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Over the years, I've written many times about living in a middle space between my faith (Catholicism) and my profession (fine art). I've often had to act as interpreter to fellow believers of contemporary artworks that were difficult to understand without a bit of translation. Alternately, I've defended my church to artists suspicious of any organized religion.
Eleanor Heartney's Postmodern Heretics: Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art is the first book I've read that attempts to bridge that gap in a comprehensive fashion. She examines some of the most controversial artworks of the past two decades, noting that a majority were created by artists who are, or were brought up as, Catholics. In the process, she deftly draws parallels between a kind of physicality that is peculiarly Catholic and these artists' propensity for expressing their ideas through corporeal means.
I admit some trepidation in reviewing this book for Sojourners - where folks have worked to overcome long-standing divisions among Christians of various traditions - because Heartney's book argues for difference. Catholicism is, after all, unabashedly catholic, appropriating pagan elements universally and "christening" them in the process. All matter is regarded as sacred, and God is experienced through the world. Instead of distinguishing between the spiritual and the physical, Catholics often intentionally blur them. Both sociologist-novelist Andrew Greeley and theologian David Tracy have argued that Catholics and Protestants actually perceive the world differently in this sense, and that there is something distinctive about the "Catholic imagination."
Sometimes the best art isn't at all beautiful.