Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Symposium on Art and Liturgy at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

As part of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts' Way of Beauty Summer Atelier program, the college held a public symposium on art and liturgy earlier this month. The event took the form of a discussion between a panel of working Catholic artists and was chaired by New Liturgical Movement’s Fr Thomas Kocik. The idea was to provide a forum where people could hear the insights of people who are actually working in the field.

The discussion involved portrait painter Henry Wingate who is one of the leading naturalistic painters in the United States and who teaches in the TMC Way of Beauty Atelier; David Mayernik, who is an internationally commissioned architect and fresco painter, and a professor in the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture; and yours truly.

What was striking was the number of people who attended. When we scheduled it we weren’t sure how many people would attend. As it turned out, places were oversubscribed with many driving for hours to be part of the event. We had to close discussion with many people still wanting to ask questions and private conversations went on until late at night. This seems to me to be a reflection of a strong desire amongst the faithful for a genuine restoration of a culture of beauty rooted in liturgical renewal.

Father Kocik set the tone of the discussion in his opening address in which he emphasized the link between the liturgy and the broader culture. A summary of the discussion follows (as it written up in the college press release, hence references to myself in the third person, but I would recommend readers to full text of Fr Kocik’s opening speech, here, which spoke very powerfully to the importance of an active liturgical piety to the re-establishment of a culture of beauty.

The summary is as follows:

In his opening address, Fr Kocik told us: "The word "culture" derives from the Latin cultus, meaning what we cherish or worship. Christian culture is thus centered on Christ, the incarnate beauty of God. The "source and summit of the Christian life," (Lumen Gentium, #11) and therefore of Christian culture, is the Liturgy: Holy Mass, the sacraments, the different Hours of prayer that sanctify the entire day. In liturgical prayer, art and culture—indeed all human activity— finds true meaning; for at the center of the Liturgy is Christ, the source and summit of all human hope.”

He then introduced each artist who in turn gave a short description of his work and in the context of Fr Kocik’s opening address and in the light of their own experiences as working artists, talked about how important it is to respond to the call to reestablish a culture of beauty in the West.

Professor David Clayton, Director of the Way of Beauty Program, said that, “The power of culture should not be underestimated. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI talks about how after the Enlightenment the culture of faith and the broader culture became separated, creating Catholic ghettoes culturally separated from the mainstream. Our job is connect the two together so that we establish a Catholic culture that is rooted in the liturgy. I believe that if we can do this, then just as it was in the past, Catholic culture can be so beautiful and compelling that it overcomes all others. This is part of the force for the New Evangelisation that we are being asked to contribute to."

David Mayernik spoke of the importance of Rome not simply as the center of Catholic Faith, but as an essential area of study for all artists: "The importance of Rome for a Catholic understanding of art is essential. Rome is the fountainhead of what we as artists do. It gives us some sense of heaven. Through its art, Rome enables us to translate the ancient world, and the Church conveys this world to us while continually renewing it. Rome is the curator of Western culture, and I am committed to reflecting that culture in my architectural work."

Henry Wingate spoke about the value of copying works of art in preserving tradition. "Copying the works of old masters is unpopular today, but I find great value in recreating on my canvas what the Old Masters created centuries ago. It was always such an important part of training of artists in the past, as well as drawing from life of course. Through this the form of the tradition is transmitted and we learn directly from the greats. John Singer Sargent, for example, in the 19th century went to Spain and copied every painting by the great 17th century artist Velazquez in the Prado museum in Madrid."

Wingate spoke of how he was recently commissioned to paint a copy of a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by a little known 19th century Mexican master. He was happy to receive the commission and in undertaking it, he said, he learnt a great deal about the artist communicated form.

One questioner asked if we have lost some skills forever and if that means we have little hope for the future in recreating the glories of the past. Mayernek responded by pointing out that the all traditions began somewhere and provided that we are critical of the work we are doing now and not too easily satisfied, then we can succeed. The artists agreed and each felt that their role was to play a part in reestablishing the habit of tradition – handing the skills and knowledge on, so that with God’s grace, the artists of the next generation can build on it and improve the quality of work. In this way, we can hope to see work that equals and ‘who knows’ perhaps even surpasses the beauty of the past.

The evening concluded with a discussion on the ways artists communicate the truths of Christianity through art: “If a new art form is developed, it will be because a new need arises,” said Clayton. “It will develop out of conversations with artists, theologians, and Church leaders—and the elements of this new style will complement the characteristics of this age. In short, it will communicate perennial truths in a way that modern man understands them and is drawn closer to God."


From the left: Fr Kocik, David Mayernik, Henry Wingate and David Clayton