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ART, BEAUTY, AND THE CATHOLIC WITNESS TO CHRIST

“Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. It is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as ‘a man using Art.’ He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: ‘Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.’

“Believing this—as I do—the term ‘Catholic artist’ seems precious and self- conscious. It risks becoming one more assault against humility, a quality already close to running on empty in the arts. It would be an act of mercy to scrap the category ‘Catholic art’ altogether. There is no longer any such entity; there is only art made by Catholics. This might or might not make use of religious imagery; it might or might not be successful or praiseworthy. Faith is not the origin of talent and cannot stand bail for it. Neither is piety an index of good taste or guarantor of good craftsmanship. There is only good art and bad art; Catholicism is no determiner of either.”     

This is from an article by Mauren Mullarkey originally published in Crisis. I don’t know much about Mullarkey; her website has some interesting essays, including the one from which the above quote was taken, along with some of her drawings and paintings. I can’t remember where I first discovered her, though I suspect it might have been in Image. Some of what she writes in this article, titled “An Unmanifesto: A Proposal to Retire ‘Catholic Art’”, reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, especially the latter’s claim that Catholic art need not be made by a Catholic and that the integrity of the work itself, not its maker’s faith or intentions, is what matters most. Both writers seem to be protesting the same things, such as the proliferation of tawdry religiously-inspired kitsch that hawks itself as art, and both appeal to Jacques Maritain for guidance on how to understand the main responsibilities of the artist. This is a touchy issue for many people. Shouldn’t the desire to praise God and lead people to a deeper faith count more than anything else? Here’s O’Connor from her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”:

“Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying. Now a statement like this creates problems. An individual may be highly edified by a sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better. We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.

“A good example of a very indifferent novel being used for some good purpose is The Foundling, by Cardinal Spellman. It’s nobody’s business to judge Cardinal Spellman except as a novelist, and as a novelist he’s a bit short. You do have the satisfaction of knowing that if you buy a copy of The Foundling, you are helping the orphans to whom the proceeds go; and afterwards you can always use the book as a doorstop. But what you owe yourself here is to know that what you are helping are the orphans and not the standards of Catholic letters in this country. Which you prefer to do, if it must be a matter of choice, is up to you.”

No respecter of persons, that O’Connor. At least in the sense of accepting that authority in one sphere—as in Spellman being a Cardinal—has any connection to literary skill or judgment. This is, as she wrote elsewhere, a different matter than a Cardinal’s or Bishop’s authority to declare a work spiritually dangerous, which for O’Connor was rather liberating. Nevertheless, the Cardinal’s literary skills were paltry, in her view, which doesn’t detract from the good its earnings will do for the orphans. Or as a doorstop.

My thoughts inevitably turn to those ubiquitous Italian prayer cards one sees, well, everywhere. You know the ones. They make the saints look rather unreal, almost as if gnosticism decided to take a run at the prayer card market. “How can we make these folks look as inhuman as possible?” seems to be the implied intention. Likewise, much of the statuary I routinely see in churches makes me turn away. I know, I know. The intentions are good, and prayers before a genuine work of art are no more sincere than those offered before something less than beautiful. But the the long-term consequences are not good, as the Church has for some time now witnessed the gradual diminishment of the aesthetic sensibilities of a people who should be known by the beauty of their churches, their music, their art, and their lives.

Lest I be accused of being an aesthete, here’s what our Pope Emeritus wrote while still a Cardinal:

“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendour of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.”

The nature of beauty—in the eye of the beholder only? one of the great transcendentals? the Infinite making itself finite and visible?—is contested in our day, and the idea that it is either the refuge of those disconnected from the real world or merely a subjective preference has confused many people, myself included. Some Catholics try to eliminate the confusion by ignoring the difficult questions and asserting something along the lines of “Catholic art,” which, as Mullarkey points out, usually means art from Renaissance and Baroque periods, when representational art was the only option. One priest described his criterion for discerning art in the wake of the 19th and 20th centuries by means of a 5-5 rule: If a five-year-old can tell you in five seconds what a painting is, then it’s art. So much for the world of abstraction. Maritain wasn’t the only Catholic writer of his time to see this kind of reduction as problematic. Here’s Mullarkey on Maritain’s contemporary Frenchman, the medievalist and philosopher Etienne Gilson:

“In his 1955 Mellon Lectures, later published under the title “Painting and Reality”, he argued that modern abstract art, far from being a falling away (from representation), had restored art to its essential dignity. He insisted that, in the wake of the Middle Ages, Western art had become devoted to a kind of literalism—call it empiricism—that limited art to imitating the visual world. According to Gilson, modern art rediscovered the idea of art as a means of creating forms for interpreting the world, not merely copying what greets our senses.

With characteristic brio, Gilson held that humanity continues God’s work of creation through the arts. The imitatio Dei, then is not a matter of copying. It is a matter, first, of comprehending; and, then, of seeking forms to render that comprehension.”

This search for forms to render our comprehension will take multiple paths, some of which will be appealing to many, some of which won’t. The history of the arts bears witness to a multiplicity of forms and methods, in the service of many ends, whether religious devotion, personal glory, rebellion, anger, the lust for approval and notoriety, etc. Our Pope Emeritus is convinced, as was Maritain, Gilson, and O’Connor, that art and beauty are essential to the Church’s witness to the Lord, once described by St. Augustine as “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” This witness need not be explicitly Catholic, in the sense of featuring saints, biblical characters and scenes, or the conventional trappings and language of piety. But it should strive for good craftsmanship, and eschew labels and the kinds of reductionism they often imply. O’Connor cites St. Thomas in her criticism of the tacit utilitarianism of so much that passes for Catholic art:

“Saint Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.  He says that a work of art is good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations & make something that is simply a good in and of itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full & does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

The witness to Christ in art is found not just in crucifixion scenes and saints at prayer, or in lovely meadows and serene landscapes, as beauty goes well beyond the merely pretty or comforting. The work well done and the life well lived bear the loudest witness to Christ, today as always. If we, and our contemporaries, do not have the ears to hear, perhaps it is due to our refusal to engage in the Church’s traditions about beauty and allow modern understandings, which are often rooted in a subjectivistic view of the world, to dominate our field of vision.

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