A sizeable percentage of committed Catholics have given up on the arts: literature, poetry, visual art, music, and film, at least art that is produced in the public arena. Other Catholics have built a wall between their beliefs and the entertainment they seek from fiction, films, and music, dividing their faith and their recreational reading, viewing, and listening.
The problem with these attitudes is that modern society, in large part, is formed by the arts, and the steady stream of art that disparages and ridicules Catholic beliefs, with few countervailing influences, is producing a dogmatically nihilistic, self-indulgent society. For over a century, art has been judged through the lens of a kind of aesthetic nihilism, which asserts that there is nothing transcendent, nothing that is objectively True, Beautiful, or Good; everything is ephemeral, subjective, and, ultimately, annihilated by the forces of nature. Thus, art containing a transcendent perspective, no matter how inspired or depicted, is un-serious by definition. Sadly, this lens has coarsened culture rather than elevating it, just subjective opinions to an art elite that prides itself on superior intellect and discrimination. That isn’t to say that all public art is bereft of value, but who can deny that the dark thread of nihilism and materialism has infected much of it? Whose High Art today actually probes, inspires, stirs, and awakens?
Sacred art is essential, as it enhances our churches, liturgies, prayer, and many other life experiences, but sacred art is not enough. Catholic engagement with secular art is more essential than ever. But how, in a society that is largely suspicious of traditional faith in general, and Catholicism in particular, and jaded when it comes to values and morality? Such a society can hardly be leavened by resorting to dogma or Biblical texts; such a society requires a kind of proto-evangelization.
This culturally arid state of affairs means that it’s not a matter of producing Catholic art, but of producing art from a Catholic perspective. Joseph Pearce, in his book, Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, identifies and describes many Catholic novelists, essayists, correspondents, poets, and even visual artists who, despite their flaws and weaknesses, exerted a profound effect on their societies through their art: J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, and Salvador Dali among them. Americans Flannery O’Connor and William F. Buckley could also be added to this list, along with the jazz musician Dave Brubeck and the Anglo-American filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. None of these are predominantly known for producing Catholic art, but much of their work was imbued with a Catholic perspective or a Catholic sensibility. Certainly, there are Catholics today who are producing art in this vein, but too few, and many are ignored by other Catholics and Christians because their work is neither explicitly Catholic nor as titillating as that found in the secular arena.
About Flannery O’Connor, who described what constituted a “Catholic” novel, Pearce writes, “It is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but is simply ‘one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by’”. Another way to say it is art from a Catholic perspective need not be suitable for children or even many young adults; O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited certainly aren’t. Films like Shadow of a Doubt, which Hitchcock directed, and The Third Man, with Graham Greene’s screenplay, though depicting grave disorder, also display ‘truth as Christians know it…used as a light to see the world by’. This perspective can also be applied to poetry, visual art, and music.
One gets the sense that Waugh, O’Connor, Eliot, Tolkien wrote the stories they wanted to tell, and that these stories exuded a Catholic perspective because an affinity for Beauty, Truth, and the Good was buried, like a sprouting seed, deep inside them; not because they made an explicit decision to evangelize via their writing. Thus, readers retain the freedom to apply the story to their own experiences and yearnings rather than being made pawns of the author, as Tolkien describes the difference between application and allegory.
If Catholics cede art in the public square to atheists and nihilists, as we have been doing in recent decades, culture will continue to erode. Some of the most avant-garde art today is profoundly dehumanizing, and when the sense of human special-ness (sacred-ness to Christians) is lost, human rights are bound to follow. A cold and clammy utilitarianism is filling the void. We must march into this public square boldly and take our medicine when it comes to criticism, both valid and ideologically-driven, but we also ought to march in with creative energy, bringing our Catholic perspective and sensibilities in a way that is accessible to people of goodwill and discernment.
As to the arts, we need engagement, not estrangement.