The Apotheosis of the Hedgerow: Apologetics and Beauty in Contemporary Art

As my contribution to this discussion of apologetics, imagination and the arts, I want to offer an observation about a shift of mood among contemporary artists and ask what apologetic opportunities it may present. I am a committed gallery goer, if not quite an obsessive one. In the past year, two shows have surprised me on account of their delight in beauty and their spirit of unashamed celebration. I have not thought of either beauty or celebration as in vogue at galleries that show contemporary art, or among the artists they tend to display.

One exhibition was the Hockney retrospective at the Royal Academy in London; the other was James Narres’ video installation The Street at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Hockey’s recent work shows an unapologetic delight in the country landscape and, more specifically, in the fields, woods and lanes of East Yorkshire, where I grew up. A set of videos struck me in particular. Hockney had mounted a number of cameras on the side of a car and driven slowly down an East Yorkshire lane. The cameras were differently focused and zoomed. The combination of these feeds offered a compound view of the verge, charged with detail and the characteristics of the season. Here was joy in unassuming natural beauty. The effect on me was to wish I could set these screens up as a triptych behind an altar and offer a Mass.

The Street – a video installation of around an hour – offered something directly comparable, but urban. Again, a car equipped – in this case – with a single camera drove along the streets of New York recording footage. The camera was one of extraordinarily high definition, which allowed sections from the footage to be relayed in extreme slow motion. The effect was, again, to highlight detail, and to render a familiar scene strange enough that what is always present, but overlooked, became obvious: the rise and fall of ordinary gait became balletic; a thrown cigarette butt traced a perfect arc over several seconds. As the car – travelling faster than the pedestrians – turned a corner, everyday people were afforded the attentive circling view otherwise found only in recent high budget martial arts films. The Street gave us, I thought, a God’s eye view: not simply because of the detail it revealed but also because this all-comprehending vision was marked by a palpable sense of compassion and wonder (and not a little humour).

The contrast for me was with mid-twentieth century art, which was often deliberately ugly. I think of works left provocatively ‘unfinished’: to my mind, with the intent to appall. If, at the end of the twentieth century, beauty sometimes reappeared, it was treated with satire, playful derision or as related to commerce and sexual degradation. I cannot imagine that anything like Hockney’s apotheosis of the hedgerow or Narres’ exultation in everyday urban humanity would have been given the time of day.

Last year, a German artist reflected with me on the history of her work as a teacher of painting. Among college-trained artists, she said, beauty had either been taboo – more or less a swear word – or a category that was entertained, and exercised power, but only negatively: beauty was that which was eschewed. Slowly, however, she had noticed a shift. Today, she found students attracted to the beautiful, but still unable to proceed further than a certain wistfulness. As she put it, ‘they would like to paint beauty, “But it isn’t true, is it?”, they ask.’

This suggests avenues for apologetics, both among the artists and among those who attend exhibitions such as these. My inclinations in response would be doctrinal, elaborated in terms of creation (pointing to God as the origin of both the world and its beauty) and eschatology (pointing to the hope that all of this can be gathered up, such that what we value and celebrate is not destined to pass into nothing). There may be a parallel approach, with contemporary art offering opportunities to reflect on the world’s sin and loss. In those two exhibitions, however, I rejoiced that the art gallery could be a place to be confronted with the beauty of the rural and the urban world.

Andrew Davison is tutor in doctrine at Westcott House, one of the Church of England’s two theological colleges in Cambridge, UK, and an affiliated lecturer in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity. His publications include For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions (SCM Press, 2010), with Alison Milbank, and the edited collection Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition (SCM Press, 2011, published in 2012 in the USA by Baker Academic).  Read Christopher R. Brewer’s review of the latter for Transpositions here.



1 Comment

  • bruce herman says:

    Thanks indeed Andrew.
    For decades some of us in contemporary visual arts have been producing art that unabashedly celebrates beauty (in the face of a what was a hostile contemporary art scene). Also there have been several highly influential critics and art historians who have critiqued that hostility to beauty as well–David Hickey, Wendy Steiner, Suzi Gablik and several others. As female artists and critics have risen in the ranks there has been a deconstruction of male-dominated notions about “progress” and linear art-historical models that largely led to the sense that beauty was a retrograde value in contemporary art. Nowadays there are very few serious artists or critics who can make a case for neglecting beauty in art. What remains is a convincing account in theoretical and historical terms for what the relationship is between truth and beauty and moral goodness. Von Balthasar has done the theological spade work, I believe, but there is no art historian or critic at the moment who has tied these together in a believable account. As George Steiner said, in his famous essay “In a Post-Culture”, we live in a time haunted (rightly) by the Nazi Holocaust–with the realization that the perpetrators were great art lovers who listened to classical music even while they butchered the Jews and others. What theologians will need to confront is how beauty and barbarism can coexist and what can be done to rescue it (beauty) from the hands of power brokers, status seekers, and evil-doers. Where do beauty and goodness and truth meet historically and theoretically in cultural terms?

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