Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Announcing a Catholic Arts Conference for Fall 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska - Can Such an Event Be a Success?

There will be a conference for Catholic artists and patrons, covering painting, sculpture, architecture, music and film will take place in Omaha, Nebraska from September 12-14, 2016. Featured speakers are Anthony Visco, Fr Michael Morris, Denis McNamara and many other well known names, As well as sharing ideas about art, it will be a showcase for the artists and they will be able to interact with patrons, publishers, liturgical design companies and so on. I anticipate regular updates through the year.This is good news. I am not aware of something done on this scale before and so I pray that it is successful in furthering the new 'epiphany of beauty'.  The website is here.

However it does raise the question in my mind of what the aims of such conference should be and how might they be achieved? I am thinking particularly of the visual arts of painting and sculpture, the area I know best, as I write.

Over the years several people have suggested exhibitions to me as a way of promoting beautiful art and helping Catholic artists. As a rule I am skeptical about their value. The assumption seems to be that there are good artists out there who are unknown, and if we can provide a showcase for their work, it will give them a chance to become known and then patrons will commission them. I think that this assumption is wrong. In this age of the internet it has never been easier for artists to publicize their work. The reality is that there are very few good artists out there, most (not all) of these are trained iconographers and they are already generally known. Furthermore, the vacuum is so great, that anyone who really is any good will be noticed very quickly. So, when the call goes out for submissions and the art comes in, there are usually just a handful of good pieces but not enough for a whole exhibition and the organizers are forced to display much mediocrity just to fill the wall space. The overall, general impression for those who attend is that while the publicity speaks of a return to the values of timeless beauty produced by skillful artisans, they don't see it in the works on display. In the end art is a good as it looks, and people know what they are seeing. They see the disparity between the rhetoric and the product and will leave discouraged, believing that the future is bleaker than ever.

It might be that I am wrong and the work done in recent years in teaching artists skills and forming them so that they are aware of what constitutes Catholic sacred art has begun to pay off and there are now more good artists out there than I imagine. If so perhaps this event will put some patrons in touch with some artists who were previously unknown to each other. I am skeptical, as I have explained, but would be very happy to be proved wrong so I guess it is always worth a try!

I am a great believer in the idea that when the art is good enough, people will be clamoring to buy it. This is why Popes have stressed the importance of beauty. When it is present it connects with people regardless of how educated and how cultured they are and it sidesteps prejudice. I think that the evidence bears this out; good artists are able to get commissions. This says to me that the work to be done is not so much in publicising the work of artists, but rather in forming them.

Perhaps this conference can do more and play a part in sharing of ideas and in formation in way a simple exhibition does not ? Because of the stature of the people attending, it seems to me that it does offer the possibility of dialogue between creative people and with the Church and it's patrons. To the degree that it can achieve this, then I think that it can be useful. This dialogue is precisely what John Paul II called for in his Letter to Artists, so that there could be the development of new art that nevertheless participate in the timeless principles of beauty, goodness and truth. The desire is to create new popular forms that speak of and to the Church as it is today without compromising on the essential elements that make the art sacred and Catholic. Pope Benedict spoke of a similar need, for example in Sing A New Song, He talked of the need for artists to move out of the 'esoteric circle' (ie their friends at dinner parties!) and connect with 'the many'.

I believe that this will require all involved to be sincere in seeking to learn from each other try to understand what is needed today. On the whole artists are not good at listening to each other. I just think of my own reactions here. I am keen to meet patrons or people who might pay me for work, but it is easy for me to see other artists as competitors and my instincts are to avoid contact with them. This is my loss. I should be ready to learn from my peers. Raphael, no less, did not hesitate to copy the styles of others if he thought it would help his own, and I think we should be ready to do the same.  At such a conference, I would have to try to put aside this tendency and try to be ready humbly to learn from others and especially try to deepen my sense of how prayer and liturgy is connected to the form of art. This might enable my worship to inform my painting and in turn, one hopes, nourish that of others' too.

In this regard, I am pleased that the organisers have stated their intention to make prayer central to this. I hope that this a conference in which the liturgy - the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours -punctuates the days and that the organizers think very carefully about the environment in which they take place so that art, music, architecture and worship are all in harmony. By this the attendees might deepen further their instincts for how we engage with art in music in the service of our worship, which in turn will help them to paint better art.

As I have said I think that the signs are good here, so fingers crossed!

The website is www.catholic-artists.com.

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