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In 1999, at the controversial art exhibit, Sensation, a 72-year-old man faked a heart attack before dashing behind the security rope to the iconic depiction of a black Virgin Mary covered in gold, dung, and pornographic images, and smeared white paint all over her. The classic religious respect versus artistic freedom conversation ensued. While religious conservatives called the Madonna a blasphemy, connoisseurs of high art perceived their defensiveness as a perfect example of the important critique that Chris Ofili’s Madonna piece is making: that we look at the world through a series of binaries about what is sacred and what is secular.

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Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” is a deconstructionist work by nature as it exposes the hierarchical spectrum on which we place virginity over sexuality, gold over shit, black skin over white skin, etcetera. This is a popular academic perspective on the function of art which, as one critic puts it, is “to instruct and stimulate.” In this view, to be angered, saddened, delighted, excited, or repulsed by a work of art is not enough to understand it, but the educated viewer must let these reactions expose for them what their biases about the world are. The goal of deconstruction is to be able to stand before any artwork and say, “I have thought this, but it is also possible to think that,” until you have thought of all of your invisible binaries to the end of the day. In the end, the piece has deconstructed itself and it has deconstructed you with it. Because you must remain within the work, you have been educated by it but not changed.

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Although Protestant Christians generally criticize deconstruction, art culture in the church exists as the flip side of the coin. While postmodern art largely remains a material-intellectual experience, Protestant art is too often a purely spiritual-emotional one. One does not have to look deep into our worship arts or the Christian film industry to discover that our art tries to skip being skillfully rendered to get to the “meaning” of things. As a result, we are largely inarticulate in the art world and our art has the substance of a plastic Ikea light fixture. Although these approaches to art begin from opposite ends, they meet in the middle to agree that there is a dualism to life: either something is meaningful only within itself, or to the degree that it can transcend beyond itself. They reject that physical and spiritual are fused, because they do not know what by.

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But the division of secular and sacred art is a relatively new (and Western) idea. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, images and meaning have thought to be mysteriously and intrinsically tied in the veneration of icons for over a thousand years. Icons of Christ and the Saints have long been used for prayer and worship to the misunderstanding of other denominations who have frequently made cries of “idolatry!” However, the Orthodox maintain that an icon of Christ is not to be confused with the person of Christ. Rather, the image should serve as a window through which a person looks with their “interior gaze” unto the prototype. The physical picture of the icon is believed to be somehow related to the real person that is represented in a way that cannot be explained. This window into the spiritual realm does not disregard its materiality, but rather depends on it to portray its sacred truths. Because of this, the stylistic rendering of an icon is important. For example, Christ and the Saints are never painted with shadows because they are always depicted as living in the total light of God. Because the physical and the spiritual are always informing each other, icon painters take great pains in their art practice to physically represent spiritual truths.

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Because of the formal secularization of art in the western world, there is a tendency to downplay the degree to which some artists work has been informed by spiritual experience. But in fact, the artistic appropriation of the word “iconic” came from the idea that art and religious icons have much in common. Wassily Kandinsky, the founder of Abstractionism in the 20th century, believed that abstract art functions much like an icon. In the same way that an icon is not a realistic rendition of reality, abstract art cannot be easily comprehended. Just as the Christian must learn to “read” an icon, it takes contemplation and imagination for a viewer to see through abstract art’s window into deeper truths. Kandinsky often asked his viewers to approach his work this way by displaying his paintings in the corner of galleries, the place in a room that icons traditionally occupy. By neither gratifying the emotions of the spiritual consumer nor playing the intellectual games of the hyper educated artist, Kandinsky resisted both the simplification and complication of mystery in his art.

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Although defacing a blasphemous Virgin Mary might not be the most positive way to protest the abuse of sacred images, I’m inclined to think that this angry old Catholic man got something about art that I haven’t learned yet from postmodern Deconstruction or Protestant spiritualization. If images really mean something in themselves and really point to something outside of themselves, we must make them well and look at them with care. I am becoming convinced that it is mystery at the center all the way down. And whenever I try to name it, it eludes me, and every time I try to draw a circle around it, I cannot find the line where I started. It is almost as if we are not following a shape at all, one that we have seen and measured. Rather, we move in expanding pursuit of something living; a person, a story, a way.

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