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Wonderful work! – you would not (or perhaps you would) believe how timely this is. We had a three hour brainstorming session this morning in our office regarding how we can foster the development of and demand for the renewal of sacred art within a Catholic context. Very much related to the content you’ve gathered in this booklet!
Many thanks and warm regards,
That’s a word of praise from Adam Hermanson, Catholic architect, about my booklet 25 Ways to Help an Artist. I’m rearranging where things are hosted, but this is still available. I’d really love comments pursuant to a Second Edition. Please take it free of charge, and let me know what you think. There’s a form below the booklet for comments, or email Speaker@CharlotteOstermann.com.
I had a blast discussing this with Fr. Guy de Gaynesford, rector, School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey…
Your Worst Nightmares
Might it be that some dark trends in popular culture are the manifestations of the inherent human need to grapple with the Four Last Things? Where the Church squarely faces up to the realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell, post-modern man faces a vacuum of unbelief in the very realities that most demand his attention. The rational, materialist mind – reduced as it is in power to bear the tension this produces – has one escape route left to him.
Art has a kind of power to resolve seemingly impossible tensions – at its best resulting in a newly realized response to encounter with reality, and at its worst coughing up some deformed attempt to avoid it. Perhaps the recurring, disturbing, themes in popular books and movies are the last gasps of creative responsiveness in humanity increasingly untethered to reality.
Take a look at the nightmares expressed in pop culture, from this perspective:
Death is a formidable reality that, surely, is hard for those without faith in God to bear. Perhaps if we could make the undead hideously repulsive, our mortality would be more attractive. A rollicking fight to the death against beings who are unequivocally ‘bad’ is as good as it gets…all guts and no glory of the human person to worry about as you whack ‘em. In zombie warfare we get a chance to vent all the pent up adrenaline caused by the unacknowledged fear of death we’ve been carrying around. We can actually embrace the possibility of death as a sort of counterpoint to the ugly, mindless, boring lives we perceive everyone around us living. ‘They’ are all walking dead, and ‘we’ are the ones ‘really living it up’ with zest and fearlessness.
For you, zombie straw men. For me full personhood as I die to self in Christ.
Death is threatening, but you’d think the prospect of eternal life shouldn’t frighten anyone. Think again. Eternity looms as an abyss for those whose life is already fairly empty, boring, pointless, lonely, painful or depressing. Heaven is a fantasy, and besides that, wouldn’t be very entertaining as it’s merely endless choral music, thumb twiddling and prudery. What shall we do to resolve the fear that we may have immortal souls?
At all costs, if we must live forever, we must stay young, attractive, sexually fulfilled and rich to make it tenable. Enter the vampire: our alter-ego if we identify with his suave erudition and smouldering power; our super-ego if we prefer to be the one he seduces. Whether you’re the vampire, or his ravished lover, all pre-requisites for a bearable eternity are met in this inversion of new life in Christ, whose own blood restores life to and purifies the soul who rests in Him.
For you, the same night life forever. For me, the endless newness of life in the Son’s light.
Memo to unbelievers: demons and evil people exist, and you know it. But nothing in your philosophy helps you deal with those awful realities from the pit of hell. Reject them with a smirk, and still you’ll feel the dread of them oozing up from time to time. Keep pushing your fear down and your subconscious becomes a fertile ground for some vivid imaginations you can’t quite control. What to do?
Make a movie of them. Your compatriots, who want help explaining where their own horrible imaginings originate, will come watch it. That little thrill you get when the psycho-sexual, demonic violence plays on the screen (of your mind, or your theater) helps you believe you’re actually in control. You’re choosing to be a spectator and this is all make-believe. Right? There’s nothing evil threatening you, or influencing you, or drawing you to crave more and more horrific, explicit violence in exchange for the pleasure. More important, there’s nothing in you that corresponds to evil, that resonates with perversion and demonic rage…no bloodlust…no vulnerability to oppression or possession…nothing hellish is real. Right?
For you the thrill of make-believe evil. For me, a Savior to vanquish all-too-real evil.
Magic Gone Awry
Here I include technology as a form of magic – manipulation of the material universe with a view to obtaining amazing power over it. Many plots turn magic, technology, man’s creations and his own karma against him. Thus does he face judgement for his pride and his deeds – in this-worldly terms that carefully balance the scale of retribution for him through his own efforts. Somewhere in the depths of man is the awareness that he’s going to get what he deserves. Since there is no God to make that call, he fends off that possibility by gently judging and forgiving himself.
His own creations – clones, robots, computers, dinosaurs – might turn on him. (He will need to realize he’s created the problem, but will be suitably chastened by the challenge of dealing with it.) Or, he might get a high-tech revenge on someone who deserves it. (Revenge – justified violence – is like a backfire that puts out a wildfire. There’s no worry about being judged while you’re indulging in self-righteous mayhem.) The natural world he has exploited, ignored, accidentally radiated, or destroyed might rise up against him. (Of course, he’ll win the battle to subdue it, and be absolved by the harrowing ordeal.)
