Universality, Noble Accessibility and a Pop Culture that will Save the World

The principle of universality is not something I had considered in any depth at all until recently, when it was mentioned in a talk about sacred music. I have been reflecting on its meaning in other aspects of the culture and what it says to me about how I should approach my own painting. Here are some first thoughts.

The word ‘catholic’ means universal. The Catholic Faith is offered to and has meaning for every human person regardless of where and when they live; Catholic culture should always, to some degree be universal too, that is, it should appeal to all peoples in the world;. recently I heard universality in the context of sacred music described in  the following way: something will have universal appeal if it does not exclude anyone from any other culture from appreciating it.

The idea, it seems to me, is an extension of that expressed also by the phrase ‘noble accessibility’ (previously discussed in this column), which says that the music that is meant to be sung by a congregation must be simple enough so that they can; and the music that is more difficult to perform and so realistically can only be sung by a choir, must be easily appreciated by the congregation and not abstruse. At the same time, there must be no compromise on the ‘nobility’ that is the beauty of any piece of music. This principle makes high demands of the composer, but not of the listener. The principle of universality says that music, and by extension all aspects of the culture should portray this noble beauty and be accessible to all people, of all times and all places. To the degree that we are able to think about this it should be there in anything that we do, but most obviously this will always apply in the arts – painting, music, architecture for example.

Some have interpreted this principle of universality as meaning that it does not belong to any place or time at all. They are saying that something is universal only to the degree that it is a-cultural, that is culturally neutral and does not characterize any time or place. As I understand it this is not what is being said at all.

Every general principle, which is understood as an abstract idea, must be manifested in a particular example. By looking at the particulars, we discern the general. Every work of art, every piece of music is a product of its time and place. A work of art that is universal is therefore both timeless and timebound, it is both homeless and planted in a particular place.

We can think of the iconographic tradition in painting to illustrate this. Every painting conveys information through what is painted – content; and how it is painted – style. While the content, for example we might paint Christ on the cross, is proscribed by the tradition, there are other traditions that legitimately portray Christ on the cross, such as the gothic or the baroque. It is the stylistic features of an icon that make it an icon, unite with the tradition and also differentiate it from other forms of sacred art. Each characteristic element participates in the essential principles that describe an icon. These are timeless and homeless. Nevertheless every icon has a time and a home as well. Each bears the stylistic mark of the person who painted it, and as a product of a time and a place, it bears therefore, some indication of those two factors. They may not be deliberately imposed upon it by the artist, but they will come out naturally as he works. Learned students of the iconographic tradition are able to look to a previously unseen icon and just by observation of the style pin down the geographic region in which it was painted and date it to within about 50 years. Even individual painter styles are recognizable.

The purest forms of universality, I suggest, are those therefore in which every particular speaks of both a general principle and a particular time and place – and, inversely, there is no element that is time or place bound in its form and is not participating in the timeless as well.

In music Pius X isolated several aspects that are essential for music to be sacred and that are best portrayed in Gregorian Chant, which was for him the exemplar of universality in music: The more closely a Church composition approaches Gregorian Chant in movement, inspiration, and feeling, the more holy and liturgical it becomes; and the more it deviates from this supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”

The most powerful manifestation of the culture is when the timeless and time- and place-bound aspects all speak to us. Every traditional aspect of Catholic culture speaks us because of its universality. However usually, because it originates in a different time and different place, part of it seems alien until we become very familiar with it. If we wish to speak instantly and powerfully to modern people then we must strive to compose and create new works of art that are consistent with the tradition but speak to people today. This is why we paint icons now and never rely on the canon of past works. So we should be thinking of composing new Gregorian chant tones for Latin and the vernacular.

There is a tendency today to assume that popular culture is low culture, but if we truly had inspired composers and artist creating new works that are universal, they would outshine the works of the secular culture and create a noble pop culture. It would appeal to the masses, not just the cognoscenti .

Let us hope that today’s artists and composers can do this.

(For those who do not know what it means, you can rest assured that you are not one of the cognoscenti: the cognoscenti are the sort of people who know what cognoscenti means!)

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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