NE OF my colleagues recently pointed me to a lengthy piece on First Things by Dana Gioia, a Catholic, poet, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. In it he considers the explosion of Catholic imaginative literature in the United States in the 1940’s-1960’s: writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole, and numerous others. He contrasts that with today, where there are few, if any, Catholic novelists (a) who are considered national literary figures, (b) for whom their personal Catholicism is a strong part of their public biographies, and (c) whose Catholicism would be seen as an attribute worthy of respectful engagement by literary critics.
He makes the case that the disappearance of Catholic figures from the national artistic conversation is bad for both the country and the church. It’s bad for the country because ignoring Catholic voices limits the “diversity” of artistic expression in the national conversation. America has always been culturally Protestant, and the Catholic “outsider” has a valuable perspective to add. The paucity of Catholic artistic figures is in turn bad for the church because a lack of true artistry in the Catholic context limits the ability of the Church to engage the world. People are reached through their senses—through sight and hearing, as well as by engaging the mind—and true beauty attracts believers and non-believers alike.
While most of his piece is about writers and writing, he offers the caveat that discussing literature “provides a useful perspective on all the arts.” Toward the end of his piece, he provides a tour de force on how and what the Catholic artist is to do, and I think this bears quoting at length. Wherever he says “writer,” imagine the word “artist” instead (or imagine the particular kind of artist you may be: “composer,” “conductor,” etc.):
The Catholic writer really needs only three things to succeed: faith, hope, and ingenuity. First, the writer must have faith in both the power of art and the power of the spirit. The cynicism that pervades contemporary cultural life must be replaced by a deep confidence in the human purposes and importance of art. Art is not an elitist luxury or a game for intellectual coteries. It is a necessary component of human development, both individually and communally. Art educates our emotions and imagination. It awakens, enlarges, and refines our humanity. Remove it, dilute it, or pervert it, and a community or a nation suffers—becoming less compassionate, curious, and alert, more coarse, narrow, and self-satisfied.
This bears repeating: art is not an elitist luxury. It is a necessary component of individual and communal development, which refines our humanity. For those of us who work in sacred liturgy, shouldn’t we be bringing the very best we have to offer—including our most refined human expression—to our ceremonial worship of God?
A Catholic writer must also have hope. Hope in the possibilities of art and one’s own efforts… The main barrier to the revival of Catholic [art] is despair, or perhaps more accurately acedia, a torpid indifference among precisely those people who could change the situation—Catholic artists and intellectuals. Hope is what motivates and sustains the writer’s enterprise because success will come slowly, and there will be many setbacks.
Hope is what sustains the creative artist, because success will come slowly, and there will be many setbacks. Alas, all too true!
And finally, this powerful reminder to us all:
[T]here is a third element that has nothing to do with religion. The Muse is no Calvinist. She does not believe that faith alone justifies an artist. The writer needs good works—good literary ones. The goal of the serious Catholic writer is the same as that of all real writers—to create powerful, expressive, memorable works of art… The road to Damascus may offer a pilgrim sudden and miraculous intervention, but faith provides no shortcuts on the road to Parnassus.
All writers must master the craft of literature, the possibilities of language, the examples of tradition, and then match that learning with the personal drive for perfection and innovation. There is a crippling naïveté among many religious writers (and even editors) that saintly intentions compensate for weak writing. Such misplaced faith (or charity) is folly. The Catholic writer must have the passion, talent, and ingenuity to master the craft in strictly secular terms while never forgetting the spiritual possibilities and responsibilities of art. That is a double challenge, but it does ultimately offer a genuine advantage [of] …a profound and truthful worldview that has been articulated, explored, and amplified by two thousand years of art and philosophy, a tradition whose symbols, stories, personalities, concepts, and correspondences add enormous resonance to any artist’s work. To be a Catholic writer is to stand at the center of the Western tradition in artistic terms.
In other words, we must study and work, perfecting our craft, to ensure that our art is valuable measured in artistic terms. A musician-friend once said to me, “I think that the whole concept of a ‘Catholic artist’ is overrated. You’re either a good artist, or you’re a bad one. Good motivations can’t make up for poor product.”
And what is Mr. Gioia’s conclusion? “It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition.” Or to quote an even more-estimable source, “Do not be afraid!”