Movies like these can be cautionary tales, I suppose, but perhaps numb the soul a bit to the reality of a judgment that can’t be paid off with effort, or pain, or victim status.
For you, only natural consequences and high-tech restoration of your control over reality. For me, personal judgement and supernatural means – the atoning death on the Cross – to provide reconciliation with the Creator.
Well, that’s the end of these reflections on modern art and the work of the imagination…I wonder what you think of it all….
Fr. Giussani tells us that “Freedom is the correspondence to reality, in the totality of its factors.” For some, bondage to a nightmare of unreality. For me, the surpassing reality of knowing Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here’s the abstract from the talk I’ll be giving, and the other talks look juicy, too. Bishop Conley will be there, among others.
The Poet as Troublemaker – Why the Church Needs Artists
Like the angel of God who troubled the waters of a pool to bring healing, the Catholic artist leads his fellow man back to wholeness. In his person, the artist experiences the encounter with reality in a unique way. Through poesis, he voices the response of God, re-calling man to himself, re-making the broken world.
His agony is to bear the weight of glory in form, to utter what cannot be uttered, to become at once fully himself and also negative space for the presence of Christ. The world cannot fathom him, has no category for the subordination of self-expression to Truth. And, sadly, the Church may also be confused about her artists – wary of our worldliness, discomfited by our struggles, embarrassed by our vulnerability, and blind to the need for the trouble and mess we make.
So, the Catholic artist feels at times lonely, unappreciated, misunderstood, unloved within her own home. We must, then, understand ourselves more fully, let the calling to be an artist dwell in us more richly, support one another, and provide for the Church the very forms by which she may grow able to receive and nurture our gifts.
Charlotte will open with her poem A Poet’s Apologia, weave in lines from other poems in which she has taken up this theme, and close with Rooster – a rousing call to artists to ‘be the answer’ the world needs.
Each speaker at the Sept 14-16, 2016 Catholic Artists Conference has a bio featured on the Speakers page at http://www.catholic-artists-conference.com/speakers.html Their abstracts appear as individual blogs here at www.Catholic-Artists.org.
On my living room wall you’ll see the painting, A Drawing In, by Peggy Shopen. It’s a pastel look across a tree-shaded lawn to a house that is tucked behind two large tree trunks in the middle distance. Though the artist is a good friend, and I’ve admired her work, I had not had such a sense of personal encounter with a piece until seeing this. I felt a spontaneous, non-analytical sort of ‘bonding’ with the painting.
How much of my response had to do with the fact that this particular house is one I’ve known intimately as a place of warm, human, Catholic fellowship and ‘culture building’? This home and the artist are ‘devoted to the service of fellow men,’ but does the painting reveal that to the viewer who does not know them? These questions intrigue me, though I don’t think I can answer them definitively.
The painting would, I think, bring viewers to a higher understanding of beauty, because it clearly portrays its subject – a simple, unassuming house – as a thing that is beautiful, that is seen with a deep appreciation of its interior, or hidden goodness, and as worthy of the work of an artist. Certainly, the painting points to the universal value of the home as a safe haven, and also to the value of the natural setting in which the house sits cradled and which forms an antechamber that seems to be bigger than the wood-enclosed rooms of the actual structure. This is so much entwined, for me, with my personal awareness that the artist really does perceive this tree-embraced ‘front room’ as an extension of her home, but I believe any viewer would sense this.
Because the natural beauty around the house so predominates, you could say the artist has placed the work of God-as-artist deliberately in a position of precedence over even her most-cherished personal sphere.
I love the way the sense of ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ keep changing in this painting. The interior is the house, protecting an ‘inside’ from the elements, but it is also the deep-and-beckoning, almost spherical negative, open space framed by tree trunks that suggests the artists’ soul and calls to mine. The exterior is the outdoor world, but then is also the mere structural combination of old wood and fading paint that suggests the mortality, or temporary nature of such passing things as houses, possessions, and bodies.
This artist is a painter and iconographer, not a ‘word person,’ yet her painting’s title is another delight for me – an extra, poetic gift to me in a brief, three-word verbal enigma. “A Drawing In” plays on all the elements I’ve discussed in the painting – the ‘drawing in’ of friends and family to the shelter and joys of home life, and the artists’ literal drawing of ‘in’ – as the interior of her soul glimpsed inside a humble structure by those with eyes to see.
So, I offer these observations with joy, because writing this has helped me to see both my dear painting and my dear friend more richly.
I happened into the desert – place strange to me – unwelcoming, forbidding, barren. Sent by God to dwell for a time among children of the Church whose experience of it, and of the world, seemed alien to my own, I recoiled from the task set before me: to open my heart to people who are at least so alienated and frustrated by, and at worst so contemptuous and hateful of the Church I love; to be willing to see in them what is dear to God’s own heart; to let down buzz-word barriers and hear their stories, their fears of people like me, their reasons for conclusions antithetical to my own. [Read more…]