Friday, May 21, 2010

Catholic Music: Behind the Curve

I never laughed so hard at a museum as when I once saw an exhibition of select holy cards from the 1960s and 1970s. They didn't feature clear and inspiring images of recognizable saints and martyrs. Instead, they were fashioned as abstract and "modern" with vague shapes and pastel colors, randomly intertwining circles and squares that were supposed to suggest something uncertain and presumably thoughtful and up to date. Others featured people with oddly distorted faces drawn in deliberately primitive styles.

What were the makers of these things thinking? The idea that a person would kneel down, look at these, and feel spiritual inspiration can't be ruled out, I suppose, but it seems rather improbable.

It's no surprise that these creations didn't have traction in the Catholic world. They were the holy card equivalent of what is now seen as tacky and bad architecture and proletarian pseudo-folk music, part of the attempt to reconstruct and re-imagine how the faith is render to appeal to our senses. Let's just say that they didn't catch on.

The commercial sector that markets holy cards must be highly sensitive to consumer taste, and these just didn't pass the market test. Who has ever bought a liturgical book at a used book store and found one of these nested deep inside the contents? If you ever did find one, you would not be likely to keep it.

I don't want to put down the artistic drive that led to their creation. Maybe there are works of genius among these cards and I just can't quite see it. Just because I don't get it doesn't mean that there is no artistic meaning to these items. Still, something tells me that this generation of holy cards is not going to go down in history as a high point of Catholic art.

These days, in contrast a visit to the local parish gift shop that carries holy cards and other items is likely to be rather pleasant. In all the parishes I've been to recently, the gifts are all quite excellent in their artistic sensibility. Tradition is back. The rosaries look like rosaries. The holy cards have beautiful paintings of saints and martyrs with recognizable features and styles that inspire prayer and contemplation. The crucifixes are not that different from what has been around for many centuries, but they are made with modern materials that combined elegance with cost saving production techniques.

To consider just one example, observe the popular of the Christ the King crucifix. It is so beautiful and noble. Christ is on the cross but not in a suffering pose; rather, he is wearing priestly robes and a crown, with arms outstretched, body standing straight, and head faced forward. There is something about the juxtaposition of the crucifixion with this pose of total victory that is particularly inspired and inspiring.

Nowadays, one sees these items everywhere. But twenty, thirty, or forty years ago? You could hunt them down in antique stores and estate sales. It seems nearly impossible to remember this but there was a time with the image of Christ the King was considered reactionary and even dangerous. It was said to be a symbol of imperialism and triumphalism, and if you displayed it you were surely making a statement against religious liberty and the modern idea of tolerance. Maybe you were a rebel against the "spirit of Vatican II."

Whether it was true or not, and I sincerely doubt that this was true, all that hyper-politicization associated with Christ the King seems to be completely gone. Now people buy these items because they are beautiful and inspiring, with no intention at all of making a statement for or against any political position. It is a symbol of Catholic Christianity and seen only as this. In fact, I suspect some readers of these paragraphs will be shocked to learn that there ever was an ethos that attempted to suppress this symbol.

All I can say is that I'm glad I'm alive now rather than having experienced adulthood in times when the elites were trying to ban Christ the King images and urging us to carry "holy cards" consisting of abstract shapes, blobs, and cave people. I congratulate everyone who lived in those days and somehow survived with their faith in tact. They must have been trying times in so many ways. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see nearly everything around you come unraveled and to watch and listen as the images, music, and symbols of the faith torn down and ridiculed and then replaced by inferior works with no meaningful roots in the faith.

As regards today, not all is well of course. The recovery from upheaval of the sort experienced decades ago is not complete. It is an ongoing process that will still be continuing long after our lifetimes. One of the most conspicuous aspects of modern Catholicism that has yet to fully recover is the music associated with the typical parish liturgy. Browsing the gift shop in a parish might lead one to believe that the liturgy taking place in the Church itself is filled with Gregorian chant and beautiful Renaissance styles of motets and that all the people are chanting, just as non-Catholics imagine that Catholics do. The reality is very different.

The musical equivalent of shapes, blobs, and cave people is still with us in much of the repertoire that is put on display at Mass. In general, we are probably much better off in general than many parishes were in the 1970s. There has been improvement. Scholas are working hard to recover tradition. But I'm speaking here of what we might call the default musical repertoire of parish life. Half or more of it actually dates from the 1970s, repeating like an endless loop of the greatest liturgical hits of that decade, as if the people in charge of the music can't get unstuck.

There are specific institutional factors for why this situation persists. Changing the music of a parish is not as easy as changing the items in the parish gift shop. The performers and directors are seriously invested in the music they know. There is no active producer-consumer exchange between the people in the pews and the musicians in charge, as there is at the parish gift shop. If you don't like a song being sung, can you can't refrain from purchasing it and thereby causing a fall in profits. The people in the pews are passive consumers who have little choice about the music at Mass. They can't easily become agents of change.

There are other reasons why progress in music is lagging behind the other arts. Many parishes believe themselves to be dependent on the resources of major Catholic publishers. The bread and butter of these publishers are their copyright war chests and their complex apparatus of royalties and payment. This apparatus is highly dependent on preserving the status quo. To promote the sacred music of the Roman rite would seem to cut into their financial interests because it is all in the public domain (I don't happen to believe that this calculation is correct but the old timers who run these companies are largely ignorant concerning profit-making models in the digital age.)

However, what the shift in other Catholic arts demonstrates is that change can happen and that change will happen in time, given enough time. No form of cultural expression can have a living presence if it is only a historically bound artifact, a mere relic of days gone by. Nearly the only way to see a 1960s-era abstract holy card is to visit a quirky art gallery that collects these things. Someday that same will be true of sizable amounts of Catholic music from the same period. It will be reduced to the kitsch it was and is.

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