Sacred Traditions and the Arts is one of the Research Forum’s consistently exciting ventures, organised jointly with King’s College London to create a dialogue between art history and theology. Glenn Sujo (G. F. Watts Associate Artist) warned us that his paper might be rather more sombre than Grayson Perry’s Reith Lecture that had aired that morning on Radio 4. But in some ways this whole seminar addressed some similar modern anxieties about art, not least the thorny matter of beauty.
Glenn’s lecture “The Image of atrocity is never innocent: the aporiai of the visual” was about the art produced, often covertly, during and in the immediate aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. To what extent do these “products of the imagination” adequately represent the horrific experience? His analysis of these aporiai concerned their subjects. A sketched view of a window spoke of confinement, and the seemingly simple subject of Jews transporting sewage carried an underlying message of the resilient struggle to maintain civilisation and sanitation in the ghetto. While there was not a complete disregard of treatment; sombre colours and jagged lines were considered, it was “Draw what you see” that almost became his keynote, and that these works embodied experience.
Tim Gorringe (University of Exeter) had written his lecture as a direct response to Glenn’s address. He began by stating that the “classical” view of beauty: harmony and proportion, as embodied in the art of Ancient Athens through Aquinas to Kant, when applied to religion, fails. It produces “high-grade kitsch” such as the Sistine Madonna, certainly an interesting definition of Raphael’s Roman masterpiece. For Tim, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, through its choices in form and style addressed theological truth with greater success: the outrage at the suffering in the world. Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion achieves much the same: its initial exhibition leaving Kenneth Clark only able to remark “what an extraordinary world we live in”. For Steiner, true Tragedy in the arts required a metaphysical overlord, removed in the modern era by a secular, rational worldview. But Tim tried to show that a painter within the secular age could still articulate profound tragedy through a “silent scream” at the injustice of existence.
This series always places a great emphasis on encouraging discussion afterwards. Showing a commendable willingness to disagree, a difference emerged between the two speakers of the status of a work of art made in the wake of tragedy as an object of knowledge. Is its ultimate value as a work of truth as a document of experience, or as an ineffable, theological statement akin to Job’s questioning of the injustice wreaked upon him? Keats’ aphorism of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is often maligned as a bit of a cop-out, and indeed it is not all we need to know. But it is a starting point. We all have our own truths, artist, viewer and art historian, and many were expressed in this highly rewarding evening.