ICON AND MASK: WHEN IS AN OBJECT SACRED AND WHEN IS IT ART?

By Paul M. Lewis

Forty or more years ago, I purchased a late 17th century Russian icon of the type commonly referred to as the Mother of God of Kazan (Kazanskaya Bogomater). It depicts the Virgin Mother, holding her infant son, Jesus, who is facing directly outward, with His right hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. I have no idea as to the provenance (i.e. the exact origin and history) of this particular piece, how it left Russia (in the hastily thrown-together luggage of a wealthy aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks?), or how it eventually wound up in Chicago, where I bought it. But it’s not a stretch to think that it may have originally resided in a church somewhere in central Russia. Whatever its exact origins, it was undoubtedly an object of worship. People would typically come before such an icon, stand there in silent prayer, imploring the Mother of God for help or favors, or thanking her for gifts already bestowed. Nor would it have been uncommon for devout parishioners to bow low before the icon, reverently crossing themselves in the Russian manner. People did so especially before beginning a journey, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the late sixteen hundreds in Russia, asking for protection along the way.

Today, hung on a wall in our home here in Long Beach, California, it is no longer an object of worship. At least, I do not bow low before the Virgin, nor do I ask her for protection before leaving the house to go on a trip. And no one lights candles in front of it. Instead, anyone who visits us and sees the painting surely assumes that it is displayed as a piece of art. As such, it does have its own great beauty. The expression on the face of the Holy Mother is one of sublime quietude, exuding a kind of peace that comes only from the inner certainty of knowing who one is and of being unfailingly comfortable with that knowledge. The Child Jesus, on the other hand, looks more like a miniature adult than a young boy. Was this because the icon painter was depicting Him as born mature and fully developed, mentally, emotionally and of course spiritually, or was it a simple issue of artists of his day not knowing how to portray children, as children? Icons, at any rate, are always painted in a highly stylized manner; that is their nature, their greatest beauty and, to some, their greatest drawback. People sometimes complain that they do not look realistic—of course not, they were never intended to! Icon painters meant to portray the figures they painted as beings who reside on a far higher and more elevated plane of consciousness, well above the tediousness and pettiness of the quotidian.

But the principal question that concerns me here is not icons per se. Rather, it is this: When is something a sacred object, and when is it merely (unless that word is thought to be offensive in this context) a piece of art? Just last week, an auction took place in Paris in which a number of sacred masks of the Hopi Nation were on offer. The sale took place in spite of pleas by tribal elders, as well as on the part of US embassy officials, not to allow it to happen. Traditional Hopis consider such masks not mere representations of spiritual beings, but as the actual embodiment of them. Even taking photos of them is considered highly questionable. When under tribal control, they are never displayed casually, only ceremonially, at a time when these sacred beings are experienced as actually visiting the people and offering assistance. No self-respecting Hopi would ever dream of hanging such a mask on the wall, as a piece of art. Yet, there is little doubt that most buyers intend to do just that. Nor is this the first time such an auction has taken place in Paris.

So, are these masks, which undoubtedly possess a profundity and an utterly mysterious beauty all their own, to be considered as art (merely), or as sacred objects that should be returned to the tribe, where they are part of millennia-old cultural and religious traditions? The government of France ruled that they could be sold as art, to the great disappointment of the Hopi. Again, the question remains, when is an object sacred and when is it a piece of art? And, if I’m being frank about it, I suppose another similar question might also be asked: How do the Hopi masks differ in any substantive way from the icon of the Holy Mother of God, displayed on the dining room wall of our house? Are my partner and I guilty, too, of religious and cultural insensitivity?

In a very interesting article in the June 25, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, Julian Bell discusses a recent work depicting a long conversation about the nature of art between Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. De Montebello was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for thirty-one years, and Gayford is a well-known British art critic. In the book, entitled Rendez-vous with Art, the director of the Met makes this provocative statement: “I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.”

What can be made of such a statement, and what connection, if any, does it have to the question of distinguishing between the sacred and the artistic? The concept of redemption certainly sounds religious. It would seem to imply the need for, or the act of, being saved from something. Sin and evil are the usual suspects. Or did de Montebello mean to make reference more to ignorance than to sin? But if art saves nothing and no one, sacred objects, on the other hand, are purported to have redemptive power, at least for those who believe in their transcendental efficacy. I remember once reading that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, said he had been asked if a picture of a particular Indian saint would be a protection for an individual who held it. His reply was: “If you believe it is a protection, it is a protection. If not, it’s only a simple photo.” Should this suggest to us that the sacredness of an object is not inherent within the object itself, but rather within the consciousness of the person coming into contact with it? Perhaps so. Or is it too much to think that art in and of itself, at its best, really ought to be considered sacred? In fact, can an object ever be both sacred and artistic, or must we think of them as one or the other?

