another participant asserted that writing para- or extra-liturgical pieces for the context of concerts is, from an Orthodox perspective, producing what are really “museum pieces” rather than being anything of real value:

[Museums] function as cultural cemeteries: beautiful and peaceful places to perhaps re-experience or more accurately re-imagine the horrors, or glory, or pain of the past. But is this a good context for the Church? Do we want our message proclaimed in the context of a morgue? That’s the issue. To say there is no harm using our resources to help out the curators is a very low standard.

I’m all for answering the phone and providing materials for the curator of the local museum, but what we’re doing is helping the civilization build its museum about us, using new artifacts, also created by us. It would be like Boeing making new 707s for flight museums.

Bottom line: I just see this kind of effort as an indulgence and a distraction.

In yet another discussion along these lines, an interlocutor said very plainly, “[Concert music] is not Orthodox.”

I’m writing from the perspective of a musician because that’s the world I’m in, but it would also appear that one can find similar assertions in other areas — iconography, certainly. Orthodox Christianity, such people appear to insist rather grumpily, doesn’t do art.

But is that in fact the case? Certainly the above assertion that “great composers who happened to be Orthodox are known for their secular works” doesn’t prove true; there is a long tradition of named composers of sacred music with distinct compositional voices in both the Byzantine and Russian traditions, going at least as far back as St. John Koukouzelis and into the present day with living composers such as Gennadiy Lapaev. It also doesn’t quite hold true for iconographers, given St. Andrei Rublev at the very least, and perhaps people like George Kordis today. It’s also not exactly the case that composers like Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky followed rubrics rather than employing their own styles; Tchaikovsky’s setting of the Divine Liturgy was deemed a “konzert” by the Russian ecclesiastical authorities and was not allowed for liturgical use (even though it is used liturgically quite commonly today), and Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil was written to be a concert piece.

moody-bookFor illumination on these issues, an excellent place to start is Fr. Ivan Moody’s new book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music (International Society for Orthodox Church Music, 2014). Fr. Ivan tackles the relationship between Orthodox Christianity, music, and art in the present day, looking at the activity of composers in several historically Orthodox countries — Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and Finland, and then also devoting chapters to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener (+2013), undeniably the two contemporary names that are firmly lodged in the mind of the public as representing “Orthodox music”. The book’s geographical and musical scope, its willingness to engage Modernism in an intellectually honest fashion, and Fr. Ivan’s ability to synthesize the finer points of music theory and Orthodox theology, make this a must-read for anybody with an interest in issues of Christianity’s relationship to the arts in today’s world.

Fr. Ivan is upfront about what he sees as the source of opinions such as those with which I opened: “…writers on the art of the Orthodox Church have generally been suspicious of anything outside the canons of church art as established by tradition, fearing contamination and decadence. [This position] is understandable, and often [results] from a simple lack of knowledge” (Moody, p9). He goes into greater detail about the source of this lack of knowledge:

Within the specific context of sacred art… interactions and cross-fertilizations have generally been viewed with suspicion, especially when the Orthodox phronema (or philosophical framework) has seemed to be threatened by the introduction of western aesthetics (that is, essentially, from the Orthodox point of view, humanism and modernism, vaguely though these may be defined), and with them, western ecclesiastical dogma and the eventual possibility of an anthropocentric, rather than theocentric, view of the world and of creation (Moody, p17).

And while certainly in theory Orthodox Christianity’s relationship to art is rooted in a liturgical context, it is by no means restricted to it, nor has it ever been. Here, Fr. Ivan quotes Fr. Alexander Men: “Christ said that each person brings what he has to offer from his treasure. And you, painters and masters of other genres, express the treasures of your heart, your perceptions of the world” (Moody, p21). The practical reality is that within Orthodox Christianity, art and artistic practice have developed, and it is the theology and canons that must find a way to respond appropriately and to describe the proper implementation of those developments. Along similar lines, modernism itself need not be seen as restricted to a fundamentally atheist perspective; here Fr. Ivan invokes Peter Gay’s image of the “psychological turn of a modernist towards a lost emotional home” in support of the idea of “the breadth of the spiritual spectrum of modernism” (Moody, p23). Art, even modern art, need not be seen as unChristian or unOrthodox by definition.

