15 May 2012

false arts and fragments.

I recently learned of a new Orthodox church building here in America which, despite a large building campaign, has resulted in a $15,000 a month over 30 years mortgage.  The priest at that parish is very influential in American Orthodox life and a friend of mine, another priest, expressed to me his concern that such a fever might spread, with its build, build build!!! bigger, bigger, bigger!!! extravagant, extravagant, extravagant!!! mentality and the urge to grow both structurally and demographically in haste.

Then I happened upon a discussion wherein a professional iconographer (from whom you can learn to paint an icon for only a couple thousand dollars at one of the offered week long icon painting seminars), wherein the purchasing of icon re-productions for worship was disdained.

That discussion reminded me of a passage in Greece's Dostoevsky which refers to both the "iconographer-businessman" and mechanical reproductions of icons.  Here is the passage:

The Falsification of Liturgical Art

In 1889, Papadiamandis's article, "The Nine-Hundredth Anniversary of the Great Lavra" was published.  In this text, he notes that "the inherited distortion of religious life, from the viewpoint of art" is not simply a change of style and technique in ecclesial painting.  He asserts that this change is the result of a deeper decay, which deforms the Orthodox phrónima and the liturgical ethos of a people.  The building of a church or the painting of an icon reveals not only the ethos of the architect and iconographer but also of the particular liturgical gathering - or of the whole Church - that accepts it.  There is an essential relation and correspondence between the ecclesiastical-liturgical ethos and the representational (eikastikó) style of art.  In Papadiamandis's day and earlier, the liturgical community built the church according to its needs and abilities, while its wall paintings were usually painted, not by an iconographer-businessman, but by someone who had fasted and had asked for the enlightenment of God for this work.  There was even a living tradition of people who built the churches, painted the wall-paintings, created mosaics, composed hymns and melodies, shaping soulless matter with spirit, with the sense of the Liturgy and of co-liturgy.  These people would not individually improvise or idolize their inspirations but expressed the life of the Church as a Body, as a liturgical community that was guided by the Holy Spirit.  Just as priests served the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of the people, the architects, builders, painters, poets, and hymnographers of the Church served in the same way, practicing their sacred art as a spiritual ministration. 

In the ecclesiastical community of Skiathos, there was a living liturgical tradition and a genuine eucharistic ethos.  There were people such as "the blessed Athanasios Kephalas, from Epiros, a spiritual struggler, well-educated, fluent in many languages, eloquent, and a painter" who painted a beautiful icon of the Panagia "Sweet-kissing Mother of God."  Such strugglers knew how to live and paint as Orthodox Christians.  The contemporary practice of entrusting the construction of a church to a contractor and its adornment to industrially made icons, iconostases, and stalls, was completely foreign - and unacceptable - to the tradition that Papadiamandis represents.  The lumps of cement, which people today imagine to be "Byzantine style churches" and copies of the church of the Holy Wisdom, were not common then.  One reason for this was that the people who were "hardworking, ground down, poverty-stricken, burdened with peasant chores and scattered in hamlets and villages, lacking as they did the funds to build large and resplendent churches, instead built numerous less pretentious ones."  Another reason was that those people had a sense of the originality and uniqueness of every building and did not neglect the unbroken development and inexhaustible diversity of Byzantine architecture, which never built two churches exactly the same.  Similarly, they did not have a lavish attachment to one particular school of painting, nor did they disdain the painting of the united, unbroken, and continuous Orthodox tradition that in every era was able to express dogma in its own style.  They would never have have been able to interpret the senseless and mechanistic transfer of icons and wall paintings from other places and periods as traditionalism in liturgical art.  They would not have considered unchecked improvisation to be the mark of their freedom, nor would they have affirmed the audacity of the inspiration of the moment.  Ecclesiastical art occupies a place in tradition where faithfulness and freedom interpenetrate one another, are in harmony with one another, and include one another.  The dynamic relationship between this faithfulness and freedom requires creative members of a living ecclesiastical community, which makes possible the continuity and creation of the tradition.

In Athens, however, there was a different situation.  Orthodox sensibilities as regards ecclesiastical art and decoration had begun to lapse, especially in the large churches.  Simplicity and authenticity in art were usually exchanged for luxury clothed in bad taste.  In one of his articles, Papadiamandis vehemently points out the danger of the distortion of liturgical art.  He notes that many Christians of that era preferred going to church in small chapels rather than in the large and luxurious churches.  However, he does not regard this demanding piety of the faithful as unwarranted, especially when one considers that extravagance is completely forbidden and unacceptable in churches.

The unique characteristic of Christian churches is their modesty and sublimity.  Poverty does not preclude this characteristic.... Forgeries and things made of fake-gold, which you see in some Athenian churches, are insidiously and audaciously imported, completely unauthorized, by uneducated and tasteless people, so-called wardens of these churches; they should have been stopped.

