Matt C. Abbott
March 10, 2012
Priest-artist: 'Art is meant to be a prayer'
By Matt C. Abbott

    At the entrance to the [Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles] is a suspended 8-foot bronze Madonna with computerized enhanced facial features. The guides tell us, 'Mary's face is a combination of the Black and Asian and White and Hispanic features that symbolize all the races of the people in L.A.' Of course, what you end up with is a symbol of a symbol that looks like a cross between David Bowie and Sandra Bullock. It is not a statue of Mary; it is a statue explaining ethnic traits, and they use Mary as an excuse to talk about themselves.

    — Chicago priest-artist Father Anthony Brankin
The following is the text (slightly edited) of a presentation titled "Mater Christi — Praying through art and architecture," given by Chicago priest-artist Father Anthony Brankin. Thanks to Father Brankin for permitting me to publish his material in my column. (It's lengthy, so you may want to print it out to read at your leisure.)



Mater Christi — Praying through art and architecture

By Father Anthony Brankin

Well, once I agreed with Jeanine to speak, she asked what my topic might be. She had suggested that we could discuss something along the lines of church art, or the notion of beauty as it is exemplified in our churches. And that would have been a great idea, especially considering the fact that of all the religions of all the people in the world, we [Catholics] are the most famous for our art: for our sculptures, our architecture, our music, all of which has been employed in the service of Our Lord.

I think of all the Japanese tourists in Rome, right now even as we speak, I can picture them in large groups and long lines snapping pictures of our churches, our saints, our faith writ large in the stone buildings and painted walls. The whole world comes to see the feats of beauty that Catholic Michelangelo and Bernini and da Vinci accomplished.

If any people should be interested in art and beauty, it ought to be us.

And that will be one of our topics, because while Catholic art is not a matter of life or death — prayer itself is — and I believe that good Catholic art must be in itself prayerful and lead us to pray (and only prayer leads us to heaven), so it is important to think about what we place in our churches and then into our eyes and finally into our souls.

Wouldn't it be interesting if we were able to talk about the enterprise of art and that of praying? In other words: Can art be prayerful? Does it lead to prayer, or is art a prayer in itself? Now when I talk about prayer I intend to mean the lifting up of the mind and the heart to God. When I refer to art, I include architecture, and I define art as that which is beautifully made, and which when seen, pleases us.

Obviously, I am a priest, but I have been involved in art in one form or another — drawing or painting or sculpting my whole life. In fact, I come from a family of drawers, and my sister, Mary, God rest her soul, was the best.

But while this ability to draw or sculpt may be genetic — it may be a unique kind of hand-eye coordination, I have long been convinced that when I draw a picture or make a statue, there is something more going on than just me doodling on a piece of paper; that at some mysterious level, I am not alone; that somehow, some others are there with me and participating in the same emotions and understandings that are driving me to draw. My instinct tells me that art is more than just pretty pictures.

Think about it! How often do we say or hear that art is powerful? And it is. It stuns us, it awes us, it melts us; dissolves us in tears. Bishop Listecki once told me of someone who visited his beautiful little chapel in the church where he was pastor, and what a precious jewel it was of Catholic art and design and decoration.

Now this someone was down and depressed and totally in need of a spiritual uplift, and as they entered the chapel they looked around, filled their eyes and hearts with the colors and shapes and golds and designs, and for the first time in days, they just smiled. They just beemed. They couldn't help it. In one instantaneous intuitive moment, they were grasped by the beauty and beauties of that beautiful and holy chapel, lifted right out of their doldrums into the very precincts of the Beautiful God.

This is the power of art. This is the mission of art: to make visible the Beauties of the Invisible God; to make comprehensible to some degree the Mystery that is God; and in doing so to lift the mind and the heart to God.

Art is meant to be a prayer. There is nothing more discouraging for me than to hear a person who may be looking at a piece of art, particularly if it is something that I am working on, and saying, "Well, I don't know much about art so I cannot say anything about what you are doing."

Now maybe that is that person's gentle way out of criticizing some flaw that they saw in my work, but it still upsets me to hear "I don't know much about art" because I always hope, in my making of that image ... I always hope in the very moment of creating it that what is going on in my mind and heart and soul is to some degree being seen and experienced by someone else, at least a little bit.

