Letter to Friends and Benefactors
April 1, 2002
Dear Friends and Benefactors,
The arts today are dying or dead. What will it take to resurrect them? Eastertide may be the right time of year to consider a sequence of three museums in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which by presenting respectively art of past, present and future, may put us on the track of an answer.
The first of the three is the Frick Museum, a classical museum containing painting, sculpture and decorative arts by famous artists of past centuries. Completed in 1969 by Helen Frick, daughter of Pittsburgh coal millionaire Henry Clay Frick, it contains her collection of masterpieces, now bequeathed to her city and nation.
The second is the Andy Warhol Museum-,a museum of a different style which might be called a "factory", because that is the name that the famous American "Pop" artist of the 1960's, Andy Warhol, gave to his New York studio, out of which came the exhibits now filling the museum named after him in his home town of Pittsburgh.
The third museum is not called a museum at all, but goes by the name of the "Mattress Factory". It contains a series of exhibits - if one can call them that - put together by contemporary artists - if one can call them that - from various nations, but living and working in Pittsburgh to produce, as the publicity material calls it, "art that you can get into” (we will see what that means). Indeed the exhibits in the "Mattress Factory" are so different from those in the Frick museum that even to mention them in the same breath raises instantly the great question, what is art?
If to answer we start out from the exhibits, nobody would deny the name of "art" to the religious pictures, five to six hundred years old, which are the glory of the Frick Museum. Painted originally for purely religious purposes, they present Our Lord or Our Lady or Catholic Saints with a visual beauty springing from their spiritual depth. With no houses, buildings or landscapes in view (at least prior to the Renaissance), they offer almost no visualization of the outer world of matter, but there is, through the painters' pursuit of the spirit, a huge presentation of the inner world of the soul, or, a deep and noble vision of life. So if for the moment we define the artist as a man with an eye and a hand, then when souls were full of God, an eye saw and a hand moved to generate art of the highest kind.
We skid down half a millennium to the second museum, of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who was certainly a man with an eye and a hand. He had no gigantic talent, like that in modern times of a Pablo Picasso, but he did have a real talent with which he achieved in the 1950's a very successful career as a commercial graphic artist. However in 1960 at age 32 he shed commercial work as such, and set out to conquer the prestigious art-world of New York. He believed in making money but he also believed in Art, so he would from now produce artefacts fit to be shown in museums.
Notwithstanding, the modern world with its commerce and consumer products was by now well into his bloodstream, besides surrounding him on all sides, as it surrounds all of us. So what would make him famous would be his resorting to an old-style medium to express a contemporary message, for instance a meticulous oil-on-canvas painting in black and white - of the front page of a newspaper! Or a screen made fit to hang on a museum wall, portraying a Campbell's soup-can. Or, to hold up the mirror to our industrialization and mass-production, a screen-print of one hundred such soup-cans in mechanical rows.
The interest of Warhol - and he does continue to interest people, as on-going exhibitions of his work prove - thus consists in his combining prestige with trash, or high-class presentation with low-class content, or, the noble art-in-a-museum framework from the past with the ignoble artefacts of our mechanized and throwaway present. Each time the prestige medium jars with the trash content, there is a little electric shock - the prestige gilds the trashy message even while the trash besmirches the prestigious medium.
ln the case of Warhol, there can still be seen in his use of colour and line the eye and hand of an artist at work, but are there spirit, or soul, or vision? Only just enough to enable him to hold up the mirror to our fragmentary and dislocated world which Warhol does not basically criticize, but accepts. In brief, the artist who believed in Art generates museums - Warhol produced enough product to fill dozens of them!
Finally we come to the third "museum", or the "Mattress Factory". Andy Warhol had called his New York studio the "factory" no doubt because he wished, instead of being scorned by our materialistic society as an "artist", to be admired by it as a "manufacturer". In this too he holds up the mirror to his age. So I would guess it was following Warhol's example that super-modern artists of Pittsburgh kept on the functional name of a disused mattress factory when they look it over to display their wares.
But how were they to out-Warhol Warhol? Go and see. On three or four floors, with a few rooms to each floor, most of the rooms are virtually empty! In one room, some wires run across the floor between little up-turned loud-speaker dishes which gently fizzle. ln another room there is at one end a false window lit with blue light from behind. Another long room is actually filled, with a jungle of barbed wire festooned with scraps of popped balloons. The title of this art-work is "Beautiful Violence". Get it? Barbed wire = violence, balloons = beautiful. Wow! In another room, three shop-display mannequins dressed in wigs and red paint-blotches stand on a correspondingly blotched floor amidst four mirror-walls and beneath a mirror-ceiling, so that if you get into the mirror-room (remember? - "art you can get into"), you see yourself amidst the mannequins multiplied for mirror-miles around!
ln brief, when men believed in God, they produced the highest art. When they ceased to believe in God but still believeved in Art (with a capital letter) as a spin-off from God, substituting for Him, then they produced imitation temples to house that Art, namely colonnaded museums (and concert-halls) to enshrine their substitute-religion. But when men moved so far from God as to lose all sense of what art is about ("Honey, you look at the pictures, and I'll read out the catalogue"), then Museums (by now with capital letter) became a shell-game, and they fill themselves with substitute-art, in fact with anyhing that goes, until the whole shell-game will collapse.
