“Art educates our emotions and imagination. It awakens, enlarges, and refines our humanity. Remove it, dilute it, or pervert it, and a community or a nation suffers—becoming less compassionate, curious, and alert, more coarse, narrow, and self-satisfied.”
In a 2013 article, “The Catholic Writer Today,” the poet Dana Gioia probes a wound he thinks should trouble everyone, not just those with artistic bent. He calls it the “schism between Christianity and the arts,” and he warns that we are watching the life bleed out of a rich culture.
We all know about the “hugely formative and inspirational role” the church played in the arts for two thousand years, especially during the Medieval era in the Christian West. But Gioia reminds us of a fact it’s easy to forget: that the secular twentieth century, particularly the two decades after World War II, saw its own new flowering of Christian art in Europe and America. By “Christian art,” Gioia doesn’t mean the sort of thing we often classify as “Christian music” or “Christian fiction.” This post-War art did not necessarily deal with explicit religious themes. But it had these things in common: it was made by artists comfortable calling themselves “Catholic” or “Christian;” it was informed by a religious worldview and a sacramental vision; and it gained broad audiences in secular as well as Christian circles. Some of the major Christian writers of that time are still household names: Walker Percy, Flannery O’Conner, T.S. Eliot, Cselaw Milosz, J.R.R. Tolkien.
But the decades following the 1960s, says Gioia, have marked “the intellectual retreat and creative inertia of American religious life.” Literature, music, sculpture, and painting now boast few Catholics or Protestants (aside from Gioia himself, and perhaps Marilynne Robinson) that anyone in the secular sphere takes note of.
This scarcity of artists within the Church would seem to point to a weakness in their supportive community. Artists need audiences in their own churches who care about their art. But within the Christian community, Gioia insists, many are uninterested in the arts — or (what amounts to the same thing) they are interested only in sanitized Christian copies of the secular culture’s popular art forms.
Gioia’s essay is riveting, troubling, and deeply inspirational. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about the arts — whether you’re a Christian, or an artist, or neither. The consequences of this schism touch everyone. As they lose diverse voices from a long and distinct tradition, the secular arts are becoming impoverished and homogenized. Meanwhile, the rich culture that grew within the Church over centuries, for both worship and enjoyment, is thinning. Our sense of history slips away along with the diversity of music, art, poetry, and liturgy endowed to us. Those in Protestant churches may have a shorter legacy, but many denominations still have liturgical and musical traditions that are becoming foreign to their members.
Gioia ends by calling for a movement to “renovate and reoccupy our own tradition.” Artistic renewal will come not from the top down, but from individuals within the Church community with enough faith, hope, and ingenuity.
Several organizations have answered the call to start renovating. ArtsCharlotte in North Carolina, the Anselm Society in Colorado Springs, and the Rabbit Room in Nashville, are a few groups setting out to connect artists in the Christian community, and to start conversations about aesthetics. They aim to whet people’s appetite for beauty.
This winter, my husband and I and a few visionary friends inaugurate another organization in Washington, D.C., called the Eliot Society. The Eliot Society exists to salve the wound in our city: to provide opportunities for local church members to experience high-quality art; to find, connect with, and inspire local Christian artists; and to foster discussion about the role of art in the Christian community and beyond.
T. S. Eliot warned of two errors into which a people may fall. The first is to believe that culture can be preserved without religion. And the second is to assume that
the preservation and maintenance of religion need not reckon with the preservation and maintenance of culture: a belief which may even lead to the rejection of the products of culture as frivolous obstructions to the spiritual life. To be in a position to reject this error, as with the other, requires us to take a distant view; to refuse to accept the conclusion, when the culture that we see is a culture in decline, that culture is something to which we can afford to remain indifferent.
The Church and the Arts
Art may be a means of ministry, within the Church and without. We believe that art can enrich human life by educating our emotions, awakening our loves, and forming our understanding of what it means to be human. Besides a series of lectures, the Eliot Society plans to offer arts events, including concerts, poetry readings, and theatre productions.
We believe it is important for Christians to engage thoughtfully and critically with many kinds of art, including (but not limited to) art from our own tradition. Christians don’t have to produce or view “Christianized” art; but they should seek out well-crafted works — of the sort that stir our imaginations and draw us to consider the meaningful, the true, and the beautiful. It might do that in various ways, sometimes even through dealing with dark or disturbing themes.
We believe the form and creative integrity of our art matters at least as much as the content. Art is most powerful and transformative, says Gioia, when it is “holistic and incarnate — simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical senses, and memory without dividing them.”
The Church and Artists
In his recent beautiful series of essays, “Why Bother to Write,” Andrew Collins voices a feeling familiar to many a contemporary artist — superfluousness. In some sectors of Washington, D.C., the secular arts may be thriving; but in our churches, artists tend to be absent, or isolated.
The Eliot Society aims to build a vibrant community of artists, inspired by a shared love and a shared faith. Culture, says Eliot, is “that which makes life worth living.” Artists are the cultivators of culture. As Collins says, artists are the gardeners who “preserve the preconditions for communication.” They not only create, but they also keep the soil of a language fertile, for the passing on of traditions and the illumination of new beauties.
If you live in the D.C. area, come join our community. On February 25th, cultural journalist Ken Myers will speak about the imagination, and the ways it illuminates our world and faith. Come hear an inspirational speaker — and sign up for our email list to find out more about how you can support, or become a member of, the gardeners and creators of the next generation.
Liz Horst studied music and English literature at Grove City College and now lives in Maryland with her husband and two children. While working from home, Liz has found a precarious balance for her many loves. Besides writing and editing for the Play channel at Humane Pursuits, she runs a Suzuki violin studio and serves as executive director for the Eliot Society, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.