Catholic Distance University

Pursuing the Sacred in Art

Daniel Balan

A picture is worth a thousand words.
-Unknown origin

“There are two ways of expressing things; one is to show them crudely, the other is to evoke them with art.”
-Henri Matisse

Every mark is a kind of word—-a communicative record or sign of one’s presence or of an event. Whether footprint or fingerprint, scratch or signature, the identity of the originator is embedded in the mark, becoming an individual’s “I am” left behind for others to see. Humanity’s first marks developed into pictures that conveyed ideas or concepts that represented real things. Thus the visual, the conceptual, and the real were closely connected. Writing developed from these images and so the origins of written language are in art. A work of art, like a written word, remains a mark of the originator’s identity. These early marks, both word and art, were both sign and symbol, conveying ideas as well as evidence of life and existence. These were man’s first attempt at immortality: words that outlive their originator.

Today, a visual relationship in language between the real and the conceptual is almost lost. Over time, systems developed which made the communication process more efficient. The pictures were simplified. Languages influenced other languages, systems of grammar developed, and visual symbols were no longer based on concepts of reality, but on concepts of other concepts of reality—-other words, on forgotten languages. English is not based on a concept of life, but on the concepts of life of various stages of languages no longer in use. And so words are no longer symbolic. Limited in their scope, they are no longer significant. Everything about a word is now explicative rather than implicit.

However, art is unique in maintaining the relationship between the image, the idea, and the real. It maintains the symbolic. In recent years it has been popular for artists to sever the relationship, rendering the language mute. But humanity needs art only so long as it preserves this relationship. In so doing, art reflects what makes us distinctly human-—creations (image) with souls (idea) made in the image of God (reality). And so art continues to be a means of conveying clues in our search for meaning.

Fundamental experiences of humankind are understood through symbols of the ordinary: egg, doll, hair, book, or sacrifice. These experiences are rendered mute through contemporary reference, appropriation, and distortion of that symbolism. When I create, I draw from universal conditions that have become unintelligible in contemporary understanding: the understanding of birth, the relationship between child and adult, gender identity, man’s concept of God. In the passage of time, societies continue to reinterpret the commonplace. I attempt to decipher the contemporary encryption of the message and rewrite it in an allegory that is accessible intuitively. I may begin with an object broadly understood—a doll, a book. Ultimately, my work provides clues to understanding the universal experiences that speak to the human condition and the search for meaning.

As I work, I take into account the recurring basic social concerns for which men and women continue to seek answers. These essential questions—the cause for so much social and political unrest—will continue to surface under different names in different times until they can be addressed at their root: the heart of the individual. As an object maker, I am driven by a servile passion for aesthetic integrity, and the call to give form to the unutterable words written within each of us.

Corpus II

Corpus II

Corpus II

Corpus II

Corpus II

The image of crucified Jesus is one of the oldest Christian symbols that remains in widespread use. However, something kept early Christians from embracing a representation of Christ on the cross until the eighth century, A.D. The earliest crucifixes were not at all representations of the historical event or reminders of the faith—-they were objects of devotion. As such, particular modes of depicting them changed and developed throughout the centuries as the understanding of the faith grew. Relatively recent industrial developments that removed the artisan from the process of craft have enabled men to deliver the crucifix cheaply and quickly to all corners of the globe. While achieving this manner of ubiquity may be something of an achievement, one must ask: “At what cost?” I am reminded of the recent social wall-papering with the U.S. flag, where what should be an honored emblem of national pride is available as a disposable picnic table cloth. Such production is unsuited to articles of devotion, which lose more than dollar value as a result of rapid production.

The absence of the indelible mark of the creator’s touch is palpable in the final product and is partially responsible for two current failures of sacred art. The first failure of contemporary sacred art is that it eliminates the historical progression of the artistic development of Christian imagery. This necessary progression has been with the Church for two thousand years. Witness the differences in the progression of past depictions of Christ triumphant for the early imperial Church in early medieval mosaics, compared to later depictions of the violent suffering of Christ defeated in post-plague Europe in Northern Renaissance altarpieces. The artist’s involvement maintains cultural relevancy and aids in keeping tradition truly living. Today, that progression is stunted. Without substantial involvement by the artist throughout the fabrication process, objects become no more than reproductions of reproductions that are ultimately irrelevant to the Church of a particular age. The second failure comes about as a result of a reduction in quality of an individual crucifix as cost and speed guide fabrication rather than service to God motivate production. These factors result in the vast gulf in quality between earlier sacred art and recent ‘click and buy’ mass-produced catalog art. As a result, there may be no one alive whose eyes have not been dulled to the pathos inherent in the image of the Crucified Lord. Aware of this further human failure, I am seeking to restore to the image/object the inspiration to devotion through reexamining the pathos inherent in a crucifix.

Comfort

Comfort

Comfort

As a Catholic and an artist, I am especially prone to pay attention to symbols. I am also convinced that through understanding symbols people may come to a greater appreciation of life. Some of the earliest records of human invention are doll-like figurines. They appear again and again throughout history all over the world. Whether doll or figurine, they are often mysterious, frequently religious, commonly entertaining, and almost always precious. I wonder if their significance is not in the child’s use of the doll in play. It is through such play that a child may make sense of his own existence and his role in the family. It is interesting to ask what can be gained from such figurines in understanding one’s own childhood or one’s relationship to children. The answer lies in the history of the object—now at once preserved and obscured by the binds of memory and experience.

Life

Life

Life

The egg as symbol of life and reproduction pre-dates Christianity and crosses cultural lines. The egg as symbol, like so many universally intelligible symbols, is rendered mute in contemporary understanding. Through a process typical of my work of the recent past, I make art by combining various methods of preservation and re-production of a core prototype in order to obtain a finished piece that bears a historical record of visible marks that cannot be placed in time. There then exists an object the history of which is borne all at once on the surface.

Salvation Haggled (Mexico)

Salvation Haggled (Mexico)

Salvation Haggled (Mexico)

Here, as with all of my work, I begin with the understanding that tradition is a living thing, that each generation is unique, and that, even over a hundred years and countless bloody wars after Dostoevsky wrote it, “beauty will save the world.” I also believe that the Body of Christ is the People of God—-as Church, as community. I believe that it is good for the soul to be reminded of this community in the material goods we surround ourselves with. And so I believe that when you can choose hand-made it is almost always better than the alternative. The more important the material good is to our lives, the more important it is that it bear the mark of the human hand as a constant reminder of the other. Therefore, I believe that what we call devotional art, sacred art, or liturgical art best serves the Church when its very craft is a reminder of community. Recent generations of mass-produced reproductions of Christ have primarily served to devalue the objects and mute their significance, if not render them entirely insignificant. The result constitutes a great failure: souvenir shops with stacks of mass-produced, poorly crafted, cheap and dusty crucifixes piled unceremoniously in boxes where they wait to be sold for the highest price the tourist will pay.

www.bringuptospeed.com