Protestant Art And Literature

Continuing with our off-and-on discussion about Christianity and art, I felt like sharing some remarks Peter Escalante made in a private setting on the relation between Protestantism (and Catholicism) and art. When I asked him permission to post these thoughts, he added that he might like to be more nuanced in some places, but that he stands by what he wrote here. In that spirit I share them with you. Also, n.b.: I will add some links to help fill in the background for those who are not familiar with the concepts he mentions off-hand in the course of his discussion. I’d love to hear what some of our readers think of this perspective. I posted it partly because I’ve never heard this opinion, at least not stated so clearly, before.

There are certain blunders of mind which, like the quasi-supernatural serial killers of American slasher films, reappear just when you were sure they were dead for good.

The “Catholic aesthetic” question is a complicated one, but in short, the problem as posed here is founded on a mistake. Catholics do not produce better art- they do, however, commission religious art more than we do, and have more reason, when doing so, to stick to certain traditional lines when doing so.

But art is not exclusively or even primarily religious in the Catholic sense. Catholics like to think so, because such a view mirrors, in the poetic realm, the Catholic construction of a fantasy “supernatural” over and above the created order. Hence they would rather paint faux-angels or conjectural images of saints than landscapes. But the iconoclasm of Protestantism actually freed art. Having broken the “iconic”, the fake-representation of the non-representable or not-to-be-represented, liberated the God-given human instinct of mimetic poiesis to turn to the real, God-given theater of His glory: the creation. Thus, all modern “secular” art, from the Reformation on, is really Protestant art- though you have to be able to think in two-kingdoms to be able to see that.

Modern art, which departs from mimetic representation, is actually an attempt at a secular iconic: supposedly venerable or transfigurative representation of the non-representable.

In reply to the above comment, I asked this question: “I guess my question is: Mark Twain might have been a great American artist, but can we really say he produced Protestant art, being an explicit atheist? For example.”

Escalante replied:

Yes, because the personal disposition of the artist has little to do with the templates with which he works, and also, because one need not be a believer to rationally/imaginatively observe natural and social realities. But the frames and templates, the tools and habits he presupposes, are religious in origin. Twain, in fact, is Protestant art not only in the general way I just outlined, but even specifically- the tone of incisive critique is distinctively Protestant. … I’d go so far as to say that historically, *all* humorous critique of monastic or clerical folly was proto-Protestant, and moreover, that the RCC at the time of the Reformation thought just that- as Luther said to Erasmus: hey, if you weren’t so useful against me, they’d kill you first, Mr Humanist. There are some uncharacteristic 20th c semi-exceptions, but almost exclusively in the Anglophone world.