"I don't know much about art" is the mantra of our modern era where we have been taught that art is not about beautiful things, but about ideas and gimmicks and statements and politics; that art is not about drawn lines and molded shapes and painted colors that interpret creation in a beautiful way and therefore please us.

No, the modern era has told us that art consists only of clever notions wrapped in clever visuals; art is too-smart gimmicks and ironic juxtapositions of objects. And if we don't get it — the cleverness or the gimmick — well then there must be something wrong with us.

I guess we don't know about art.

But that is wrong and unfair. When your instincts say that some piece of art that you are looking at is ugly, you know what? It probably is ugly, and your reaction is not faulty and flawed; only the piece is.

I say today and tomorrow and forever that you do know what art is about if it really is art. When your eyes moisten, and your heart skips a beat and your soul feels exalted in the presence of something beautiful, then you will know that you are in the presence of Someone Beautiful and you must know that that is what art is supposed to accomplish within your life to bring you into the presence of that Beautiful Someone.

I am convinced that not only does art help us pray, but can be of its very nature an act of prayer. In fact art should come from the prayer of the artist and ought to call forth the prayer of the viewer. This prayer is immediate, intuitive and complete; when the artist makes it and when the viewer sees it, there is prayer.

This is how art can be so powerful, because it lifts our minds and hearts to God. I do not mean that the person looks at a painting and says, "Here is a picture of the Blessed Virgin, therefore I will say a Hail Mary having been reminded of her." Art in this way is only a reminder of holy things to remind us to pray. But to only be a reminder of holy things and not be holy in itself is what makes some art weak and powerless.

When art starts pointing to supernatural realities out there, rather than understanding them as supernatural realities in here — this means that and that means this — we end up with the incredibly ugly church buildings and impoverished decorations we see in every suburb in every city.

The modern understanding of art is that it is a visual puzzle that points to something else rather than actually participating in that Something Else. Who was it who said, "A poem should not mean but be"?

I think of the Greeks and Russians, the Orthodox or Byzantines, for whom an Icon somehow and in some mystical manner participates in the very life of the Holy One who is being portrayed; that somehow that saint actually dwells within the Icon.

I think of our own people: the simple devout souls in all of our churches, the ones uncorrupted by higher theology who touch and kiss and venerate endlessly their beloved Catholic images. They know that there is more there in good Catholic art than just symbols and bare reminders of someone somewhere else.

They know that this art is prayer and prayerful. And the million and one candles they light are silent glowing testimony to their belief, their conviction that the beauty of our buildings, statues and images participate in supernatural realities.

Sadly, for those who give us all the modern art in all of our modern churches, the whole thing is just an intellectual exercise or experiment. From the bishops to the priests to the architects and artists, they no longer say: "Let us do something beautiful." It is: "Let us see how they react. Let us teach a lesson in modern design and give the people a barn for a church and tell them it is all about this world. Let us give them a grinning Jesus or a frumpy Mary and see if they want to light a candle in front of that!"

How in God's Name can art be prayerful when it is done in that awful context: "Let's see how they react! Let's see if they can figure out what we are trying to say." But that is what goes on in all these modern churches.

Art for these people, the ones who build all the new churches, is about symbols that lead to signs and signs that lead to symbols; and if whatever they have done puzzles us and gives us topics for discussion and leads us to firm resolutions, hints for better living and ideas for our politically correct times, then it is a success.

Modern Catholic art, like secular art, has become an enterprise so full of clever ideas and statements that it does not occur to anyone that art might be about beauty and about loving and praying. But because of this new understanding about art — that it is about theological statements — today's Church art is neither beautiful, nor prayerful, nor Catholic.

A couple of years ago I visited the newly constructed $200 million cathedral for Los Angeles: Our Lady of the Angels. In terms of sheer size, bulk massing, height and, I guess, weight, it is an overwhelming building. But it is not beautiful. It is oppressive. It is ugly. It is poured cement over steel — and only lacks razor wire to complete its prison look.

