Emmitsburg Council of Churches

On Beauty

Father John J. Lombardi

"Man is hungry for beauty, There is a void." -Oscar Wilde

Beauty. Light. Radiance. These are some of the words to describe the artwork of Blessed Fra Angelico, Italian-Dominican pre-renaissance artist, which I saw recently with a group of pilgrims in New York City.

I later picked up an old New York Times Book Review article, boldly published for that journal, mind you, entitled "State of the Art." Here are some excerpts which encapsulate some daring current art critics' views of art today: "Here, for instance, is one writer…modern art is 'decadent,' narcissistic,' 'meaningless.' 'Valueless.'... (And another): 'In this sense it (art) was theatrical, and theater, with its externally determined pandering attention to audience reaction, lacked integrity, conviction; it was the enemy of visual arts'…Hilton Kramer has said, 'With the eruption of the pop art movement, an element of demystification came into the art world, an element of cynicism, an element of almost anything goes.'"

We've all seen beautiful art-and been inspired. But we've probably also seen "meaningless" and "decadent" art-and been jaded. Catholics can do better. Catholics don't corrupt culture-they catapult culture to higher levels. Fra Angelico believed not only in angels but the angelic radiance of God's divinizing love in human beings (cf. II Pt. 1:4). So, sometime optically and spiritually enjoy the haloes, nimbuses and auras in his ecstatic paintings: gold glitters and glorifies God. Witness the crowds five hundred years after his death viewing this angelic artist's depiction of What Reality Can Be! Pope John Paul II declared him "blessed" and Patron of Artists.

Likewise, St.Hidlegarde of Bingen catapulted culture by writing medieval plays (like "Ordo Virtutem"--sometimes called the first "opera") about the virtues and which utilized sacred dance and chant to cultivate, entertain and elevate the soul (highly recommended: "Feather on the Breath of God"-a CD of Hildegardian chant by Sequentia). Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet who captured and colored literary culture, penned the famous words: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God/ It will shine out like shining from shook foil…"). St Teresa of Avila changed Spanish Catholic life and culture-she was a beautiful woman and great mystic-while dressing in a full-length religious habit! She's as famous today as she was in the sixteenth century.

These folks were all "entertainers" in some fashion and cultural heroes-what I suppose modern artists are aiming at. We need the saints' visionary creativity in our pagan and ecclesial cultures today. Some may call my sentiments "Puritanical." But that's really an honor: Puritans were God-fearing disciples of God who believed in the Blood of The Lamb, holy simplicity and poverty, and Abandonment to Divine Providence (does anyone have too much of these traits today?). Puritans are, of course, convenient "straw men" (and women!) whom some feel they can beat up on and feel good while promoting a pillaging culture which destroys or denigrates the beauty of being a human being, especially, dare I mention it, a chaste, pure human being. (Witness Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons"- controversy of the destruction of a naVve country girl at a "big university." Some people today don't even believe purity or innocence can be attained or taught. But, just think precisely why so many-from janitors to jurists-go to see Fra Angelico-it's the "democratization of beauty"-accessible, ethereal and pure. It appeals to the higher self and sense in each soul and you don't have to be a pinhead to understand or comprehend The Light and Allure.

I'm now entranced by a book, Wendy Steiner's "Venus in Exile"-the subtitle says it all: "Beauty in Exile in the Modern Age." She writes: ""Twentieth century modernism perpetrated a cultural deprivation form which we are only now recovering. It involved a double dehumanization: art reduced to a thing; audience reduced to stereotype-the caricature of the bourgeois philistine incapable of appreciating beauty." In other words, art is now manipulation, loss of dignity, and we, the viewers, are at the whim of the modernist-expressionists and others who promote not beauty, but deformed humanity (witness years ago the Virgin Mary depicted in excretement, etc. Some Catholics rose up, protested this denigration and got funds for the exhibit canceled. This is one option for us to consider today).

