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“Irish poets, learn your trade.”
So W.B. Yeats admonished his fellow Irish poets in his celebrated poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” With a slight amendment, it’s an admonition that could well apply to our Catholic artists.
The other day Emily Stimpson, a blogger over at CatholicVote.org, wrote an inspired piece called “Telling the Catholic Story.” In it she laments, after noting certain admirable exceptions, the current state of Catholic art, in particular our storytelling in the media of film, television and literature. Her lament pointed up the question: why aren’t Catholics today known for creating artistic masterpieces, or at least compelling works of art? Stimpson herself has difficulties zeroing in on the reason:
So again, why? Why can’t we match in quality and skill the media being made by our secular counterparts?
I’ve put that question to a lot of smart people over the last couple weeks and the answers they gave were plentiful: a dearth of excellent training programs at faithful Catholic schools, a reluctance and/or inability to invest substantially in high quality media, poor understanding of the medium of media itself, a distrust of Hollywood and the tools of social media, and the misguided belief that what we have to say is so compelling that we don’t need to worry about how we say it.
Those are all good answers. They’re true answers. But I don’t find them entirely satisfying. They explain why the media we’re making now is not up to snuff, but they don’t explain how the Church of the Sistine Chapel and Mozart’s Requiem became the Church of Therese and There Be Dragons.
Catholics once financed and made the greatest works of art the world has ever known. We used the primary mediums of the day—painting, sculpture, literature, and music—to express the beauty and glory of God, the truth about the human person, and the pathos of the human condition. We understood the power of beauty and the power of story, and for centuries, creating art that reflected that understanding came as naturally to Catholic artists as breathing.=
Stimpson is right that the various answers she received to her question were all good and true. The diagnosis must certainly be a complex one. Catholic education, the American reception to Vatican II, scorn of Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally, lack of money–all of these are contributing factors to the current Catholic malaise in the arts. I would add that the political culture wars of the last forty years, as crucially important as those have been, have tempted Catholics to neglect the power of art to shape culture. They have led to the distrust of the entertainment industry that Stimpson mentions in her piece.
But there is one other reason for the malaise in Catholic art that I would like to identify, one that I think lies even closer to the nub of the problem:
The absence of a devotion to craft.
I choose the word “devotion” here carefully. Devotion indicates love, passion, total commitment. For the Catholic artist, his or her work must be inspired, first and foremost, by devotion to God. But this is not enough to make a beautiful and powerful work of art. The devotion to God must “spill over” into a devotion to craft. And here I choose the word “craft” carefully. For anyone who writes a novel or poem or screenplay will admit to “loving” what he is doing. But there is far more to a craft than this.
To be devoted to a craft means to submit oneself to a discipline existing outside one’s thoughts and feelings. And such disciplines do not arise out of nowhere. They come into being and flourish within traditions of thought and practice, traditions that often stretch centuries into the past.
In recent decades Catholic artists seem to have forgotten this sense of devotion to a craft tradition. But when one looks to past examples of great Catholic artists, such devotion is everywhere in evidence.