Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thoughts on Art From Three Very Smart Men

I was recently at a small gathering with two of the people on the planet who make me feel very good about the state of the Church, and the future of the human race. As long as we have people on the team like Dana Gioia and Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, I think we will be okay.

Dana Gioia is the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a Catholic, a poet, and one of the most impressive men I have ever met. I remember the first time I met him in his office in Washington, his staff had clearly given him a copy of my bio and he saw that I had written a script about Emily Dickinson. So when he shook my hand he quoted from memory one of Emily's poems. Way to win me over real fast. A year or so later, Dana gave the closing address to our Washington, DC Act One program. As part of his noteless talk, he recited from memory about 30 lines of the "All the World's a Stage" speech from Shakespeare's, As You Like It. I remember thinking at the time, "Just sign me up and tell me what to do." When the Chairman gave his blessing to Act One, and then we got an NEA grant, I knew we were on the right track.

I'd never met Cardinal Schonborn, but had heard that he is "papabili." That's Catholic for, he's one of those men in the Church who kind of reeks "Could be Pope." After having heard him speak for thirty minutes or so, I tend to agree. A very impressive man. Definitely smart. But also had the aura of Christ about him.

The event was put on by The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, basically to announce the upcoming translation of that great philosophers' Aesthetics into English. As someone who is always trying to put together a life-framework that brings together the arts and faith, I can't wait for this book to be available in English. Von Hildebrand was the dominant philosophical influence of my undergraduate life. And his Transformation in Christ was the dominant challenge in shaping my spiritual life and subsequent choices. If you haven't heard of von Hildebrand, you're missing a big piece of the 'coping with modernity as a disciple puzzle."

Called a philosophical genius by Edmund Husserl, (no small potatoes himself), von Hildebrand was also designated "enemy number one" by the Ambasador of Hitler's Third Reich in Austria. When our present Pope was Cardinal Ratzinger he noted on one occasion, "I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time."

The work of translating von Hildebrand's thoughts on beauty and art into English is being funded largely through the generosity of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. I was very impressed to see all the non-Catholic Christians who came to be part of the lunch, to celebrate this the paradigm Catholic philosopher. We have come a long way since the Reformation, I am thinking, and we will go very much farther in the next decade. You can quote me.

Here's a blurb from von Hildebrand's Aesthetics that touches directly on a theme that has been a principal part of my schtick these last ten years. It really meant a lot to find myself in synch here with this man's thought.

"...let me affirm unambiguously that beauty does in fact have an ennobling effect. Contact with an environment permeated by beauty not only offers a real protection against every kind of impurity and baseness, brutality, and untruthfulness; it also has the positive effect of elevating us in an ethical sense. It does not draw us into a self-centered pleasure where we only wish to indulge ourselves. On the contrary, it opens our hearts, inviting us to transcendence and leading us before the face of God...(Beauty) frees us from captivity in our egoistic interests and undoes the fetters of our hearts, releasing us (even if only for a short time) from the wild passions that constrain them."

I think this volume will go a long way to realizing that "renewal of the fruitful dialog that used to exist between the Church and the arts," that was called for by John Paul II in his Letter to Artists.

I jotted down a few quotes from the remarks of Dana Gioia and the Cardinal at the luncheon. Here they are:

"Dante and Mozart have brought more souls to God than any preacher." Dana Gioia

"(The problem in culture today) is that we have de-spiritualized art, and dehumanized religion." Dana Gioia

"Catholic musicians at Mass do not perform. They participate." Cardinal Schonborn

"We are living in a world in which ugliness has become a general invasion. Loss of proportion. Loss of harmony. Loss of tradition. Modern art is itself the deliberate deconstruction of secular traditions." Cardinal Schonborn

There was lots more good stuff said, but those were some of the notes I jotted down because they served me where I am at right now. I must say, I am very glad to see the Church starting to wake up over this art and culture thing. God willing, the Church will one day be patron of the Arts again.

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