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The Problem of High Culture: The Arts and Evangelization

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 15, 2013

In yesterday’s In Depth Analysis on evangelization (see The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like?), I mentioned a paradox. I admitted that an apostolate named “CatholicCulture.org” has been mostly silent when it comes to what many people mean by “culture”, that is, “high culture”, or the arts. And I suggested that this issue has a bearing on evangelization.

Actually I think that CatholicCulture.org can be credited with handling one aspect of the issue well. We have avoided the trap of talking about culture as if it is essentially “high culture” or “artistic culture”. Human culture is primarily defined by a set of habitual arrangements which reflect the deepest values of a society. Everything contributes, and the essence of every culture is its own expression, conditioned by a thousand particulars of time and place and history, of the heart of a society, the collective spiritual strengths and weaknesses of the people who make it up.

This is a necessary corrective to those who suppose that “culture” is some sort of artistic veneer. But having offered such a corrective, we have seldom attempted to address the other side of the question, the side which focuses on the importance of culture in the artistic sense, that is, on the shaping and expressions of the human imagination. When we think of the transcendentals—of the good, the true, and the beautiful—we find that the intellect is profoundly engaged by the true, the will is profoundly engaged by the good, and the imagination is profoundly engaged by the beautiful. All three are party to our personal redemption, but too often in our particular culture, the imagination is associated merely with entertainment, and ignored as a very special conduit of, or connection with, being itself.

Historical and Personal Limitations

Every educated Catholic knows how important the “high cultural” achievements of Christian civilization have been to the human person individually, to the social order, to the overall culture of the West, and to the Church herself. I am referring to the painting, sculpture, architecture and music (among other forms) with which most of us are familiar, and of which many of us regret the passing. We yearn for a high culture which reflects the wholeness of man attuned to God, and we tend to regard what the “world” has given us as “modern art” as just one more cause of the disintegration of culture.

For these reasons, we can grant a theoretical role for the imagination, and for beauty, in the formation of faith, but most of us fail to see how the arts today can contribute to a richer culture or a more effective evangelization. Such a widespread failure among Christians to seriously consider the value of the arts here and now undoubtedly also reflects the utilitarian and technocratic nature of our own culture, and it is certainly conditioned by our unfortunate conviction that our lives must be defined by what we call the “culture wars”—a conviction I had hoped to shatter in the essay I mentioned at the outset. The following anecdote will illustrate the problem.

Back around 1980, when I was editing the interdisciplinary academic journal Faith & Reason, I proposed to the strong Catholic readership that we should suspend academic studies for one issue and devote an issue instead to fiction. The almost universal response was that this would be unconscionably frivolous. We were, after all, at war. Therefore, we had to concentrate our attention on logic and argument. The arts were a luxury. It would be a dereliction of duty to waste any time on them.

I was taken aback by what, to me, was an astonishingly shallow response. Apparently many of the most dedicated Catholic readers I could find were distressingly bereft of any sense of the importance of imaginative culture to our inner life and, therefore, to the Gospel. Yet the arts arise from the vision and heart of the human person striving toward the absolute. As such they are profoundly influenced by both our thirst for the Gospel and our response to it. Artists employ their particular gifts in the service of a vision which is, at bottom, a spiritual vision—even if that vision is confused, disjointed and woefully incomplete. Art, after all, seeks to transcend the mere material surface of things, to capture something deeper and ultimately more fundamental, even if what a particular artist sees is only banality or even despair.

In addition to being taken aback, I realized that I was ill-equipped to explore this issue in any depth. For the most part, I simply set it aside. Moreover, given what have now become the interests and habits of a lifetime, I continue to be weaker than I would like to be in grasping this vital aspect of the human personality. But in the intervening years, I have at least come in contact with those who are better able to articulate the problem, and to imagine the solution.

An Awareness of the Via Pulchritudinis

I recall first of all Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists. Then, in 2006, there was the fascinating document issued under Benedict XVI by the Pontifical Council for Culture, The Via Pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue. “Via Pulchritudinis” means, as many readers already know, “the way of beauty”, a perennial means for drawing souls to Christ. This “way” reminds us that, precisely because we are made in the image and likeness of God, all the transcendentals speak deeply to the human person. We are drawn to God not only by the true and the good, but by the beautiful. Is not each one of us deeply touched by St. Augustine’s lament in the Confessions? “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!”

Perhaps most important for me, largely through the interests of my youngest son, I have become belatedly far more aware that two of the greatest Thomists of the twentieth century wrote extensively on the nature and importance of art, and even had a keen and lively appreciation of what we call Modern Art. I am talking about Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. This in itself is enough to give even the most rabid Catholic Philistine pause.

Still, it is with some regret that I admit, in spite of offering several hints here, that I am not the one to explain all this properly as it relates to the “New Evangelization”. I could easily fail to avoid the chronic temptation of the apologist, the temptation to functionalize art, to make it didactic, to press it to serve my own limited cause. What I can do is confidently claim that a renewal in the arts and their intersection with Catholic culture must play its own proper and very important role. It follows that good Catholics have the best of reasons to be interested in the arts, as an important part of such an imaginative renewal in themsleves and others. With this importance in mind, let me refer interested readers to Gregory Wolfe, author of Beauty Will Save the World (the title is borrowed from Dostoevsky), who is also the very thoroughly Catholic founder and editor of Image, a journal wholly devoted to a deeply Christian appreciation of the arts.

This much is certain: A culture which can explore the farthest reaches of space and the deepest reaches of the atom but cannot grasp the concept of “spirit” is in deep trouble. A culture which can imagine and portray all kinds of entertaining fantasy worlds but cannot imagine and portray the struggles and yearnings of the human spirit in the real world is in deep trouble. A culture which can appreciate the horrors of physical suffering caused by disease and poverty but refuses even to acknowledge the terrifying consequences of spiritual emptiness and disorder is in deep trouble.

It is artists and art which are charged to remove our blinders and enable us to catch glimpses of the ultimate meanings which lie beneath the surfaces of the realities we have been so well conditioned to acknowledge. It is artists and art which have the capacity and the imaginative intensity to reconnect the externals of life to the richness—including sometimes the agony—of our deeper being, and of Being itself. There is something in the arts to which, in our depressing utilitarianism, we must become more open. The artist and the arts can make their own proper contribution to our wholeness. In so doing they can engage not only our minds and wills but our imaginations—our vision—with the reality of the Divine which we find, to our distress or delight, but always to our surprise, to be so deeply reflected in ourselves.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Nov. 15, 2013 6:22 PM ET USA

    A splendid essay with which I agree wholeheartedly. Ours is a religion of joy and artists help us ''see'' all its grandeur. But, since I can't improve on your words here, let me instead add a plea to others who frequent this site to join in the spirit of Thanksgiving and to dig into their pockets a little deeper to help keep it going. None of us surely wants to see this extremely valuable Catholic resource disappear. There are so few good ones already! Catholicculture is worth a small sacrifice.

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