I began just now to read one of my assigned iconography books, The Meaning of Icons. At three pages in, two of which were introduction and not even by the actual writers, I cannot, of course, say much about the book as yet, but have already happened upon something rather alarming, or at least which makes me more cautious than I would otherwise be — a sharp division between sacred and profane. Icons, it is asserted, are special, sacred, and therefore art criticism doesn’t apply to them. Everything else is profane, is only an expression of “the artist’s genius,” and so fails to show spiritual reality, as icons do. And I do not like this. Not at all.
Part of this is my own fault — when the forward writer first brings up the two categories, for icon I think of a kind of static generalization representing someone holy. When he implies other art I think of golden sunlight glowing on mountains and grass. Actual sunlight on actual mountains and grass — not paintings of this. That is, as I say, my own fault. I’m willing to admit, of course, that painted sunlight is unlikely to ever live up to the clarity and brilliance of actual sunlight, especially, but I do maintain that if it ever did (or even if it tried very hard to do so), it would not be profane. It wouldn’t even necessarily be secular. Even a well-meant portrait should hardly be profane, since humans are also in the image of God — even humans as they look now, and not as we imagine them to look in Heaven.
You will way that I have misunderstood the author’s meaning of “profane.” In a sense, sure. They simply mean “everything that is not sacred.” I would argue — and if I understand Fr Schmemann, or even Fr John B, I got this from them — that really everything worth having should be sacred; the telos of everything is in revealing the glory of God, and being filled by “the Spirit of Truth” — in becoming sacred. To be sure, icons may participate in that in a special way. By all accounts they do. But we can’t simply surrender the majority of all art (in this case; this applies to other areas of life as well) to “profanity” simply because it isn’t in one particular tradition depicting known and canonized saints. Not that we should put it in our churches, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no place at all for art that isn’t specially concerned with worship. And there isn’t any place for that which is genuinely profane — which altogether fails to reflect grace.