Papadiamandis senses that the genuine divine beauty, the Church's philok
ália, has no relation to the interference of these wardens or of many today who rush to supply churches with the most luxurious holy vessels and furniture they can find.  These theologically indefensible and aesthetically unacceptable interventions into the physical space of the church come into opposition, as much with the principle of the ancient Greek tradition ("We create things with divine beauty [though] with little money"*) as with the practice of the Fathers of the Church.  When, however, the tradition is not lived properly and when an authentic liturgical life is absent, it follows that there will not be genuine art.  The absence of this life witnesses to an ecclesiological crisis that, in turn, deteriorates into formalism and the demise of all living forms and expressions of art.  

* Thucydides, Histories, 2, 40, vi. 1-5.

There is a lot there, and many undefined declarations and terms, so I will have more questions than assertions.

I assume that by "insidiously and audaciously imported" "luxurious" icons Papadiamandis refers to those of the Italianate style which required especially trained (in Western Europe perhaps) painters to provide them.  It strikes me that today in America something of the reverse may be the case, where the Italianate is now derided as cheap, kitsch, and common and the experts need to be brought in to provide what is (cost wise anyway) the more extravagant "authentic" Byzantine iconographic product - even if the only real Greek or Carpatho-Rus yayas we know regularly kiss Italianate icons and see such as common and normal for Orthodox to do.  This isn't to say that Italianate is better than Byzantine, just that the material and spiritual matters surrounding these things today are complicated and reading Papadiamandis for direction isn't simple - as taking his apparent derision of Italianate icons at face value while acknowledging the spirit of what he writes would not work analogously here in contemporary America.

Of course we don't have the living traditions or the viable options that the people of late 19th, early 20th century Skiathos has - yet I feel there is something in this passage which should still speak to us, if for no other reason than to perhaps facilitate some compunction for a way of life, an economy, which does not allow us to fully invests ourselves, as communities, in human and divine traditions. In America today it is somewhat rare to have a faithful Orthodox actually take part (physically) in much of the structural building of a parish - so rare that when it does happen the builder becomes an Orthodox celebrity (I jest, s-p, you're the best Orthodox celebrity out there).  There is simply no way in America to safely imitate what the village faithful had in Papadiamandis' day.  But I'm not sure the appropriate response to this fact is to shrug and assume God is blessing us to move forward in ways which seem normal to us.  I tend to agree with Keselopoulos that there is an ecclesiological crisis at hand, brought about by human economies which tend to divorce us from the things we use everyday and even the things we venerate, and I suppose the first and foremost thing to do in response to that is to acknowledge this crisis (even if unsure what that means for us).  I'm certainly not going to suggest that the answer is some form of Luddite rejection of most modern technologies and the call for all Orthodox to wander off to rural Old Believer style settlements.  That may be one path for some, but I cannot accept that it is the only or primary way of struggling as an Orthodox Christian in America today.  These are perplexing times.

I wonder if it may be dangerous to try to imitate this sort of "keep it local" mentality.  A parish I once belonged to allowed a catechuman and then very recent convert who happened to be a music teacher at a school to be blessed to compose settings for a couple troparia/kontakia. In my (non-expert) opinion the result was only slightly subtle as a disaster - in terms of deviation from the aesthetic parameters of tradition, at least as I perceived them in my then 17 or so years of amateur appreciation of Orthodox liturgy.  Note - this was at a time in my Orthodox life where I could hardly have been accused of being a liturgical purist or a "typiconista" as one priest I know calls them.  But the young musician in question meant well, and the community meant well, and it is very difficult in America to fruitfully suggest to a group of well meaning converts that they might not be well suited to discern what does and doesn't fit into an Orthodox ethos - especially when one is a convert oneself.  What do I know, right?  But I specifically wonder about the dangers (on the part of both the composer and the community) of thinking (and acting upon that thought) that liturgical forms can be concocted up almost willy-nilly so long as it does not do violence to our very immature sense of what would be offensive in liturgy.  At the same time, I have been to plenty of parishes in America wherein they in rote fashion imitate every jot and tittle of their sub-culturally very parochial liturgical form (I have found this especially true in small to midsize conservative OCA and ROCOR parishes) in a manner that on a number of levels reminds me of those old mimeograph copies my teachers used to hand out when I was in elementary school. Something just doesn't feel natural about it.  But perhaps my radar is too fine tuned to be accurate there.

Trying to think of liturgical situations which I have encountered in America which come closest to what Papadiamandis suggests is the living tradition is not an easy task.  One parish, in a rough neighborhood, had an St. Vlad's Seminary priest who was fairly SVS oriented in his take on liturgy, but he was married to a matushka & choir director who had grown up the daughter of a Serb priest and was inclined toward more traditional liturgy - their meeting in the middle involved a mix of things that always struck me as quite human and beautiful.  Perhaps the closest I have known to what Papadiamandis suggests here is at a skete with one nun and a small chapel where the liturgy and services have some Romanian & Bulgarian influences and are very much a mix of homespun traditional Orthodoxy.

