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Corita

The events of Pope John Paul II’s death and the beginning of Benedict XVI’s papacy are awesome reminders of the Catholic Church’s religious, social and political power. And there is no more appropriate word than awesome when describing the effect of Church architecture, traditional forms of religious art, the rituals, and the focus of doctrine.

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Satellite image of people lined up to view Pope John Paul II’s body, St. Peter’s Basilica, April 5, 2005.

The Church and State’s control over the populace is explored in José Antonio Maravall’s Culture of the Baroque — Analysis of a Historical Structure (University of Minnesota Press, 1986). In it, he describes the baroque method of instilling ‘terror’ and awe in the viewer through the exaggeration of detail, pattern and scale in architectural spaces, paintings and theatrical effects.

Expressionist art, art of the extreme: E.W. Hesse spoke about the “baroque aesthetic of exaggeration and surprise, invented to evoke wonder in the public.” Ultimately, it is a culture of exaggeration and, as such, a violent culture, not because it proposed violence and was dedicated to demonstrating it (although there was also much of this) but because the presentation of the world offered to us by the baroque artist strives to make us feel amazed, moved, by the instances of violent tension that occur and that it holds: landscapes darkened by stormy violence; human figures in “fierce postures”; ruins that tell us of the uncontainable destructive force of time upon the solid work of the human being; and violence grasped in its suffering and tenderness, which grants a greater vibrancy to the baroque creation. All of this can, in part, be mannerism — there is no doubt that the baroque movement inherited many things from mannerist attempts; but now, although gesticulation remains very important, the dramatic element of expression takes precedence, to the extent that expression openly articulates instances of extreme tension in the human experience of things and of other human beings.

This is exactly the effect on me when I first entered St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome. I was both dumbstruck at the immensity of the Church, my Church, and conflicted by the immense display of wealth and naked power — not my Church.

My experience as a young Catholic in the 1970’s was a world apart from Rome. As an exchange student, going to Mass in Italy was an exercise in fear. Italians prayed with what I interpreted as an anxious trepidation; while back home, we were all sunshine and smiles. We attended with ease and humor, sometimes in shorts and sandals, and weren’t shocked to see the occasional guitar or hear the occasional joke. Italy had Michelangelo and Bernini, we had Lorraine Schneider and Lorraine Schneider knockoffs.

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As I recently joined Catholics around the world digging through Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s published works (written as prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, nee the Inquisition), I came across an interesting chapter on Art.

Contemporary culture turned away from the faith and trod another path, so that faith took flight in historicism, the copying of the past, or else attempted compromise or lost itself in resignation and cultural abstinence.

The last of these led to a new iconoclasm, which has frequently been regarded as virtually mandated by the Second Vatican Council. The destruction of images, the first signs of which reach back to the 1920s, eliminated a lot of kitsch and unworthy art, but ultimately it left behind a void, the wretchedness of which we are now experiencing in a truly acute way.

Where do we go from here? Today we are experiencing not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions.

The crisis of art for its part is a symptom of the crisis of man’s very existence. The immense growth in man’s mastery of the material world has left him blind to the questions of life’s meaning that transcend the material world. We might almost call it a blindness of the spirit. The questions of how we ought to live, how we can overcome death, whether existence has a purpose and what it is — to all these questions there is no longer a common answer.

Positivism, formulated in the name of scientific seriousness, narrows the horizon to what is verifiable, to what can be proved by experiment; it renders the world opaque.

True, it still contains mathematics, but the logos that is the presupposition of the mathematics and its applicability is no longer evident. Thus our world of images no longer surpasses the bounds of sense and appearance, and the flood of images that surrounds us really means the end of the image.

If something cannot be photographed, it cannot be seen. In this situation, the art of the icon, sacred art, depending as it does on a wider kind of seeing, becomes impossible.

What is more, art itself, which in impressionism and expressionism explored the extreme possibilities of the sense of sight, becomes literally object-less. Art turns into experimenting with self-created worlds, empty “creativity”, which no longer perceives the Creator Spiritus, the Creator Spirit. It attempts to take his place, and yet, in so doing, it manages to produce only what is arbitrary and vacuous, bringing home to man the absurdity of his role as creator.

Again we must ask: Where do we go from here? Let us try to sum up what we have said so far and to identify the fundamental principles of an art ordered to divine worship.

1. The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. There will always be ups and downs in the history of iconography, upsurge and decline, and therefore periods when images are somewhat sparse. But they can never be totally lacking. Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.

