The sculpture titled Homeless Jesus was recently installed at the downtown Tampa campus of Hyde Park United Methodist Church. It's an emotionally charged image of Jesus huddled on a bench, shrouded by a blanket, his feet protruding to reveal the holes from the nails that affixed them to the cross during the Crucifixion. As in other countries and U.S. cities, the sculpture has invited praise and controversy but little critical commentary as a work of art.
There's a reason.
The cast bronze sculpture by Timothy Schmalz is technically well done. But like all art past and present that gets little attention from critics, it exists in its time but isn't of its time. Homeless Jesus is a throwback, doing nothing new or interesting aesthetically. There's nothing much to say about it.
I doubt the artist cares. He has stressed several times in interviews that this is a social statement, meant to bring awareness to Jesus' literal connection to homeless people as a homeless person himself.
Art as social statement is a tradition. It has validity but needs more than that intent to be taken seriously as art. So who gets to decide art's merit?
Thinking about that question took me back many decades to my Art History 101 class. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about art, but in that class I realized how little I had seen. One day, the professor flashed onto the screen Donatello's sculpture of Mary Magdalene. It was the first time any of us had seen it, and we all gasped.
The carved wood work showed a haggard woman so different from the usual Western depictions of her as beautiful and pure. We swooned over it, moved by the powerful emotional response it elicited.
Then the professor clicked on a closeup of her hands joined in a gesture of prayer.
"Isn't the sculpture a bit much, a bit too emotional?" he asked. "Wouldn't it be better art if Donatello had just used those eloquent hands?"
And there it was.
For the first time in my life, I was asked to look at art analytically. To judge it based more on intellectual principles than gut reaction. I have never looked at art in the same way, which has been a gain and a loss.
I learned the importance of seeing as much art as possible to provide context and comparison. I want to understand art as a timeline that is connected through the centuries. A contemporary work might look as fresh as the paint with which it's made, but it is part of art history and has some debt to the past, however obscure.
But I can never escape some level of personal bias. I don't believe anyone can. I have no problem saying I don't think a work is important art, but I also have a responsibility to reason through my opinion.
I long ago lost my sense of wondrous discovery when first seeing a work, and my enthusiasm for Penitent Magdalene is not as great as it was 40-plus years ago. I find it "a bit much," but I still consider it important art because it is both beautifully worked and a departure from tradition. Donatello deviated from the accepted portrayal, probably drawing his inspiration from the Mary Magdalene of the Eastern Orthodox church. His contemporaries were astonished by the work's realism, and it no doubt had detractors.
My knee-jerk reaction to art such as Homeless Jesus is to dismiss it because it has nothing to do with what I do. I can't leave it at that, though, because I also believe that the act of creating, for whatever reason and with whatever proficiency, is important. People like me may judge or ignore, but the act itself is its own validation.
Contact Lennie Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.