Last week while traveling to the Respect Life march I listened to an enlightening discussion of, get this: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," the recent re-make, that is. One gentleman remarked, summarizing the others' views, that the modern version, contra the original, presented Willy Wonka as a demented, deformed man--celebrating his darkness. This is not uncommon, I thought as I listened and this is what modern art-including movies-is doing-eschewing the radiant and beautiful and promoting anarchy, cynicism, the eerily exceptional. Earlier on Capital Hill, just after The March (which was fun and inspiring, a celebration of life and dignity, against darkness and death), a couple gentlemen mentioned, in discussing current films, that "Hollywood doesn't get it"-meaning that it wants to promote not what Middle America wants and dwells in---God, apple pie and "familydom," but, rather, tormented human beings and what another friend said his grand mom described modern movies are about-"people taking off their clothes or folks shooting each other." This is darkness, Steiner's "cultural deprivation" of beauty. One friend commented that if Hollywood would listen to and promote Middle America's values-and religion-then it would tap into a huge market.

If only… But that is not "serious" or "urbane" or "hip" or "outsider" or "sophisticated" or…Trouble is, modernism sometimes paints and promotes a worldview of fragmented, meaningless and cynical imagery. These novels and movies and paintings supposedly "record" reality and What Life Is, no matter how in-your-face it may be. It also calls for acceptance and attraction in its blurriness. Yet, when I think about it, the most joyous persons I know are orthodox Catholics. The most attractive persons I know run to daily mass. The funniest folks I know love Catholic Culture-all of it. The holiest folks I know go back into the future (think about it!).

In his remarkable book, "Degenerate Moderns," (yes, with a unsubtle subtitle: "Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Behavior") E. Michael Jones describes the brilliant, tormented Picasso, the "first modern artist": "Realism is the visual language of love; when the affair turns sour, Picasso turns away from the object and reverts to Cubist distortions, which convey simultaneously, lust, rage and the desire to mutilate and destroy…Picasso's war on representation was a war on the tradition that begot it as well, a tradition that saw the human as possessing infinite value. Picasso told Francoise Gilot: 'I want to give form…if it is only to wage war on the world…I want to be the only to some extent of recognizing nature and even distorted nature, which is after all a kind of struggle between my interior life and the external world as it exists…I want that internal surge to prose itself to the viewer in the form of traditional painting violated." In other words, in the disintegration of souls we have a fragmentation of art.

Some will disagree with all this and think The War or starvation or gas guzzling cars are more important issues; maybe, maybe not. Think, though: people starve for The Beautiful-in their Faith, their daily lives and also in art, like that of Angelico or Matisse or Rembrandt. Art imitates reality, and the art-or lack thereof today, as one friend recently described it-impels the soul to wisdom, truth and nobility. Or, it is supposedly supposed to. Steiner writes (beautifully): "If beauty is an idea in the artist's soul made real in the act of creation, there should be a bond of likeness between the creator and his creature."

We all need The Beautiful in our lives and yet we have all grown de-sensitized and have, as Senator Patrick Moynihan once said wryly, dumbed down deviancy. We Catholics, with all our cultural treasures-spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic---need to promote and protect beautiful art and life, where the Angelico's and Michelangelo's are today. Charles Murray, in his provocative book, "Human Achievement," stated that the masterpieces of human invention-engineering or cultural-were the "by-products" of culture, civilizations of creativity and cohesiveness that are now lost or denigrating. We need to recover this civilization today.

What dignifies and builds up the human spirit? What imitates God's creativity?

What are the cultural and spiritual patterns of the past which worked and can work for us today?

Promote good art in your home, for yourself or your children. Learn about solid, classical and beautiful art and promote it. One friend, Jim Flood, has established an organization on his own for the promotion of beauty in art today, and has already done and displayed an exhibit in a museum.

And--better yet, positively promote Light, Beauty, and Radiance. So, for instance, promote Gregorian Chant as Vatican II encouraged; promote art and sacramentals in your homes and dorms (it's not just for churches anymore!). Simply put, explore and appreciate more the diversity and breadth of beautiful Catholic culture. One Catholic convert, John Saward, turned on by all this, wrote a book about it which describes the whole phenomenon: "The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty." Look: it's popular today to mock and satirize and scatologize (sounds yucky, huh?!). But, just remember, the Catholic Church and Culture have the widest, deepest most radiant array of entertainment and attraction-the saints and their grace-infused works. Think of it this way, as The Catechism of the Catholic Church (yikes!) suggests: "God created the world to show forth and communicate His glory. That His creatures should share in his truth, goodness and beauty-this is the glory for which God created them."

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi