May 25th, 2008 by Menachem Wecker
Roseanne Sullivan blogs at Catholic Pundit Wannabe, which she explains as follows: “This blog’s title is related to an essay I wrote at the peak of the scandals about priests betraying the trust of those who they were supposed to serve. Then as now, the press always sought out for interviews dissident Catholics who seemed to be using the scandal as an opportunity to promote their own agendas. In reaction, I made an immodest proposal: Since I am a well-informed believer who loves the Church’s teachings, wouldn’t it make more sense for the press to interview me instead of, say, Andrew Sullivan or Frank McCourt?”
MW: What, if anything, does the term “Catholic art” mean to you?
RS: A Catholic is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, which is the body of Christ.
United with Christ through the sacraments, the Catholic writer or artist of any kind creates art for the greater glory of God. Humility is a requirement. Excellence should be also. God deserves only the best.
Modern art is created for the purpose of epater les bourgeois, shock the petty middle class. I believe Catholic art should be done with love. According to St. Paul, love is not proud; it does not seek its own ends. It rejoices in the truth. As Christ taught us, love serves. Love lays down its life for the other, and it doesn’t puff itself up.
The opposite attitude of how to be an artist was taught when I studied art in the 1970s. The essential advice was to express one’s self. The unstated ideal was to shock, discomfort, or annoy. For one example, one of my art teachers had a show at the Minneapolis Museum of Art, where to enter the room where her work was displayed, you had to go through a little constructed entryway that had a low altar and a small, low window above the altar that let you get a preview glimpse into the room. She told the class with relish that by making the window low, she was forcing the gallery goers to bow before her altar. Her art consisted of hundreds of plaster statues of a rearing horse, all identical, about 14 inches high. She cast them out of a mold she had picked up somewhere. It cannot be denied that this artist’s intention was to manipulate and offend and to leave the viewer wondering what the point was. Another professor’s installation was a series of chairs hung on a wall in a stairwell at the student center.
The culmination for me occurred when a world famous artist spoke at the school, and he told the audience that he had to be on his guard to make sure the art he made was not beautiful. His art at the time consisted of concrete rectangles that he poured at gallery installations, which ruined the beautiful wood gallery floors. He exulted in the bewilderment of the gallery goers as they viewed his pieces. He told us he took special care to ensure that the concrete did not assume any of the attractive swirling patterns that might form if it was left to pour naturally. For him, beauty was not only not the point. Beauty was absolutely to be avoided.
I am in a sense recovering from those years. I didn’t accept the nonsense I was taught, but I was discouraged and paralyzed by it for a long time.
Of course, if an artist attempts to do “Catholic” art, the danger is that the artist can fall into the nether world of the maudlin, the insincere, and the clichéd. I think that art done by a Catholic is Catholic art, if it is true art, because true art tells the truth.
True art is true to the demands of the art being practiced. As Pope John Paul II wrote, an artist responds to the demands of art and faithfully accepts art’s specific dictates. He spoke with great appreciation about the creativity of the artist, whose creativity mirrors within human limits the creativity of God.
The Catholic artist should not do anything to draw the viewer or reader’s or hearer’s attention to the artist’s own cleverness. All of the artist’s work should be in the service of the thing being conveyed, whether it be the topic of the painting or the written story or the scripture, in the case of liturgical music. That’s why Gregorian chant fascinates me. The vast body of chants was written anonymously, for the glory of God.
Famous Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor wrote that a writer has to tell stories that are about life and character. Any artistic work fails when it is created to get a point across. Every story has to have a meaning, she wrote, but the meaning is perceived as part of the story not something extrinsic to it. The same is true for a painting or a music composition. The meaning must be intrinsic to the composition.
Art that is created to be in a Church and that is going to be viewed by people during the liturgy probably has to be more explicit in its meaning than art created for other venues. Art in the Church exists to draw the worshiper’s mind and heart to God.
MW: You have said that you are a “Catholic writer and artist.” To what extent does your Catholic identity inform your work?
RS: My Catholic identity makes me want to use my talents to show the truth and the beauty of God.
