Thursday, August 19, 2004

PART I - PATRON OF THE ARTS

I am writing a three-part series for the National Catholic Register on the Church as Patron of the Arts. Part One is on the Arts and the Liturgy. Part Two is on Beauty and the Church. The third part will be on The Arts and Priestly Formation.

The series grew out of the talk I gave at the Mundelein Seminarians Formation Conference. It was too much work to just get one talk out of it. There are so many more people still to be alienated!... Starting with the editorial crew at the Register. They liked my first version but asked me to make it nicer. So, I did. Although I did pose the question, "What is meaner, my ironic comments or three decades of Glory and Praise?"

Here's a snip from Part One...

When art has been commissioned in these post-Conciliar years, it has too often been a victim of the trend toward politicization of religious belief. Many, frankly, ugly works of art have been justified for their social or propagandistic purposes, as opposed to aesthetic or devotional ones.

An example of this kind of unfortunate sacred art is in the statue that looms over the door of the new Los Angeles Cathedral. My twenty-something students nick-named the piece “Man-hands Mary” because the short-haired image has our Blessed Mother with sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, revealing heavily veined masculine arms and hands stretched out like she’s ready to catch a football. The tour guide at the Cathedral told us that the artist wanted to portray Mary as strong and “more human than strictly female.” I responded, “But I don’t know any real people like that. Real people tend to have genders.” The tour guide exhaled patiently, “This statue represents what the Mary figure symbolizes.” (The Mary “figure”?) “Yes,” I rejoined, “but it is kind of, you know, ugly.” The guide pretty much tossed her head, “The Church isn’t about that kind of thing any more.”

On the right side of the spectrum, in the best situations there still tends to be an overemphasis on reverence as an end in itself in the liturgy. Poor, needy humanity is almost an embarrassment that gets left outside the doors. The liturgy is not some kind of holiness show that substitutes propriety and formalism for genuine encounter between God and His sheep.

Because we have so few devout artists left in our community, even when the People of God want beautiful contemporary art, it is tough going to find some. So, a lot of traditional parishes are cluttered with tacky, sentimental images of saints and angels. As the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor noted, sentimentality is an inexcusable error for a believer.

On the worst side of the right, are those Catholics who have reacted to the aesthetic mess of the post-Conciliar period by stripping down the liturgy with a kind of vengeance. No music, no style to the homilies, quickie Masses that offer no sensual helps at all for the poor sheep who have wandered in from the insanity of the confused world outside. One priest told me once with a touch of anger, “The Church was never stronger in Ireland than during the years of persecution when the people used to have Mass huddled in fields with no singing or ceremony.”

Yes, but time of persecution creates its own climate of prayer. People who are praying at the risk of their lives have an amazing ability to stay focused. This is not the situation of the glutted, bored and, catechetically, ignorant Church in America.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have no idea how to use the blogger thing yet; I'm slowly entering the 21st century. Anyway, I loved your article. I've always felt so guilty that I didn't like some of the statues in the churches. What you said about an overemphasis on reverence and what Flannery O'Connor said about sentimentality being an inexcusable error for believers is very helpful. I had been recently thinking about that - in my attempt to be stronger in my faith, I have been trying so hard to be holy that I forgot about coming to Jesus as me, not as some pious imposter. But, at the same time, I think that all that attempt was part of the journey. At least I had something I was striving for. Now I can see that I can come to Him more authentically, whatever that is in my broken human state! But you know, as my faith has grown, I have come to appreciate the statues and artwork more, and they don't seem so overly sentimental.
Thank you.

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