Artistic Patrimony

April 28, 2014

“James A. Flaherty” (1903) by Thomas Eakins

“James A. Flaherty” (1903) by Thomas Eakins

It is a commonplace, almost a reflex, in criticizing institutions like the Vatican, to ask why they don’t sell their artistic treasures and give the money to the poor. That would certainly seem to answer a direct suggestion of the church’s founder to “go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). On the other hand, I once read an economist’s calculation of how many seconds of relief the world’s poor would gain from selling off all the art in the Vatican museums. It wasn’t much. Without devaluing even the smallest respite to such suffering, an enlightened view of human nature might recognize other kinds of hunger apart of the merely nutritional — hunger that art has its own way of satisfying with a nurture beyond the physical. Besides which, an institution like the Vatican Museums (and other great ones) deliver value to great sections of humanity that the sale of the works to a few billionaires would hardly effect.

It may surprise those well-meaning critics that these issues are at least as controversial in the church as they are among the church’s detractors. A recent article on a significant blog, frequented largely by Catholics of a reflective, culturally-aware kind, has taken up a concrete instance in which an American archdiocese found itself in possession of minor works by a historically significant American artist at the same time that they wanted money to renovate some buildings. The works, by a young Thomas Eakins, documented relationships that he formed as a non-Catholic seeking solace in conversations with clerics at the Philadelphia seminary. He gave the portraits of these men as gifts reflecting his gratitude. While these are not works of art recognized as having significance for the whole of humanity, they instance a stage in a significant painter’s journey through grief, consolation, faith, and doubt. The comments to the article (whose contents will surprise many — among whom I include myself — in the extent to which the hierarchical church has thought through the issues occasioned by artistic possessions) show a vast panorama of thoughtful responses to the problem.

Eakins was not just any local painter. His most famous painting is important in the history of the popular understanding of surgery. And one of his paintings,

Eakins’ only religious work, a “Crucifixion” painted in 1880, could not attract a buyer because it was deemed “too graphic.” It was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the Eakins family in 1929.

And, as an illustration of how many considerations may come into such a discussion, a British commenter even enters charges of homoeroticism in Eakins’s art as a consideration.

While, in the reaches of eternity, we may well feel that all the great art in the history of what used to be called Christendom is of less value than the peace of mind of a single abused child; and while we should not over-value what “moth and dust doth corrode and thieves break in and steal,” art is not just a piece of merchandise. It records and contains pieces of the human spirit, which is also a legitimate concern of the church.