The windows you look at instead of through
The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion. - Walter Benjamin
A sudden change of light creates an unexpected shock, followed by a few moments of blindness. An unforeseen barrier which separates the nave of the church with a chapel next to it has been crossed and a vivid violent Red permeates my vision. The small room is flooded with a scarlet light that cuts through the eyes and makes it hard to focus on my surroundings. I immediately get a migraine as I start my search for the art piece located in this part of the exhibition. There is no painting or sculpture to look at, and the oppressive light is the art piece. As a cloud outside moves and the sun shines through the stained glass window, the light becomes even more saturated. With everything around me bathed in bright crimson I feel as if I have been transported into hell. Since I am currently inside a church chapel, I find this to be an amusing effect. I admire the simplicity of the piece. My senses get overwhelmed, my migraine gets stronger and I have to leave. A few months later I can not recall a single work of art I've seen inside the exhibition except for this red window. It’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the myriad of art I’ve seen in Amsterdam. I can not stop thinking (and talking) about the tiny red chapel. I’m not sure why. There’s not that much to say about it. I can not wait to go there again.
My impressions of hell are wrong - despite what I felt, the installation does not aim to allude to anything infernal. The room is a remnant of a 2018 exhibition that turned Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk into a darkroom. Back then, all of the church was filled with red light to comment upon its placement right in the middle of the Red Light district. The oldest church in Amsterdam that now mainly serves as a place for contemporary art and concerts (and the occasional sermon) was originally Catholic, but the Protestant remaking in the 16th century covered up or destroyed most of the art on the walls, ceilings or windows. The 2018 exhibition looked back on this period of history which erased the intricate craftwork from the churches’ windows to suit the more simplistic design of Protestant churches. This move has sparked great controversy, to the point of death threats being sent to the exhibition curators and a lengthy legal battle over the right to replace the window glass in the oldest standing church in Amsterdam. People see it as an unwelcome change, tampering with the city’s heritage. It is one thing to place art exhibits into the building, another to disrupt its architecture. However, the old window is not that old - dating only to 1959. The red stained-glass exhibit has also opened up a space that was closed before to the public. Still, it makes a lot of people furious. It seems that an unremarkable window no one ever thought about (or can even see) is preferable to a work of art with a message attached. Change is fine; as long as it happened a long time ago.
Contemporary and modern art remain to be highly divisive topics with the question of what is art? and how much allowance it gets in comparison with traditional art being a subject almost everyone has a strong opinion on. I find the question of what is art? boring, arbitrary and usually a stand in for is this art valuable?, so I’d rather focus on how we determine the value of an art piece. Is the Oude Kerk’s red stained-glass window a more valuable piece because it managed to spark such strong emotions? Is there more value to an older modern glass window no-one notices that blends in with the churches’ style or to stained-glass made traditionally that aligns more with what gothic windows usually are? Is it worse or better as a political commentary no one in the gothic era would make?
What is the value of other stained-glass art that are globally renowned? Do people go to see the Notre Dame or Saint-Chapelle in Paris because it’s in Paris or because of the religious significance? Is it the enormous number of people who visit every year or the prevailing cultural references around us? Is it Victor Hugo that makes people look up at the biblical scenes portrayed with the glass in Notre Dame, the Disney musical adaptation of his novel or is it that one Assassin's Creed videogame where it's fun to climb it? Or because they’re 800 years old and time gives things value? Are the Sainte-Chapelle windows valuable because they’re 70% original or does the 30% detract? Are the side windows more breathtaking because they’re 200 years older than the Rose window? Or is it maybe the context in which they were made? Can we calculate the value based on who made it and why, how much it cost or the time it took to make it? The amount of money that went to the craftsmen and materials, the years of study the artists undertook to be able to heat the glass, mix it with cobalt, copper, manganese, and antimony, sketch out the scenes, cut the glass, paint it, heat it a second time, assemble and install it? Is it the quality of the execution, the scenes depicted or the beauty of a church filling up with many-coloured lights on a bright day? Without the right time and place, there would be nothing to behold, and all the work would be for nothing. Are these windows more or less valuable around noon on a bright day? Many would answer these questions differently as the arguments of time, authenticity, religious and cultural significance, tradition or craftsmanship surface in discussions around art.
In the end, a person can spend their life learning all there is to know about an art piece and then experience no catharsis upon seeing it. Similarly, the whole kaleidoscope of cultural, historical, economic or religious significance can be unknown, and the observer might still walk away being changed. The context is not the only source of value. We can try to propose different measurements by which we judge art, but any universal assessment cannot take into account the unique engagement each person has with art they encounter. The only real way to talk about art is phenomenological, making it a doomed endeavour. The true value of art is personal, subjective and ever-changing.
I guess that makes every question of value more a question of who is the judge.