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Oh Do Desist, Dear Boy

07/01/2007

Not that I’m given to watching Sunday morning TV, but I happened to see the art historian Brian Sewell pontificating disdainfully about modern art in churches on BBC 1 this morning. I assume the item, which was part of the Heaven & Earth show, was a brief televisual extension of his BBC Radio 3 show for Christmas week, the rather pompously entitled “Divine Art”, which I missed, at least partly by design.

Sewell maintained that “we must insist” on a “spiritual” quality to religious art. The latter term seemed to mean visual art associated directly with Christian worship, which seems a remarkably narrow conception in today’s society. However, although the rallying cry might not seem particularly controversial at first sight, it is hopelessly vague. Sewell did not define the “spiritual quality”, but as far as I could gather, it is something to do with a sense of mysticism (a term Sewell used), transendence or the ethereal. From his reaction to the Henry Moore piece he lambasted, it certainly seemed to rule out any strong physiciality.

This is one of the most irritating things about Sewell’s approach. Christianity in its orthodox forms–and remember, all the pieces he considered were for Christian places of worship–is founded on the belief that God became human in Christ or, to express it slightly differently, that Christ was fully human as well as fully pine. Therefore, the physical is as essential to the faith as the spiritual and ought be as strong an element in Christian art as the spiritual. God’s transendence and immanence must be held in tension, if not necessarily in any single artwork then at least across the totality of Christian art.

The other irritatant was that Sewell didn’t have anything positive at all to say about the modern and contemporary art he examined, except the grudging acceptance that Moore had at least considered the architectural setting of his altar, unlike another artist he critiqued. Granted, some of his criticisms were justified, but if he had lifted his head above his prejudices and ventured north, he might have found something to shake his disdain in Alison Watt’s wonderful, award-winning painting Still in Old St Pauls Episcopal Church in Edinburgh. In this piece, presence and absence, the physical and the spiritual, death and resurrection meet naturally and powerfully. Surely even Brian Sewell could not fail to be moved.

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