Oddities of Artist versus Art

There is a story about St. Teresa of Avila responding to criticisms of an artist. The Church had commissioned some work of art by an artist who was a notorious philanderer. Many Catholics of her day, including her Sisters, were scandalized by it. St. Teresa said, “If Satan himself painted a picture of Jesus, and it was a good picture of Jesus, I would still venerate it as an image of Jesus, regardless of who made it.”

That says something about the attitude Catholics should have regarding art and the artist, or even the professional and the profession. Our instinct is, of course, to see them as one and inseparable, to not support the work for fear of endorsing the sin. Yet it is a fundamental thing we must understand and accept as Catholics. After all, the most important “profession” is that of the priesthood, and the Church teaches us that the priest’s sacramental duties are performed ultimately by Christ working through him, so the personal sanctity of the priest does not matter (though the form of the sacramental rituals *does*, because it shows the unity of the entire church in prayer; simply put, if the priest changes the words, he’s not praying the prayer the rest of the Church is praying).

Anyway, I’ve often reflected on that with contemporary artists. Years ago, _The World Over_ had a Christmas special. Among its guests were Charlotte Church (when she was still a fairly decent-seeming teenager) and Aaron Neville (“What’s Aaron Neville doing on _The World Over_?” I thought, knowing him only for that duet with Linda Ronstadt).

Well, when Raymond Arroyo asked Charlotte “Voice of Angel” Church about why she sang so many religious songs on her albums, her answer was, “Because they’re pretty.” Then, he interviewed tattooed, jewelry-covered Aaron Neville, who went on about how important his Catholic faith had always been to him in his life and career, in varying ways, but how he had gone through a relatively recent reversion/conversion experience and come back to the Church big time. I was shocked at the contrast.

Then, several years ago, I was curious about Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzeneggar. I had heard the early rumors about _The Passion_. At one point, Deal Hudson wrote a column about Mel Gibson pulling out of a pro-life conference he’d committed to speak at (I later heard of that occuring a few times). I’d seen the many stories about his family and traditionalism and all that. So I began watching a bunch of Mel Gibson movies. Certainly, the more recent ones had some Catholic themes in them (_Signs_, given M. Night Shyamalan‘s sensibilities).

But the further back I got, I didn’t see it. Some OK action films and what have you, but nothing really that profound.

Then there was Ah-nold. I knew he was allegedly a Republican, one of the few outspoken Republicans in Hollywood. I’d known that since he worked for the George H.W. Bush administration.. I had recently found out he was Catholic. I knew he was married to Maria Shriver, a major minus, but I wondered what, exactly, his views were. He was, at that point, “considering” running for governor of California, and I wanted to know if this was a good thing.

So, during the same couple years, I went through a period of watching a bunch of movies from two of the biggest 80s “action” stars (not being a particular fan of the “action” genre beyond the occasional catharsis), both to find out if their movies showed any hints of their alleged Catholicism.

Funny thing is, I saw more hints of it in Schwarzeneggar’s movies than I did in Gibson’s. Definitely, more of a sense of roles chosen for some kind of “point,” even if it was a liberal one. It is really rather interesting. It is often pointed out that some of the Catholic authors we idolize from the early twentieth century, like Graham Greene, for example, were not the best men–and, of course, their novels’ ability to depict moral crises in a genuine way would have to stem from some personal experience. Even J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis (obviously not a Catholic, but still falls in the category) were not exactly saints in their private lives.

But then there are two other extremes. There are the Michael O’Briens and Bud Macfarlanes, who produce what is basically pulp fiction for goody-two shoeses. Flannery O’Connor lambasts this category of Catholic writers as producing work that is, from an artistic perspective, no better than porn. Porn exagggerates evil; puritan literature exaggerates good. Neither views the world realistically.

But there are also writers like G. K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and, in a way, Tolkein, who were deeply committed Catholics (though Tolkein had his issues). and their work often is hard to distinguish from that of secular writers. They have profound Catholic themes deeply embedded in their work, but, as O’Connor puts it, it’s the “lens” through which they view the events.

This is something I explain to my literature students. You can look at the *events* in stories Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and those *events* will seem almost indistinguishable in content. The stories are, superficially, violent and bleak and depressing. But the key, as O’Connor says, is what the characters in the story do with the violent events they experience: whether they take the moment of crisis as a cause for despair or a catalyst for repentance.