I am sure that the architect and Cardinal Mahoney who commissioned it would be proud to admit that this building is not "beautiful." They would be the first to admit that they were not trying to build a beautiful church. And they would explain that they poured these mountains and valleys of concrete to express theologies and theories and points to ponder. They wanted symbols and signs — this means that and that means this — to express what was going on in their minds, certainly not their hearts.

There are tour guides about every ten feet to explain every twist and turn, every theory they could stuff into this huge skewed and angled concrete package. For example, there is a constellation of the stars cut into a stone floor in the plaza, just in front of the church. The tour guide solemnly tells the audience: "This constellation symbolizes the heavens under which we all stand."

Next to the constellation is a 20-foot diameter marble plate with the same bible verse incised 37 different times in 37 different languages. Does the tour guide really need to explain to everyone that, "This symbolizes the 37 languages spoken in L.A."?

At the entrance to the church is a suspended 8-foot bronze Madonna with computerized enhanced facial features. The guides tell us, "Mary's face is a combination of the Black and Asian and White and Hispanic features that symbolize all the races of the people in L.A." Of course, what you end up with is a symbol of a symbol that looks like a cross between David Bowie and Sandra Bullock. It is not a statue of Mary; it is a statue explaining ethnic traits, and they use Mary as an excuse to talk about themselves.

They are also very proud of the fact that there are no right angles in this church; not one. And I am sure that there is a wonderful theological and symbolic reason for that, but I couldn't even remember it at this point. Everything there was brilliant and clever and chock-full of concepts and things to think about, clean and neat and full of great gimmicks. But in the final analysis, for some of us, it was just too hard to pray there.

In a word, it was "unsatisfying."

This is precisely what happens when Church art is not concerned with being beautiful, but is about ideas, about notions, about thinking about ideas. And if it is not about God, it can no longer help us pray.

That will not work for Catholics because you cannot put art, which is material and visible, and an intuition of beauty at the service of theories about God. Once you try to illustrate symbols, you end up only with intellectual abstractions — visual depictions of statements — not depictions of persons. And how compelling and prayerful could illustrated statements ever be?

Words and explanations about God? Reams of paper about symbols? Why not just rent a VFW Hall and pass out brochures? That is sterile and how we end up with ugly churches and ugly Church art.

Art and architecture must be placed directly, immediately and wordlessly at the service of the Beautiful God by means of making beautiful images. When the artist or architect, as un-self-consciously as possible, tries to make beautiful and pleasing things, without worrying about theologies and theories, he is in some way participating in the beauty of God and God is revealed prayerfully and mysteriously by means of that artistic beauty.

Now if it is true that art is not simply an activity that leads to prayer, but is in itself an act of prayer, it must be more than a slogan. Our claim this evening is that if we say that art and architecture is an act of prayer we must be able to see that there is present in the soul of the artist the same prayer that is present in the soul of the viewer of the art.

To say that art is prayerful is to say that the same spiritual impulse that inspired the art to be created is the same spiritual impulse that inspires the viewer when he looks at it. And that spiritual impulse is the very grace of God.

The artist and the viewer of the art meet not in the gallery or in the church, but in the work of art itself — and God is the One who brings them together. In this way the Trinity becomes a model for us: the artist, the viewer and God.

Now the model consists of this: There are three Persons in the One God. There is the Father who is the Source of the Godhead. There is the Son who as the Image of the Father, proceeds from the Father — God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God — as we say every Sunday. Then there is the Holy Spirit, the real and distinct Person who proceeds as a Person from the love of the Father and the Son for each other.

Since there is nothing in the universe that has not come from this Triune God, it would seem therefore that this inner life of the Trinity could be discovered in human activities like art. So we can see that there are three dimensions in the one act of art. There is the artist who is the creator of the image. There is the work of art itself as it proceeds from the artist. And then there is the audience, the viewer who provides a link in love between the art and the artist. In other words, the artist does what he does because he loves the audience and desires to please.

THE ARTIST AND GOD THE FATHER

Now the artist is the creator because he is the fountainhead or source of the whole enterprise. He takes all the materials at hand, the clay, the stone, the paint, the oil and canvas, puts his tools to them, the chisels and brushes and trowels and he spins out universes of beauty — worlds of wonder.

