Once, during my idealistic years as a seminarian, I debated the role of artists in the Church with one of my professors. I took the high road complaining that the Church, as patroness of the arts was betraying her role by ordering all of her art out of catalogues from where “art” (and dubious art at that) was stamped out, spray painted, and shipped out to thousands of churches throughout the world so that devotion to Mary could be like going to McDonalds in foreign cities; one need never fear being introduced to something spectacular or different.
He countered that catalogue art made it possible for those who can’t afford to commission an artist to produce something new to have something. Besides, commissioning art can be dangerous. Both of these points are well taken. At the time I said, “If they can’t raise the funds, they don’t really want it.” I might be less inclined to apply that standard across the board today.
Still, if we can do it, we ought. It is a process that is both expensive and, in some cases, dangerous. So here are two counter arguments for the problem of commissioning art being dangerous and the accusation that it is too expensive.
First, I do agree it can be a dangerous endeavor but by no means un-exciting. By dangerous I mean this: At a former parish a statue of Mary was commissioned. When she was unveiled there was a collective gasp from those who were present. The gasp was not in awe of the beauty of the statue but of mild revolt or at least disappointment. There was nothing that symbolically told you that this was Mary in the least and her proportions were such that she gained the moniker “Stay Puffed Marshmallow Mary.”
But what if we stop taking chances? What if we no longer engage artists to create new and good religious art? Artists will always seek out those who will commission them so that they may put food on the table. If only the secular world will secure their services, then the only art in the world will be secular art. If we want Catholic artist of any type, we need to support, encourage, and offer them our resources. If not, the alternative is that we will have plastic art and the non-Catholic world will cultivate artists and the art world.
One of the many arguments against spending money on artists and their art is that the “money could be used to feed the poor.” Yes it could. This is an accusation often lobbed at the Vatican. It is said that the vast storehouses of art and history should be sold to the highest bidder and the resources gained should house, clothe, and feed the poor. That sounds in keeping with our Christian mandate.
But then what? The next day you will still have the poor and there will be no art for them. It is not adequate to survive on cheese, a stark room, and some covering for your body. The poor also need beauty. That is why public art is so important. It is why religious art is even more important. How many places can you go to enjoy art? Most museums have admission fees. Our beautiful government buildings discourage “loitering.” Most other truly artistic buildings are either private or will cost the person entering it (clubs, restaurants, schools, etc.) The possible exception might be the library. But even so, how many of these places have art that point directly to the Creator? To saintly living? That tell the stories of salvation history? That lead man beyond himself to something greater?
Then there is your parish church. Nobody must pay for the holy water or the Body and Blood of their God. Here prince and pauper alike hear some of the oldest literature on earth and are (hopefully) surrounded by good art and can listen to important music. Where else does this exist? And should all of this be sold and Catholics meet in a barn so that for a year someone was able to eat a cheese sandwich? No, not food alone! That in itself is a deprivation and a denial of all that it is to be truly human. We are more than animal.
There are four things that will bring about our salvation: The One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. And I believe that ultimately it will be the beautiful that will save us. It is our duty not only to feed nutritious food to the poor, it is also sinful not to offer them (and ourselves!) the best, most nutritious food for the soul; art that we can reasonably supply.
This is not an exhaustive arguement - but the beginning of the conversation.