In Greece, Fr. Ivan traces the way that modern Greek composers absorb and re-articulate, not only Byzantine music, but also the cultural memory of a Byzantine cultural and religious heritage in works scored for polyphonic choirs, string orchestras, and so on, while also interacting with historical developments such as the rise of nationalism. He adduces the works of Hatzis, Adamis, and others, arguing that “reference to the repertoires and styles of the Byzantine musical tradition, and to the content of Orthodox theology, as well as an absence of fear of confronting the world(s) of contemporary music, enables their music to speak with a special force and authority” (Moody, 53). Here, it is also important to understand this in the context of a resurgence of interest in Greek folk music and Byzantine chant (see Eleni Kallimopoulou’s Paradosiaká: Music, Meaning, and Identity in Modern Greece, Ashgate, 2009, as well as perhaps Tore Tvarnø Lind’s The Past is Always Present: The Revival of the Byzantine Musical Tradition at Mount Athos, Scarecrow Press, 2011), and that there are people who move back and forth between these worlds, ensuring interaction between those poles as well. For example, Fr. Ivan mentions Calliope Tsoupaki’s St. Luke Passion, the premiere of which was participated in by Dr. Ioannis Arvanitis leading a Byzantine choir; Dr. Arvanitis is also a key figure in both Lind’s and Kallimopoulou’s respective studies.

For the chapters dealing with other countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Finland, and Russia, Fr. Ivan follows roughly the same model, although in addition to nationalism, obviously Communism and the legacy of the former USSR looms large. As the political situation in East Central Europe after World War I led to a realignment around Russia rather than Austria and Germany, it was necessary to find a musical language that expressed Orthodoxy in accordance with shifting national identities. Modernism here was perhaps a boon, he suggests, particularly in places such as Serbia; modernism’s fascination with “new tonal languages” allowed a way of filling the gaps left by political changes.

Finland is a particularly interesting case, being oddly liminal and contested of a space as it is in many respects; the language, of course, is not Indo-European but rather Finno-Ugric, and it’s right smack dab in middle between Russia and Scandinavia, with whom there are contentious histories, as well as contentious identity issues. The Finns are decidedly not Scandinavians or Russians, but the cultural contact happened, and there are imprints of both of them to be found in Finland. They are not Russian, they are not Scandinavian (or Germanic at all) — they are Finnish. Here is an Orthodox musical identity built entirely within a historical context of modernism, and yet is a living and growing tradition.

The concluding chapters on Arvo Pärt and John Tavener do much to examine how Orthodox theology influences what is, perhaps ironically, largely concert music performed in Western churches if it is performed liturgically at all (about which more shortly) and yet still is absorbed by the Western public as “Orthodox music”. The Pärt chapter is easily the shortest in the book at 15 pages, but Fr. Ivan’s discussion of how his music is “spiritual” in a very real sense, where formal structure, melody, and rhythm are indeed deeply informed by Orthodox theological concepts, is perhaps the biggest mouthful aimed at those who might ask, as did my interlocutor, “What exactly is so ‘Orthodox’ about any kind of pure music?”

[T]here is an important point to be made… concerning the popular perception of Pärt’s music as “spiritual”. “Spiritual” is a word often used as a synonym for “vapidly ethereal”, an idea [that] has nothing to do with what one might conjecture most listeners to music would in fact conceive of as “the spiritual”. This in turn leads to the observation that, from a Christian point of view, the spiritual is to be found in the incarnate. Music fulfils — or, at any rate, can fulfil — aurally the same function that an icon does visually. St. John of Damascus… wrote that “We use all our senses to produce worthy images of Him, and we sanctify the noblest of the senses, which is that of sight. For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye”.

It is obvious from these words that an icon is not something vaguely or sentimentally ‘religious’, but, quite the contrary, very definitely incarnate. One of the problems in speaking of religion and the arts at all, but especially of religious mysticism and the arts, perhaps especially in this “postmodern” age, is that one is constantly subjected to a confusion between a genuine aspiration towards the sacred and something that is often no more than romantic sentimentality. Bearing in mind, then, the incarnate conception of religious mysticism as proposed by St. John of Damascus, one might question whether music [might] also be a vehicle for “spirituality” or “mysticism” in a similarly incarnate way. In the case of Pärt, there would seem to be little doubt that the question may be answered positively (Moody, p182-183).