MW: Are you worried about being pigeonholed as a religious artist?
RS: No. My art stands on its own.
MW: To what extent can non-Catholics understand Catholic art?
RS: Non-Catholics can experience the beauty and perhaps they can glimpse the transcendence. Knowing the symbolism helps, but it isn’t necessary. I think people recognize a great work of art when they experience it.
For example, I’m doing a painting of a scene from the Langedoc Roussillon wine growing region of France, and it includes a statue called Notre Dame des Vignerons that was erected by the vine growers of the area and includes a cask of wine at the statue’s feet. The Virgin Mary is holding the Christ Child who is reaching for a fleur de lis that she is holding. Knowing that the fleur de lis is a symbol of purity that was originally applied to the Virgin and then to Christ, and that in France it is used for royalty, and that it also is a symbol for the Trinity, all that would help make the painting more meaningful, but not knowing would not prevent the viewer from enjoying the painting.
MW: How much is art stressed in Catholic churches and schools?
RS: I don’t know much about art in Catholic schools, except I first studied art in Catholic grammar school, and I was shown very good examples including Flemish masters. The modern Catholic church has been largely stripped of art and has been protestantized. The trend amounts almost to a new iconoclasm. Someone told me a related joke yesterday; a woman told a priest that she didn’t want to belong to the Catholic Church because we worship statues. The priest said indignantly, “Madam, you haven’t been around the Catholic Church in 40 years. We don’t worship statues any more. We worship banners.”
Far too often beauty of statuary and painted murals has been replaced with hanging bolts of cloth that to my eye resemble sheets left to dry. And often beautiful works of statuary, stained glass, paintings and murals have been replaced with art that is mediocre or worse. In the St. Joseph Cathedral that was renovated in the 80s in San Jose, two statues were added that are rough hewn out of wood and are positively ugly. I resent the fact that in the statue of St. Clare, the artist even got the iconography wrong.
I hope that my art can make some small contribution to the restoration of beautiful art to the Catholic Church.
MW: Who are some of your favorite Catholic artists working today? How much do you think contemporary Catholic art is on the radar screen of mainstream galleries and museums?
RS: I know only a few Catholics who are artists. One painter I know, who is my favorite Catholic painter, sells most of what she paints, and she is really excellent at it. Aside from some illuminated Gregorian chant pages she did for the St. Ann Choir, she usually doesn’t do art with religious themes. She said it’s because she doesn’t know anyone who wants to buy that kind of art. She would if she knew anyone who wanted to pay her for it.
I don’t think that contemporary Catholic art is on the radar screen of mainstream galleries and museums. Excellent art should be. If the galleries and museums wouldn’t want to show religious art, even if it excels, just because it is religious, well that would be a form of prejudice, wouldn’t it?
MW: What are some of the greatest challenges working as a religious artist? Are there things that are off-limits for a Catholic artist to depict?
RS: It’s off limits to depict things that lead people into sin.
Flannery O’Connor wrote about that from an interesting point of view. She wrote that her duty was to depict reality and that some reproached her because some readers might follow the bad example of some of her characters. Her response was that she couldn’t take on the role of God and take responsibility for others’ actions in those cases.
I think we should consider returning to the days when we could suggest evil acts being done without depicting them in a way that inflames the viewers’ emotions and possibly leads them to spiritual harm.
MW: What, if anything, is an idolatrous sculpture or painting?
RS: I am not very sophisticated in my reaction to this question. The famous photographs showing a man urinating on a crucifix comes to mind. A painting I once saw published in the San Jose Mercury News that was a parody of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The artist used the coloring and aureola that appears on the image, but substitutes a scantily clad woman with a provocative expression.
MW: What kinds of works do you make? Do they often draw from biblical and religious sources?
RS: I am currently doing landscapes that include religious symbols, statues, or crosses, or shrines, at sites of great natural beauty or that are significant in our culture. I also am working on my own versions of the Madonna and Child and St. Francis of Assisi. Almost everything I plan to do from now on will be reverent and point the viewer towards some aspect of the light that is in Christ Jesus.