So, that leaves us with several categories of Catholic artists:

a. Those wayward Catholics whose Catholic background is nothing more than “pretty songs”, who use the outward trappings of Catholicism in their stories but do so merely for its aesthetic or cultural value, or to promote some social application of morality (if they get that deep).
b. Those devout Catholics whose art is primarily polemical, “fictionalized theology.”
c. Those wayward Catholics–or reverts, or “peak and trough” Catholics–who struggle or have struggled with their faith, and express that struggle in their fiction in a genuine way (one of the two best categories).
d. Those devout Catholics who see their art as art first, and they just make good art, but they see the world through the “lens” of their Catholicism, so their works become great Catholic art (the other of the two best categories).
e. Those (not discussed yet) who are in some stage of trying to divest themselves of the Church, trying to escape from their Catholic “baggage,” as they call it. These may incorporate Catholicism into their art as a means of “working things out” and trying to rebel from the Church. However, what’s interesting is that, like Arnold Schwarzeneggar, these people may inadvertantly produce work that a serious Catholic can look at and see some worth in.
f. Those who are devout yet do not really incorporate their faith into their work at all, except in the most superficial way.

To wit, EWTN now has Fr. C. John McCloskey’s Catholic Authors series archived in MP3!! I was working on my MA when these shows originally aired, and I watched them with great interest. They’re just Fr. McCloskey talking with various experts. I dont’ even recall many visual aids. So it won’t make a difference listening in real audio.

7 responses to “Oddities of Artist versus Art

  1. Great article. I have to admit when I first saw the headline show up in my email, I was very reserved about finding a well-rounded argument. So many “Catholic” sites are not that well-rounded. But this article was both thoughtful and thought-provoking. The fact that you came down on the same points that I value was an additional benefit 🙂 but not the reason that I valued the blog in the first place. I enjoy Catholics who think, and there are more of us than we might realize… a quiet majority?

  2. John C. Hathaway

    Thanks for your kind words! That’s the first time this blog has ever been called “balanced.” 🙂

  3. That is hilarious! It really was well-balanced posting.. I think that this is the first time I’ve read your blog, so I don’t have any history here. So I’ll be watching! 🙂

    As a contemporary (and traditional -both) Catholic musician, I think that Catholics would benefit in general from reading this thread, if you decide to continue with it. It is time for us to realize that ours is Universal and Holy Church and that true art should be expressed by those who profess Its faith. So keep going!

    Bob Metivier

  4. You wrote: “There are the Michael O’Briens and Bud Macfarlanes, who produce what is basically pulp fiction for goody-two shoeses. Flannery O’Connor lambasts this category of Catholic writers as producing work that is, from an artistic perspective, no better than porn. Porn exagggerates evil; puritan literature exaggerates good. Neither views the world realistically.”

    I think this is overly harsh. There is a fundamental difference between exaggerating evil and exaggerating good. One can bring only harm, the other may bring good.

    Case in point: My mom was contacted last week by my cousin. Ten years ago, when he was sitting in jail for various drug charges, she sent him a copy of MacFarlane’s Pierced by a Sword. In his phone call last week, he said he’d been attending his NA meetings, and really struggling. He said he remembered that book she had sent him, and it really hit him. He started attending Mass, praying the rosary, and calling my Mom regularly for advice. He said his own family makes fun of him for his newfound devotion, and he’s happy that my Mom is supporting him. Now, that book’s depictions of Catholic life may be unrealistic, but God was able to work through it to affect a real beginning to a fledgeling faith. Now before you say it, of course it will take more than a book like that to maintain Jason’s conversion, but that’s what the Sacraments are for, and the book led him back to them. Whatever shortcomings the work may have, and I’ll readily admit there are many, it’s essential goodness is not to be dismissed. Exaggerated good is not the same as exaggerated evil.

    As for O’Brien, his books are beautiful, and make theology accessible to people like me who have a hard time slugging their way through non-fiction texts. Sophia House is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m deeply interested in the Holocaust, so the setting resonates for me, but what appeals the most is O’Brien’s treatment of what I call the “invisible cross.” There are many visible crosses – physical and/or mental disability, poverty, disease, oppression – sufferings which are obvious to others, and elicit their sympathy and prayers. Then there are crosses which are hidden – private struggles with grave temptation, impulsive tendencies, inescapable hidden abuses – afflictions that are known to God alone. Such crosses can be a tremendous gift. If carried with love, they foster humility, charity, and open the heart to many other graces. If I am bearing this hidden burden, others may be suffering in silence as well; I will be more understanding to their faults and forgiving of the injuries they cause me. Recall how the Gospels again and again tell us that offerings made without the knowledge of others are far more valuable than visible ones; offering up my invisible cross can do much good in the world. O’Brien makes these points again and again and again. For those to whom they apply, his books can be a conduit for grace.

