Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bad Catholic Art

There is an ugly flipside to all our talk in these posts about reclaiming the culture. And that is the sad fact that many people who make an attempt to create a culture or a work of art from a Catholic perspective are somehow dishonest about it. This is a difficult phenomenon to describe, so bear with me.

I have been to Catholic seminaries and retreat centers where, whether the mood is liberal or traditionalist, things are poorly maintained. The roof is leaking, the heat doesn’t work right, trash is piled up in places, bugs are crawling on walls, and to look around you you’d think that you were in a meth-lab infested trailer park. There is a neglect that is allowed to grow like a cancer. Usually the retreat attendees or the seminarians don’t complain. But something is icky.

In addition, there are Catholic media outlets that broadcast programming that’s not even up to amateur levels. One apostolate that specializes in audio material allows the audio they distribute to be occasionally inaudible or so poorly edited that a recorded speech will simply stop before it’s finished, leaving the listener hanging when the tape ends, so to speak. Now, I can understand an apostolate that specializes in evangelizing through audio recordings having poor graphic design or cheap packaging, but if all you do is audio, why can’t you get the audio right?

And my company, the Theater of the Word Incorporated, does drama. It’s no secret that most Catholic or Christian drama companies do horrible work, ponderous, self-congratulatory, boring. Why is this?

I think it’s because it’s a ghetto out there. We really are in a meth-lab infested trailer park. Because the culture at large is so secular, and increasingly so anti-Christian, the market for the cultural work Christians do is more and more limited to the select few, the true believers, the fringe. So our artists end up working in a vacuum, where the market that exists for their work is a contrived one; and the patrons of Catholic art so forgiving and desperate that they take very literally Chesterton’s quip that a thing worth doing is worth doing badly – even though obviously a thing done badly is not worth patronizing, whether it be a book, a play, or a movie.

If, for example, there were a real market for Catholic audio material, a company that put out shoddy work would be drummed out of business both by competing companies and by the public’s unwillingness to endure shoddy work. Since the market is just the ghetto, the persecuted few who are happy for whatever crumbs they can gather, such a situation can continue.

Therefore Catholic artists suffer from the same fate as secular “high artists”. A secular “high artist” is one who produces art for a contrived market such as the dilettantes who claim to admire abstract painting. We all know that “high art” is sterile because it isn’t popular, nor will it deign to be. Likewise, since what passes for Catholic art is not popular, our artists never face the music. They too adopt a certain disregard for what they do, and it shows up in neglect. They never have to confront the reality of what real people really want in art, or even in entertainment. And so they put out stuff that’s simply bad.

And why do we put up with this? Bad Catholic drama or music or television should be condemned as much as bad Catholic architecture, a thing people are willing to notice and complain about. Why should we not build shopping-mall churches? Because we’re doing it for the Lord, and we should be doing our best. Why should we not produce bad Catholic stories and poems and plays and movies and sculpture? For the same reason.

But the problem is once you start a downward spiral, it’s hard to break free. Whatever came first, we now have parishes that won’t pay what it costs to book a good theatrical performance because they don’t value the quality of a good theatrical performance because the producers themselves don’t value the quality, and even if they did they might not be able to afford to produce it for a market that won’t pay for it. Much of the bad Catholic cultural material that’s out there is free, and you get what you pay for; you can also only realistically give as much as you get paid for – so the neglect continues and festers, with both producers and consumers to blame.

Is there a way out? There is, and it’s they key to the new evangelization. People are still people, and they still respond to good art. The market has languished, but the need is still there and the demand may yet return, if both the producers and the consumers, the actors and the audience, the artists and the patrons, wake up to the need for the good, the beautiful, and the true, not the shoddy, the trashy, and the contrived – and demand the seriousness of commitment on both ends that will produce it – a seriousness usually measured by money.

Indeed, while the love of money may be the root of all evil, the disdain for money is akin to a Gnostic revulsion at the flesh. We will know that there’s a revival of Catholic culture when producers start spending time and money to produce good material, and patrons start spending time and money to enjoy it.

In short, it’s time for the poor mouthing to end – on both ends.


Frank C said...

Thank you Kevin for calling a shovel a shovel. But we must carry on in Hope.

Miguel Cuthbert said...

I think Flannery O'Connor had something to say on this very subject - something about Saint Francis converting a wolf...

But I am overall pleased with the recent upswing in the quality of Catholic media. If you look at what you and people like Leonardo DeFilippis have done... even the EWTN series 'The Friar' for kids! Such a huge step forward from where we were ten years ago.

Rick said...

A very important topic. One that has screamed in my face for decades. "Bad" Catholic art is the result of immature, shallow Catholic understanding IMO. What goes out is result of what goes in.
This spells:Bad Catechisms.
When are we going to OWN our faith?
When will we take it in, live it, fail, start again, fail, start again...and express this poignant love affair in a way that people, hungry, sensible humans, can sink their teeth into it?
Life is not about perfect myths.
Life is about fallen humans in need of redemption...REAL redemption.
Catholic artists are first and foremost called to be authentic.
No worrying about doing it 'right'.
That's not art that's sterility (as you mentioned). It takes a fair amount of weathering backlash, even from the pious ones, to really move forward.
I'm not advocating being rebellious or shocking, no...I'm saying be authentic. No one can say what my experience of being truly catholic is like I can. This seemingly unique or personal perception will ironically resinate in the uniqueness of each of us.

Miguel Cuthbert said...

I have to disagree Rick. I know Catholics who are as honest, authentic, and well-catechized as one could hope for, but fail as artists. I am probably one of those myself.

What anyone might be able to do - (but I kind of doubt it) - is learn to appreciate good art. That should be everyone's goal. But what is needed most of all is to catechize the good artists, who, if they are good artists, will be open to truth when they see it.