But do not think that the shell-game is yet collapsing! Fabulous "installation museums" (or whatever one cares to call them) are being built all over the world. Pittsburgh's "Mattress Factory" is famous amongst them, and has recently obtained funding to the tune of three quarters of a million dollars for its "in-residence" artists and its 27,500 annual visitors! "Wow! Where's the nearest mattress? Perhaps if I scattered a bunch of Seminary Letters over it, and called it "I Rest My Case", somebody would grant me $ 100,000? Can't wait! I sure no longer need an eye or a hand to be an "artist" - just plenty of B. Sc., without the c.
So what is art? Most broadly defined so as to include the exhibits of the "Mattress Factory", we might say it is the manipulation of more or less manipulable materials to express for others what is in the manipulator's soul. The more finely manipulable the material, the finer the art, which is why oil-on-canvas has had such a long and honourable career. However if barbed wire and balloons express something either for their manipulator, or for any visitor to the "Mattress Factory", then "Beautiful Violence" is also art in this broadest sense. The whole question comes back to what is in men's souls.
For some will deny that the soul even exists, but the sequence of our three museums, located in Pittsburgh but parallelable anywhere, demonstrates that the message (or soul) governs the medium. As the message ebbs or flows, so rises or falls the medium. God as message generated art as medium; Art as message generated museums as medium; museums as message generate barbed wire and balloons as medium - anything to get somebody to visit a Museum.
Coming as he does between the Frick Museum and the "Mattress Factory", Andy Warhol is especially valuable to illustrate this process. Between prestige and trash, he was pivotal. As he trashed prestige, so he gave prestige to trash. Filling the then prestige medium of museums with a trash message, he signaled the end of museums and their replacement by "factories", the end of Art and the arrival of Anything Visual Goes. He is as clearly the end of the Frick line as he is the beginning of the "Factory" line. Judged by the prestige standards preceding him, he is trash. Judged by the trash standards which he did much to establish, he is the prestigious Prince of Pop Art. When his work first gained admittance to a prestigious New York art gallery, the abstract artists previously shown there walked out as one man to demonstrate their disgust with his 'Pop Art". Yet Warhol's "Pop" is high art compared with much that has followed.
And the future of art? Clearly it depends on what will be in men's souls. If there is order, harmony and beauty in the souls, there will be order, harmony and beauty in the arts. If there is only ugliness and disharmony in the souls, there will only be ugliness and disharmony in the manipulation of materials, with medium to match.
And from where do up-lift and beauty come into the souls of men, weighted always downwards by original sin? From God alone. And in a world and a civilization that has known Jesus Christ, Son of God, whom to hate is to hate the Father (Jn XV, 23), from Jesus Christ alone. Ever since the coming of Jesus Christ, His Catholic Church has been a magnificent mother of the arts, and a just judgment upon the arts of the last half millennium must recognize that even artists in more or less rebellion against God have only been great as artists by what they were continuing of the Catholic heritage, and not by their rebellion, which fed on what it was destroying and destroyed what it fed on. Interestingly, Andy Warhol was a Catholic son of devout Czech immigrants, and a regular Mass-goer. Say what one will about the shallowness of his art (he himself said, "I am a deeply superficial person"), would he have any of the interest he has without that Catholic perspective?
Therefore only from the true Mass of the one Man-God has Western art any future. From loss of God the museums and concert-halls are dead or dying. But in, for instance, SSPX Mass-centres, the "Traditionalists" want music and decoration worthy of the great God they humbly worship. They start a choir. Then the fights start! But art is on the move again. Mother Church is once more mothering the arts. Thank you, great God! Let us only adore and worship and love You at Mass, and You will raise our arts from their graves.
Notice from the enclosed summer schedule that men could attend an Ignatian retreat and then a week of the Literature Camp, or a week of Literature and then a Session on Encyclicals. This summer offers unusual possibilities. Ladies, send your menfolk, and then draw out of them what you need when they get home!
Happy Eastertide! With my blessing, in Christ,
+ Richard Williamson