The Tavener chapter is similar in its aims, but the parallel of structure only underscores how thoroughly different Tavener and Pärt truly are. On a macro level, Tavener is on an artist’s spiritual quest, one that is never entirely fulfilled; as, ultimately, a Perennialist, he is concerned with pursuing the idea of Tradition itself as far down the rabbit hole as he can go, and Orthodox Christianity is an exhaustible means to that end that must eventually be supplemented. (In a way, this is not entirely problematic or without precedent, but I’ll get back to that.) On a micro level, as somebody who wants to be a faithful musician serving the Church, Tavener is trying to write music that fits into an imagined history of an “English Orthodoxy” — that is, music that fits into an English cultural context of cathedrals and boy sopranos while also being ornamented with what Tavener sees as Orthodox markers, and while it may be concert or Anglican cathedral music rather than Orthodox liturgical music, he’s trying at least to find the parameters into which an “English Orthodox music” might fit.

Pärt’s music reflects a far less busy set of objectives; he is on no vision quest as such, so far as I can tell from what Fr. Ivan presents. His music is, as he himself points out, “actively” contemplative; unlike Tavener, whose concerns appear to have become more and more esoteric and disembodied, so to speak, Pärt’s is a spirituality that “[proceeds] from the incorporeal to the corporeal” (Moody, p185). One way to think about it might be that, to the extent that both employ an idea of silence as a spiritual underpinning of their music, Tavener is striving towards silence with his soul; Pärt actively chooses to be quiet with his body.

Fr. Ivan’s book is immensely helpful on the issues of Orthodox Christianity, art, and music, synthesizing a great deal of bibliography for the Anglophone reader, and seems to put the lie to the sentiments that one encounters that would marginalize, if not oppose, any notion of “Orthodox art”. One is left with a rather clear impression that, yes, there is such a thing, the “rather anxious and North American” handwringing (to borrow a phrase from the current Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet Jonathan Goodall) aside. So, accepting that this North American anxiety exists, at least to some extent, how do we deal with it, and how do we move forward?

One attempt at showing a path may be found in the book The Mystery of Art: Becoming an Artist in the Image of God (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2014), written by the Daytime Emmy award-winning actor Jonathan Jackson (currently in the ABC prime-time drama Nashville). Jackson converted to Orthodox Christianity in 2012, and was inspired by his conversion experience to write a meditation on Orthodoxy and the life of the artist. The book is many things; it is a conversational essay that relates Jackson’s personal reflections on the impact of Christianity on how he works as both an actor and a musician, it is a collection of his poetry, and it also presents itself as something of a devotional at times.

Jackson is nothing if not earnest in his vision of the Christian artist:

Whenever an artist brings someone into the presence of meaning, in that moment his work becomes incarnational instead of ideological. The artist is salt and light; he awakens the heart to a deeper significance. Meaning is all around us. Significance rests in creation. Beauty subsists in the eternal present. We are meant to bring light, the light of the Transfiguration of Christ.

It is an incredible thing to discover that Christianity is an experience of saying yes to what is truly beautiful… [and that it] proclaims that God is beautiful! Creation is filled with His glory, and He loves the world so much He died to restore her beauty… Christ and the arts are destined for each other… The life of Christ is profoundly rich in meaning for the vocation of an artist. In this work, my prayer is that the artist will become more Christian and the Christian more artistic. These realities are not opposed to one another. It is a mystery worth contemplating: becoming an artist in the image of God (Jackson, pp19-20).

The sincerity and warmth aside, however, it is difficult not to perceive a fundamentally Romantic understanding of “the artist”, and that Jackson’s project is, at its base, trying to reconcile Romanticism with Christianity using Eastern Orthodoxy’s vocabulary. This impression is reinforced elsewhere:

Man is at once glorious and broken — magnificently radiant and deeply wounded. He is wounded, but not utterly depraved… There is no escaping Hamlet’s question, “To be or not to be.” It belongs to each one of us. The artist cannot escape asking the eternal questions. He must find a transcendent purpose for living…

To become a true icon means to be refashioned into His Image and Likeness… [T]he artist is not called merely to imitate Christ, but to become like Him in his innermost being, by the grace of the Holy Spirit… As Saint John Chrysostom said, “If artists who make statues and paint portraits of kings are held in high esteem, will not God bless ten thousand times more those who reveal and beautify His royal image (for man is the image of God)?”