2. Sacred art finds its subjects in the images of salvation history, beginning with creation and continuing all the way from the first day to the eighth day, the day of the resurrection and Second Coming, in which the line of human history will come full circle. The images of biblical history have pride of place in sacred art, but the latter also includes the history of the saints, which is an unfolding of the history of Jesus Christ, the fruit borne throughout history by the dead grain wheat. “You are not struggling against icons”, said Saint John Damascene to the iconoclastic emperor Leo III, “but against the saints”. In the same period, and with the same view in mind, Pope Saint Gregory III instituted in Rome the feast of All Saints (cf. Evdokimov, p. 164).

3. The images of the history of God in relation to man do not merely illustrate the succession of past events but display the inner unity of God’s action. In this way they have a reference to the sacraments, above all, to Baptism and the Eucharist, and, in pointing to the sacraments, they are contained within them. Images thus point to a presence; they are essentially connected with what happens in the Liturgy. Now history becomes sacrament in Christ, who is the source of the Sacraments. Therefore, the icon of Christ is the center of sacred iconography. The center of the icon of Christ is the Paschal Mystery: Christ is presented as the Crucified, the risen Lord, the One who will come again and who here and now, though hidden, reigns over all.

Every image of Christ must contain these three essential aspects of the mystery of Christ and, in this sense, must be an image of Easter. At the same time, it goes without saying that different emphases are possible. The image may give more prominence to the Cross, the Passion, and in the Passion to the anguish of our own life today, or again it may bring the Resurrection or the Second Coming to the fore. But whatever happens, one aspect can never be completely isolated from another, and in the different emphases the Paschal Mystery as a whole must be plainly evident. An image of the Crucifixion no longer transparent to Easter would be just as deficient as an Easter image forgetful of the wounds and the suffering of the present moment. And, centered as it is on the Paschal Mystery, the image of Christ is always an icon of the Eucharist, that is it points to the sacramental presence of the Easter Mystery.

Pope Benedict XVI’s conservative view of Art presents a sharp contrast to someone I’ve been thinking about recently: Sister Mary Corita Kent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

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Sister Corita was the most famous nun of the 1960’s and one of the most famous graphic artists in the country, yet she is rarely mentioned in the grand history of graphic design.

Born 1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa; Frances Kent moved with her family to Vancouver in 1920 and Los Angeles in 1922. She entered the Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1936 as Sister Mary Corita, attended Immaculate Heart College, and received her Master’s Degree in Art History from the University of Southern California in 1951. From 1946 to 1968, Sister Corita taught art at Immaculate Heart College; often using unconventional methods: looking a work without blinking, staging happenings, etc. As the chair of the Art Department, the known and unknown visited her classes: Buckminster Fuller, Charles and Ray Eames, Ben Shahn, and Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

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Sister Corita had been “nuts about words and their shape since [she] was very young” and during the mid-1960’s her work shifted from silkscreened, liturgical images reminiscent of Ben Shahn to Pop Art appropriations of consumer-product typography and slogans. In her view, Wonder Bread corresponded with the Eucharist, Joy detergent was a sacrament, and SafeWay was a metaphor for the Faith.

She felt there was much to learn from television advertisements. In a 1967 Christian renewal symposium she postulated if the medium is the message; then perhaps if Christ lived today, his sermons would take the form of commercials. All the poetry of a painting is diminished by those who do not see it, so to care about communication is to care about form.

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It’s striking how Sister Corita’s work addressed the marketplace. Commodity critique is such a stereotypical sighting in both the art world and design media, that when seeing work as earnest and uncynical as hers; the first impulse is to dismiss it as not serious. On the surface, there is a great camaraderie with Outsider Artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan or Howard Finster— yet she wasn’t untrained.

And she wasn’t removed from the world, either. The Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary was a less conservative order that, in the post-Second Vatican Council era, began to reevaluate their relationship with society — for example, publicly speaking out against the Vietnam War. Their proposals were famously opposed by archbishop James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, who issued an ultimatum. They could either be nice, quiet nuns (in habits, giving daily communion to the community, and sticking only to teaching) or petition for dispensation from their vows. In 1970, ninety percent chose to leave the Church and reorganize as a nonprofit community dedicated to peace and social justice.

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I am not brave enough to not pay my income tax and risk going to jail. But I can say rather freely what I want to say with my art. — Corita

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Corita stopped wearing the habit in 1967, eventually left the Order, and moved to Boston in 1970. She began accepting commissions and client work: ads for Westinghouse, book covers, and a stamp in 1985 — which over 700 million were sold, possibly the most popular US stamp. Her decorated gas tank on the Southeast Expressway is a Boston landmark.

