Deborah Sokolove, Sanctifying Art: Artists, Theologians, and the Church (Cascade Books, 2013). 202 pp. £23/$22. ISBN 978-1620326336.
In her monograph Sanctifying Art, Deborah Sokolove seeks to ‘change the conversation’ about art in the church, by making the often arcane world of the professional artist accessible to pastors and theologians. The book attempts to explain how trained artists think and how they work, and to offer new theological understandings of beauty and aesthetics to help re-evaluate and re-integrate the practice of art within the church. This is a commendable ambition, surely—but more suitable for a life’s work rather than a monograph. Instead, Sokolove’s ambition outweighs her project, and Sanctifying Art crumbles under its own weight. Its attempt at breadth results in shallowness; the good ideas may be there, but they are rapidly swept aside in pursuit of the next clever argument.
Examples could unfortunately be multiplied, and I choose one almost at random to illustrate a broader critique: a discussion of The Great Bronze Doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in Los Angeles, by the late Mexican born sculptor Robert Graham. The discussion centres particularly on his statue above the doors, which depicts the Virgin Mary as Queen of the Angels. This is not a work I was familiar with prior to reading Sokolove’s monograph, nor do I pretend to be an expert in recent art history. But even a cursory knowledge of Graham’s work points to troubling deficiencies in Sokolove’s approach.
In the third chapter, Sokolove argues for a new aesthetic definition of beauty, which she posits as a relational experience rather than outward form. To reinforce the need for this approach, and the importance of its role within the wider conversation between theology and the arts, Sokolove recounts an anecdote told by Barbara Nicolosi, an award-winning Roman Catholic screenwriter, about her first time viewing Graham’s Madonna. Nicolosi wrote that it was ‘dreadful’, ‘kind of ugly’, and points to its androgynous nature. (Qtd in Sokolove, 50) Sokolove reacts to this with indignation, and defends the statue, declaring:
This image, with its simplicity, strength, and presence took my breath away with delight when I first saw it. […] This, I thought, was no simpering, domesticated Mary, but rather a strong, solid, unsentimentalized woman who works with her hands and somehow is also the majestic, welcoming Queen of Heaven (49-50).
While Sokolove is entirely right to criticize Nicolosi for ‘implying that there is something freakish about persons who, like the model for the statue, are of mixed race’ (50), this complaint is, to a certain extent, a significant aside. The deeper conflict between the two writers, as Sokolove points out, is their disparate approaches to thinking about the arts and the nature of beauty. In Nicolosi’s view, as expressed here, the political in art is necessarily subservient to the beautiful; for Sokolove, beauty is the ‘relational experience’ with the art (51), a ‘complex of attitudes, thoughts, and physical sensations’ (52), rather than any outward aesthetic pleasantness of the work itself.
Partly for this reason, Sokolove’s rebuttal of Nicolosi’s critique is nearly as puzzling as the critique itself. Rightly or wrongly, it assumes that dialogue about Graham’s artwork is impossible, because of the ‘narrow definition’ under which Nicolosi seems to be operating. But this is an apparent contradiction with Sokolove’s stated desire for ‘genuine dialogue between artists and the church’; some attempt, surely, could be made to assist—if not Nicolosi herself, then at least the reader, to see Graham’s art in a thoughtful, artistically sensitive way.
Indeed, Sokolove has a theological concept she wants to convey—in this case, the concept of beauty as a ‘relational experience’. Graham’s Our Lady of the Angels and Nicolosi’s misreading of it, then, provide her with the opportunity to combat an alternative view she finds undesirable. In other words, the artwork is pulled into the service of theology, and used as a point in a theological, aesthetic argument. But by reducing the complexity of an intensely difficult work of art into a wedge for academic debate, this approach not only undermines the conversation between theology and the arts which Sokolove hopes to facilitate; it also effectively silences the voice of the artist, and of the artwork’s contribution to the work of theology.
Furthermore, artwork throughout the book plays a sodden second fiddle to a slew of words and ideas; the artistic language that Sokolove wishes to defend is shouted down. It could be objected that one of Sokolove’s own paintings is reproduced on the cover. But the image is presented without comment, and has no self-evident bearing on the text. Such reduction of a complex image to mere window-dressing encourages still further alienation from how art means and how it speaks. It could also be objected, more shrewdly, that Sokolove is reaching out to her theological and pastoral readers, who are perhaps accustomed to pictureless books such as this one; the book adopts the form most familiar to its audience in order to most effectively convey the message of the text. But in so doing, it fails to offer any alternative; the conversation has ended and the argument conceded before any piece of artwork has been allowed to speak.
There are other weaknesses in Sokolove’s work as well, such as a tendency to cite occurrences in secondary literature instead of the primary sources themselves. Her discussion of aesthetic history at the start of chapter three, for instance, which presents aspects of theories from the likes of Hegel and Kant, is drawn almost entirely from the work of Arthur C. Danto and Jeremy Begbie.
Indeed, one can imagine a book that addresses similar questions found in Sanctifying Art—the relationship between the art and the church, how the church speaks to artists and artists to the church, and the reconciliation of their disparate languages—which embodies and exemplifies the meaning it tries to convey. Curiously, this is precisely the sort of volume produced for the authoritative work on Graham’s Madonna: Robert Graham: The Great Bronze Doors for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, by Jack Miles, Peggy Fogelman, and Noriko Fujinami (Wave Publishing, 2002). Every aspect of the artwork’s creation is presented, through photographs and Graham’s sketches and archival materials, detailing the technical aspects of production and bronze-casting as well as more ephemeral early designs and concepts. The sculptor’s often fraught relationship with the ecclesial authorities is presented frankly and without judgement, and the slow emergence of his literally towering work of Mariology is traced from his initial exhaustive research into Marian icons to its final realization, stunningly presented through Fujinami’s photography. However, this book is strangely absent from Sokolove’s bibliography and it surely would have enriched her study.
Sanctifying Art is laudable in its aims, but undercut both by form and execution. There is a real need for works that enhance the ongoing conversation between theology and the arts, in a way that enriches and respects both. Regrettably, Sanctifying Art merely serves as further proof of that need, rather than filling it.
Review by John Patrick Pazdziora