Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Church Patronage of the Arts and a Personal Testimony to the Necessity of Beauty - Faith and Tradition Series

Transcending the Sphere of the Senses

By Gwyneth Holston

It was not until adulthood that I realized not everyone is hypersensitive to color. As a child, I assumed that only wanton children would ever muddy the pristine ovals of paint in a tray of watercolors.

The resonance or dissonance of different color combinations has always sung out to me without changing its volume. The world is scintillating in fall as trees change color, but I feel positively ill when I enter a space decorated in that exquisitely awful combination of slate blue and peach that held sway during the early eighties.

Despite the fact that I always feel a physical reaction to color and other visual phenomena, I find it interesting that I cannot force myself to have a deep aesthetic experience. Sometimes a piece of art moves me, and sometimes it does not. All I can do is stand before it in an attitude of active receptivity. 

Similarly, I cannot force myself to experience spiritual consolation. Sometimes I feel moved when I am at prayer, but more often I do not. Once again, all I can do is kneel before God.

Just as spiritual consolation is a free gift from God, it seems that so too is every experience of beauty. Although He has given us a bountiful supply of raw material such as color, form and proportion, His intervention is necessary to make it recognizable to the soul. That moment when we perceive anew the beauty of a shaft of light illuminating the kitchen floor should be a reminder of God’s direct presence in our life and His love for us.

Dietrich von Hildebrand articulates the concept of illuminated beauty in his essay “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption.”
This higher beauty of form is also bestowed directly and intuitively by means of the visible and the audible, and in spite of its connection with the senses, it is of a spiritual sublimity which qualitatively completely transcends the sphere of the senses. 
If we consider a painting like “Haystacks: Autumn” by Jean Francois Millet, it is evident that an empty field populated by sheep and a shepherdess has been transformed into something both eerie and majestic. Heavenly light illuminates the homely landscape to reveal glimpses of the eternal. The viewer empathizes with the vulnerable shepherdess under the purpling sky while at the same time experiencing a twinge of envy at her vantage point. She spends her time watching tiny white birds skim the tops of the golden haystacks while milky sheep nuzzle the ground below. Obviously the birds and sheep cannot enjoy the loveliness of it all, but the shepherdess remains a question mark.

Can she perceive the beauty that surrounds her? By confronting the viewer with such a scene, I believe Millet is really presenting a meditation on the veiled beauty that surrounds us in our own lives.

I am an artist because I am in awe of the moment when that veil is drawn aside. Just as each experience of beauty is a gift from God, I believe that the ability to participate in the creation of art is a gift as well. As much as I would like masterpieces to fall effortlessly from my brush whenever I like, it seems that the more I force a painting, the worse the result. Training, discipline, and aptitude are all prerequisites for the artist, but in the end, he is just one medium through which God works to place beauty in this world in order to draw souls to Him.

The hardest part about being an artist today is that there is no obvious path. For the average young person with an aptitude for drawing, there is no one in his life who can counsel him on where he should study. If and when he does find a good place to study, there is no financial assistance available. The Church is no longer the patron it once was. The training necessary to become an academic painter is akin to medical school. The time, cost, and effort are the same, but there is no prestige or paycheck after graduation. Much has been written to debate the prudence of paying for a liberal arts education. Nothing is said about the wisdom of studying fine art because it is so obviously imprudent. The saving grace is the knowledge that art, like medicine, has the power to save lives.

St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows was a witty yet superficial young man known for dwelling on his appearance and popularity in his native town of Assisi. Although he made rash promises to reform his life during bouts of illness, it was not until an icon of Mary passed by during a procession that he heard within himself a call to enter the Passionist Congregation. He then led the life of an exemplary religious before dying of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. He held an image of Our Lady of Sorrows during his last hours before a death that was just, holy, and edifying.

Obviously, God did not require an image to touch the heart of Gabriel Possenti, but the fact remains that He has chosen many humble paintings and statues as a means of conversion. According to the Baltimore Catechism, a sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion, and through these movements of the heart to remit venial sin. To what higher call can an artisan aspire?

I spent many years studying art half-heartedly and working at jobs I didn’t find particularly meaningful because I just couldn’t believe that God would provide my daily bread as a religious artist. Although I had a stable career and a comfortable living, I came to realize I was not at peace knowing that I had refused God’s call to give myself entirely as an artist. Now that I have abandoned myself to my vocation, I find I lean more heavily upon Him. For the first time I feel like both a bird of the air and a lily of the field.

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Gwyneth Holston's work can be seen at her website: http://gwynethholston.com.

This is the fifth installment in the Faith and Tradition series on the NLM. See the series introduction for the commenting policy.

Part 1part 2, part 3, and part 4.

Please write me at jdonelson@newliturgicalmovement.org if you are interested in contributing your own story to this series.