Pitfalls Surrounding Catholic Consideration of the Arts
Several of us who set the direction for CatholicCulture.org have been discussing the obvious connections between “culture” (which is part of our name) and “the arts”. These connections are always of interest, of course, but in fact we have done very little with the arts here at CatholicCulture.org, and a series of recent small incidents from across the spectrum has led us to wonder whether we should do more. In recent weeks, for example, we have noticed the following:
- The Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles have topped the charts with their “at Ephesus” series of albums featuring traditional Catholic songs and chants (their priory is named for Our Lady of Ephesus) (see Benedictine sisters have top 2 CDs on classical music chart). Thomas Van has reviewed these albums for CatholicCulture.org.
- The interview we published with Terry Chimes, the original drummer for The Clash who “reverted” to Catholicism, was read by an unusually large number of people in a very short time, especially when you consider that we are not known for this type of material (see A Strange Case: The Clash’s drummer-turned-chiropractor on music, healing, and his return to Catholicism).
- I was recently contacted by the Foundress of the Missionary Artists of Saint Thérèse, with a view to possible collaboration. We are in the process of trying to learn more about this group.
- Ignatius Press just published (and sent a review copy of) the autobiography of the famous and hugely successful country singer Collin Raye, who became seriously committed to his Catholic Faith in his twenties, and who regards his life as having been formed primarily by Faith and fatherhood. There seems to be a full-court press on for this substantial book; it even includes a DVD.
- And boy did we touch a nerve with our (partly playful, partly very serious) comments on Sister Cristina Scuccia’s participation in the television talent show, “The Voice”. I won’t reference the commentaries again; suffice it to say that there were a great many fairly passionate responses, on all sides of the questions raised.
In fact, the arts, however we define them, do not seem to be quite as dead as we might have thought. Hence the latest round of discussions. And while we have no grand conclusions, and certainly no announcements to make, I thought I would share some of the considerations which make addressing the arts on CatholicCulture.org both worthwhile and problematic at the same time. Actually, I will concentrate on just three of these considerations here.
1. What is Art?
Presumably art is always a work of the creative imagination which puts us more deeply in touch with that transcendental which we call “the beautiful”. But intimations of “the beautiful” come in many forms, some of them superficially harsh or even ugly. Art is oriented to something deeper than what is merely “pretty”. Rather, it opens a kind of window on being, and invites a contemplative response. This is, I think, true of all the arts, whether literary, visual or musical.
The breadth and depth of this answer makes it very difficult to address the arts adequately as simply one of many purposes. Dealing with art is substantively different, for example, from debating politics or explaining Catholic doctrine. I can present reasons for thinking this or that work of art good or bad, and certainly I can have my own personal reasons for either liking it or disliking it apart from whether it is good or bad, but I cannot debate these things in the same way I would debate the wisdom of a particular social policy. Nor can I say, as I would of Catholic doctrine, “It doesn’t matter if you like it or see the point of it; you have to accept its value anyway, and then grow into it.”
2. What Is the Purpose of Art?
The primary or central purpose of art, I suppose, is to touch the beautiful, and in so doing to deepen our perception of reality and evoke a sense of wonder. But art has all kinds of secondary purposes: decoration, entertainment, mood-enhancement, enjoyment in a deeper sense, improvement of design, commercial success, edification, teaching, stimulating specific emotions, the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of creating, and so on. Art is part craft and part inspiration, presumably, and both can be used in the service of many goods, and many evils.
The problem here is that the central purpose of art can be perverted by secondary desires, even if those desires are good. Church art, for example, will rightly consist of beautiful representations of religious themes. But when we push that a step further and argue that “real art” must always have this purpose and “good art” must always excel at this purpose, then even the noble purpose of spiritual edification can be subversive. Topicality becomes preferable to artistry. Fitting in with the party line (however noble) becomes a standard of judgment for the quality of art, and this is a grave mistake.
3. How Do We Respond to Art?
Some great masterpieces of art, at least within a common culture, seem to prompt a nearly universal admiration. But in general, and especially cross-culturally, this is not the case. Because we are all human persons, we all have a capacity for appreciation. We all both seek and respond to the true and the good and the beautiful. But we respond in ways that are profoundly conditioned by both personality and culture, including even what we happen to be used to—what we have already been conditioned to appreciate.
If I write a very careful paragraph (as I am attempting to do, with inevitable clumsiness, at this very moment), I can indulge a reasonable expectation that my readers will grasp my point even if they happen to disagree with it. Discussion proceeds from there. But anybody who lacks experience with expository writing for a wide audience would be amazed by the number of times someone will either praise or condemn a writer for a point which he is sure (well, pretty sure) that he never made, and certainly never intended to make.
If this is true for expository prose, how much more is it true—nearly everywhere and always—for what we call creative writing, or the plastic arts, or the sounds of music! One person gazes at a painting, finds it breathtakingly beautiful or full of insight, and even draws from it some lesson that he is absolutely certain the artist must have had in mind. Another is left cold, or captures a different insight. The same thing happens with every genre of music, and in fact with all the arts. We actually bring far more of reality within ourselves to the appreciation of a work of art than the artist has managed to capture in the artwork itself, and the two ranges of reality interact in surprising—and not always mutually satisfactory—ways.
A few conclusions seem clear enough, but perhaps only a very few. One of them is that there is a learning curve. Just as reading well is learned through significant labor and vast repetition, so too is there a learning curve for appreciating art. We instantly respond favorably to some things, of course, but we must also understand that we may have to come back to a new kind of work several times—or perhaps many more than several—before we become capable of receiving the sort of contact with the beautiful which the artist has sought (consciously or unconsciously) to communicate. A second thing that is clear is the need to understand our own goals and motivations when we approach art, so that we do not constantly mistake our own utilitarian demands for legitimate artistic assessment. To judge a work as “right” for the chapel or the living room or even The Cause, while perfectly legitimate, is not the same as assessing it as art.
There is always this interplay among nature, spirituality, culture, taste and purpose in our response to art, and it is an interplay which forces us to proceed slowly. I do not say that we have to proceed slowly as private persons deciding what we like and do not like, what we would buy or what we would sell. No, this essay is in the context of CatholicCulture.org, where we are (at least theoretically) in the business of expressing reasonable and even helpful judgments. But artistic judgment frequently requires an openness and especially a patience which are often substantially less helpful in other fields.
So here we all are, Catholics in a hostile world, swift and sure of mind, and very definitely knowing junk when we see it. And that is precisely why, in matters of art, the deck may in some ways be stacked against us. Am I habitually slow to judge? Are you?
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