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Art, love, and a Catholic renaissance: An interview with Michael O’Brien

The Canadian author, iconographer, and critic reflects on Art and Sacrificial Love: A Conversation with Michael D. O’Brien, a newly newly published book-length interview with the professor and artist Clemens Cavallin.

(Images: Ignatius Press)

Michael D. O’Brien is a remarkably prolific artist. Author of many novels, painter, and icon writer, his output is incredibly varied and tremendous. His novels reach across many different genres, including science fiction and more, and his art is breathtaking in its honesty and beautiful simplicity.

Ignatius Press recently published Art and Sacrificial Love: A Conversation with Michael D. O’Brien, by Clemens Cavallin. The book recounts a series of conversations the two had at O’Brien’s Ontario home over the course of three days a decade ago, in 2011, discussing a wide array of topics, mostly centered around the “art world” and the concept of Christian art in today’s society.

O’Brien has distinguished himself as not only an artist himself, working in several media, but also as an astute commentator on art. This new book gathers some of O’Brien’s most trenchant insights. He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about this book, the state and role of art, and the hope for a future Catholic renaissance.

CWR: How did the book come about?

Michael D. O’Brien: Its origins were in the research made by a Swedish professor of religious studies, Dr. Clemens Cavallin, whose interest in my work began several years ago when he first read one of my novels. This was followed by scholarly articles he wrote about my fiction and eventually led to his journey to Canada to meet me and conduct interviews.

By that time he had learned that I am also a painter of Christian art. Cavallin was intrigued by the combination of fiction and visual art in my life, as he is an author of books and himself a very fine painter of religious art. That led in time to his writing a biography of my life so far. Art and Sacrificial Love is his account of our first meeting and conversations, and equally important his own insights into the role of sacred art in our times.

CWR: What is art? Do you think the term is bandied about too liberally today, or would you say it covers a wide variety of things?

O’Brien: Far too liberally. Broadly speaking, however, the term “art” embraces the multiple forms through which man expresses his love for the beautiful in existence—in the exterior world perceivable by our senses but also in the interior life of man. Music and poetry, for example, are not visual, but they are among the most powerful of the arts because they evoke our sense of the wondrousness of Being, including human being.

Man is a mystery to himself, and the arts help us see ourselves—and value ourselves—with a kind of reverence. I should say that this is not necessarily a rational process, but more intuitive.

CWR: Is there such a thing as objectively good art and objectively bad art, or is it always a subjective determination?

O’Brien: Of course, art does touch us subjectively, mainly through beauty evoking our emotions. Because of this, people understand beauty in diverse ways, as they are habituated to taking pleasure in wildly different and even contradictory cultural manifestations.

Nevertheless, there are fundamental qualities of beauty that are timeless and cross all historical, racial, and cultural boundaries. A thing is beautiful, says St. Thomas Aquinas, if it has integrity (it is true to its nature), proportion (harmony, order and unity), and claritas, by which he means not only a certain clarity but a brightness of being radiating from it.

Keeping these in mind, one can assess whether a work of art is objectively good or bad. For example, if it conveys a falsehood in a form that strongly attracts the eye and emotions, it is bad art. If it embodies a truth in a form that is beautiful, and is masterful in its craftsmanship, then it is good art. In other words, it enriches our inner life, expands us, and in the best of art ennobles us.

CWR: Is it important to you that your art be at the service of your faith, at the service of God?

O’Brien: Yes, this is the principle on which I have based my life.

CWR: You are a prolific novelist, as well as a prolific icon writer and painter. Are you more drawn to—or more productive in—one medium over another?

O’Brien: Both painting and writing are languages. I love “speaking” in both in equal measure.

CWR: What do you do to encourage and support young artists?

O’Brien: First of all, I must say that I rejoice over the phenomena of so many young people responding to their creative gifts and trying to find a way for their arts to have a place in the world, and bear good fruit. For many years I responded continually to letters and emails from young artists and writers asking for advice or for help, reading manuscripts and offering editorial suggestions. In this era of insta-communications, there were long stretches when half of my work day was devoted to responding to these inquiries.

Finally, I realized that my own primary calling to create was suffering significantly. As a result, I wrote an open letter to my fellow artists and writers that contained what I felt might be helpful to their growth. In my declining years I am something of a hermit now, focusing on the labors the Lord has given me to accomplish during the time left to me.

CWR: Is your art a prayer?

O’Brien: In a sense the act of creating is prayer if it seeks to honor God as the Author of all beauty, without falling into the trap of worshipping beauty as an end in itself. In both implicitly and explicitly Christian art, the work itself is a kind of “word” of praise and thanksgiving.

Moreover, I pray as I conceive the work of art and throughout the process of making it. I ask the Holy Spirit for the inspiration necessary for the good of the work itself and for the good of those who may one day see it or read it.

