I was going through some of my old portfolios the other day – I am a Catholic-raised artist working somewhat incongruously in the atelier of a synagogue whose roofing works have prompted some solander box decanting – and came across an early colouring-in drawing I did, aged around four or five, of the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery – the Carrying of the Cross. My spelling was far from perfect, but the religious intention as an artist was at least clear: “Ar father, how art in heven, Halod be thy nam.”Diary: Art without God – Catholic Herald
I was going through some of my old portfolios the other day – I am a Catholic-raised artist working somewhat incongruously in the atelier of a synagogue whose roofing works have prompted some solander box decanting – and came across an early colouring-in drawing I did, aged around four or five, of the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery – the Carrying of the Cross. My spelling was far from perfect, but the religious intention as an artist was at least clear: “Ar father, how art in heven, Halod be thy nam.”
The gloomy basement of the UK’s oldest Ashkenazi congregation, home to my studio, where I’ll be storing my archive until repairs are completed is also the home of all manner of antique educational information and Roneo-ed children’s projects from the same era as my time at St Lawrence’s RC primary school. A time in my development as an artist which appears to have been spent colouring in depictions of loincloth-clad men being immolated on metal racks. The iconography is different but in common with whatever the synagogue’s infant programme offered, the planting of an innate and lasting spiritual context, whether for good or ill, as part of the nascent ambition of a young artist or writer appears to remain a perpetual foundation that is difficult to shake off.
I only bring this up because the recent publication online of the European Parliament’s Contemporary Art Collection prompted me to consider how all the various and varied religious upbringings of my fellow European subjects in “old school” theological environments, all keen on pursuing a vocation in the fine arts, might square, or circumvent their inconvenient church, synagogue, mosque-going background to serve what in essence is not a pantheistic, inclusive venture but one defined by a common and convenient secular atheism.
Established in 1980 by its first female president, Simone Veil, the EU’s art collection is a highly laudable scheme and comes with the usual mandatory set of aims and objectives. Charmingly vague and noble in aspiration as to warrant the inclusion of 500 “glimpses of EU history” and “snapshots of the here and now of European heritage”, the collection has recently been made available online for enjoyment of EU citizens (many of whom are Catholic) and of communities beyond.
For an overtly secular body which has opposed any reference to Christianity, God or religion in its treaties and constitution, the lineage of the European canon of great art with its intrinsic ties to religious iconography is hard to ignore, you might think. As Catholicism is the majority religion of Spain, France, Italy and most of central Europe, you might have thought it a crucial aspect of a common visual history impossible to sideline. Especially when “curating” a universal (yet diverse) vision for an electorate 80 per cent of whom profess to believe in some divine force.
The current postmodern world of federal Europe within which the artists of today function as individual voices and increasingly as “collective practitioners” may well have been built on the ruins of the catastrophic failure of various post-Christian, assertively “atheist” totalitarian utopias such as Germany’s Third Reich, Stalinism and socialism. But the chaos wrought by such schemes (which led to the need for a “European Union” ) and the failure of modernism rarely sees European artists returning to a practice informed by the church.
What cannot be discounted on this theme however is the deep, immutable and substantiated guidance and connection such individualistic endeavours owe, even if unwittingly, to the platonic ideal and to the virtuous wisdom of thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and to the religious upbringing of many of the artists – like myself, who attended a Catholic comprehensive school in Cambridge – who are represented in the European Parliament’s art collection.
The exclusion of works of art from the collection that are explicit expressions of religiosity – it is crucifix-free – has to be viewed as a purposeful omission as part of the EU’s secular remit. When the former EU president Jacques Delors spoke of “the soul of Europe”, he inadvertently initialised a dialogue on the subject of religion within an institution that broadly characterises voters with strong religious beliefs as elderly, poorly educated and holding right-wing views on ethical issues.
The absorption of an unqualified idea of “faith” into the European project as part of its citizens’ personal expressions of “spirituality” and the public phenomenon of “belief” as a concept having a parity with the quotidian philosophical engagements of the atheist are the kind of baggy tropes most suitably validated via a collection of beautiful, uplifting, vaguely thought-provoking and officially approved art.
Thus the European Parliament’s art collection can promise to deliver something for everyone. It is peppered with numerous classical and religious points of reference that can be interpreted in the context of faith or of federalism. Marc Waymel’s L’Europe (Europa) (1992) rather hilariously describes the birth of the European Union itself as a quasi-mystical cosmic event, a giant gurning leviathan spouting stars, banners and green flames from its blowhole. Could the feet hovering before a tessellation of clouds depicted in Valeriu Mladin’s Adam (2008) be those of the first man cast out of paradise, as in Michel Krieger’s Exil Garden (1981)? Or in the obvious political context of the European Parliament’s art collection, could this “exil” refer to more of a popular mandated withdrawal?
In the context of a religious realm in constant flux, such as in the strange case of the studio of an artist brought up a Catholic, making art in a synagogue under restoration in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, the EU’s secular focus for its art collection appears to me a little bit out of touch, a little bit discriminatory and revealing of slightly more questionable aspects of a grand project the aims of which are, in lieu of “spirit”,
less “humanist” and in essence a bit more “totalitarian”.
Adam Dant is an artist