    Different styles of writing serve different purposes, and different audiences. Any work that contains Truth can be used by God to a good end. Equating MacFarlane’s and O’Brien’s books with porn is a gross mischaracterization, and deeply uncharitable. The depiction of unrealistically-saintly characters does not glorify evil, as porn does, and may even lead readers to emulate saintly behavior – hardly a bad thing. If the saintly ideal is a bad thing to read about, then we should shy away from A Story of a Soul. But should we not still strive to be like The Little Flower, even if her virtue is far beyond that of our own feeble souls?

  5. John C. Hathaway

    Hi, Joy,

    It’s a question of artistic versus practical standards. In this case, I’m focusing primarily on artistic merit.

    You’ve mentioned O’Brien before. I haven’t actually read his novels, so maybe I’m putting him in the wrong category. But I’ve read his columns, and I’ve read excerpts from _Landscape with Dragons_, and he generally advocates an overly puritanical view of literature.

    Bud Macfarlane’s books, as you say, have a lot of merits. I think the second one (_Conceived Without Sin_?) is the best. But it’s no secret that their primary *purpose* is polemical, not artistic. MacFarlane is a good example of the shortfalls of such literature for two reasons.

    One of the things that makes _Conceived without Sin_ better than the other two is that it’s essentially a timeless book, and, even though it’s polemical, its primary purpose is to evangelize generally.

    _Pierced by a Sword_ tries to deal with a variety of subjects, some of which it does quite well, but its *primary* goal is to promote predictions attributed to alleged Marian apparitions. The book is now severely outdated in many respects, and that negates its efficacy as an evangelization tool.

    Secondly, and I was a big fan of his for quite some time, MacFarlane’s spirituality is quite superficial. Those who are well versed in John of the Cross, etc., warn strongly against the kinds oof spirituality MacFarlane promotes . I used to argue strongly against such people: until he left his wife and totally turned against everything he’d previously taught about Catholic marriage, homeschooling, etc.

    Those points said, I agree with whta you’re saying. It’s just answering a different question about how you view the work.

    I love _The Chronicles of Narnia_, but I would be the first to admit that, taken as works of art, they are not *as good as* _Till We Have Faces_.

    Most of the categories I suggest in this post can have their merits as tools of evangelization, and each can reach out to people in a different way.

  6. I seriously suggest that you read O’Brien. He actually writes a great deal about art, and his novels are not superficial. Sophia House and Island of the World are his best, in my opinion.

    I don’t particularly like the MacFarlane books, anymore, myself, for some of the very reasons you suggest.

    As for artistic merit, I don’t think art should be judged apart from its subject matter. A good subject can at least partially redeem bad art, but the reverse is not true. A masterpiece that glorifies evil can do tremendous harm.

  7. John C. Hathaway

    That’s the trouble with my job. I have to do so much reading for work that when I’m done my eyes are too tired to read for fun, and then I have to read to the kids. I think I haven’t read a novel for fun since at least 2003, when I started working for Seton.

    If I do ever get a chance to read O’Brien’s work, it may illustrate the principle I was originally getting at in this post 🙂

    It’s not a question of subject matter at all. The question is art that *has* intentional “subject matter” versus art that is made to express something. When any one element is exaggerated over the others, be it the theme or moral, the plot, the description, or whatever, the art suffers.

    A person who sets out to write a novel to prove a point is not going to write a very good novel.’
    Why do people like _Bella_ so much ? Because it makes its point without really being preachy. By contrast, most of the critical reviews of _Fireproof_ have criticized it for being too preachy.

    Certainly, something that glorifies evil does great harm. But a work that *depicts* great evil while not necessarily glorifying it and by honestly depicting its consequences, can make a point just as much as a work that depicts ideally good characters.

    The point of a work of literature should be to tell the story, to depict the world in which those characters live. In one of her lectures on writing, O’Connor says the writer’s goal is to “put the slippers on the clerk” (referring to a particularly vivid scene from _Madame Bovary_).

    If the writer’s goal is to “make a point”, he will sacrifice the plot and characters for the sake of his point.

    But if he focuses on character and plot, and yet depicts human behavior, and the world, as he sees them, he can still make his point by implication.

    Let’s put it another way: it’s hard to read a Flannery O’Connor story and “get the point” right off the bat. There are other Christian writers whose work you can read immediately and get something from immediately.

    But with O’Connor, you have to read her stories at least twice to really start seeing things. But, as you delve into them, what you get is far more profound than what you get ffrom reading Bud macfarlane.

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