With the election season heating up and the usual sins threatening to conquer us, it’s time to talk about… art.
Eve Tushnet makes a penetrating observation* in an upcoming issue of First Things magazine: If you (a sinner) cannot imagine a different way of life, if you do not see virtue as a real and vital possibility, then you cannot experience conversion. And without the conversion of individual souls, there will be no conversion of the culture, no renewed respect for the human person, no communal solidarity or self-sacrifice.
Yet the best method to communicate these needs usually does not lie in philosophy. A person’s openness to logical argument is half-determined before the argument begins. Molding his perception of what is possible and what is desirable is the culture that surrounds him — the paintings, films, poems, photographs, TV shows, books, stories, songs, and plays that have shaped his imagination. If the good and the true do not appear beautiful in these works of art, they will not seem good or true, either.**
In brief, art tends to normalize what it portrays. If in art the human person is degraded, the vulnerable are treated with contempt, and life is chaotic and meaningless, then the viewer may conclude, even if only unconsciously, that the best worldview is “every man for himself.” But if art portrays beauty, order, friendship, and the sacred, honoring the dignity of the individual, then the viewer may look for more in his philosophy.
So how do we cultivate a more beautiful culture? Simple: If you’re an artist, create things of beauty; if you’re not, then go out of your way to find, treasure, and share beautiful things. Here are a few ways to start.
1. Visit museums! So many beautiful pieces of art languish in museums, yearning for visitors. Give them some love. This is easiest, of course, in major metro areas like Washington, D.C., and New York City, but many colleges have small art museums. Get a list of museums by state here. (Granted, museums don’t always do much for contemporary artists, but they do foster an appreciation for art.)
2. Attend concerts, plays, movies, recitations of poetry, and other cultural events. Sure, it’s possible to rent movies, to listen to CDs, to read poetry online, but beauty is best experienced in the flesh. This is harder to do if you’re not in a major metro area, but colleges, high schools, and community groups still put out some beautiful work.
3. Buy books, artwork, photography, magazines, CDs, etc. Free access to art (via the Internet) is awesome, but in the long run, there will be little new art if no one is willing to pay the artist. So, where to find contemporary art, music, and texts worth paying for…
Writers: I’ve listed some great Catholic novels here before. My favorite contemporary writers are probably Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Mark Helprin, and Michael O’Brien (the artist who also writes).
Poets: Dana Gioia, Wendell Berry (the novelist/essayist also writes poetry), A.M. Juster, Brian Doyle, and Sally Thomas (yes, this Sally Thomas) have all written some lovely poetry. A fellow Hillsdale alum has praised some other poets that I’m not yet familiar with — Averill Curdy, A. E. Stallings, Steve Gehrke, and Roddy Lumsden — for defying today’s “poetry-about-poetry house-of-cards garbage.”
Publishing houses: Ignatius Press may take the top spot; also keep an eye on Our Sunday Visitor, St. Augustine’s Press, Franciscan Media (includes Servant Books, St. Anthony Messenger Press), and the Sophia Institute Press.
Magazines: Naturally I must recommend my current employer, First Things (essays and poetry). Via St. Peter’s List, you can find fiction, art, poetry, essays, and more in Image, Dappled Things, and Pilgrim. I’ve also enjoyed The Christendom Review.
Movie studios/directors/films: You can’t go wrong with Grassroots Films. Icon Productions is behind a few good movies of recent years. I am dreadfully ignorant about film, though. Who else is good?
Musicians: My ignorance of movies is only outweighed by my ignorance of contemporary bands and musicians, so you’ll have to help me out here. I like Scythian, for one. Conductor and composer Richard Proulx, who died in 2010, put out some wonderful sacred music in recent years.
So, what great artists or promoters of art did I miss? Share in the comments!
Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists
Pope Benedict’s Address to Artists
*Eve Tushnet makes this point in a totally different context, namely that of Catholic sexual morality, but I wanted to credit her for the basic insight.
**I haven’t distinguished here between Catholic/Christian art and secular art, though my specific recommendations emphasize the former. Some secular art better communicates Christian truths (that life is sacred, etc.) better than some Christian art does, though obviously that’s not to say that there’s no need for explicitly Christian art. But this point, the related exploration of didactic art’s many pitfalls, the question of portraying vs. glamorizing sin, and many other related issues are beyond the scope of this post. The image is “Flower Beauty” by Cornelis Vreedenburgh, via Wikipaintings.