The artist is called not merely to imitate, but to become…Only then will his craft become transcendent and reflect something of eternal beauty and worth (Jackson, pp46-47).

Here Jackson is taking the Romantic ideal of the “artist as hero” and attempting to recast it in a Christian mold and bolstering it by citing Chrysostom, but it’s not at all clear that this works, particularly since Chrysostom here isn’t talking about art at all — he’s talking about the duty of parents to mold their children (see Vigen Guroian’s “The Image of God, Original Sin, and the Divine Model of Parenthood” in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, Eerdmans, 2001).

Jackson’s project of Christian Romanticism is on full display in his conclusion, here framed in an imitation of Orthodoxy’s mystical language:

The artist is a person of supernatural joy and strength. Everything he does on this earth comes from this place of rejoicing: this magnanimous union with God through the risen Christ. The joy of the resurrection floods the soul of the artist with mystical energy to inhabit the depths of humanity. When the artist embraces the mystery of God, the beauty of life increases and the madness of love abounds. Compassion floods the body, wisdom invades the senses, joy thrives within the spirit, and peace radiates within the heart. This prepares the artist to encounter the heart-wrenching beauty of the Divine and truly create in the Spirit (Jackson, p158).

Again, this is the 19th century artist as heroic wanderer, only painted with neo-Platonic words rather than Caspar David Friedrich’s brushes. The sheen clashes with the base, to say the least.

The trouble is, what else is there? Not much, although there is a clear precedent to Jackson’s book in John Tavener’s The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (Faber and Faber, 1999), and I think it is not too much of a stretch to say that the visual language of how Jackson is presented on the cover of his work is very much in dialogue with the well-established “iconography” of Tavener-as-Serious-Orthodox-Composer.

Tavener’s book has a number of advantages over Jackson in terms of the level of discourse, not the least of which being a dry sense of humor undergirding the entire proceedings, such as when he explains why he became Orthodox instead of Catholic:

Even at its best, the ultramontane variety of Catholicism did not appeal to me because of the scholasticism… I profoundly distrusted the proselytizing attitude. I recall the priest saying, “I think it’s time for you to come in, I think you should come, Our Lord wants you.” The Orthodox are quite the opposite: they try to push you away. So that attracted me towards the Orthodox Church (pp33-34).

In terms of substance, The Music of Silence is a compelling self-portrait; Tavener dissects himself, his faith, and his musical voice to explain to the reader in great detail what makes him tick — and, as noted earlier, Tavener was on a vision quest of the first order. The search for a real experience of God was what motivated him as an artist, no more and no less:

If you look at the very great ikons of the Byzantine period, you see angels transfixed as they gaze upon God. I’ve often thought: is it possible to produce that kind of ecstatic frozen petrified silence in music? I’ve certainly tried to do it in various pieces… it is the longing for God… [t]his longing for God which, as in ikons, is somehow petrified and silent (Tavener, p157).

Tavener also makes it very clear that he is speaking strictly from his own point of view, and thus has no particular need to prooftext (which saves him from prooftexting improperly, such as with Jackson’s Chrysostom citation). He simply tells his story as a composer who found himself searching for something, what he found was Orthodox Christianity, and he felt compelled to serve the object of his search with his musical efforts. In many respects, Tavener makes his story feel more universally applicable by not attempting to broaden the scope beyond himself; Jackson’s work, by contrast, feels too peculiarly about him the more he tries to generalize.

Of course, it’s not really that simple; Tavener’s conversion and musical output as an “Orthodox composer” occurred in a much different time and cultural context than Jackson’s, as his recounting of his early life makes clear. How one absorbs Orthodox Christianity, and what one absorbs from it, will likely be culturally dependent to some extent; for Tavener, who was raised in a culture where at least certain externals of public liturgical devotion are retained, as reflected by details such as his childhood consciousness of attending a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in London as a Lenten occasion, that’s going to manifest itself in a manner likely very different from Jackson. Tavener’s artistic function was also one that had ready ecclesiastical context; that’s more difficult to do as an actor, perhaps, than as a composer (although theatrical training certainly has benefited some priests I could name).