Where there had been only lumps of dirt or blank white panels, he brings beauty into being. The artist's creation is not out of nothing, so the artist can only reveal that which already is; and since God, who is all beautiful, made everything, then whatever the artist makes must reveal that beauty.

And the artist does this by his manipulation and refining of matter. He revels in and celebrates and re-creates the beautiful things of this world to speak of the beauties of another world. The very paint that makes his hands dirty transforms a wall into a vision of Paradise. The very marble dust or wood-chips that fall from the chisel rise again like incense to the First Creator. The same clay that oozes between his fingers is the same stuff from which Adam first arose.

The artist must delight in matter and created things because he is a kind of collaborator with God. The artist must celebrate earth and living and inanimate forms as that which most surely reveals the beauty of the Being who created it.

In this love for the created things of the universe, the artist is a kind co-creator with God Himself. Without putting too fine a point to it, faces and bodies, people and things ought to resemble, not slavishly of course, those elements as we know and love them, because that is how God made them, and He saw that it was good.

A European philosopher noted once that modern art seems to betray a real loathing of living forms. That is why so much of modern art, the kind we can see it in public spaces and in modern churches, either does not look like anything or is, quite frankly, ugly and repellent. To disdain the created matter of the universe, to loathe living forms is to loathe the Creator of the Universe.

No artist, Catholic or not, should ever be suspected of anything less than a love of living forms.

GOD THE SON

How about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? Well, just as the Father's idea of Himself, His self-image, is the Word of God, the Son proceeding from the Father, then a piece of art can be understood as the "word" of the artist proceed from the artist's self-image. No matter what the subject matter might be, the work of art is always shaped by the identity of the artist.

Whatever is going on spiritually in the soul of the artist is going to be revealed in the artwork. In a certain sense, the painting or the drawing or the sculpture or the building is somehow going to look like the artist. Before the art ever gets to the canvas it touches, it is touched by everything that is in the soul of the artist.

That is why no two painted pictures or sculpted statues of the same subject ever look the same. Different artists, or the same artist during different moments, will create different images. What the artist ought to be doing is so much more than what photography can do. Art is generated, modified, qualified and defined by the person of the artist in the deepest recesses of the artist's soul, or it will not be generated at all. Art is not created by sophisticated machinery.

Does this mean that an artist with an exemplary personal and interior life and firm foundation in the Faith will necessarily do better art than his debauched but more talented confrere? Does this mean that an artist must be holy in order to do good Catholic art?

No, because the holy artist may not be a very good artist. He may have a wonderful soul, but a terrible hand. But all things being equal, as far as talent is concerned, then I think it is clear that there will be more in the art if there is more in the artist. Good skills and a good soul will produce good art. A deficiency in either area will make the artist compensate with tricks to make him look better than he really is.

So much of the history of art is replete with artists who reproduce little tricks, of drawing, of themes, of poses and techniques, to make their art easier. Because of a lack in their skills, they started taking the cheap way out of artistic problems.

That is what has happened in popular religious art today. And it makes no difference if these statues try to be more traditional and realistic. I cannot handle the crucifixions from China. Not only is the sculpture poor — heads too big, muscles too defined — but they are so smooth and pink. I am thinking of one Chinese — made plastic crucifix where Jesus looks like He is dancing through a plot of lilies.

We have all seen statues of Mary that make her look like Glenda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. I often wonder when I see the little mass-produced statues and crucifixes and paintings, did any of these guys who first created these works believe in any of this stuff? Or was it this just a job for them?

That is what happens when people who do not believe try to do traditional Catholic art. It is ugly. But then, so too is that art that tries to be contemporary, fashionable, faddish.

Who has not seen, for example, in any number of newly built churches, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary where she is portrayed as an elderly woman? I can just hear the liturgy committee and the artist cooing about how this version of Mary turns upside down all of our expectations about who the Blessed Virgin Mary is. But that is just a trick to get you to turn your heads and think about political issues — not Mary. The artist wants to discuss feminism and he won't let us see Mary in all her spiritual loveliness. I want to love and he wants me to talk. I want to see her beauty and he wants to give me political correctness.