We are conditioned, most of us anyway (ISIS fighters not withstanding), to have at very least a special kind of reverence for art. This is so whether we think of it literally as sacred or not. The Giotto altarpiece on the wall of a museum in Florence, the seated statue of the Lord Buddha taken from Angkor Wat by French explorers, and the Maya bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl ripped from the wall of a temple in the Yucatán all were once considered to be sacred objects. Displayed in museums today, or in the homes of wealthy art collectors, they appear to have lost that connection to the sacred. Or have they, and does it matter how the viewer perceives the objects, how she or he thinks of and interacts with them?

To most modern people, the answer may be as simple as knowing that once an object is in a museum, it is—more or less by definition—considered to be art, and therefore, not sacred, at least not in the normal meaning of that term. Although that still may depend on one’s religious beliefs. Devout Christians might consider the Giotto altarpiece sacred no matter where it is displayed, though probably not the Buddha, and certainly not Quetzalcoatl. Even so, if we think back to the original etymology of the term “sacred,” it refers to a thing that possesses power, and this power could be considered either as holy or as accursed. In this sense, who is to say that art, as we think of it today, doesn’t have its own kind of secular sacredness?

I know that I still think of the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Kazan as having its own brand of power. I don’t necessarily think of it as a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Christian lore. But I do think of it as a kind of illustration of the feminine aspect of the Divine Spirit. And if even that is too much, why not as a representation of universal motherhood, or the enormous mystery and power of creation itself?

Sacred or not, if art is to be felt at all, it surely has to have power, that is, a numinous kind of mystery about it that cannot ever be fully explained by the things of the intellect. Otherwise, what potency, and what effect, does it have? This is not in any way meant to argue against the Hopi, who I believe have every right to sue the French government for infringement of their rights. But it does speak to the question of whether or not there is a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the artistic. Depending on your point of view, in the end, that may truly be a thing that resides in the mind of the beholder.

THE SACRED, THE DECORATIVE, AND THE REVELATORY IN ART

By Paul

It was common practice among early Pueblo Indians, as well as many other indigenous peoples the world over, to “kill” a pot or other ritual object when it was no longer deemed to be part of the life of the family, clan, or larger community.  A hole would ritually be drilled through its base, and this “living being” would then be considered to have “died.”  From this we can deduce two things:  first, much more than plants and animals were (and still are) considered to be alive by many indigenous people, and two, objects created by and for people could take on a spiritual life of their own.

The issue, which may appear quaint or odd to so-called modern people, still in fact resonates today.  Just last week, for example, the French auction house Drouot sold off dozens of Native American objects, most of them belonging to the Hopi Tribe, in spite of the pleas and the lawsuit brought by both tribal elders and US government officials.  The 70 or so objects, mostly masks, that were auctioned off realized $1.2 million.  One mask alone, referred to as “Mother Crow” brought in over $200,000.  The objects had been “removed” from the Arizona reservation in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.  How, why, or with whose permission, or lack thereof, is not clearly known.

Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet, as reported in an LA Times article dated Saturday, April 13, 2013, entitled “French Auction Defies Tribe,” said that he was “happy that French law had been respected.”  No mention was made of “Hopi law,” but we can surmise that the tribe was not as happy about the outcome of the matter as was Monsieur Neret-Minet.

One obvious question all this raises is, when is an object considered a piece of art (an “object d’art”), and when is it considered something legitimately held sacred by people, and therefore removed from the world of market-based negotiations?  Would it be all right with Drouot, for example, or with the French Government, or with people in general to sell the Shroud of Turin as a piece of art, rather than holding it, as many believe, to be the sacred and inviolable image of Jesus, imprinted by Christ, Himself, on the way to Calvary?

Enlarging the question somewhat, we can ask ourselves what actually constitutes art, and what constitutes the sacred?  Is there, indeed, a difference between the two, and if so, what is that difference?  We could even extend the questioning to ask when is something merely decorative, and when is it thought of as “high art”?   Some museums have whole sections dedicated to the so-called “Decorative Arts,” which suggests that curators and art historians the world over do see a difference.  That essential difference, as many would maintain, seems to hinge on whether or not the object could have been considered “useful” in some way.  In other words, “high art” is not useful, at least not in the everyday sense of that term, and is instead considered as a thing apart from the quotidian.  And yet a priceless Greek amphora, let us say, marvelously preserved and beautifully painted (i.e. “decorated”), would probably not be considered to be merely “decorative art.” This is so, even though its original use was merely as a kind of vessel to hold wine or some other such commodity.  Can we conclude then that it might not be thought of as “merely decorative” because of the antiquity of the object, or its market value, or simply because people the world over perceive it to be a thing of surpassing beauty?

