Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Bad Catholic art

I saw this on Facebook: a young girl apparently gifted out of the blue with strong religious belief (good) and the equally strong belief that she can paint (less good). She's the latest religious child prodigy. I won't post anything she has painted here because I don't want to make your eyes ache unnecessarily. (But Kat should have a look if the neocons at Patheos let her continue her series on craptastic Catholic art.)

A link to it was posted on Facebook to a chorus of oohs and aahs from earnest readers saying how wonderful it is that this miraculous gift was given to this little girl...blah blah blah...Of course, being me and all, there was just no way I could let it pass.

Is it important? Yes. Because bad religious art is bad for the Faith, even when it is "granted miraculously". And religious believers calling bad art good art only because it's religious art is bad for the Faith. Frankly, it makes us look like chumps.

It reminds me of that dreadful film about St. Therese of Liseux that all the nice sincere Catholics were raving about a few years ago. It was truly dreadful, but because it was "orthodox" it was automatically supposed also to be great art, and a great "advertisement" for the Faith in the secular world. But it wasn't. Lordy, it really was dreadful, and I argued at the time that it sent the worst possible message to the secular world, about Catholicism, about Catholics and about St. Therese.

So, yes, it's certainly nice that a sweet little girl was "miraculously" given the gift of faith by God, and in person I'm sure she's a sweetheart, as most little girls with sincere religious belief are. But is it a good idea for her to become - or more specifically for her parents to have allowed her to become - a postergirl for this kind of naive religious enthusiasm? And is it helpful for the Faith in general to have more religious shmaltz posing as divine revelation?

Click over there for a moment and, while looking at one of her paintings, imagine that it was done by Some Guy instead of this (highly marketable) little apple-cheeked poppet. Do we still think it's art worth ten grand a pop? But more importantly (really, who cares if people want to spend that much on more shmaltz, it's their money, after all) is it good for the Faith to be represented this way?

Flannery O'Connor would doubtless have said no and would have said that it is not a trivial matter. From “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South”,
…the average Catholic reader…(is) more of a Manichaean than the Church permits. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence…We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality…

Denys Powlett-Jones, writing on the Catholic public's desire for sentimental novels, puts his finger on it:
Cardinal Spellman’s Foundling seems to serve as a watchword for all that she found defective in mid-century American Catholic letters: dreary prose, implausible characters, a sentimental plot built upon moral pieties about what ought to happen, all derived from an underlying mistake: the confusion of subjective intentions, however noble, with artistic skill, which is the only thing that can justify a work of art.

To want only simplistic sentimental stories is really to want to be lied to, and while there is no shortage in our age of those willing to lie to make a buck, the Christian artist, bound by his theology to see the world as it is, and sanctioned by his morality against deceiving anyone, cannot in good conscience join in.

Which, I suppose, is why on the one hand I actually recoil from the sentimentalist, enthusiastic rubbish this nice little girl is producing, and on the other, why I find such spiritual solace looking at a good still life of a peeled lemon.

And why I'm not myself ever going to produce art for religion's sake.



The Crescat said...

Well damnit, woman! I was going to order you a print of the Water Angel for Christmas.

Andrew Cusack said...

I couldn't agree more. I avoided that 'Therese' film like the plague. I saw the trailer and that was enough to know it was schmaltzy rubbish.

The exact opposite is the two-part miniseries on Padre Pio done by RAI, starring Sergio Castellito. Absolutely superb. Well-shot, well-acted, everything superbly done. It's available from Ignatius Press. Buy the dvd, watch it; you won't regret it.

John said...

Well, her style seems to be a mix of Thomas Kinkade and those contrived illustrations you see in copies of "The Watchtower" with a color scheme reminiscent of the '70s airbrush acid art.

Why is a 5 year old sketching sterroided muscle dudes in speedos?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call this bad Catholic art; I would call it demonic. Darkness masquerading as light. There's too much New Age twaddle here for me to feel comfortable even looking at it. Anyone who uses the words "spirit light within us" is suspect.


Fr. T. said...

And yet you like Bougereau? Which is basically porn with a thin veneer of religious sentimentality wiped over it.

Anonymous said...


augustine1121 said...