The contemporary artists are making statements when they should be making art. It might help me believe if I know that the artist believes.

Again, in the cathedral of Los Angeles, there is a series of incredibly huge tapestries. There are perhaps ten panels of these tapestries on each of the sidewalls of the church and each panel contains perhaps five or six portraits of the saints. Now I will admit that in this pretty inhuman building, these saints do provide a happy flesh-and-blood relief.

These tapestries really are fascinating and beautiful. They actually look as if Norman Rockwell had painted them. Sometimes in the faces of these saints you think you see the occasional movie star. And I wouldn't doubt that some stars may have posed for those saints knowing that these portraits would last for 500 years. But after a while, you get distracted, and you find yourself wondering: Is that Tom Cruise as St. Casimir? Is that Leelee Sobieski as St. Frances of Rome?

What does this artist believe? Was he painting saints whom he loved? Or was he painting interesting faces just to satisfy the commission? All the standard poses are there — the mystical looks, the winsome faces, the cocked heads, the half-open mouths and folded hands. And you wonder, are these genuine expressions of the artist's deep spirituality? Or are they the tricks that a good artist has used to make us think that he understands what we understand — that he believes what we believe?

You cannot really tell. And my worry is that if it is so difficult to tell if the artist believes in the Faith, if the artist's faith doesn't just jump out and grab you with the conviction of his faith, then maybe there was none there and that it is all a trick. He must have a good hand coupled with a good soul.

GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT

The third moment in the artistic enterprise, and perhaps the most important if we are to think of art as prayer, is that good art, particularly good religious art, must be rooted in love — and love is of persons.

The person of the artist must love the person who is his audience and they meet, along with God, in the piece of art. We have now arrived at the fundamental reason why we should know that art is not an intellectual exercise in clever concepts; why art is not the illustration of symbols and ideas.

Because art, like love, is a relationship of persons, and if there does not occur motions of love between the artist and the viewer and the art and God, then there is no beauty and therefore no art. In other words, the artist must love his audience as God loves them and this will be exemplified in the art.

Think for a moment of the cave drawings from the Stone Age that had been discovered in France, not that many years ago. You know the drawings that I am talking about: the beautiful red chalk and charcoal drawings of bison and horses.

When you consider how many thousands of years ago they were drawn — maybe 20,000 or 30,000 years, it amazes. But what is even more amazing than their beauty and grace and elegance is that these drawings were found in the most remote recesses of the most hidden caves. We are not talking about holes in the side of a mountain. We are talking about hidden holes in the ground leading to underground caverns.

These drawings were not meant as decorations for the cave walls; these caves were not their homes. In fact, it seems that once the artists had finished their drawings they left the cave, probably never to return.

And no one, until the 20th century, would ever see those works of art again. But that was their intention. These drawings were not meant as diversions or entertainments or even moral encouragements, but as prayer: offerings to the gods for the sake of the good of the clan, and they were meant as petitions to the gods on behalf of the people.

The members of the clan probably never saw these pictures, but love of the clan was the reason for them. The artist's people are right there in the drawing. His care and concern for his people was the reason he drew. Whether they saw his pictures or not, they were foremost in his mind.

Did you ever see an artist step back from his work from moment to moment? He squints and tilts his head and blurs his vision. Sometimes even he covers the image for a few weeks. Do you know why he does all that? He is trying to see the picture he is drawing as his audience might see it. He squints because he wants to create a distance between his brain and his artwork.

He is worried that what he thinks he has drawn is not what others actually see. So he tries with different eyes and different perspectives to see anew. He wants to see his art through the eyes of his audience. And it works.

I don't know how often I have stood there showing someone something that I have done, and without them saying a word, I begin to see elements that need to be changed or corrected, as if I were seeing it through their eyes. How often I am embarrassed that I thought something was ready to be shown, but then I realize, through the silent presence of the viewer, through whose eyes I am now looking, that it is not ready.

You see, at the heart of the artistic enterprise is not just a communication of ideas, explanations and paragraphs and pages. What is at the heart of the artistic effort is a conversation between persons and in the matrix of love through the medium of art. There is the union in love between the artist and his audience that happens in the making of the art.

