Sometimes an artist appals believers by presenting a public work they construe as libelous or offensive. Those showings normally garner a fair amount of publicity.
Like it or not, conflicting values make a good story -- witness the torrent of publicity the latest Anglican flap has gotten. And whether they miss a few nuances here and there or not, at least the reader can figure out the positions taken by both sides (or many sides, as in the Anglican guerilla war).
But what about an exhibit in which the artists say that they appreciate an arena in which they can feel free to demonstrate their faith without fear of being rejected.
That's apparently a more unusual scenario and it gets a sympathetic treatment from Mary Thomas, art critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But such stories can present their own challenges. In this case, Thomas seems to assume that her readers are cultural insiders, leaving a lot suggested and often unexplained.
Here's the slightly disjointed lede:
People who read headlines about record-breaking art auction sales may not realize that there is very fine and affordable art being created by accomplished contemporary artists.
That was one reason Brother Nathan Cochran, O.S.B., director of the Saint Vincent Gallery, initiated the Nationwide Juried Catholic Arts Exhibition in 2001. The first show was so successful that a second edition was organized and it is being exhibited at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, through Sunday.
His foremost motivation, however, was to "foster the arts of the Western Christian tradition" (although other traditions of Christian subject matter are considered) by providing artists opportunity for exhibition and recognition.
Is this solely an exhibit by Catholic artists? What does it mean to say that "other traditions of Christan subject matter are considered"?
The following quote from Cochran is very provocative, probably deserving an article of its own. I wish he'd had more space to explain what he meant, or that she'd talked to one of the artists to find out what sorts of experiences they had in trying to display in secular galleries.
Artists have told me they're so appreciative of this chance to be able to show their work. So many venues are closed to anything with a religious bent. The artists are rejected when they try to express their faith," Cochran says.
Artworks had to be "iconographically recognizable" -- does that mean they have to be part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of iconography? I don't think so, but I'm not sure. And non-Catholics may well wonder what "personifications of the corporal works of mercy" are.
Later we hear more about Cochran, the Benedictine monk and art historian.
Cochran is a traditionalist with a connoisseur's expectation of quality, but he's not restrictively conservative. Works can reflect "acculturation and anti-historicism, in a good sense," he says, and gives as examples Janet McKenzie's "Annunciation," which portrays Mary and the Angel Gabriel as African, and Beverly Klucher's "The Wedding Feast," which seats a little girl in modern dress next to Mary and Jesus at the Wedding at Cana.
I'm not exactly sure what an art "traditionalist" is.
But in this helpful paragraph, Thomas quotes Cochran giving examples of "acculturation and anti-historicism" so that readers have some idea of the types of artists who fit this tradition.
Janet McKenzie is not an uncontroversial figure. In 2000, she received a prize in the National Catholic Reporter's worldwide art competition for a picture that portrayed Jesus as an African-American woman.
Some of my comments may sound a little picky -- after all, this is a column by a city art critic describing a local show.
But because we can't assume that readers inhabit Christian culture, are familiar with it, or even have a basic knowledge of art history, it is important for a reporter to invite the reader into that world by describing it for them -- if only for a fleeting moment.
Cross by a Palestinian Christian artist is from Wikimedia Commons