I couldn't agree with you anymore. I am so fed up with mediocrity in our faith, especially in art. As a trained musician I cringe when I hear Catholic Contemporary music. It just stinks. As an appreciator of art I equally despise the cartoony, second rate funereal card images that seem to pervade our faith's artistic landscape. Artistic excellence is a tool of evangelization. We must never forget that!

Teresa B. said...

I really enjoyed the movie Therese but then again I had just come back from Quebec City and was staying in Peterborough and I think we (a seminarian and myself) downed 2 bottles of wine during the movie.
A bit fuzzy though. Someone in that movie painted. Pretty sure she dies.

I hate the weird sculptures that are made into Stations of the Cross in many 60's-90's churches.

BillyHW said...

This is how I feel about Christian rock.

hjw said...

Yes Father, I like Bougereau, (which is decidedly not porn but classical academic realism), and there's not a damn thing you can do about it....

Bwaa ha ha ha haaaa!

Mark said...

meh, it's nice for a child, but not my cup of tea.

Random question, Hilary: do you think that drawing or painting is an ability that can be learned or do you basically have to be "born with it" -- and in your case, did you always have that ability to draw reasonably well? I've always wanted to learn to draw and paint, but kind of held back and put it off...

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Totally, utterly and completely a learned skill.

There's this silly thing that people always say, "I can't draw a straight line." Neither can I. That is because there is no such thing as a straight line in nature. (In fact, now that I think of it, I might put that annoying phrase on my list of things that will get you banned from my commbox.)

The thing that people ought to say is, "When I was younger, I had no idea I could learn to draw and no one ever taught me and now every time I've tried it, it has turned out looking awful so I am too embarrassed to try again."

A big obstacle in learning to draw as an adult lies in overcoming your distaste for being bad at something and being willing to practice all the time until you get better.

The attitude one has to adopt (if one is me) is fury. You become so furious at your inability to get it right that you obsessively try again over and over until you do get it right.

There are only a few innate physical abilities you have to have in order to draw. Can you hold a pencil, either in your hand, your mouth or your toes? Can you independently move your hands, mouth or feet? Can you see, either by yourself or with the help of glasses? Can you follow simple instructions?

I can give you a list of places to start looking for competent instruction if you tell me what part of the world you live in.

Mark said...

"I can give you a list of places to start looking for competent instruction if you tell me what part of the world you live in."

Sure thing, thanks!

I'm currently in Toronto, Canada.

Also, I've been dabbling with the idea of buying a set of DVD lessons... Have you by any change heard of Mark Carder? I've been eying out some of his artwork recently.

Here's a sample of his paintings:

This is the site where he explains his method - "The Carder Method":

And here's an exert of him teaching on You Tube:

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Ugh. Horrible. No, do not buy those.

Ignore anyone who is selling a secret, personally invented "method". There is only one method and if someone is trying to sell it as his own then he's a shyster interested in duping you and taking your money and not in advancing the cause of good art.

But rejoice! You live in Toronto, wich means you're made in the shade. There is a classical atelier on Dundas st.

they take it very seriously and are part of the great thread of the neo-classical revival. You won't be able to get away with being a dilletante, however. The course is not cheap and it requires a great deal of your time and attention. It is not something to be taken on lightly or as a passtime or hobby. This is the real thing that will give you serious training for a life in art as a professional or at least at a professional level of competence. It is, in essence, the same course I am taking now, and the same one that is taught at the Florence Academy (which I can't afford to go to).

Go thou, and do likewise.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

"pastime," I meant.

Also: photo-realism is a horror and an abomination, an offence against art and God. Do not do this. It is bad.

Anonymous said...

This French movie of the saint I found far more realistic and moving

The actress----an otherwise worldly woman it appears--- captured her profoundly I thought, esp her illness and oblation. It was worth more as a whole than one may quibble with.

Mark said...

Thanks a lot for the info! I'll definitely look into the school and that book you just posted.

Fr. T. said...

fiseck: the intense feeling of nausea that comes from prolonged, or possibly even minute exposure to the paintings of Bougereau.

Anonymous said...

We can't get real art back as a major cultural force without domestic service. I am happy to expound on this. - Karen

Seraphic said...

