What’s the Use of Catholic Art?

“Art is a freely given superabundance of the human being's inner riches.” (CCC 2501)

Hans III Jordaens, “Kunst- und Raritätenkabinett”, c. 1630
Hans III Jordaens, “Kunst- und Raritätenkabinett”, c. 1630 (photo: Public Domain)

What is art supposed to do? In a world obsessed with practicality, efficiency and the bottom line, does art have a function?

First, what do I mean by art? I mean any human activity where we are creative. Art would therefore include everything from cooking and gardening and crafts to the production of popular culture as well as the production of ‘fine’ art, music, drama and literature.

Is art practical? Not really. Does it pay? Not really. Art is a reminder that there are better things in life than cost effectiveness. In fact, it reminds us that the best things in life have nothing at all to do with cost effectiveness.

In addition to this, art has other functions. It educates, illustrates and inspires. Art can be didactic. It can teach us a lesson that can be stated in rational language. So, a picture with a caption is didactic if the caption tells us what to think about. Art can illustrate a truth. Much of the great Christian art illustrates Bible stories so that we can understand them and visualize them better. Art can also inspire us. The beauty of form and content can lift our hearts and minds to higher, more pure and lofty things.

The highest form of art does all the above and more. A painting, a symphony, a play or a film that really works, takes us on a journey and leads us into an encounter. The highest forms of art do this by touching our emotions. 

Through the emotional encounter we are engaged with Truth at a deeper than discursive level. Through the profound emotional encounter with art we engage with Truth incarnated in a way that is below and beyond analysis and explication. This encounter with Truth is valid at the deepest level of our humanity, and when we participate in this a little corner of our darkness is enlightened.

One day Beethoven played one of his sonatas for a young man. He finished the final note, and the rather literally minded auditor said, “What does it mean?” Beethoven scowled at him, and without a word simply played the sonata again.

When we try to produce a poem, a play, an opera, a painting or any form of art we participate as ‘sub-creators’ with the Creator himself. Our making of art is a little participation in the divine nature in whose image each one of has been created.

Therefore art is like worship. In a practical, utilitarian world it seems useless. Like laughter, sports, dancing and drama—art is like playtime, but in that play time we experience the world and ourselves and God and others in a new way.

We have just built a beautiful new church in our parish. We took the time and trouble and expenditure to include sacred art in the church. We salvaged 47 stained glass windows from a church in Massachusetts. We commissioned some new art from contemporary artists. We salvaged old statues, candle stands and other furniture. We cleaned them up, had them restored and put them into place.

I explain to the children in our school that the art in our church is not just pretty Catholic stuff we put in the church the way we might hang a poster or a picture on the wall at home or buy decorative items to place in our house. Instead the art all connects with our faith and each icon, statue, carving, stained glass window or painting opens up a new vista on our faith. 

That’s what art does. It gives us a new way of seeing and a new way of being.