There are troubling things about Tavener’s book, however. Jackson’s fundamental assumptions may be Romantic in nature, but Tavener’s Perennialism is just as much on display — indeed, he all but mandates it as an artistic necessity:

I’ve read many works by people who have written about tradition, like René Guénon, Philip Sherrard, A. K. Coomaraswamy, Fritjhof Schuon, etc. One can study Machaut, Bach, Stravinsky, and Messiaen but this is not enough. If one truly wants to rediscover the sacred in music, one must go outside music and return to the Gospels, the Fathers, and the sayings of the Sufis too, in order to understand this non-scholastic, non-developmental approach to music. In the end, the glory of music is inseparable from the superabundance of life… I think both [metaphysics and tradition] lead us to God, unless you’re just playing onanistic intellectual games with tradition (Tavener, p120).

There is also the related problem of overly-mystical language about music that borders on turning it into magic. Throughout the book, Tavener refers to concepts such as the ison being “the eternity note” and chant, “whether it be Indian or whether it be Byzantine or whatever it may be, is the nearest we can get to the music that was breathed into man when God created the world” (Tavener, pp135-36).

In fairness, Perennialism might understandably be seen by the Christian artist as a solution to spirituality in art having what appear to be common, virtually universal, qualities across cultures and centuries. What we produce cannot but be influenced strongly by what we experience and how we process those experiences, and if we are able to see something good and holy in a non-Christian tradition, that will have some impact on how we express ourselves within a Christian context. All well and good as far as the human instinct goes, but if Christ does not transform that instinct so that we subordinate our expressions of it to Him, then Christianity, and certainly Orthodox Christianity, become little more than colors in the palette, and some form of Perennialism or syncretism will be the result. Tavener himself disavows this: “If you are taking from a tradition… you must revere the tradition as a whole, not use bits of it as a matter of aesthetic convenience” (Tavener, p88). And yet, that’s precisely what he seems to acknowledge doing, just not calling it that:

I’m working on [a piece] at the moment, Zoë, which refers to life eternal. The music for Christ is based on the highly complex rhythms of Samavedic chant… In [another piece,] The Last Discourse[,] I use a severely microtonal dhrupad-like melodic line for the music of Christ… I hope [these choices] will convey this obscure, rather awesome tone to Christ’s utterances (Tavener, p127).

Now, as mentioned above, there is a way in which Tavener is but one in a long line of Orthodox musicians who have found beauty in other traditions. The great composer of Byzantine music, Petros Peloponnesios, was also an expert in Sufi, Armenian, and Turkish musical idioms, he incorporated elements of those musical cultures into his own compositions, and there is a famous story about him singing the selak from the minaret of a mosque. Cultural contact happens, and it need not be understood as “corruption” or “syncretism” or what have you, nor need it happen according to the dictates of a Perennialist impulse.

At the same time, let us not be confused about today’s neat divisions of musical categories and historicize them. Indeed, perhaps that is Tavener’s error; his impulse to categorize “Eastern” music as “mystical”, and the farther East the moreso, perhaps says more about our own need in the West to section off “Western music” (a relatively small body of repertoire comprising works by “serious” composers from no earlier than the Renaissance on) from “world music”. “Western music” is too small of a category to be general, “world music” is too big of a category to be specific, and this division subordinates music all too easily to Orientalism.

So, on the one hand, we have an attempt to baptize Romanticism, a pre-occupation with the persona of the Christian artist; on the other, Perennialism or syncretism, a preoccupation with mysticism and “purity” of tradition as abstractions rather than as part of the lived experience of Christianity. Surely there is another way?

Part of the problem with how we talk about art in Anglophone Orthodox circles, particularly in an American context, is that the theory is not following practice. To put it another way, there is not really a culture of art in Anglophone Orthodoxy that Tavener and Jackson are describing, with established models and vocabulary for doing so; they’re having to import their own sensibilities and find a way of applying Orthodox language to their own work. This is where Fr. Ivan’s book succeeds wonderfully, since he’s able to analyze artistic cultures that are already in place and working.