Yes, the old difficulty: doing "Catholic" art that is not propaganda. It's tricky, very tricky...Which is why everything I've been writing recently is about Scottish Episcopalians. I have no horse in any Scottish Episcopalian race. They're heretics. But they are heretics who have quite a lot of the truth plus a better grasp of the Catholic musical and liturgical traditions than most Catholics. So I make my characters Piskies.

Anonymous said...

I bet they have cleaning ladies and au pairs too. - Karen

Felix said...

Totally agree!

I recently watched Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino", a really good move which crackles with Christian values. I was so taken with it that I Googled reviews of the film.

I found that the religious folks agreed it was a good movie and had Christian values. But they warned against it, because characters used coarse language and because there was off-scene violence and rape.

Say, do these guys read Genesis? It's got murder, incest, rape, and lots of such stuff.

I guess they simply don't accept that films, pictures or writing should reflect real life. They want them sanitised, like they would be if kindergarten teachers ruled the world.

BTW, Hilary, what's your take on the "Drawing on the right hand side of your brain" approach?

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Drawing on the R S of the B can be a useful tool for beginners. Certainly to get them past that initial "I suck so bad I should never even try" stage. She really is just teaching the classical close observation method and dressing it up with a bunch of rather badly researched neurological trimmings. She's not a scientist and about 50 per cent of the book could have been excised. She does bang rather tediously on about the right brain left brain thing, stuff which has more or less been left behind by real scientists.

Anonymous said...


I am not the original asker, but you offered to direct someone to a reputable place to learn to draw, since there are so many different techniques.

Most of my art is too 2-dimensional and my figures don't have the muscles, depth, and realism I'd like, but I don't know how to fix it. I'm mostly interested in fantasy, but realistic fantasy if that makes any sense. I don't want my "people" to look like cartoons.

Also, if you don't mind my asking, why is photo-realism bad?

I live in Alaska in the Mat-Su Valley area. Thank you if you have any ideas what I should look for in a teacher.


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Hmmm...Alaska. Bit of a challenge.

Unfortunately, I think the nearest Classical Realist atelier is in Seattle and without some instruction, books can be very difficult to use.

If you are interested in fantasy illustration, I would suggest leaving it aside for a while and developing basic drawing skills, since they are the foundation of any art, no matter what the subject.

Developing a 3-D look is the product of modeling using the value scale, shading, in other words. And it's tricky. Have you tried working up your skills using simple objects? In classical training, students who are just beginning often start with examining the value ("value" is just the artsy-fartsy word for shading or the scale in the drawing from the darkest dark to the lightest light) scale on a plain white sphere and cylinder. Such exercises are a bit dull but they really do teach the fundamentals well. With a human figure, you're looking at a lot of different things at once and it can be helpful to do something simple to concentrate on one issue at a time.

I'll look some things up and get back to you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Seattle is indeed too far away to commute. I did look at the local University art department classes, but didn't like the work they posted. Or the teachers.

No, I have not done the exercises you described but am willing to start. Have never heard of "value" before, but it makes a certain sense explained like that. If I am trying to do a face, then flat cheekbones look wrong without dimension - like a cartoon again. I'm feeling mine right now and they are not flat.
Nor are my chin, eye sockets, etc.

I think I have an ok eye for composition and interesting ideas, but rotten execution - have a whole sketchbook of rough charcoal drawings that have gone no further.

FWIW, one of the few things I *can* draw well is horses. I grew up with them, groomed them, rode them, massaged their sore muscles, bathed them, showed them, and had pictures on every inch of my bedroom wall. You could lead me to a horse blindfolded, put my hand somewhere and I could tell you what I was touching. Is there a technical word for that? It seems to help with drawing them.

So, I don't know why the complete garbage I'm doing on other subjects is happening. The wood stove will have a lot of kindling from the paper I've torn up so far.

Thank you for being willing to give suggestions to a beginner. What little I do know is self taught. If there is a good course on line, I would buy it, but I can't even define what I mean by "good".


Mark S. Abeln said...

Photorealism is even bad in photography. Having everything sharp, in focus, and precisely exposed is the process called Photographic Modernism. Now that isn’t a bad style to use when doing documentary work, but it is disastrous in so many ways, particularly in portraits. See instead the work of the Pictorialists, who moved very far away from straight photography.

The best portrait photographers make their images look like Baroque paintings.