Monday, August 9, 2010

Art, Catholic Teachings, and This Catholic

I ran into an interesting post in another blog today, which included the idea that art was "a kind of bridge to religious experience."1 That assertion got me curious about Church teaching on art, and Catholic approaches to art. Here's where I started, and some of what I found:

I like representational art: the sort of thing many folks have in mind when they say 'good art.' I sympathize with folks who say, 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like.' - - -

Geometric Abstractionism and Elvis in Fluorescent Chalk

- - - Even when the person's looking at something by Nadir Afonso and continues: "and that's junk." The work of an geometric abstractionist probably isn't the sort of thing everybody would like to hang in their living room.

I wouldn't call Afonso's work "junk," partly because I've studied the history and theory of art. I still don't know all that much about art, I still know what I like: but I've learned to take serious experiments with the arts seriously.

I'm also able to appreciate (a few) chalk-on-black-velvet renditions of Elvis - I've seen one that had very nice lines and balance.

"Art For Art's Sake" - Seriously?!

On the other hand, I've never been able to take "art for art's sake" very seriously. Partly, perhaps, because I ran into the expression around the same time that I started reading about 'artists' who threw paint at canvas and sold the results to folks with more money than common sense. My opinion.

Besides, what the 'art for art's sake' crowd stridently insisted must be taken seriously was often done with minimal technical skill - but that's another topic.

Masterpieces, The Masses, and Chesterton

Things haven't changed all that much, in some ways, in the eight decades since G. K. Chesterton wrote:
"By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."
"On Detective Novels," Generally Speaking: a Book of Essays, London: Methuen (1928) via "Quotations of G. K. Chesterton," The American Chesterton Society
(and see National Library of Australia Catalog)
It took me quite a while to get it through my head that I might enjoy reading something that large numbers of others did, too: and that's definitely another topic. I now think there's probably a reason why people still read the old Sherlock Holmes stores - despite the morass of late-19th-century wordiness you have to wade through to get at the story.

I've also come to suspect that the 'it's popular, so it can't be a masterpiece' is the related to the sort of snobbery that expresses great concern for "The Masses" while keeping lower-income people at arm's length. Yet another topic.

Religious Art: From Jesus Junk to the Sistine Chapel

I still cringe when I see some prayer cards.

There's one in particular that I can't expunge from my memory. The prayer was quite nice, but the picture - I think it was supposed to be Giuseppe Ghedine's "Assumption of the Virgin," but I could be wrong about that.

The point is that in the original, Mary is gazing reverently - or 'spiritually,' at any rate - upward to heaven. Whoever did the card's artwork didn't get the eyes quite right. The Mother of God looked a bit cockeyed, like she'd just been sapped, or had a few too many margaritas and was about to pass out.

Not at all the desired effect, I'm sure.

Then there are the mass-produced plaster casts of scripture scenes, spray painted in glaring blue from one direction, and screaming orange from the other. My guess is that they glow in the dark.

I've heard schlocky religious art referred to as "Jesus junk." It's not just Catholics who buy that stuff: I saw one of the more redolent pieces in a quite Protestant household, a few decades back.

If it gets the job done and brings folks who buy it closer to God: fine. But I think we can do better.

Make that I know we can do better. A case in point:
All that's my take on art, artists, and selling paint spatters to well-heeled urban yokels.

Since I'm a Catholic, what I 'really feel' isn't important - or isn't important in the same way - as what the Church teaches. When I read that assertion that art was "a kind of bridge to religious experience,"1 I realized that I'd better see what the Catholic Church had to say about art.

Truth, Beauty, and Catholic Teachings About Art

Wouldn't you know it? Catholics have rules about art, too. Some of them are directed more at priests and bishops than a layman like me. ("Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship," Committee on Divine Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Laity aren't left out, though. This bit from the Catechism is a pretty good backgrounder for anybody who's interested in art:
"Created 'in the image of God,'294 man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works. Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being's inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill,295 to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.296"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2501)
That's an excerpt from the Catechism's "Article 8: The Eighth Commandment. Particularly "VI. Truth, Beauty, and Sacred Art." (2500-2503)

Like Caritas in Veritate, it's not what a reviewer called "purposefully vague." (July 18, 2009) It's part of the teachings of the Catholic Church: written for all people, not just Americans living in the late-20th and early-21st century.

I didn't expect to find text saying that oil and tempura paints were "Biblical," while acrylics were "Satanic."

I did expect to find rules like this:
"...Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.296"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2501)
Looks like "art for art's sake" is out. That's one teaching I don't have trouble accepting.

The part about truth and beauty are easy for me to swallow, too.

Pope Benedict XVI talked about truth and beauty last year. Or, rather about Truth and beauty. After reminding his listeners that the Risen Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, he discussed the bond between beauty and hope.

In some circles in the America I've lived in, ideas like truth and beauty - and certainly hope - aren't considered sophisticated. I'll get back to that.

Here's part of what Pope Benedict said, after those "the Way, the Truth and the Life" remarks:
"...Unfortunately, the present time is marked, not only by negative elements in the social and economic sphere, but also by a weakening of hope... What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation - if not beauty? Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful...."
("Meeting With Artists"
Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI (November 21, 2009))
After that the Pope talked about what some guys named Plato, Dostoevsky and Georges Braque had to say about beauty. The bottom line seems to be that beauty is a good idea - and that it tends to shake people up.

I recommend reading the full text of that speech. It's another one of those "secret documents" that's online at

What About Art Being a Bridge to Religious Experience?

Here's an excerpt from a letter from Pope John Paul II:
"...Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption...."
("Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists" (1999))
Again, I recommend reading the full text of that letter.

Which I haven't done. One more thing for my to-do list.

Truth? Beauty? Hope?! How Simplistic and Naive Can I Get?

I'm old enough to remember to trailing edge of a time when quite a few people really believed that the wonders of science and technology would end disease, poverty and unsightly blemishes. As Yogi Berra said, "the future ain't what it used to be."

Particularly in the late 19th century, and first decade of the 20th, the idea that science and technology would inevitably lead to an end to all human suffering wasn't as daft as it seems today.

Steam power, pasteurization, and mass production were making material goods affordable to more and more people - and improving their health. In the 20th century, antibiotics, telephone service, and the automobile kept the idea alive, that 'progress' was going to result in a sort of Earthly paradise.

Two world wars separated by a global depression, and - in my opinion - appalling child-raising practices recommended by "experts" led us to the sixties. I survived that decade with with most of the marbles I went in with. Not all of us were able to say that.

Around that time the idea caught on that we were all gonna die from overpopulation and DDT and nuclear winter. That's all very old fashioned now. Today, it's overpopulation and acid rain and global warming. Actually, I'm not so sure about acid rain: that may be passe by now

I might have been in there with the best of them, wringing my hands for all I was worth. Happily, around the time that doom and gloom became all the rage, I started discovering what humanity has been through over the last several thousand years of recorded history.

I don't doubt for a moment that we're in one of the more, ah, interesting epochs of history. On the other hand, compared with the years when the Black Death swept the world, or neighbors of my ancestors sacked Rome for the last time, we're not doing all that badly.

Besides, more recently I learned more about why the Catholic Church, against all odds, will soon have been around for an even 2,000 years.

And that most definitely is another topic.

Not-entirely-unrelated posts:
More, in another person's blog:

1 "James MacMillan at Faith," The hermeneutic of continuity (August 4, 2010).

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.