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Saturday, May 14, 2005
BEAUTY = LOOKING LIKE WHAT GOD DOES - ?

I'm in that hellish, scary place of preparing a couple of new talks. This means I'm doing lots of book reading, surfing the Internet, earnest discussing with blinking-eyed friends, and brooding, brooding, brooding (although in my happy Sicilian way...thank God I didn't take after our French dark side!) At the end of it, I'll have a new schtick to add to my repertoire - exactly like my opera singing sister, Val, adding a new aria to hers.

Part of my process is invariably trying to engage my older sister, Cynthia, in doing the hard thinking for me. She's over in Ireland somewhere. I thought you might enjoy our email correspondence about this Catholic beauty thing. If you comment something really profound, I will certainly rip you off in my speeches, unless you put your name.

Here's my first sally to Cynthia. I'll post her response next.

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I am stuck on the idea that there is a necessary connection between representational art and beauty. I'm hearing a lot of Baby Boomers chastise younger devout Catholics for wanting to bring back old stuff, in terms of art. I think there certainly is an attraction to be connected to the old stuff in the way that it connects them to their family heritage in the Church, but I think there is more too. Old stuff is representational. That is, things look like things we see. Modern art has been largely non-representational. Modern religious art finds a launching point in trying to look "real", but then delights in subverting the "real" in favor of making statements.

A case in point is the crucifix in the sanctuary of the new Los Angeles cathedral. It is some kind of metal. I seem to recall it being reddish - or having red streaks on it. It is basically pock-marked and ruggedish - with the torso of Jesus being this long skinny pockmarked thing. The representational here is in the fact that there is a recognizable cross, and a figure that indicates a human body -- even in its distortion, it isn't a cow or a bumble-bee.

The question is - why the pock-marked spattered mess? It doesn't affect you emotionally. It affects you intellectually. I never ask "Why?" when I walk into St. Peter's and look at the Pieta. It makes me want to pray.

The moderns seem to be trying to say things to the brain all the time, in their medium and method. I don't see the great art of the past being so preocupied with this. The statements being made may or may not be true, but the work of their hands is invariably not "harmonious" in terms of the universe. Which means it is generally not harmonious in itself.

It can't be that my notion of the harmonious is subjective based on my living in this world, surrounded by the stuff here, right? I judge things to be harmonious because they are balanced and beyond...it's math, not perpective.

I think we instinctively relate representational art to beauty, because in representational art we are staying close to the designs that God resorted to. And God only makes things that are perfectly ordered - harmonious. So, the closer my portrait of someone looks like a person, the more beautiful it is.

So then, what do we do with Flannery's assertion that art finds its power in a certain amount of distortion?

Anything you want to add here? Just jump in anywhere.

Secondly, JPII wrote that what the Church needs in art today is a new iconography. He said, the symbols of the past - wheat, rainbows, peacocks, shepherd - all belonged to another time and no longer have significance for people. I like the idea, but, I can't really imagine its application. Does this mean we need images of electronics - or smog filled skies - or test tubes? Have the agrarian images really lost their power? It's true, I don't have half the understanding of what the life of a shepherd entails, but there is something messy and absurd as trying to sell images of "Jesus: The Good Information Technology Guy. He never loses memory. He never crashes. He always saves."

I am seriously considering dissing all non-representational modern art as far as the Church is concerned. You have a few days to try and stop me...