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Corita died of cancer in 1986, leaving her estate to the Immaculate Heart Community. In the ensuing years, as society and the Church have become more conservative and less tolerant of dissent, her contemporaries in appropriation (Peter Max, Andy Warhol…) have retained their fame while hers has waned. The more freaky Jesus freaks like Jerry Falwell get all the press and the most famous nun of the 1960’s was played by Gidget. Still, Corita’s work remains fresh after 30 years; comparing favorably to, for example, David Carson and Ivan Chermayeff.

It’s been a couple decades since I was a practicing Catholic, but I still fondly regard the posters and appliqué hangings found in the Church at that time. Their sincerity and un-fussiness remain worthy examples for designers. Their lack of condescension and simple humanity, examples for religious leaders everywhere.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. — Proverbs
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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2315 FILED UNDER Designer/Design Firm Profile
PUBLISHED ON May.19.2005 BY m. kingsley
WITH 24 COMMENTS
Comments
Darrel’s comment is:

Wow. Wonderful post.

On May.19.2005 at 10:04 AM
Robynne Raye’s comment is:

Cool. I've been a fan of Sister Corita for many years and often site her as an influence on my work. Her silk screened posters rule.

This post should be published in one of the design mags.

On May.19.2005 at 10:27 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

One of the most amazing things about Sister Corita was how extensive her influence was. She was the de facto design director of the Vatican II era in 1960s America.

Going to St. Theresa's in Garfield Heights, Ohio, we were surrounded with homemade wallhangings, posters and flyers, all made of brightly colored papers and fabrics with simple shapes and vigorous hand lettered messages. It was so pervasive that I was astonished to discover much later that it was all essentially extrapolated from a single nun in California.

It's still pretty easy to get Corita's books from secondhand stores. They are a real high water mark in the history of the popularization of design, not to mention the golden age of American Catholicism.

On May.19.2005 at 11:37 AM
gregor’s comment is:

Very, very excellent post. In light of all the discussions on social responsibility here on SU and elsewhere, this is a refreshing look at that.

While I've always loved Corita's design, I know very little about her in the sense of her transitions from working within catholic institutions and her eventual leaving of the order and shifting into design for the private sector.

Her designs, including those for the private sector, have always been filled with that certain catholic agape combined with catholic and non-catholic social activism, and I'm wondering about what anyone may know about the personal and philosophical transitions she went through? There must be some documentation on this, I'm guessing, either in magazine, anthologies, or monographs.

Michael: do the books you've found in 2nd hand stores speak to this at all?

On May.19.2005 at 01:10 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

Gregor, there is a videotape biography available.

While still teaching in Los Angeles, she devoted the month of August to her work — producing hundreds of prints, around the clock. This was made possible by chronic insomnia and I've read in a few places that her work splurges were followed by deep depression.

Her stated reason for leaving the Order was to spend time entirely on art.

On May.19.2005 at 01:29 PM
gregor’s comment is:

Mark: much obliged - on order now! Not only for me, but even moreso for my son who has decided to follow in his dad's footsteps...

On May.19.2005 at 01:51 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Her stated reason for leaving the Order was to spend time entirely on art.

It's settled, then. The best thing for the planet is more art and less religion!

On May.19.2005 at 02:25 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Gregor,

The books Mark pictures in the post are mostly poetic and inspirational visual essays. If you can find Footnotes and Headlines, grab it: it's gorgeous.

Corita also co-wrote a book on creativity called Learning By Heart which as I recall is mostly a pretty straightforward textbook inside.

Finally, Eye 35 (Spring 2000) had an article on Corita called "All you need is love: pictures, words and worship" by Julie Ault and Martin Beck. That was where I renewed my love affair with her work.

On May.19.2005 at 09:49 PM
freelix’s comment is:

great post, kingsley.

My mother, a painter and once a devout "catholic" has recently strayed to the loonier side- working full time for billy graham evangelical in NC. i'm going to the big convention here in NYC this summer as a reporter to verify my worst fears.

pls pray. hard.

On May.19.2005 at 09:51 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Interesting topic, M.

Throughout history -- and certainly not just Christian history -- faith and the image have made uneasy bedfellows...inspiring profound opulence on one extreme and anti-idol backlash on the other.

I hadn’t been aware of Corita's early work, but her use of a lively, common visual language to promote deeper meanings is kind of a visual parallel to how Jesus used parables.

Thanks for showing her work.

On May.20.2005 at 08:41 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

faith and the image have made uneasy bedfellows

Perhaps more accurately, RELIGION and the image...

I did find a few small spreads of her book:

Definitely looks like a book worth hunting down.

