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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Getting Out of the Catholic Ghetto

I’ve been thinking about a recent post by Kevin O’Brien on the blog, End of the Modern World, which O’Brien writes along with Joe Trabbic and my friends Steven A. Long and Joseph Pearce. O’Brien’s post, “What I Learned from Show Business,” is a thoughtful rumination on the challenges facing Catholic artists in today’s entertainment market. Here’s his conclusion:

the upshot of all of this is that Catholic artists must begin to recognize that the market of regular people will indeed pay for good content, but that such content must be developed and marketed to them, keeping in mind that it may be art, but it’s also a business (without keeping this in mind, Catholic artists are bound to get taken advantage of, as all talent tends to be taken advantage of). To fall back either on empty formulas with bad content (as some producers do) or to get lazy and rely on the contrived market that will accept bad content without complaint (as many who produce for the Catholic Ghetto do) is wrong.

So if empty formulas and bad content for contrived markets are wrong approaches, what’s the right approach? What for Catholic artists and their audiences should count as good content?

First of all, it’s worth noting the truth in the view taken by those whom O’Brien calls the Catholic Ghetto. These folks, I take it, want art to witness to, confirm, and encourage their Catholic beliefs. Better than that, they want art to be powerful enough to convert unbelievers—to be apostolic in its impact. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with these desires. A work of art made by a Catholic should, in some way—and there is certainly more than one way—witness to, confirm, and encourage Catholic belief. Otherwise, how could it be said to be Catholic? Flannery O’Connor, always so wise on these matters, writes this about the Catholic novelist in her essay, “Novelist and Believer” (from her collection, Mystery and Manners), a point that is relevant to all the arts:

Great fiction involves the whole range of human judgment; it is not simply an imitation of feeling. The good novelist not only finds a symbol for feeling, he finds a symbol and a way of lodging it which tells the intelligent reader whether this feeling is adequate or inadequate, whether it is moral or immoral, whether it is good or evil. And his theology, even in its most remote reaches, will have a direct bearing on this.

Part of O’Connor’s point here is that every novelist, every artist, constructs his work from an estimate of what he believes life is all about. So that if the theology of the Catholic artist does not influence the way in which he sees reality, he is not being true to himself as an artist.

But another part of O’Connor’s point is that great fiction demands something more than belief. O’Connor speaks of the good novelist’s need to find “a symbol for feeling,” a symbol that will bear the weight of the truth that the novelist wants to communicate. The finding of such a symbol is a matter of craft, not of faith. It is a matter, as O’Connor argues in her essay, of penetrating reality and finding there the concrete materials by which the truth can be communicated in a way that delights the senses, the emotions, the memory, and the imagination. “Ever since there have been such things as novels,” writes O’Connor,

the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.

So the artist has an obligation. His job is not to make his beliefs look pretty or feel soothing, but to get his hands dirty with the way things really are. The Catholic artist has a distinct advantage in this, as his faith helps him see the full breadth and depth of reality. Yet this does not dispense him from looking at that reality with his own eyes. 

But the Catholic audience also has its duties. It has an obligation to learn how to appreciate craft as craft, and not just for the beliefs that are represented in it. In the greatest Catholic art, craft and belief are not separated, but they are distinct. If they were not distinct, we would not be able to rate Dante higher than the smarmiest Christian greeting card. 

What about wanting Catholic art to change lives? It’s sure nice when it does. Wasn’t there a murderer in Texas who turned himself in after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? But we must understand that while a work of art may dramatically change lives, it is not an essential feature even of a Catholic work of art that it do so. Essential to great art is the beautiful rendering of a vision of how things are. Whether that vision changes someone’s life depends on the disposition of that person, the circumstances he is in, and above all, God’s grace. And it's good to keep in mind that God can use just about anything as a vehicle for grace—even bad art. 

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