There’s another aspect to the problem, though, which is that in a context of American Orthodoxy — as seen with the rather grumpy interlocutors referred to at the outset of this essay — we don’t really agree amongst ourselves that art is worth doing, let alone doing well, and even to the extent that we might agree on some part of that, we certainly don’t agree what it means to do it well. Pastoral and parish realities often mean that we have to, shall we say, spiritualize the idea of quality, rather have any expectations of quality that can be realized. 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. There is the desire in some circles for a kind of self-consciously “American” idiom of Orthodox artistic expression — “American” Orthodox music, “American” iconography, “American” architecture, and so on, and the belief that this will emerge only when we somehow strip Orthodoxy clean of “foreign” influences. (Does that mean that an authentic American identity will emerge when we strip “foreign” influences from America?) There are other cultural factors at play, too, all of which are rooted in America’s Puritan roots — a distaste for what is seen as professionalism, a belief, as seen, that “art” has no place in Orthodoxy, and an overall disfavoring of art in the American popular mindset. The truth is, we have a number of practical problems in our context that make it difficult to express what we’re doing without resorting to something like Romanticism for comfort — how many of us feel like we’re alone against the world? — or Perennialism as a way of understanding why it matters in a pluralistic society.

What I would suggest as a possible first step forward, something we need to do before we do anything else, comes from another non-Orthodox source; as I argue that at base our problems are practical, however, it is one of the best pieces of practical advice I know. It is from Neil Gaiman’s 2012 address to the graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (widely available online and published as the book Fantastic Mistakes (Morrow, 2013). It is very simple: Make good art.

Make good art, be it music, architecture, iconography, vestments, metalwork, what have you. Make it because you love God and His creation, and you want to use the skills He gave you as part of that creation to glorify Him. I’m not going to get into various theoretical models of “sub-creation” or “re-creation” or “discovery” here — I’m not that smart. Just make what you know how to make the way you know how to make it. Make it because it’s how you can serve, and because it will enable and inspire others to serve.

Make good art, art that follows the models that we have for sacred art, copying to begin with if you have to, but also know that God gave you a voice, and that voice is never going to be identical to anybody else’s. Iconographers sign their work; composers sign their music; we know the names of church architects going back at least to Hagia Sophia in the sixth century. It’s a fallacy that Orthodox Christianity does not allow for creativity, and if it does it must be anonymous. Yes, it is true that there are models and rules one must follow, that nobody has carte blanche to do whatever they like, and that whatever craft in which one works they need to learn how to do it before they do it, but formal requirements don’t mean that one cannot be creative, any more than the formal requirements of a sonnet mean that writing sonnets is fundamentally a non-creative enterprise. God made the universe out of chaos, giving form to formlessness; we are to do the same.

Make good art and swing for the fences. Will your parish choir be able to sing it? Well, they certainly won’t be able to sing it if you don’t write it. People will learn. They may learn slowly, but they will learn.

Make good art and do it for the concert stage and for the art gallery, not just for the church building. There is no reason you cannot do both, as Fr. Ivan’s book demonstrates (and as Fr. Ivan’s own compositions prove) — indeed, what Fr. Ivan’s book shows is that in historically Orthodox countries, the line between church and secular art is basically nonexistent. If you’re a composer, you write for all contexts, and you do so to the best of your ability. If you’re a painter, you’re as likely to produce an icon as you are a book cover (the cover painting of Fr. Ivan’s book is such a work by the iconographer George Kordis). “Non-liturgical” does not mean “non-sacred” or “non-Orthodox”.

At the same time, make good art for the church building, too. “Too good for church” is the wrong answer, particularly if you’ve done due diligence about learning what the masters have done and being proficient at working within formal, liturgical, and traditional requirements.

Make good art and value it; take your craft seriously enough to get other people to value it, too. Do it for love of God, but don’t let other people tell you that if you love the Church you’ll do it for nothing. To the extent that the Church is incarnational, creative production is part of what the Church should be supporting materially. The training to produce the Church’s liturgical crafts is not inexpensive, and if our hearts are where our treasure is, then that which is not valued will not be appreciated.

Make good art and don’t be afraid to do it well. When God finished making heaven and earth, He looked on it and saw that it was good; do the same.

In other words — let’s figure out how to do all of that first. Then let’s do it. Then let’s figure out how to talk about it. If we can do that, then maybe it’ll be far less arguable that, somehow, art is an indulgence and a distraction in Orthodox Christianity.

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  1. Andrew Gould on January 28, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    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.

    • Allison Backous Troy on January 28, 2015 at 12:58 pm

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

    • Jonathan Pageau on January 29, 2015 at 8:53 am

      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 on January 28, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    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.

    • AndrewY on January 29, 2015 at 12:47 pm

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

  3. Jonathan Pageau on January 29, 2015 at 7:27 am

    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 on January 29, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    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 on February 13, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    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.

    • Richard Barrett on February 13, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      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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