The walls separating these various categories, in other words, are not as clear-cut as they would at first seem.  Many anthropologists and students of world culture have noted that even the word “art” itself is not a term that exists in the lexicon of the majority of indigenous peoples.  That is to say, things are not made by them for the sole purpose of sitting on a shelf, or merely to be hung on a wall, but because they are organic participants in the spiritual and the psycho-social lives of the people.  In many traditional instances, masks were ritually “put to bed” after particular ceremonies in which they were worn, and during which the individual wearing the mask became one with the spiritual being it embodied.  There the masks remained until, in due course of time, the moment came for that spirit to again reappear and assist the tribe in some specific way.

It was only as societies became organized on a grander scale that objects were begun to be made by specialists, and eventually by “artists,” who later came to think of them as expressions of their own private and personal artistic vision.  But note even here the use of the word vision.  And does that not in some sense harken back to the ability to “see” into another world, another dimension, another reality, akin to but different from our normal world, and which can either help or hinder the life of the individual or the community?   As recently as the nineteenth century, for example, monastic painters creating Russian icons would never dream of signing their work.  That was because it was considered a sacred task, not a “personal expression,” and the “object” created was in some real sense the embodiment of the holy image it portrayed.  The same could be said regarding so-called religious art in virtually every culture of the world.

To the modern mind, art today is mostly about either the private and the personal, or the political.  And we do not claim that it represents, or certainly that it embodies, anything more than its creator meant.  That, and of course, any interpretation and speculation either on the part of art experts or of the public in general as to its meaning.   In most cases, though, that representation is not normally thought of as sacred.  Why?  Perhaps in part at least because we have lost the knowledge or the feel of the sacred in today’s world.  And it has been replaced by – might I even say reduced to? – the manifestation and the insight of a given individual about him or herself.

Even so, it is not at all unusual for people to think of contemporary artists as gifted in some special way, as possessing insights and perceptions that go beyond the ordinary.  Great art, as least as I understand it, both plunges to the depths and rises to the highest heavens.  It cuts through and helps us to experience a profundity of feeling that is beyond what any of us can normally experience or express in our everyday lives.  And I am not talking here only of the plastic arts, so called, such as painting or sculpture or even film, but of music, literature, theater and dance, as well.  The best of the best embodies something that it alone can express, and only in its unique way, which can then reach across the unspoken divide between its own vision, transferring itself into the hearts and minds and spirits of those viewing, or otherwise experiencing it.

And is this so very different from the great “Mother Crow” mask of the Hopi, ignominiously sold in a recent Paris auction?  In one sense, and perhaps taken to the extreme, could we not even say that no art ought ever to be sold, since it is (ideally) the embodiment of a particular vision of that which is beyond price.  Of course, we all know that this is not the modern world we live in, and that artists also must provide for their own living and make their way in the world.  I only mention this at all in order to highlight the fact that all true art is, or can in some sense be, sacred.

One of the great ironies, not to say discourtesies, of the story of the sale of the Hopi masks is that tribal tradition never even allowed photos to be taken of them.  Again, it should be emphasized that, at least by the Hopi, these are not considered “art.”  They were never meant to be objects hung on a wall and admired; they are the embodiment of otherworldly beings, who have come to us in order to help in some specific way.  The LA Times article itself, in fact, even references that these masks were to be kept out of public view, and that it was considered “sacrilegious even for pictures of the objects to be shown.”  And yet – and yet – there at the top of the article, proudly displayed, if I may say so, are four photos of the very masks themselves!  What are we to make of this?  Is it merely an example of ignorance, or of arrogance or even provocation, or of some subtle, but deliberate, kind of editorial statement on the part of the paper about what art ought to be?

One way or another, the more general question remains, whether art is a private and personal expression of the individual who creates it, and who can therefore sell it, or otherwise dispose of it, since it belongs to that creator her or himself.  Or is it an unspeakable and ineffable representation of a higher order that both permeates and transcends the day-to-day reality we live in?  Is it, in other words, sacred or profane, decorative or of a higher order, societally or self referential, or is it revelatory of some unexplained and unexplainable metaphysical/spiritual essence?  Or, yet again, some highly idiosyncratic, mysterious and mystical combination of any and all of the above?

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the answer depends on what you think of yourself, of the world you live in, and of what you believe exists, or does not exist, beyond the boundaries of the everyday sphere we normally think of as home.