Elizabeth Scalia recently wrote an interesting piece over at Aleteia in which she argues that Catholic art, “suffers when we refrain from hard critiques in a well-meaning effort to encourage.”
Art criticism is difficult, which is why some have a tendency to transgress common sense and make dismissively foolhardy judgments about well-regarded art and, I must confess, I do lose patience with sifting through the art scene. Occasionally at parties I look up from my pink gin long enough to decadently pronounce that music died when God took Vivaldi from us (may his music remain in our ears forever). This is a fundamentally unserious claim, but reveals a sincere glimmer of dissatisfaction. We are all in search of Good Art but may be frustrated in part because we don’t quite know what “Good” means and also because, to the extent that we do know, it can be achingly difficult to encounter in an age of artistic desecration (as Roger Scruton would have it).
So how is a misanthropic, reactionary human being supposed to function as an art critic? Overcompensate and encourage any and all artists out of desperation to cultivate whatever seeds of life there are? Or give in to cynicism, offer harsh opinions, and retreat to the art of the past? And this is important because, my own faults notwithstanding, we can easily substitute “Catholic” in place of “misanthropic, reactionary human being.” Catholics, whatever else we may be, seem to be different. Our art doesn’t strive to assert the unfettered will of the artist, or merely to be provocative, or rest easy in technical virtuosity. Catholic art seeks to become an icon of a more fundamental, more perfect reality. All art used to be so ambitious and there are still plenty of exceptions to be found, but in general it is Catholic art that continues to strive in this direction while the rest of the modern art world has become distracted. When we talk about Catholic art, we’re discussing a vision of the world that has waned in pop culture and its artists are often considered naïve in, as Scalia puts it, their attempt to give, “fullest continual expression to all that is beautiful, good, and true.”
Because of its ambition, the task of critiquing Catholic art is exceedingly challenging. At some point choices must be made to decide what is “good” and what is “bad”, but this judgment cannot be made with complete certainty. Often what we consider good turns out to be bad and what we consider bad turns out to be good. When writers ask directly for my opinion or if I review a work for Deep Down Things, I embrace positivity in my critiques, preferring to encourage rather than focus on what is lacking. It remains true, though, that an honest, frank critique might be more helpful to the artist, among other reasons because it’s equally as dismissive to offer unconsidered praise as it would be to rudely savage the work. Either way, the critic fails to take the art seriously.
There’s a fine line as a Catholic between demanding too much because our standards are so high on the one hand and offering unrelenting positivity on the other because we’re desperate to produce a Catholic art scene. Perhaps the most productive way to gesture towards where that line might lie would be to examine what it means for art to strive towards the Beautiful, the Good, and the True.
The first impression of a work of art conveys is its sensible beauty, which Aquinas defines as “that which is pleasing to the eye.” Roger Scruton’s definition is similar, “We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty.” Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. This isn’t to claim that a piece of music cannot be objectively evaluated for its use of harmony, melody, and rhythm, but it means that if a piece of art is not loved (for whatever reason) it will not be fully appreciated. For example, I don’t care much for the music of Mozart. I know for a fact that he produces beautiful music, everyone tells me so, I just don’t happen to love it (not sure why not) and am blind to the sensible beauty contained therein, at best my appreciation is notional.
Our apprehension of beauty is fickle, and the virtue itself both creates and requires the virtue of love to fully reveal itself. We would be mistaken to declare too quickly either that such and such artwork is beautiful and everyone who doesn’t see that is uncouth or to insist that everyone else in the world is crazy because they like the music of that madman Mozart.
Goodness is equally difficult to pin down, and it might be used in two senses: morality and craftsmanship. Any work of art is a communication. It conveys a value statement even if it’s as modest as, “This art is worth a few seconds of your time.” As far as morality goes, we can apply objective values to measure whether a piece makes a positive or negative value statement, but we also know the morality of an individual act is best understood from the perspective of the individual himself, meaning we lack vital information to make too strong a statement. We may or may not understand the moral values as presented in the piece. This may be the artist’s fault but it may also be the fault of the critic or simply the limitations of communication itself. Art is especially prone to this latter flaw because it attempts to communicate analogically. It hopes to grasp a piece of the whole in order to reveal a universal truth that is otherwise well beyond our capabilities.
I’m willing to make value judgments about art, but prefer first to make a more modest criticism of the goodness of the formal elements of the work. The craftsmanship of the work itself lends itself to critiques such as “this works” or “this doesn’t work”. Is the poem well made? Does it scan? Is the language arresting and original? These are questions that for the basis of a helpful critique. Without those formal elements, the communicative property of the work is hampered, because as any of us would admit, poems are exceedingly challenging to read. Wittgenstein once said that even if lions could speak we wouldn’t understand them. Poems do speak and I still don’t understand them. As Asher Gelzer-Govatos, Apostle of Muriel Spark and critic over at the AV Club, remarked to me recently, “It’s like each poem speaks its own language.” You and I may not be conversant in that language, so it’s wise to keep our critiques modest.
At the same time, artists ought to be aware of this and strive to communicate clearly and bring as much craft as possible to their efforts. Even though it’s true that technically excellent poetry can be terrible because it lacks heart, without the formal qualities, the heart of the poem will never reveal itself but remain obscured in the mind of the poet. This is the challenge of evaluating Catholic art, it begins with a formal critique but then ventures into the realm of the virtues. It quickly becomes more than we can explain in words, but therein lies the ability of art to connect with the human soul and lift it up.
The same difficulties arise with truth. How do we know if a poem is true? We wade in deep waters when we ask ourselves questions of truth, not that it doesn’t exist or that we’re hopeless to apprehend it. As Catholics, we can be sure that Our Lord, who is all truth, has given enough of it to us through both revelation and the natural sciences that we can be comfortable with our ability to identify common error. What’s more, even with prudential judgments we have the guidance of the magisterium and the Holy Spirit at work in our souls. The difficulty with truth isn’t that it is hidden from us, but that what we grasp of it goes well beyond what we conceive. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in Deus Caritas Est, the faith isn’t so much a “lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The truth is Jesus Christ himself, and as we follow him over the horizon we have no clue what fullness of revelation awaits us. Truth is overwhelming.
Because of this, the truth or falsity of a work of art may not present itself immediately and mistakes may be made. The job of a critic is to look closely, notice the truth inherent in a work of art, and translate that truth as best he can. By doing so, he disposes others to see it in that same work of art. In other words, to study a made thing closely, grab your nearest neighbor, and pointedly say, “Hey, look over here! This is revelatory!” Brian Prugh, artist and critic at The Seen Journal, cautions us to maintain a sense of the grandeur of truth, “The problem with Catholic criticism, and the ghettoization of Catholic art, is that it takes for granted the True—as something so basic as to need no further investigation—and so obsesses over how to make the “obviously true” good and beautiful. But this prevents the artist from really confronting the mystery that Christ is. If He is the Truth, and I believe He is, it’s a Truth that has never been fully expressed. It has barely been touched, even in the works of the greatest genius.”
Catholic art is held to impossibly high standards, and it should be. Its stated goal of mediating Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is essentially beyond our abilities and the best the artist can hope to achieve is to communicate analogically, to somehow grab a small piece of the eternal, wrestle it into the temporal, and allow it to somehow mediate the whole. The process is mysterious both for artist and critic. So, yes, I would agree that our Catholic art should be expected to be of the very highest quality, just so long as we respect how exceedingly frightful and courageous an endeavor it is to attempt to be the mouthpiece of eternal beauty and bring forth an incarnate expression of love itself.