The great days of Catholic art are long gone!
Are greater days ahead? Is the dearth of authentic Catholic art related to a moral lapse in Catholic culture?
Catholics are doing a shallow kind of breathing in lately (say, oh, the last century or so) of a slowly dissipating aroma of the great art from bygone epochs. Alert: an authentic renewal is needed. And now! The truth is that renewals are always needed, and have always come as the Holy Spirit leads. We’ve gone on for so long without a renewal of art, that Catholic art culture has been reduced to ordering cheap prints of the work of bygone Masters, which are displayed in virtual stores alongside the worst of kitsch with no apparent discrimination between the two, as Maureen Mullarkey opines in an article about “Catholic art” and “Catholic artists”:
You are invited to “live your Catholic faith” with vendors’ T-shirts, prints, online frame shops and no sales tax. At one Catholic superstore, you can add to your cart a sterling silver Della Fonte—not to be confused, mind you, with Della Robbia—Madonna and Child. Taken together, the mix of popular devotion, kitsch and commercialism seems a persuasive argument for iconoclasm.
The reliquary prestige of art from past centuries must not obscure the dignity of man’s creative initiative at whatever point in history he finds himself.
Setting aside her thesis, for now, that a “Catholic artist” is quaint idea best left in the past, and another thought that bad Christian art is actually anti-Christian, a new language for authentically Catholic sacred works of art is needed and it can’t be forged in a prison-like mindset of mediocrity, cheap culture, and half-truths. It certainly won’t come from Protestant culture, which has no art tradition. The way of beauty needs to be dusted off. A new visual language will be an authentic representation of the interior work the Holy Spirit is doing, now, in the hearts and minds of artists that hunger for heaven and eternal things.
A search for “catholic art” using some advanced keyword tools reveals the following related terms:
|Keyword||Annual Search Volume|
|catholic clip art||80,196|
|art catholic clip religious||18,864|
|free catholic clip art||17,112|
|catholic religious art||15,924|
|roman catholic art||8,136|
|catholic art prints||6,888|
|art catholic framed||6,504|
Consider that positions 2-4 are for…clip art. For what? Cheaply printed bulletins, of course. If you do a similar search for “catholic artists”, you get a search volume of: 864. Yes, nearly 200,000 search presumably for cheap Catholic art, but not quite 1000 searches for actual Catholic artists. Something is amiss!
It’s as if the desire for cheap replicas of the art of long-past eras is one in the same as longing for the “good ol’ days”. Memories are cheap but can be toxic. Does the vapid reminiscing of the past automatically exclude a vigorous engagement of the present? I would argue yes, and it can only be that way. If Catholicism is a living tradition, then treating the art of the past like a worn-thin high school year book is consonant with breaking the “hermeneutic of continuity“, as Pope Benedict puts it. It is a betrayal of sorts, of the Gospel, to gaze doe-eyed at the past without at the same time forming a plan of action for the present. The current lack of Catholic art and culture indicates a kind of Gospel malaise among Catholics. It’s a sign. An indicator that something is amiss. Where we lack in expressions of joy (art, music, literature), we lack moral and ethical victory in our lives.
These two lapses, of ethics and art, are tied together at the hip. They are blood brothers, conjoined twins, partners in crime, two sides of the same coin. They are the same problem.
The Catholic Artist Society in New York had another of it’s evenings of recollection on June 28th, 2012. A brief message was given by Father Isaac Mary Spinharney, CFR, where he reflected on:
…the work and spiritual life of the Artist, who needs to cultivate a great deal of interior freedom in order to be open to inspiration, to create, and to particpate [sic] as a co-creator with God, the author and Creator of all things.
True interior freedom for the Catholic artist, the fruit of the renewal of the heart and mind through the Gospel, expresses itself as both ethics and an authentic renewal of artistic genius.
Artistic renewal in Catholic culture will emerge as artists embrace the Gospel (once again) in a new way through personal repentance, as Catholic artists sing a new song, and paint a new picture.