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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Can This Be the Catholic Moment in the Arts?


“Irish poets, learn your trade.”
So W.B. Yeats admonished his fellow Irish poets in his celebrated poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” With a slight amendment, it’s an admonition that could well apply to our Catholic artists. 
The other day Emily Stimpson, a blogger over at CatholicVote.org, wrote an inspired piece called “Telling the Catholic Story.” In it she laments, after noting certain admirable exceptions, the current state of Catholic art, in particular our storytelling in the media of film, television and literature. Her lament pointed up the question: why aren’t Catholics today known for creating artistic masterpieces, or at least compelling works of art? Stimpson herself has difficulties zeroing in on the reason:
So again, why? Why can’t we match in quality and skill the media being made by our secular counterparts?
I’ve put that question to a lot of smart people over the last couple weeks and the answers they gave were plentiful: a dearth of excellent training programs at faithful Catholic schools, a reluctance and/or inability to invest substantially in high quality media, poor understanding of the medium of media itself, a distrust of Hollywood and the tools of social media, and the misguided belief that what we have to say is so compelling that we don’t need to worry about how we say it.
Those are all good answers. They’re true answers. But I don’t find them entirely satisfying. They explain why the media we’re making now is not up to snuff, but they don’t explain how the Church of the Sistine Chapel and Mozart’s Requiem became the Church of Therese and There Be Dragons.
Catholics once financed and made the greatest works of art the world has ever known. We used the primary mediums of the day—painting, sculpture, literature, and music—to express the beauty and glory of God, the truth about the human person, and the pathos of the human condition. We understood the power of beauty and the power of story, and for centuries, creating art that reflected that understanding came as naturally to Catholic artists as breathing.
Stimpson is right that the various answers she received to her question were all good and true. The diagnosis must certainly be a complex one. Catholic education, the American reception to Vatican II, scorn of Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally, lack of money--all of these are contributing factors to the current Catholic malaise in the arts. I would add that the political culture wars of the last forty years, as crucially important as those have been, have tempted Catholics to neglect the power of art to shape culture. They have led to the distrust of the entertainment industry that Stimpson mentions in her piece. 
But there is one other reason for the malaise in Catholic art that I would like to identify, one that I think lies even closer to the nub of the problem: 
The absence of a devotion to craft.
I choose the word “devotion” here carefully. Devotion indicates love, passion, total commitment. For the Catholic artist, his or her work must be inspired, first and foremost, by devotion to God. But this is not enough to make a beautiful and powerful work of art. The devotion to God must “spill over” into a devotion to craft. And here I choose the word “craft” carefully. For anyone who writes a novel or poem or screenplay will admit to “loving” what he is doing. But there is far more to a craft than this. 
To be devoted to a craft means to submit oneself to a discipline existing outside one’s thoughts and feelings. And such disciplines do not arise out of nowhere. They come into being and flourish within traditions of thought and practice, traditions that often stretch centuries into the past.
In recent decades Catholic artists seem to have forgotten this sense of devotion to a craft tradition. But when one looks to past examples of great Catholic artists, such devotion is everywhere in evidence. 
Consider Dante. To be a poet, in Dante’s mind, was to submit oneself to the great minds and works of Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe. Thus The Divine Comedy reflects Dante’s passionate study of Aristotle, Virgil, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Or consider, to take a somewhat more contemporary example, Flannery O’Connor. O'Connor did not shy away from serving her apprenticeship at the very mainstream secular, but artistically pre-eminent, Iowa Writer's Workshop. She knew that this was where she had to be in order to become excellent at her craft. And the result of her efforts was a strikingly counter-cultural and singular contribution to literature in the 20th century. 
What we learn from Dante, O’Connor, and other great Catholic artists is that devotion to craft means disciplining oneself to learning from the best minds that have worked in that craft tradition. Which means seeking out those mentors, and becoming part of those institutions, which embody that tradition in the present-day--not all of which (as we learn from O’Connor’s experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) will be Catholic. 
Many Catholic individuals and institutions have recognized this truth. Barbara Nicolosi and her efforts in founding Act One, and John Paul the Great Catholic University and its mission to educate students in the arts and new media, are just two examples that readily come to mind.
But so many more devoted artists are needed. 
Catholic artists, learn your trade.


* The photograph at the top is of Flannery O'Connor's writing desk at her home in Milledgeville, Georgia

7 comments:

  1. Such a thoughtful post, with much to ponder.
    I'll try not to write a tome instead of a comment. Because I'm a writer, I'll focus on Catholic writers ...

    I've thought about this topic a lot, and it's definitely a topic at my writing group. The problem is two-fold, in my opinion:

    1.) The lack of understanding how to create art from a Catholic worldview

    2.) The lack of devotion to the craft

    For the first point, Catholic writers seem to think that Catholic writing is overtly Catholic. In other words, the work is obviously Catholic, such as a devotional, or everyone in the book is Catholic, which leads to washed-out, unrealistic writing filled with flat characters and a syrupy plot. So would-be storytellers limit themselves to the most obvious of Catholic writing and do not branch out into the other genres.

