Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Using Sacred Art to Form Children to Resist the Lure of the Internet

I recently attended a wonderful presentation promoting the creation of K-12 schools on a Catholic model of classical education. In this particular example, there was a core curriculum based upon a modern interpretation of the first three liberal arts, the ‘Trivium’ (logic, rhetoric, grammar), and the reading of Great Books.

A lot of the sidebar chat in the (Zoom) forum focused on the detrimental effect of the internet on education, and of the use of cell phones and tablets on children’s psychological development. Particular worries were the effects of social media and the addictive allure of subversive imagery. It was suggested that the answer was to remove such devices from children in school, even if it meant sacrificing access to good educational tools that the internet might also provide. The argument being made was that traditional classroom pedagogy is the best form of education, and that a good Catholic education would form students in virtue so that as adults, they would be better able and more inclined to choose well and resist temptation.

As I was listening to the discussion, it occurred to me there is another traditional and focused way to form students’ power to choose images well, by using sacred art. If used well, I thought, perhaps it might allow us to give students greater freedom, earlier and without worry.
Boys particularly respond to visual stimulation, and are therefore more likely to succumb to visual temptation. If students are formed to love the highest form of art, this is what their mind’s eye will be attracted to, and these are the images that will occupy idle imaginations. People are susceptible to the allure of what is bad if they are ignorant or not sufficiently attached to what is good, and so don’t have the full freedom to choose. My thought is that one factor in the wave of addiction to disordered imagery is insufficient exposure to beautiful imagery. There is a prejudice in modern Catholic education, it appears to me, that only book-learning is authentic education. Although lip-service will be paid to the goals of exposure to the good, the true and the beautiful, often, education involves the study of philosophical ideas and literary culture in such a way that other aspects of the culture, which are just as important, are neglected.
If there is a concession to a broader vision, a departure from Great Books as an object of study is more likely to focus on sacred music than sacred art. In my experience, art is still seen as a secondary facet of education - a bit of recreation that punctuates the serious business of “authentic” intellectual formation. I think that the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the martyrs who died defending the principle of the veneration of holy images, would be dismayed at how little attention is paid to the formation of an appreciation of visual beauty through the study of art and artworks in our students today. I am not criticizing what is done already, all this is good, but I am suggesting that more ought to be done.
The three most powerful ways to acquaint people with good art in general education are also fundamental to the training of artists: 
– The first is to instruct students to draw and paint sacred art. Anyone can be taught to draw and paint at a basic and satisfying level, so this activity should not be limited to only those with artistic talent. The focus can be on any of the traditions of sacred art: iconographic, Gothic, or Baroque traditions in figurative art, and on geometric and patterned art.
– The second is a mystagogical catechesis that teaches students to engage with sacred art when worshiping God in the context of both the Mass and the Divine Office. The absence of this engagement with imagery in the worship of God today, even amongst pious Catholics, is striking. We must work on getting people’s noses out of their Missals and with heads up and facing East, once again addressing Jesus Christ and the Saints through images in the church.  
– The third aspect of the training is an inculturation that teaches the students about the history and content of the art they are looking at.   
Developing the habit of praying daily with sacred art is the most important discipline of the three. 
The importance of the study of good imagery in the way described has long been understood. Artists particularly will comment on its value in the formation of artists. It was assumed that artists who painted sacred art were particularly anxious that they should be exposed only to the highest art if they wished to paint works of the highest quality. Peter Paul Rubens, for example, writing in the 17th century, stresses how important it is to choose the right imagery and not to cloud the memory and the imagination with poor quality images:
“To some painters, the imitation of the antique statues has been extremely useful, and to others pernicious, even to the ruin of their art. I conclude, however, that in order to attain the highest perfection in painting it is necessary to understand the antiques, nay to be so thoroughly possessed of the knowledge that it may diffuse itself everywhere...It is certain, however, that as the finest statues are extremely beneficial, so the bad are not only useless but even pernicious. For beginners learn from them I know not what that is crude, liney, stiff, and of harsh anatomy.” (Peter Paul Rubens, from his essay De Imitatione Statuorum as reproduced in the book, Baroque by John Rupert Martin )
It should be understood that the pursuit of art to a Christian end was seen at this time as an aspect of virtue, one that would elevate the artist’s soul as much as those of his audience; and furthermore, that the study of great art was as important to the artist’s soul as the development of his skill.
As a principle of education, the more we focus on a love of the good, the less the risk to our immortal souls when exposed to what is bad. Given the internet’s particular threat to the immortal souls of young people today, it is time to focus on a concentrated exposure to good images as the best defense against this. If the memory and the imagination are not populated with images of the highest order, then images of the lowest quality will be sucked into the vacuum as an occupying force.
This might then open the way to greater use of the good that the internet can offer in education.

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