I'm not sure what the "answers" are here, or even what a Papadiamandisian approach to the liturgical arts would look like in an American context.  I mostly suspect we first just need to "own" our poverty, as it were.  I've seen enough "iconographer-businessmen" to come to the assumption that re-produced mechanically-made icons might not always be any less "authentic" than some of the pristine iconography done by the very expensive professional (with impeccable iconographic credentials) who was flown in to take care of beautification business and whose work sometimes results in a strange spirit that seems more like pride over additions to the museum collection than it does the sort of piety Papadiamandis is after.  Hands down the two best instances of Byzantine chanting I've ever heard were 1) at Divine Liturgy, with an elderly Greek man chanting, in a small Greek parish in middle America which met only every other week, had a priest who seemed like he'd very much rather be doing something else, had the most disaffected "I don't want to be here" altar boys imaginable, and had the most kitsch iconography I've ever seen in an Orthodox parish, and 2) at Orthros, with a young convert woman chanting, at a parish with an organ and electric faux flickering lampadas and Italianate icons on the iconostasis (in keeping, I gather, with Greek American ecclesial aesthetics of the 1950s) - you just can't guess sometimes where you will find expressions of faithfulness to the tradition.    In both of those cases there was nothing forced or contrived or rote about the chanting - it was natural and free and warm, even though the settings were a bit surprising or at least aesthetically hodge-podge.  In my (albeit limited) experience at those places where one expects good, faithful chanting the ethos is not always so warm and free.  Is the experience I had of beautiful, faithful chanting in somewhat discordant settings a typical one, and is that about all we can usually hope for in workaday American Orthodoxy?  Fragments of beauty within freedom?  I suppose the first work then is to cherish those fragments.


  1. I've been sitting on commenting for a week. There is a TON of grist here. Having built a lot of stuff for "start up" missions and monasteries, I see the benefit of having a communal effort and sweat equity in the formation of a community. But the reality becomes, once that community is established and needs something beyond the skill sets and capability of the people to build, they have to contract the work out. (Well, not HAVE to... but that means doing without stuff for a LONG time.) I worked on a monastery that the architect was from Serbia and wanted to build the Church out of stone. Well, the Abbess said we don't have Orthodox stone masons and 600 years to build it. So local Mormon contractors did the bulk of the work. If you want a "hand carved" iconstasis you pretty much have to order one from the Balkans carved by who knows who. The capacity of a local Orthodox community in the USA to produce "Orthodox beauty in keeping with Tradition/tradition is a slim margin. Couple that with converts enamored with "traditional" stuff, they'll pay for reproductions of it on canvas with museum quality ink rather than have a local iconographer who learned iconography in America from a 1,000.00 class and may not be able to reproduce the style the parish council has landed on. Do you go 15K a month for 30 years in debt for it built around the personality of the priest? That's scary... where was the Bishop?

    All that said, I also agree that true, unadulterated beauty shines within some of the most kitzchy and sparse environments. And perhaps that is the saving grace of our theology, beauty saves the world, but it also saves the local American parish that doesn't have the "village" of Greece nor the history of Russia to build a place that reflects an historical presence whether the product is a humble chapel or a humongous cathedral.

  2. Another aspect of the notion of "sweat equity" in building a community... I know when people help lay a floor or paint walls or haul demolition debris to the dump, they are invested in the local parish in a way that writing a check doesn't match. It seems the small village church had more of that, but the other thing it had was continuity, something American parishes don't. Half the "battles" by new priests in a parish (especially when there is a new building project) regarding design and "art" in established parishes is how to get rid of the neon cross over the royal doors that the parish council's grandfather gave to the church 45 years ago. Heck, we had that kind of stuff within 5 years in our mission. There is an incarnational and "traditional" aspect to preserving what has been given and created by those who laid the foundations and sustained the life that we have now become a part of. However, the dynamism of tradition is that it also reflects the present community's identity and sensibility, but not divorced from what is established. The mobility of the American parish means a new guy with cash who never knew the great grandmother who hand embroidered the aer still used can virtually dictate the aesthetic ethos of a parish. I don't know if there IS a way to change without the danger of discarding or disregarding the past, or how to do it (but still do it) with a clear eye and heart that respects the past and how to incorporate that into the new. And maybe the fact that it IS a problem is reflection enough that the community is at least aware enough to be wrestling with it, and that in itself is a sign of life.

  3. s-p,

    Thanks for your thoughts - I happen to agree with all of them.

    I think in an American context if we are honest we must recognize that any attempt will be a deviation from the sort of community-aesthetic synergy that Orthodox were able to achieve in other times and places. I don't think we need despair over this, but it might give us pause and reason to be cautious of any building/beautification program which insists that it is the only way things must be done.