Holy Murals: how a new WPA could save the church

We don’t really make murals anymore. Not like we used to, at least. Lots of old post offices or fancy lobbies from a certain era have sweeping wall art, mosaic or hand painted, depicting industrious Americans or verdant farms or, sometimes, nothing specific at all. Most of these are a creation of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, where artists unemployed by the Great Depression were hired by the federal government to beautify public spaces and enrich American culture.

San Pedro, CA post office

These WPA murals are from the 30s, but if you’re like me you almost think of them in a similar class to the ubiquitous murals behind altars in churches. These reredos or apse walls tend to date more to the 60s, when there was a huge boom in contemporary church architecture. They tend to be gold.

Cabrini Shrine, NYC

Although the WPA had branches funding all the major arts, the murals are the most striking example of that cultural infusion today. There are, of course, the many important buildings created under the auspices of the WPA, but we now consider those remaining structures simply part of the fabric of our cities. The music and theater and writing have been relegated to libraries as trends changed. The murals, though, seem trapped in amber, a relic of a different time; stylized with distinctive Deco details, they remind us of an inter-war America that seems like a story told by our grandparents. There are so many of these murals in part because so much of the WPA budget was allocated for their creation.

Nearly 90 years later, we are, once again, facing wide-spread unemployment amongst artists. The ongoing shutdown has put many out of business entirely, while others survive only on enhanced unemployment opportunities. Additionally, churches have been unable to meet regularly, which has caused communities of faith to struggle both financially and spiritually.

We can look to the past for an answer to this problem. We can create a New WPA.

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural,  Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses’ Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.

The WPA appropriation in 1935 was 6.7% of GDP. A similar amount in today would be less than $1.5 trillion. The CARES act, passed in the infancy of this emergency, was well over $2 trillion, and we didn’t get a SINGLE mural out of it. A new WPA could be funded with a fraction of the amount we’re already freely willing to give to mega-corporations who have plenty of money in the bank. Funding artists instead not only stimulates the economy and provides for struggling Americans, but also enriches our culture, furthers artistic development, and beautifies our public spaces.

Of course, the current challenges make music and theater productions difficult, but visual art, construction, and writing can largely be done independently. As we understand more about the risk involved with gathering for performance art, we can fund new and innovative ways in which people in those disciplines create. In the meantime, artists can pass along the technique of their trades by teaching (remotely), and a large scale arts education initiative would both save artists and enrich schools. Other countries are already doing this.

If this New WPA is also allowed to install public art in churches, this could be a way to save our struggling houses of worship. Doesn’t your church need some refurbishment? Maybe a renewed exterior, complete with outside art for everyone to enjoy? Or perhaps there is a large blank wall, waiting for some benefactor to fund a fantastic mural on it. Of course, there are problems in using secular funding for sacred art, and people would probably be more amenable to funding church art publicly if churches paid their fair share in taxes (a discussion for a different time). Still, this could be a productive, creative way to support churches, artists, and communities in a way that doesn’t simply throw money at an ever-increasing problem.

Is religious art any good?

The philosophy of art is called aesthetics, and like most philosophy in general people don’t think about it too much. When contemplating art, people either like it or they don’t. For most, art is, like porn, something where “I’ll know it when I see it.”

There’s lots of art in church. The buildings are usually very thoughtfully architected, sometimes in very traditional styles and sometimes in very daring avant-garde looks. There is lots of visual art in most churches, from icons to mosaics or sculpture and tapestry. Of course, music has always played a huge role in religious ceremony, and liturgical dance is highlighted in many traditions. There are often religious plays and writing and storytelling is a large part of the oral tradition. Even the gems crusting a chalice or the ornamentation on a gold cross are artistic.

Is that stuff good? Does being rooted in an epic, enduring mythological tradition make it more weighty? And most important of all, does it make it bad art if the theology in which its creation was based is totally false?

