Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Traditional Formation of the Artist is Mystagogical Catechesis

I am often asked by people about the sort of training that they should undertake in order to become an artist. In response I explain that in my understanding, the training should involve not only obtaining the necessary technical skills, but also the formation of the person in virtue, so that they are capable of directing those skills well.

Not many are surprised by that, I imagine. However, many assume that if they are faithful and orthodox Catholics, then they have the spiritual aspect already sorted out, and so all they need to think about is the skills. I am not so sure that this is automatically the case. What is needed, I believe, is an integration of the two, something which doesn’t usually happen spontaneously.

The traditional the training of an artist was meant to bring about this integration. The spirit of humility that develops a capacity to follow inspiration, should God choose to inspire him, is developed through being prepared to follow directions from a living master, and the copying with discernment of the works of Old Masters. Also, there is carefully directed study that gives a formation in beauty that develops the artists intuitive sense of right relationship and harmony. It is a liturgically centered training, so those aspects that form the person are not imposed on him from without, but rather, are offered to him and freely accepted as the fruits of full and active participation in the liturgy. In saying this, it is important to remember also that we cannot instrumentalize the liturgy: worship of God is always the primary goal and does not serve other ends. Accordingly, the ultimate purpose of any Christian education, including artistic training, is mystagogical catechesis: a deepening of understanding of the mysteries of the Faith, in order to participate more fruitfully in the liturgy; by the transformation in the person that ensues they are in turn better able to fulfill their personal vocation and direct all their activities accordingly.

This goal for Catholic education was stated in Pope Benedict XVI’s exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, and reinforced again by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium by his reference to the need for mystogogy (although most commentators I have read seem to have missed this point). If the priorities are right, then through God’s grace, fruits will ensue in order to help the person in the fulfillment of his personal vocation, which in turn point us back to the liturgy as its source and summit.
So to give one small example: consideration of what we look at in prayer is important. I am often struck by how little thought many who tell me they want to paint sacred art give to the dynamic of prayer when visual images are used. How can anyone paint images that helps prayer, if they do not understand this; and how, I wonder, can they understand it if they do not use visual imagery as part of their daily prayer? The main way to gain an understanding of this, I believe, is for the prospective artist to develop the habit of engaging with visual images appropriately during the liturgy. I have found that praying the liturgy of the hours at home with an image corner is fruitful in this regard, because I have control over the images that I use.

Once such a practice becomes a habit, then the artist will quite naturally paint images that nourish his own prayer (assuming that he has chosen the personal vocation that God intends for him), and if he prays well, the imagery that results from his own work will be beautiful. This suggests to me the ideal of worship should not only be very different from that which results from the abuses seen since Vatican II (as one would expect) but also should be very different, perhaps, from the period just before the Council. After all, it is the period before the Council during which most of the styles of very bad sacred art that we know and hate - whether sugary kitsch images or brutal modernist distortions (that only professional art critics and those whose taste has been malformed in one of our contemporary universities claim to like) - originally came into our churches.

I spoke on this topic some years ago, in New York City, for the Catholic Artists’ Society and gave much more detail about what such a training might consist of. The link for the audio is here: www.catholicartistssociety.org/david-claytons-lecture-forming-the-artist/.

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