What has art to do with culture? Should the Church be concerned with questions of art and beauty when there are so many other pressing things to attend to? And why does some modern art seem so ugly? These were some of the questions explored by Fr Francis Denton on Monday 13 November at the regular God and Beer event hosted by the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria.
Fr Francis Denton, Parish Priest of St Patrick’s Lilydale and St Brigid’s Healesville, is himself a painter and iconographer, so the question of art’s place in human life and the Church is deeply personal to him, he said.
He also recognised that the role of art may seem like a ‘boutique’ issue to some. ‘It could be argued that beauty doesn’t really serve a practical function, and therefore it’s a kind of a luxury that we can’t really afford as a society,’ he said.
Or people may think that ‘as Christians we shouldn’t be concerned with such superficial things as art. We should be more concerned with spiritual things, and moreover, beauty might even be a snare to entrap us or to distract us from spiritual priorities.’
On the contrary, Fr Denton argued that beauty is ‘absolutely necessary for authentic human flourishing’.
One reason to be concerned about the state of art is the effect it has on culture, he said. ‘There is this dynamic between art and culture, where the one feeds and informs the other in a positive feedback loop, as it were.
‘So if you have a culture that produces really, really bad art, that bad art will feed back into the culture and drag it down … But the opposite is also true. If you have a good and healthy culture, that will produce beautiful art. And that beautiful art—that good, ennobling art—will feed back into the culture and elevate the culture.’
In fact, if we want to ‘gauge’ the relative health of a culture, there’s a very easy way to do that. ‘Go down to your local art gallery or go to the city and have a look at our art. Turn on the radio. Listen to the music. Turn on your TV. Watch the shows that are on. The art that we see in our culture is telling us something about what our culture values and esteems.’
If we do, Fr Denton argued, what we might find is that many parts of our culture promote ‘ugliness’. There seems to be ‘a deliberate inversion of transcendent beauty, a rejection of this idea that there is such a thing as transcendent beauty’.
If you have a good and healthy culture, that will produce beautiful art. And that beautiful art, that good, ennobling art, will feed back into the culture and elevate the culture.
Because artistic expression is also tied so closely to how we see ourselves as people, Fr Denton said, a culture that seemingly promotes ugliness also promotes a degraded view of what it means to be human. While many would view artistic taste as subjective, Fr Denton argued that some modern art tends to distort the beauty of the human person ‘as one made in the image and likeness of God’.
Pointing to the Catechism, which talks about art and beauty in the context of the eighth commandment—‘You shall not bear false witness’—Fr Denton said that art and beauty bear an important relationship to truth.
The Catechism states:
Created in ‘the image of God,’ man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works … To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created (§2501).
Good art is able to lead people to the truth of God, to the reality of a transcendent beauty and to the dignity of who we have been created to be, Fr Denton said.
Fr Denton also offered encouragement to the artists in the room. ‘We find ourselves, as it were, in the desert of a post-Christian culture … What this moment in time calls for is for Christians everywhere, world over, to start to fight back by creating little oases within that desert, little oases of beauty within our own homes, within our own communities, within our own churches.’
In this way, he said, Christianity can offer a sense of ‘sanity in the madness’ of an increasingly chaotic world. ‘There’s a real opportunity here for the Church to be that light on the hill, to be that refuge that offers a real alternative to that which the world is offering.’
‘I'm sure we have in this room a lot of very talented people. Perhaps they’ve been hiding their light under a bushel. But I really put it out to you to try and cultivate a craft … Find that art form that speaks to you, that you feel called to.’
Whether it be painting or photography, writing or sculpting, or pottery or composition, ‘All these things, all these are different ways in which we can bring beauty into the world,’ Fr Denton said, ‘and in that way be able to witness to he who is beauty himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ.’
I really put it out to you to try and cultivate a craft … Find that art form that speaks to you, that you feel called to.
Banner image: photo courtesy of the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria.
Proclaim: Office for Mission Renewal29 November 2023
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