Can the Church Win Over the Art World?

That’s the question the Catholic Herald asked 11 Catholic artists this past week in this excellent article. The Pope has asked 262 artists to meet with him in the Sistine Chapel later this month, and the article gives short responses from several artists to the question of the Church’s relationship to today’s art world. I’ll only quote one below, but be sure to look at all of them – I promise it won’t take too much of your time, and the responses provide a microcosm of the reasons we as Christian (and Catholic) artists make art. Below is the response of fr Lawrence Lew, OP, one of the Dominican students at Blackfriars Hall here at Oxford.

LAWRENCE LEW OP

The fine arts point to and participate in beauty, which, as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, is most properly appropriated to Christ. Sadly, modern art is seldom orientated towards beauty, which is an objective truth extrinsic to oneself, but is rather directed inwards as a kind of subjective self-expression.

This rift can be healed by a contemplation of beauty, and ultimately of truth, revealed by the light of faith. For without faith one remains blind to God, and therefore one’s art can only reflect oneself, which does have a natural goodness but it is not opened to the infinite truth, goodness and beauty of the Divine.

I find that the art of photography requires us to seek and contemplate the beauty of God’s work in creation, and to share that beauty with others using the photographer’s talent and skill. So, photography can be put to the service of the Church, to lead others to a contemplation of beauty, which is the noble and proper end of the arts.

Brother Lawrence Lew OP is a photographer based at Blackfriars, Oxford

Now, I picked Br Lawrence’s quote not only because he’s a fellow Oxford student, but because I think he hits it dead-on when he talks about art now being seen as primarily “subjective self-expression,” not an exploration of objective beauty. Art has become about the artist, not about love or truth or goodness or the human story.

This is not the case at all times, or in all media equally. For example, I regularly watch movies in the cinema, and find myself overwhelmed (in a wonderful way) by story. But I rarely see modern theatre anymore, and you’d almost have to drag me kicking and screaming to go see a one-person show. Why? Because most of the modern theatre I’ve seen presents a bleak, amoral (or morally relativist) world that I just don’t believe is true. And the one-person shows I’ve experienced? They’re largely about the artist sharing his or her own foibles, fears, embarrassing stories, and most ferociously-held opinions with the audience, without offering the audience much of anything in return. It feels like I’m paying to be the performer’s therapist. I will never again pay $20 only to have a performer simulate masturbation 20 feet away from me in a dark space that suddenly feels much too intimate. If that was the experience I wanted, I could have gotten much more of it (and much cheaper) at a cinema downtown under the flashing red lights.

Yet this kind of theatre is what we’re teaching our young actors that they should be creating. Why? So that they can throw off the oppressive yoke of conformity, “traditional values,” and physical and moral inhibition in the name of that great goddess Art, who is sought for Her Own Sake.

Art helps us see the magic of the world anew. She feeds us with strengthening bread, meat, and wine (and milk when gentler treatment is needed) for the journey ahead. And She inspires our hearts with hope, and joy, and (if all goes well) love for our fellow beings (human and otherwise) with whom we share the planet. We cannot live without Art.

Let me say that again: We cannot live without Art.

We cannot live without that vision of the Divine that we receive through story, image, and sound. Imagine what life would be like if everything artistic were removed from the world. No bedtime stories, much less Shakespeare. No music on the iPod, not even any songs to sing in the shower. Only utilitarian architecture – no flying buttresses, rose windows, or even little garden statuary (not even yard gnomes). And don’t forget – no Bible or other religious books, either, unless you include bare moral platitudes artlessly arranged in pamphlets in Times New Roman print, without any stories of heroism and sacrificial love to make them stick. (Though I doubt we’d get that far – typography and book-binding are arts in themselves.)

No human being could survive in such a world. Maybe a brute animal could, but not a person. We’d all shrivel up and die, or shoot ourselves or each other in despair. Just as infants can die if not held and touched, we need to be in touch with a Source of life and beauty and meaning beyond ourselves, and we drink this in through Art. (That’s not to say someone’s less than human because they don’t like going to the theatre or to the art museum. Art is broader than just the traditional Fine Arts, and especially broader than just experiencing them as a passive recipient.)

Notice I say we need a source “beyond ourselves.” If we make art solely about our own individual selves, our art shrivels up and dies. Art needs to be connected to something universal, to the Good. Art as a personification is a servant, consecrated to supporting and encouraging the human race, not a goddess demanding blood sacrifice. If we want to treat Art as a Holy Grail, the be-all and end-all of our existence, we must then ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?”

This is why I don’t think the Church needs to focus on trying to “win over the art world.” We’re already here, serving. Most of us are more or less prodigal, it is true, but never fear. Insofar as our work is connected to what is Good, it can be used, participated in, and supported by the Church. If it is a branch that has been broken off from the Good, it will wither and die, because it has no root in meaning, and no life in itself. But there are those of us supporting life, and beauty, and goodness, and truth, and hope and joy and love in art. If the Church would like to provide reinforcements and supplies for fighting the good fight against an artistic culture of death, we would be glad of the help. It can be a lonely fight sometimes.

For, dear beloved Church, we are not the enemy that needs to be won over. We artists are a mixed bag, but Art knows She is ever the cup-bearer, never the Cup. If you would like to teach her how she can better serve, support the things she does well, and encourage her to participate more. Take an active role in training others to help her. And give her a full place at the table, not as a rebellious stepchild, but as a full Daughter, worthy of all honor, respect, and inclusion.

But it is up to us who wear her livery to remember that the glory of Art that we bear, and that we work as our medium, is only a reflection of that dazzling glory emanating from the Source of all Beauty, and Truth, and Goodness, the One Whom Art herself serves.

ETA: Here’s a quote I just read from Michael Hallman, an Augustinian seminarian whose blog I follow:

…[T]he Church, among other things, is supposed to represent beauty as she reflects the beauty of God and the beauty of creation. And we [the Catholic Church] are a Church with a sacramental worldview, meaning that we understand that outward signs not only point to inward realities, but also that the outward form often has the ability to direct our gaze to deeper spiritual truths.

This is why the Church and art are inseparable.

6 thoughts on “Can the Church Win Over the Art World?

  1. Yes, but I needed to hear it. Others have said the same thing, and it’s something I need to be reminded of. I can’t let my blog turn into a continual rant, much as a part of me might enjoy wallowing in righteous anger!

    Scott is one of my favorite reads, and he’s really onto something. I’m sure he’d appreciate any help or encouragement you could give.

  2. You’re welcome. Actually, I didn’t even think of it as a rebuke, just an alternate point of view.

    And thank you, thank you for recommending Scott Walters’ blogs, especially his <100k Project. I had not stumbled across that yet, and it is a really delightful read.

    Blessings.
    SJ

  3. You’re right, of course. Thanks for being so gentle with that well-deserved rebuke.:-)

    I’ve added your blog to my RSS reader.

  4. This is why I don’t think the Church needs to focus on trying to “win over the art world.” We’re already here, serving.

    Agreed — and I think that the focus on “winning over” the art world only functions to further alienate artists of faith — many of whom already feel rejected by both the church & the contemporary art world.

    Finally, I would caution Christians to be very careful about condemning the emptiness, sinfulness, or hopelessness of contemporary art, especially art made by those who are not [yet] believers. Instead, we must learn to recognize in it desperate prayer for justice and healing, uttered with much fear and doubt, addressed to an unknown God who may not listen or even exist. As long as we are appalled and offended by darkness, ugliness, or pornography, we will never be able to recognize the longing behind them — a longing that may well become the first glimmerings of faith.

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