Where is the great Christian art? I’ve been wondering that ever since my conversion, and lately it seems that that question has been on other people’s minds as well. Marc Barnes recently took a look at what’s wrong with Christian rock, then found the answer: Christian radio. Kevin O’Brien made the point that “the True, the Beautiful and the Good echo the glory of the Holy Trinity, and we dare not as artist or audience settle for the Trite, the Banal and the Mediocre.” In the first comment to that post, Derek Caudill wrote:
Reminds me of how Dr. Peter Kreeft [said] in his talk, “Shocking Beauty,” that out of the three ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the one we Catholics have lost out on is beauty. We’re pretty moral, and our thinkers are pretty smart, but we’re boring and lame. We’re not grabbing hearts and intuitions. We’ve fallen behind in art, music, and culture in general, where the Church used to lead Western civilization.
This is the sort of complicated question that I enjoy dissecting while I fold laundry, so I’ve spent hours trying to figure out why Catholicism is no longer associated with great art. Recently, something clicked when I read a post by Erin Manning in which she talked about submitting a children’s science fiction book to a Catholic publisher. She explained that most of her characters aren’t human and live on anther planet, so the Mass and other elements of the Faith don’t directly come into play. However, the moral sphere in which the story plays out is a decidedly Catholic one. Manning writes:
[The publisher] wrote back very kindly, encouraging me to submit the work to a secular publisher, but telling me that my being a Catholic and a writer did not make my book Catholic fiction. Only having my characters attend Mass, pray the rosary, have deep theological discussions, venerate the saints etc. could make my book “Catholic fiction.” The fact that some of my characters, the human ones, have only the most tenuous of connections to the people of Earth and that the rest aren’t human at all does not, apparently, mitigate this burning need for Catholic fiction to contain plenty of overt Catholic stuff with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
I think we’re getting closer to the heart of the problem here. When Catholic media producers tell their artists to produce something overtly Catholic, instead of telling them to produce something beautiful, they’re not always going to get the best possible products. Sure, sometimes great art will focus on elements of Christianity (e.g. the Sistine Chapel); but other times the Holy Spirit may simply inspire a devout Catholic to create something that glorifies God without specifically mentioning the Faith at all (e.g. The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Of course an artist’s work will be greater and purer if he prays the Rosary every day; but to tell him that he must paint rosaries all the time in order to be a good Catholic artist is to put a straight jacket on the Muse.
Now, I have a feeling that if my friends in the Catholic publishing industry were to read that, they would say: “We agree with that to some extent, but publishing is a business, and it’s the overtly Catholic books that sell.” And why is that?
I think that consumers of art—books, music, movies and television in particular—are always hungry for beauty and greatness. But it’s hard to come by. To create great art takes a ton of time and hard work, and therefore there isn’t a lot of it out there. And so there isn’t a lot of incentive for Catholic-run media companies to branch out from specifically Catholic topics. A mediocre book about the Mass will sell better than a mediocre fiction story, because there are plenty of people who have enough interest in the Mass that they’d be willing to overlook flaws in a book on the subject. It’s safer to stick with topics directly related to Catholicism.
Obviously, there is a big place in the Catholic art world for books and movies and television shows that speak about the Faith directly, and a lot of what’s currently out there is fantastic (my husband and I converted in large part because of EWTN television and great apologetics books). I’m also not suggesting that there are no Catholic artists out there who are producing top-quality on subject matter outside of Catholic doctrine. But I do think that there are not enough great Catholic artists right now; certainly not as many as there could be. Why? It is here that we really get to the heart of that question, Where is the great Christian art?
I think Barbara Nicolosi nailed it when she said in this interview:
The Church needs to get back into the work of the Beautiful. It needs to get back into the work of subsidizing and training and mentoring artists and guilds. It needs to feed people who can sing and write music, and commission their works. In a previous day, we would have commissioned statues and paintings. Today’s Church should commission novels and movies and screenplays.
Creative genius doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even history’s most talented artists spent thousands of hours learning from the masters of their crafts. The pattern you see with many of the great Christian painters and writers throughout the ages is that they practiced, practiced, got feedback from experts, and then practiced some more. The same holds true for the artists of today: Creating beautiful, God-glorifying art takes a lot of work. And many people bursting with talent don’t have the resources to free up the time they need to reach their full potential. They need patrons. As Nicolosi points out, they need organizations and individuals within the Church to help them gain access to the training and knowledge they need in order to achieve excellence in their fields.
And so I think the answer to the question Where is the great Christian art? is perhaps best answered with another question: Where are the great patrons of Christian art?