This is my description of the dynamic of making art. It happens to me and I assume it happens to others. First the artist intuits a flash of beauty in something. It could be anything, something that he sees, something that he would like to render artistically. In an instant he grasps that this beauty has proportion, it fits together well. It is whole; there is something complete and satisfying about it; it has a certain brilliance.

He understands that there is something there in the beautiful thing that he wishes to possess and by which he wishes to be possessed. He wants to meet and know that beauty. This is what drives him to do his art; this is the urge that causes him to draw, to paint, to sculpt. He wants to be engaged with the beauty he has experienced. He wants to meet it and express it and be with it.

But that is not all, because the artist would hardly feel compelled to re-create that beauty if it were simply a matter of some internal experience that belonged only to him. If that experience were about him and him alone, then why bother to make a picture of it? He could just revel in the first intuition of beauty and be done with it.

But the deeper reason he wants to make the picture, or statue or whatever, is because simultaneously in the making of the image he is joined by those whom he loves and he wants to share that experience with them. The artist tries to express his intuition of beauty in the art so that those who see that art, those whom he loves, understand what he has understood. The artist, doing and seeing his art through his audience' eyes, is encouraged therefore to do beautiful things.

Suppose the artist, though, thought that he should be doing "symbolic stuff" — making clever statements and artistic declarations — that he must shock or puzzle or confound his audience by using visuals: Well, in that case, his audience is the farthest thing from his mind and heart, other than as pupils for his philosophy lesson.

That art will not be about beauty and the intuition of beauty and the communication of beauty, much less a conversation in love, but it will be about intellectual confrontation and theories and theologies. It is in the art where the lover can please the beloved and the beloved responds to inspire the lover. This is what makes good art so powerful. Art is a not just swatch of color and a blank canvas. It is not just an aggregate of marble and bronze, pounded or poured into shape.

Art is powerful because there is in the art something of beauty that both propels the artist to the work and inclines his heart to the one who sees the image and is changed thereby. The beloved's soul has now been enlarged by the lover's efforts, and in turn inspires the lover, the artist, to deeper intuitions of the Beauty he has known.

Why do you think Michelangelo's paintings and statue are still so powerful after five hundred years? You might think that whatever he thought, whatever he felt would long ago have faded away and diminished in strength. But his works are as stunning today as they were five hundred years ago precisely because by means of his art he was able to be in relationship with anyone, then or now, who would ever see his art. It is almost as if we had a tape recording of his voice. But where you cannot have a conversation with a tape, you can through the Pieta or the Last Judgment speak with Michelangelo himself.

The audience (the beloved) is present in the work of art as both its inspirer and as inspired. The image in its beauty provides the context and conduit for all this love. Now, in prayer the desire for God is actually prompted by God who is already within that soul. God Himself helps us pray for deeper union with Him. God is the Source of our prayer and the first fruits of that prayer.

This is how art is an act of prayer:

If God dwells within the soul of the viewer as well as within the soul of the artist, then God is present inspiring the artist and simultaneously inspiring the viewer — as the object of beauty around which both the artist and viewer revolve. The artist, the viewer and God meet at the same moment in the dynamic of art in a continuous exchange of presences.

"Ugly" art is therefore loveless art. There is not even the pretense of affection, either for God or for humanity. And if art is loveless it is prayerless. And if art is prayer-less, they are doing it for money. Believe me, I hold no pretensions that anything that I have ever done is worthy of anyone's devotion, but at least I can hope.

If there is any conclusion we make to our presentation, it is that we be convinced that Catholic art can exist and be a means of grace and prayer in our lives; that by means of paintings and statues and even buildings we can be made more holy and prayerful; that indeed the beauty of the art in our lives can make our lives themselves more beautiful, not by reminding us of the good and Godly but by actually transforming us into the good and Godly.

Walk into a religious goods store and make mental note of all the art and objects you will see there. I bet you can tell which little statuettes were made to make money, and which were made out of prayer and lead us to prayer. Needless to say, those are the ones worthy of our interest.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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