On May.20.2005 at 12:29 PM
gregor’s comment is:

for those of us who would like copies, here's the way:

Abe search results for footnotes and headlines

On May.20.2005 at 01:19 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Perhaps more accurately, RELIGION and the image...

Actually, I had considered using the word “religion” instead of “faith”. “Religion” is probably the better word.

Fanatics of all religious make-up over the ages have destroyed art based on a legalistic religious ideology. In these cases, I’d use the term “religion”.

On the other hand, dating back to the Hebrew prophets cleansing idols from the Temple, there are instances where the image had become an idol...a material thing that was taking the place of God’s presence in people’s lives. I’d classify these actions based more on faith than religion. The action, however, was less focused on the art object, per se, than on the detrimental affect that the object was representing in a person’s spiritual life.

OK, that’s probably enough theology for a design thread. The topic of when an image becomes an idol would make for an interesting discussion, though.

On May.20.2005 at 01:19 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

when an image becomes an idol would make for an interesting discussion

Oh, that's an easy one...when it gets published in the CA annual. ;o)

On May.20.2005 at 02:32 PM
Randal’s comment is:

When I think about that era, the other designer who really comes to mind (in the same breath of memory - so to speak) is Norman Laliberte.

I was just trying to refresh my memory of his work, and realized that there is almost nothing on him on the web. I was wondering if anyone had more info on his graphics works? It looks like he worked since the seventies or so mainly as an artist.

On May.20.2005 at 05:27 PM
gregor’s comment is:

Norman Laliberte

he worked both as artist and illustrator. do a search on abe.com and you'll find both books illustrated by him as well as books by him. among others he illustrated for W.W. Norton & Co - covers for authors such as Henry Miller.

On May.20.2005 at 05:41 PM
John Hartwell’s comment is:

I enjoyed this post. But I get the distinct feeling that there's a cheap shot by a disaffected Catholic towards his former church underneath the art history lesson.

Art, in any form, is communication. To label Cardinal Ratzinger's exposition on the nature of art "conservative", with the underlying connotation of "bad", is short-sighted. To call someone with whom one may not share a theological position a "Jesus Freak" is juvenile.

I think it fair to say that Cardinal Ratzinger gives a pretty exhaustive creative brief. He has a message to communicate. There are parameters to the scope of the message. There is a hierarchy of importance in symbols and visual metaphors. There is an appropriate tone one must strike. There must be meaning and intention. He spells it out, pretty clearly. One might stretch the metaphor here to say that the Cardinal has laid out the style guide for the Catholic Church. In truth, is there much difference between this and working for Coca-Cola? Home Depot? IBM?

If one does not like the message of the Catholic church, one is free to find a message more to one's liking. Those who do not find the Catholic church to their liking may find comfort in the Episcopal Church. Disaffected Episcopalians may find solace in the Methodist church, or go the other direction to the Catholic church. Or, like so many people, one may chuck mainstream religion altogether and hook up with a mega-nondenominational. In any case, at it's most basic (or most base), the church is like any other institution fighting for your attention, struggling to get you to listen to it's message. Like Coke and Pepsi, you have a choice.

"Conservative" is not Bad and "Liberal" (or "Progressive") is not Good. In art and communication, just like politics, they are opposing points of view competing in the arena of ideas. Is the church perfect? No. Are there those for whom the Cardinal's message resonates and has meaning? Yes. To marginalize or denigrate that point of view is unfortunate.

On May.24.2005 at 11:20 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

John, I'm glad you "enjoyed" the post. It seems you and I disagree about what consists of a cheap shot. I've always understood it to mean an attack on the defenseless, and I don't know if you were watching television in April; but any organization that can disrupt the schedules of political and religious leaders across the world, and make them come to Rome... Well, I certainly wouldn't call that defenseless. And they certainly did all right during the Crusades.

On the other hand, I'll generally agree to your description of me as disaffected. The word describes those who no longer support or have satisfaction with an organization or idea, and connotes a rebellious attitude against authority — in my case, Pope Benedict XVI.

Written while still Cardinal Ratzinger, his essay on Art and Liturgy was perhaps an exhaustive creative brief; but I took issue with his description of, what he calls, post-Vatican Two "iconoclasm". This coincided with Modernism in the visual arts, a gradual search for the essence of imagery which was (superficially) manifest through visual simplification and abstraction, and a trend away from representation. I'm convinced that Cardinal Ratzinger was stepping on slippery ground when he wrote:

The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. There will always be ups and downs in the history of iconography, upsurge and decline, and therefore periods when images are somewhat sparse. But they can never be totally lacking. Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.

I don't know about you, but my Catholic education never mentioned Christ saying anything about how you should decorate. And wasn't there something in the Commandments about idols?