To answer the question, we first have to have a general idea of what makes good art in the first place. Instead of delving into generations of philosophers, we should probably just consider the everyday metrics by which most people judge art: do I like this? People generally think art is good when they enjoy it. Of course “like” can mean lots of things: maybe it delights you or makes you laugh, maybe it entertains you, or maybe you like it because it is challenging or thought-provoking. Maybe you like it because it causes an emotional response in you, even if that emotional response is sadness or anger. Most importantly, we must recognize that personal enjoyment is subjective by nature and probably based a great deal on cultural trends and personal history; we may not like art from other cultures simply because it is foreign, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad art.

Of course, it is possible to recognize art and even beauty in things you don’t particularly like. For instance, I really do not enjoy the artfully crafted still-life paintings of the 17th century Dutch. Vermeer is not fer mee! But that doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize the technical skill involved with creating them and with the possibility that others may find them enjoyable.

So then art is not just about enjoyment and not just about technical facility, but about some combination. Then of course, there is a lot of art that I generally enjoy and in which I can sense great technical ability, but which fails somehow to elevate to “great Art,” whatever that means. For instance, there are a lot of Broadway musicals which I very much enjoy and see great technical skill involved, but which aren’t really transcendent in the way of, say, a classic play. Or I can recognize the mass produced art from Pier One Imports as something that, while well made and enjoyable enough to put on my wall, fails to arise to the level of a great artist.

One thing that philosophers seem to agree on in the field of aesthetics is that there really isn’t one good answer to what art ‘is’ and what makes it ‘good.’ But there seems to be some combination of these three things at play: it is something created by a craftsperson which we experience through our senses, it may evoke some emotional response in us, and it may cause an intellectual response of reflective contemplation about the piece itself or something larger. In the best cases, these three elements combine to create a truly transcendent or sublime experience, but even just one of these elements could be enough to appreciate a piece of art as “good.”

An important benchmark that I use when I think about art is how the piece of art enriches my understanding of the universe in its representation or abstraction of it. For me, art is truly elevated beyond simply entertaining or enjoyable when it tells me something insightful about the world it depicts. Perhaps that’s why I don’t much care for still-life, because the technical goal in that style of painting is a practically photo-realistic portrayal of the most banal, which I find neither delightful nor insightful. Its also perhaps why I like a lot of abstract and non-representational art which others find confusing or stupid: in keeping with the Dutch theme, I love the work of Piet Mondrian, known for his famous squares of primary colors bounded by black lines on white canvas. His work allowed me to consider the basic tools of all painting, distilled down to their most basic constituent parts, and in turn influenced how I view all other painting. Some might see his compositions as stupid or simple, but I find them truly transcendent.

Art with religious themes or created in religious contexts can be judged in the same way as secular art. Sometimes we have a full experience with it or sometimes it doesn’t appeal to us, even if we recognize it as being otherwise “good.” But what does a piece of art tell us if the intention of the artist is to point us towards a belief about the world that we know is theologically bankrupt? Even if the technical craft is good and are moved by the piece, if it is meant to make us contemplate a God we know doesn’t exist then how can we judge it as good? Are the Pieta and The Messiah and The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris all bad art?

It has always seemed to me that great artists’ contributions to religious life betray their true beliefs. This isn’t to say that Michaelangelo or Handel didn’t believe in God, in fact their conception was probably as literal as we expect most people from their eras to be. But the god their work points to isn’t just the literal white-haired guy on the cloud. There’s a grandness, a sense of universality, an all-encompassing vision of the breadth of the universe that makes this type of religious art say much more than just the literal, old-fashioned qualities of God. It’s why that God is such a small part of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel- that definition of God is too small to encompass Michaelangelo’s huge concept of the divine.

Not all art presented in the religious space shares the same theological conclusions as the institution presenting it. In fact, I think most of the best religious artists create art that far outpaces our churches’ limited theological teachings about the divine. That’s the best part about religious art: the subject is by definition the most sacred, most closely held, most magnificent concept of the world by the artist. We may at times be let down by what the artist reveals to us, but I find that most of that type of art falls by the wayside eventually anyway. The enduring classics all seem to have a kernel of the universal in their concept of God, and that’s what makes them good both in or out of church.