CWR: Do you see hope for the future of the “art world”?

O’Brien: If by this you mean the commercial art world or the realm of publicly funded galleries, I would have to say that unless there is a widespread change of heart—repentance, really—they will continue to be dominated by tragically stunted theorizing, by absurdity, by the anti-human.

Having said that, I still believe that if a work of excellence is able to escape the ghetto imposed by the social revolution and enter the mainstream of culture, it will radiate with an authority that moves the heart and soul. In time, this may shift the balance to a more wholesome culture.

CWR: Do you see hope for the future of Christian art?

O’Brien: Absolutely yes. The evidence can be seen in the large numbers of gifted young people of faith who are responding to their creative gifts, and to grace. I have met these people everywhere in my travels throughout the world. Their courage always heartens me, and also reminds us that the Holy Spirit never ceases to pour out graces to illuminate and call us to ever-greater fruitfulness.

CWR: What stands in the way of a true new Catholic renaissance?

O’Brien: Catholics in general need to “un-plug” from the nearly universal dominance of commercial entertainment culture, by which I mean electronic culture. If we were to do so, we would gradually come to an appreciation of silence, and we would experience a new richness of life as we move away from the psychological cosmos of frantic consumerism. We would also grow in gratitude, reverence, and attentiveness to the holy, which is all around us.

But we first have to recognize that we have been drugged—yes, we believers, no less than unbelievers. If we hope for a true new renaissance of faith and culture, we will have to first of all deal with our addiction to mediocrity, and at the same time keep our eyes open for those creative buds of new life that rise up, against all odds, in the midst of the soul-killing tsunami of contemporary culture.

We must encourage this new life wherever it appears. We must give the coming generation the courage to believe in the impossible.


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About Paul Senz 93 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

7 Comments

  1. There is always the hope that cracks will appear here and there in what O’Brien diagnoses as “our addiction to mediocrity”…

    To a Soviet camp guard an inmate had the courage to defend the twentieth-century novelist Boris Pasternak. (Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” was long forbidden in the Soviet utopian prison state.) In his greater freedom, the prisoner confronted his guard: “If the whole world were to be covered with asphalt, one day a crack would appear in the asphalt, and in that crack grass would grow.”

    Earlier, in the fifth century and a cultural wasteland much like our own, Attila, the “Scourge of God,” boasted that grass would never grow again on the land trampled by his mounted hordes. That trampled land later flourished as Christendom.

  2. We must encourage this new life wherever it appears. We must give the coming generation the courage to believe in the impossible (O’Brien). As an opening to the art of love there are similarities to the current religious paradox. Art long associated with the creative in Man. I would have appreciated an account of Cavallin’s Sacrificial Love in context of Art. The reason is its relation to the paradox presented by Pope Francis, mercy as a form of the art of love that transcends the Law. Catholicism here, distancing within itself. The Apostle’s theology is centered on resolution of the paradox of adherence to Law and enslavement in contrast to freedom in Christ. Precisely the rationale presented by Francis. Art in its many forms is the ability to get things right in our actions. As posed by the pontiff Law may be surpassed for sake of love, as taught earlier by Josef Fuchs as a soteriological law of love found in Christ Redeemer that transcends the Word Creator and natural law. As such we find remarriage traditionally deemed adultery, adult same sex relationships reconsidered today by the Vatican. Traditionalists, so called accused of rigidity, suppression of the traditional Mass, their battle standard. Suppression said for sake of unity rather than division. Art would have us examine what is essentially true and beautiful. From this writer’s artistic perspective there is apparent rallying around a cause by traditionalists to the detriment of what may be the artful response. A cause can and does here distance many from the essence of faith in Christ. Not everything that Pope Francis does is wrong. We all in opposition easily fall into the pit of Pharisaism. Believing strict [rigorous] adherence is satisfactory, whereas sacrificial love transcends observance. Evident in acts of charity. For example, how many of us visit the sick, the neglected, the imprisoned, meaningfully and personally meet the needs of the impoverished? Francis, insinuated in Amoris, would have us jettison natural law doctrine for sake of charity. The Apostle would have us rather learn the art of love, which embraces suffering in fidelity to Christ’s commandments.

  3. On 10-11-21 you published an article about Michael O’Brien’s new book and separately an article by O’Brien blowing his own horn.
    These articles – published on the same day are in my view another example of the shameless stunts you use to promote an agenda
    Blessings on your day

    • Mike: Your comment is strange, to say the least. I’m curious to learn more about our mysterious agenda. Do enlighten me. And also explain how it is a “shameless stunt” for Catholic World Report to run an interview with a Catholic artist and author about a Catholic understanding of art and vocation, along with his extended thoughts on the same topics? But I’m even more curious about the implication that CWR engages in many “shameless stunts”; might you kindly deign to to expose our dark and manipulative work to the light? Bless you!

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