I came across the following comment by Roberto Goizueta, on the sacramental vision of Georges Rouault, in my research on religious symbols in the public square. Concerning symbol and signification, I think Goizueta hits the nail on the head:
Rouault is thus hardly unique within the long tradition of artists inspired by a sacramental vision of reality. Yet Rouault’s work reminds us of an aspect of the sacramental principle too often ignored in Catholic theologies. If “the sacramental principle proposes that everything is our life-world can be such a sign” of invisible grace, the believer is nevertheless not allowed to infer that everything is such a sign of the divine presence in our world. Indeed, thediscontinuity between the visible and the invisible, the disjunction between our life-world and ultimate Reality is implicit in the very notion of sacramentality. When that discontinuity is not sufficiently attended to, the result is the kind of theological triumphalism that has so often served the interest of political, economic, and ecclesial power, a presumptively incarnational, or sacramental vision that merely identifies the world with God, the status quo with God’s presence. This is idolatry pure and simple. The authentic sacramental vision, however, reveals and masks simultaneously: that the natural mediates the supernatural implies that the former is not simply reducible to the latter. (“Rouault’s Christ: A Call to Aesthetic Conversion” in Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, ed. Stephen Schloesser, 2008)
Or, more pithily:
Rouault’s art makes it clear that the cross cannot be abstracted from the One hanging on it.
Here, Goizueta gestures to the misappropriation of symbols for the sake of power. I strongly sympathize with this claim. If this is the case, however, can we employ religious imagery in public or political contexts in ways that do not distort the meanings of the images or unjustly manipulate Christian believers? If so, how ought we treat such images?
Certainly, there are examples of ways in which images have empowered religious people to work for justice (the United Farm Workers marching under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe). Still, there are multitudinous examples of the ways in which Christian religious symbols have been used to dominate and exploit. I am perplexed.