Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Importance of Image in the Domestic Church

This is the second part of a series that considers what is at stake in the manner in which we decorate our homes.  You can see Part I here: A Modern Dichotomy: Separating Beauty from Life

Part II. The Problem with Ikea

Clearly people do care about the aesthetics of their homes.  They consider feng shui, interior decorating magazines etc.  For this reason it would seem that my claim in Part I that people consider the "visual" to be superficial and unimportant, or that beauty is often kept out of the home, is overstated or simply inaccurate.  

Black Square, Malevich, 1915
However, it is characteristic for modernity to have a reductionistic approach to the visual.  Although much of contemporary architecture and decoration is visually stimulating, it always lacks at least one element that has always been featured in Western Art: the icon.  This is because Modernity is fundamentally iconoclastic.  The focus of architecture and interior design has been to generate specific types of space, never to meditate on content: the modern room is content-free. This is not an accidental phenomenon.  

Take for instance the art of the famous Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, most famously, his "Black Square" of 1915.  In the exhibit that featured this painting, Malevich placed it in the corner of the room, the traditional location of the familial icon.  The importance of this location was certainly recognized by Malevich.  He said, "The image is the final path, the image is something that bares the exit, by means of the image the further path is interrupted, everything which has paths converges toward the image, all paths lead to the image particularly if it is holy, hence I see the justification and true significance of the Orthodox corner in which the image stands, the holy image as opposed to all other images and representations of sinners... The corner symbolizes that there is no other path to perfection except for the path into the corner."  Yet what image replaced the Theotokos?  A painting that was intentionally and absolutely revolutionary.  Malevich expresses the meaning behind this new anti-icon: "The contours of the objective world fade more and more and so it goes, step by step, until the world 'everything we loved and by which we have lived' becomes lost to sight.  But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything.  But a blissful sense of liberating nonobjectivity drew me forth into the desert where nothing is real except feeling...and so feeling became the substance of my life."  So then, what is left?  The void is present, must be present for the new god, that is ourselves and our own subjectivity, within which there is no room for content.  "I search for God, I search within myself for myself. God is all-seeing, all-knowing, all powerful a future perfection of intuition as the oeumenical world of supra-reason. I search for God, I search for my face, I have already drawn its outline and I strive to incarnate myself," says Malevich.

Hm, thats funny...a Malevich influence?
So who cares what some crazy Russian painted or thought about in the early part of the Twentieth Century?  The problem is that we live in a world which has been constructed just like the Black Square:  we generate space, spaces where our subjectivity reigns as god.  Think of the architecture and interior design which is most cutting edge.  It is not simply a new idea, or a neat look.  It is saturated with revolution, revolution against the incarnational aspect of the authentic image.  It is designed to allow us to incarnate ourselves in any form we wish.  The void has itself become an idol, as it promises to be the grounds of possibility for our own deification.  

The true black square was the TV screen all along!
Once again, perhaps this does not seem to speak to you or me.  After all, we are hardly avant-garde.  Yet so many nice, young, perfectly Catholic folks are certainly attracted to these trends.  This is not to say that Catholicism should be backward.  It can converse with modern impulses.  And luckily we have a wonderful corporation, Ikea, which mass produces this image, in a conveniently less pretentious appearance to our prudish sensibilities.  But I wonder if what is going on is not just as radical as Malevich (albeit in a more palatably bourgeois strain)?

We spend so much time worrying  about grand-scale social and political issues as Catholics.    But is it possible that we are blind to something that is to the peripheral, that is less evident than any of these issues?  Maybe it is peripheral because it is unimportant, but perhaps we should consider the possibility that it is not a thematic object of our concern because it acts as the unspoken substructure of the world in which we live.  What if the truth was that, after a long day of working in the world, fighting the good fight, reciting apologetics around the water dispenser, we were coming home to a space with an underlying structure that belonged to the enemy?

Wait!  That looks like my living room!

Or maybe it is just decoration, and who cares?  After all, it doesn't really matter, it's just a matter of taste.  If you think it looks good, who am I to say it is dangerous?  I must be some kind of radical to think that any of this actually matters.

If this is your attitude, then I suppose I would refer you to Part 1.  To my mind, this way of thinking is nearly identical to the belief that it does not matter whether or not we have beautiful churches.  We must be more attentive to the domestic church. It too is a house of God.

1 comment:

  1. I like two things about this post the most: the part about Malevich and the idea that the home is also a house of God.

    It seems to me that Malevich would be disgusted with Ikea; I wonder if he would replace the icon. I have a hard time imagining Malevich being satisfied with what ended up becoming of his black square.

    Perhaps Alexey Steele was right, and maybe he was wrong, but I want to think that Malevich would be one of us and pull a revolver and shoot Ikea.