Lawrence Klimecki: “Hope for the Arts”

Why do we need to have hope for the arts? What’s wrong with them and why is it important?


Art, all art, is always religious in nature. It is not neutral. A work of art always says something about God and the world he has made. And that message reflects in varying degrees what God has revealed to us about Himself and the world.


The traditional purpose of art has always been to reveal the glory and goodness of God, His creation, and His heavenly kingdom. It was not so very long ago that artists’ knew this implicitly. The gift of artistic ability carries the same obligation as all divine gifts, to serve God and to serve our brothers and sisters. John Paul II wrote about the vocation of the artist being one of beauty. God speaks to human hearts through divine revelations of beauty. The arts are a medium for these divine revelations. An artist receptive to God and mindful of the source of his gifts, becomes a vehicle for God to speak to the world in every generation.


But over the last 100 years or so a shift has taken place and art seldom serves anything but the artist’s own ego. The idea of “art for art’s sake” is relatively new but has done incredible damage to our understanding of the true purpose of art. Art is now commonly seen as something that by definition must be completely unobstructed. Or as Claudio Strinati, a superintendent for Rome’s state museums puts it, “Art must always be free and the artist should not have any restrictions on freedom of expression.”


With all due respect to superintendent Strinati, I disagree. We have seen the results of this policy. It is a legacy of ugly art with no meaning and no purpose. Not only does it frequently turn our hearts and minds away from God, but all to often it doesn’t consider God at all.


But there are signs of hope.




A Return to Beauty


A growing number of people are beginning to recognize that art has “jumped the track” so to speak. Through most of the history of art you can see a progression of style and content. But about a hundred years ago, encouraged by the economics of the marketplace, artists rejected the past and struck out in entirely new directions. But today more and more people are advocating a return to beauty in art. Ateliers in traditional methods are springing up all over and websites such as The Art Renewal Center, have become a major force in restoring beauty to art. Though it may be expressed in different ways these movements realize that in order for God to speak to us through art, we must have art that attracts us in the first place.


And there is hope that the Church is beginning to rediscover the importance of art to the faith. Out of the recent bishop’s synod on the Bible came two stories dealing with art. The first relates how the bible has inspired artists since the earliest days of Christianity.

And the second recognizes the value of art as a bridge to scripture.





Icons are another source of hope. In recent years interest in icons has grown here in the west. Although they are not yet properly understood, to the chagrin of the east, their beauty is achieving new recognition. As their popularity increases and more artists are drawn to this traditional form of sacred art, the understanding will grow.


Icons are more than just pretty religious paintings. They are literally windows to heaven. When they are inscribed and blessed in the context of a liturgy, they become sacred objects. Iconography is the art of the undivided church and as such not only has the power to reunite east and west but also to remind us of our obligation to God and to each other.



Festivals and Conferences


Arts festivals are springing up all over the country, and these also offer hope. The Austin Interfaith Arts Festival has grown from little more than an exhibition a few years ago to an event that includes music, performance art, and great food.  The New Gracanica Monastery has sponsored one sacred arts festival centering on icons, and hopes to turn it into an annual event. 


And there’s the Glen Workshop, which is described on one website as

a week-long summer event featuring classes taught by nationally known poets, writers, and visual artists, and also serves as an illuminating conference on the arts and religion. The week allows developing artists time to practice and strengthen their craft while forming year-round friendships with other artists of faith. The Glen Workshop is the only national summer workshop that focuses on developing outstanding art and literature by religious believers.


Organizations and Publications


There are many organizations whose purpose is to promote a traditional understanding of art. Here are a few:


The Washington Arts Group encourages the connection of art to the needs of communities.


The Image Journal works to reintegrate art and culture.


Christians in Visual Arts explores and nurtures the relationship between the visual arts and the Christian faith.


The Foundation for the Sacred Arts was “founded to encourage and inspire the production and promotion of sacred arts for the glory of God and the transformation of society.”


The Catholic Illustrator’s Guild small but growing guild of Catholic illustrators.





Perhaps what is needed most of all are places to teach and encourage artists of faith, such as the Saint Michael Institute of Sacred Art.


And if you are more of the organizing type, you’ll be interested in blogger Hugh J. McNichol’s call for the establishment of parish communities for sacred art.


There are many reasons to hope for a return of the traditional understanding of art. Even so, these are small points of light in a vast darkness. They require our support to grow into the guides we need to find our way home.



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