    Good Catholic literature is good literature from a Catholic viewpoint. This means not everyone is Catholic (maybe no one is), but the work itself is written in the light of the faith. Darkness will never be called light; evil will not be celebrated. The Catholic faith is our sun, and we toil beneath it. Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene are the usual examples, which is curious because Flannery was not overt in her writing and Graham struggled openly and painfully about the faith in his work. Current writers, such as yourself, Regina Doman, and Michael O'Brien, can write about Patria, fairy tales, and historical fiction ... none of it hammer-over-the-head Catholic ... but your faith permeates the work because it's in your blood, on your mind, in your heart.

    As for my second point, I agree with you completely. In our full-speed-ahead world, writers are becoming less focused on the craft itself and more dedicated to "What will I do when I'm done?" Rather than take each step of the creative process slowly, writers are in a rush to get to the part where their names are on the cover, they have something new to add to their portfolio, and a wish is fulfilled.

    Writing is a craft, which means it does take time, practice, patience, and hours of work. Inspiration does come, yes, of course, but inspiration is the idea. And sometimes, we have to spend hours editing, proofreading, sweating, etc., to find the inspiration amid the drafts.

    Producing good work is, well, work.

    Blessed Josemaria Escriva, in a homily about work, asked what was the point of saying someone is a good Christian if he is a lousy shoemaker? His point was that our work should be excellent because we toil for the Lord. Likewise, as writers, our work should be excellent because our writing is a gift from God. And we need to honor that gift, to treasure it, by using it well and to the best of our ability.

    (pause)

    I totally failed to write a short comment, didn't I, Daniel?

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  2. Thanks, Veronica, for these rich observations! I think the two points you make--both of which are spot on--are actually different aspects of the same point about craft. For to grasp the point about what makes for authentically Catholic writing (your point #1)--that is, to understand that neither syrupy characters and story lines, nor stories with explicitly Catholic elements, are what is required to make a piece of writing Catholic--is to realize that what is most essential for Catholic writers to attend to is the fundamentals of craft. Attention to what the craft of writing really demands will lead to the recognition that wildly melodramatic situations and characters are not worthy of the art of storytelling, as neither are characters and plot-lines that must all be explicitly Catholic. The point from SAINT Josemaria is the right one: our love for the Lord must lead us, as Catholic writers, first to perfect our craft. If God deems it fit that our work also be enjoyed by an audience, or even influence a wayward culture, so be it. That's His business. Ours is to work out, with His grace, how to craft a good, clear sentence, a compelling plot, convincing characters.

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  3. Well, I'm trying to be a Catholic artist, although it's not my full-time occupation, but more of a hobby. I've painted some Saints, but mostly fantasy work. And one of my latest is up for charity auction right now to benefit the pro-life Catholic Paul Stefan Foundation. Want to have a peek? http://www.mamageekminis.com

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  4. Hi, Joy! Welcome to High Concepts. It's good to hear from you and about your work. We're all juts trying to be Catholic artists, as best we can.

    I encourage everyone to go check out Joy's website and to bid on the fantasy figure she created for the eminently worthy Paul Stefan Foundation auction.

    I can't wait to show your site to my 11 year-old, Star Wars-crazy, Tolkien-loving, son!

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  5. May I recommend the Catholic art of a young lady by the name of Cameo Monnin...scroll down to see the her contributions to the ongoing beautification of St. Remy Catholic Church in Ohio:
    http://web.mac.com/cameodesigns/Site/Church_Interiors.html

    -Susan-

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  6. Daniel,

    Thank you for your article and for referencing Barbara and Act One. We are committed to that excellence of craft that is sorely needed in todays entertainment world.

    Keep up the good work!

    Chris Dalton
    Communications Director
    Act One
    http://www.actoneprogram.com

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  7. Hi, I'm really glad to hear what everyone has to say. I also agree that in working our craft, we need devotion to our craft and guidance from the Holy Spirit. I don't think it matters much to infuse one's work with too many catholic characters and beliefs. Like Veronica said, our works should concentrate on promoting God's love, revealing truths about the human condition as we are inspired to and equally important, combating the evils not only in society and in "high places" but also within ourselves because I believe most of us, if not all of us have realized that we know God and ourselves more deeply by being dedicated to our craft and practicing it in line with our faith. About the melodrama...haha! That's kinda my forte! Anyways, in the end it doesn't matter how infused a work is with Catholic Symbols, however since we have been baptized and our spirits are aligned with the will of God, it is imperative to work according to the guidance of the Spirit by listening to our hearts. That's what I think.

    Edwin Bozie.

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