By David Tulis
Sculptor Cessna Decosimo’s show “Sacred and Profane” drew a dense crowd of admirers and friends in the intensely lit hall of Tanner-Hill Gallery in Chattanooga that held Friday an opening that included a mural he slashed into existence a day before.
For all his contemporaneity, Mr. Decosimo is an artist whose claim upon the sculpted shape and the two-dimensional image is part of a larger cultural battle that pits what visionary sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin says in a 1941 book is a struggle between sensate and ideational culture. Mr. Decosimo, whose studio space downtown near the Choo-Choo shares a building with the trendy Camp House coffee shop, asserts his claims in the classical form, which is in evidence in many of the works displayed in “Sacred and Profane.”
The classical artist, like the Christian journalist, files a minority report. In Mr. Decosimo’s field, the majority report is the subjective expression of the artist, highly sensual, pertaining to an eternal present. “Sensate art lives and moves entirely in the empirical world of the senses. Empirical paysage [landscapes], empirical man, empirical events and ventures, empirical portraiture, such are its topics,” says Sorokin. “Its aim is to afford a refined sensual enjoyment: relaxation, excitation of tired nerves, amusement, pleasure, entertainment. For this reason it must be sensational, passionate, pathetic, sensual, and incessantly new” (The Crisis of Our Age, p. 32).
Sorokin argues that the West is in the decadent phase of a three part historic cultural development that has been reflected in the declines of several civilizations since the beginning of recorded history. The phases are (1) ideational, (2) idealistic and (3) sensate.
Mr. Decosimo represents, often self-consciously, the salt that saves from spoilation and vice. His tradition and his teaching arise from the older ideational worldview that has been overtaken by the various developments of the sensate. The older schema is one that Sorokin identifies with ideational culture, that reality is spiritual — Christianity, at least in part.
Decosimo’s defense of skill, beauty
As in any battle, confusion abounds as forces struggle for supremacy amid surprise, smoke, misdirected orders and flanking maneuvers. Mr. Decosimo’s work inhabits the sensate sphere by focusing on the voluptuous with “Ecstasy of the Sacred Heart,” a work depicting sexual passion. The nude is part of the sculptor’s portfolio. The “sacred and profane” theme acknowledges the divide Sorokin discerns. When I ask Mr. Decosimo about how the name came to him, he says it was a matter of whim, and that affirmations of it have been frequent right up to opening day at Tanner-Hill.
While the artist’s fancy and explorations take advantage of all the liberty due him, he teaches according to classical principles learned during study in Studio Cecil-Graves and the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. The classical idea as I understand it envisions the artist as exercising great skill, with perfectly interpreted images of what his eye is given in creation. The artist sees and accurately portrays and interprets what God has created. In this sense, the classical ideal upholds a spiritual — even religious — conception of art. ‡‡
In contrast, the modern idea relies much less on skill and an “objective” interpretation of a scene or body. It is based upon a subjective interpretation. The modern artist cares little for beauty, denies a standard external to man and doesn’t convey meaning beyond that of his own emotional or psychological state. In many ways his work reflects God’s role as creator. But he consciously cuts off any connection between himself and the creator. His glory is his autonomy, not his theonomy, if you will.
This conflict between what I would call a biblical and a humanistic worldview is explored by a variety of authors apart from Sorokin, from Francis Schaeffer in How Shall We Then Live? and other works, Gene Edward Veith Jr. in State of the Arts and Postmodern Times and Modern Fascism, and the works of Hans Rookmaaker, a contemporary of Schaeffer. The barbarian tide against the classical tradition a la Picasso turned the world’s most famous living historian, Paul Johnson (author of Modern Times and Art: A New History), from a career as artist to that of writer.
Sorokin’s theory of ideational culture
Many people suppose that the gospel takes no position on the arts, or has no influence on the direction of art. But Sorokin assures us that it does. He was the chairman of the sociology department of Harvard University when his book The Crisis of our Age appeared. When the work was reprinted in the 1990s, nothing in it was revised, according to Harold O.J. Brown in his book, The Sensate Culture (which I am in the middle of reading).
Mr. Decosimo is remarkable because he is a Christian. His mother, Rachel, is known to many Chattanoogans through her regular letters to the editor in the Times Free Press where she discusses God’s grace and his sovereignty (she is a Presbyterian). Mr. Decosimo’s father, Joe, father of their nine children and founder of the Decosimo accounting firm in Chattanooga, is a Roman Catholic. For much of his life the artist has experienced the clashes inevitable between the two dogmas. Mr. Decosimo was married for many years to Elizabeth Rogers, from whom he recently divorced — a painter. He has no children, but his digs are frequented by many nieces and nephews.
Amid the variety of work the sculptor has produced in his native city — from the stern police memorial near the Hamilton County courts complex, the man and his peeing pooch in front of the Tallan building, the Broad Street wrecker museum’s gripping depiction of a rescue — Mr. Decosimo is conscious of the flesh and its temptations (what with “muses,” nude models, the seventh sense palpating sensuously in the world of the fingertips, the power of visual violence).
Our conversation Friday in his studio is scattered and jerky. He is making final preparation of a snake coiled around a crucifix affixed to a Baptist church sign. I recognize instantly that my questions for Mr. Decosimo are too ruminative amid the hubbub, his gangly helper departing, his pretty agent arriving. My visit on opening day is at his suggestion, as he has been in a grandiose mood for a long chat; yet the hectorings of gallery owner Angela Usrey force him to postpone our interview. But I bring up Sorokin’s scheme anyhow, and Mr. Decosimo, fretting over his flapping clay snake, declares, “Grace, grace, grace, grace!”
He is aware that God is in charge, and that he, a creator with a derivative duty, is accountable to One other than himself.
Ideational art is gone, but sensate art dominates
Mr. Decosimo’s work at Tanner-Hill is diverse as to the sourcing in either ideational or sensate culture; he is delighting in explorations as a man and an artist. But it may be helpful to say more about ideational culture, which Sorokin says began losing ground in the 12th century. The system that replaced it, sensate, is disintegrating after four centuries of dominance, he asserts. Hence the crisis.
Art in the 10th century was 94.7 percent religious and 5.3 percent secular. In the 20th century it was 3.9 percent religious and 96.1 secular. In that 1,000 years, the interest of art shifted away from depicting and embodying the idea of religion (p. 47).
The premise of ideational culture is “that the true reality-value is God. Therefore the topic of ideational art is the supersensory kingdom of God. Its ‘heroes’ are God and other deities, angels, saints and sinners,and the soul, as well as the mysteries of Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, Crucifixion, and Salvation, and other transcendental events. *** Its objective is not to amuse, entertain, or give pleasure, but to bring the believer into a closer union with God. It is part of a religion and functions as a religious service. It is a communion of the human soul with itself and with God. As such it is sacred in its content and form. *** Its emotional tone is pious, ethereal, and ascetic” (p. 31).
Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our age[;] the Cultural and Social Outlook (New York: E..P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1946) 338 pp.
Harold O.J. Brown, The Sensate Culture[:] Western Civilization Between Chaos and Transformation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996). 251 pp. This book is an excellent introduction to Sorokin that I am thoroughly enjoying.