Pray for the artistic commitment to truth

  • June 19, 2009
Catholics who pray the Liturgy of the Hours know that the intercessions frequently guide us to petition God for the arts.

Not that artists nowadays care whether we pray for them or not. (They are more likely to be grateful that Christians no longer have the power to censor or suppress them.) It has been a long time, after all, since churches commissioned artworks that were important in the history of art, and since artists had anything better than contempt for Christianity, its teachings and institutions.

There have been Christians, of course, who played prominent roles in cutting-edge modern art-making. One thinks of the writers T. S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor, composer Olivier Messiaen, painter Georges Rouault, the eccentric Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. But these artists (all now dead) made their most distinguished contributions decades ago. I can’t name a single Christian creator on the forefront of any art at this moment — though the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt might be a contender.

So why should we pray for the godless worlds of visual art, writing, architecture, music, dance, theatre, design? It’s because we know — some of us, from long experience — that serious contemporary artists, in whatever field, are seekers after the truth of personal, cultural and social existence. Their work is important because it emerges from an intense dialogue with what matters deeply to us, including politics and sexuality, mass media, pop culture and modernity itself. Our Catholic prayer for artists is not that they will agree with us or conform to our expectations. It is, rather, an expression of our solidarity with the profoundly important enterprise of truth-telling.

Art cannot, of course, heal or repair the broken world. But the arts can diagnose and describe our ills and expose our self-deception and ignorance. When excellent, they can nourish our dislike for nonsense, mediocrity and banality. And the most exalting and imaginative works of contemporary visual art, music, architecture can even allow us to glimpse, for a moment, worlds that are liberated from the distortion, oppression, ugliness and injustice that mar our everyday world — new worlds of freedom we can then try to make real and general, if we have the will to do so, in the present age,

But so much for theory. What earthly difference does believing such things — as I do believe them — matter to the practical act of viewing works of art?

Here’s one example of what I’m talking about.

Earlier this month, I attended the Basel Art Fair , certainly the international art world’s most prestigious annual exposition. Most of the commercial galleries in the fair showed an odd-lot of works by artists they represent. But not the New York gallery Cheim & Read . They decided, instead, to host a concise exhibition called I Believe, consisting of works (most of them photographs of ordinary, unimportant people in American settings) by only two U.S. artists, from different generations: William Eggleston (born 1939, in Tennessee) and Jack Pierson (1960, Massachusetts).

The images ranged in tone from sad and sedate to raunchy and downright funny. Holding the show together, however, was its interesting ambition: to provide a critical reading of the follies, fascinations and fantasies of American culture via the photographs of two gifted artists who have paid close attention to them.

Americans believe a lot of things that many people in the world at large, including Canadians, find both odd and oddly compelling. There’s the myth of the wide-open, golden West, inscribed on the American imagination by countless Hollywood movies, but older than any of them. There is America’s spectacular consumerism, its exuberant cult of celebrity, its obsession with sex, youth, unwrinkled skin. And there are those brands of apocalyptic Christian fundamentalism that are both wildly popular and pretty weird. Eggleston and Pierson hold all these phenomena up to scrutiny, and look at them with disillusioned, detached eyes. The result, in their art, is a melancholy picture of Americans going about their pleasures and distractions, which never turn out to be quite as intoxicating as their consumers would like.

I can’t tell you what a secular critic would make of all this, since I’m not one. To my mind, something was missing in these photographs — some indication, perhaps, of the very real damage these American myths and preoccupations have wreaked on American social fabric, and on the world beyond America.

But I’m not going to press this point. If Eggleston and Pierson haven’t gone as far as I’d like, they have gone their distance with integrity and a commitment to truth-telling. One can’t expect more than that from an artist. Such integrity is what we Christians pray for when we intercede for the arts and those who make them.

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