Now, on to the issue of what a Jesus Freak is...

A Jesus Freak was a member of the Jesus Movement, a Christian variation of Hippies which appeared in the 1960s. The phrase, depending on context, has had a history of being either derogatory or colorfully descriptive. But like the word "queer" it currently has been re-re-appropriated by contemporary Christians. (Here are three websites; presented as examples.)

In the specific case of my usage, I was aiming for (in this order):

1. Colorful alliteration

2. An item in a list to describe how things have changed since Corita's influence

3. A description of how more extreme voices have captured much media exposure

3. A quick way to convey my feelings about Jerry Falwell

If the fourth meaning insulted you; that's your opinion. Perhaps you'll remember these comments made by Rev. Falwell on the 700 club:

And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

My life is full of loved ones — gay and straight, male and female, parents and feminists — and when someone like Falwell makes insulting, stupid comments, my disaffection manifests. J'accuse!

Since when does religion deserve a pass from criticism? I've offered a good amount of background and linkage in support of my position. I've shown one method of political control (in the Baroque) which contrasts with Corita's politically-charged work, and I've underscored the difference, as I experienced it, between Old-World and 1960's American Catholic imagery. So where was that cheap shot again?

I found your comparison of the Church to Coke and Pepsi — struggling for consumer attention — somewhat interesting. Following that meme into brand-speak may help explain why people are leaving the Church. I experienced a sharp "brand failure" at my father's funeral service which, ironically, was held at the Benedictine convent where my aunt is a Sister. When the priest asked me what I did, to which my response included "I design record covers", he forgot all sense of my personal loss and began to attack what I did — without asking what kind of covers or how I worked. I said "record covers" and he immediately thought "sinner".

Now THAT, my friend, is being marginalized.

On May.25.2005 at 02:52 AM
Christy’s comment is:

On the other hand, dating back to the Hebrew prophets cleansing idols from the Temple, there are instances where the image had become an idol...a material thing that was taking the place of God’s presence in people’s lives. I’d classify these actions based more on faith than religion. The action, however, was less focused on the art object, per se, than on the detrimental affect that the object was representing in a person’s spiritual life.

I would just like to point out that separation of 'God' from the physical world, indeed the idea of a single god as opposed to many, is a Westernized and relatively recent viewpoint. Prior to the Jewish faith there were very few cultures who would have been able to grasp the concept of a disembodied god. The same would apply to the concept of a 'detrimental effect' that the object represents in a person's spiritual life.

Great article, by the way.

On May.29.2005 at 03:30 AM
marc english ’s comment is:

what a coincidence. just today i was sending a local planning commitee here in austin my two cents about a water tower and what happens to it. i referenced the gas tank in boston on rt.95 that has been a landmark since corita designed it. and her name slipped my mind. when i got your e-mail post about being back in action and saw 'corita' listed, i thought "it's gotta be!". thanx.

On Jun.02.2005 at 08:30 PM
gregor’s comment is:

Michael:

Footnotes and Headlines arrived in today's mail. Great book: thanks for the lead!

On Jun.03.2005 at 12:47 AM
Jorge Lopez’s comment is:

Wow I like your position about Catholic Church in nowdays society. I was raised catholic, yet today I prefer consider myself Agnostic. Oh I am working for Corita Art Center, and I was checking the logs on our site and we found your link. Thanks

On Jul.21.2005 at 06:56 PM
Peggy H.’s comment is:

Re: comments from M. Kingsley. Just to set history straight--of the Immaculate Heart nuns in Hollywood, when the 90% left the order, they did just that---they didn't necessarily leave the Church. As far as I know, most remained practising Catholics. Academic year 1951-1952, I was a boarding student at IH College; Sister Corita was one of our "house mothers" and what a treat that was! As head of the Art Dept. she brought Charles Eames to meet the resident students and show his films; we were taken on a field trip to his and his wife's home & studio in Pacific Pallisades. For many years, I have had a print of Corita's in my entry hall--"to believe in God is to know that all the rules are fair and there will be wonderful surprises" (text by ugo betti)colors by Corita.
I'm saddened that you feel "marginalized" by a priest's comments which made you think he was "thinking sinner." When one is saying farewell to a loved one, one needs hugs not unthinking comments.
Peace!

On Jul.06.2008 at 05:45 PM
L Francis’s comment is:

I believe that I may have a painting my Sister Corita. It is a painting with letters that I make out to be " Dreamingly leaves sea-locked in a gold after-glow are trembling. That is all I can make out. Can you help me with this?

On Jan.10.2009 at 06:09 PM