An Open Letter to Fellow Artists Michael D. O’Brien Dear Friends I receive a very large number of letters from young Christian painters, writers, and musicians, and ask those of you who have written to me to forgive the lack … Continue reading
Adapted from an article published in the Summer, 1991, issue of Communio, a journal of theology and culture.
As power extends its grasp into wider and wider rings of human life it becomes more hostile to everything outside of itself. As it becomes near absolute it grows increasingly negative, because by its very nature it must oppose what cannot be extinguished in men’s beings. Totalitarian power does not rest content with obedience and a passive populace. It must seek at some point to destroy the inner impulse to creativity which depends for its well-being on freedom from manipulation. It must find and erase all resistance, all spiritual autonomy, all dignity in its subjects.
Subsidiarity is the principle which states that freedoms and their inherent responsibilities are best managed by the smallest competent authority at the level most appropriate to the nature of the persons involved. For example, the family, not the state, is the “first teacher” of the family’s children. Governments may assist the family if parents are unable to exercise their subsidiarity, but the state should do so only as a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or personal level. In other words, the government and its administrative organs, such as a department of Education, must serve the family, and not the other way around.
The world in which we live runs the risk of being altered beyond recognition because of unwise human actions which, instead of cultivating its beauty, unscrupulously exploit its resources for the advantage of a few and not infrequently disfigure the marvels of nature. What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation—if not beauty?
On some summer nights I like to take my children up the hill behind our house. We live far out in the country and no lights from other houses can be seen. The sky is like black glass reflecting nothing, but dazzling with billions of stars and planets. At the crest of the hill we lie in the grass. It takes a little time but we eventually grow quiet and still. The children lie on my chest or snuggle under my arm and look up. We gaze up, up into the infinite pool which bears the stars into being. Above us, on especially clear nights, with the aid of a low power telescope we can locate a tiny smudge of light which is the closest galaxy. It is spinning, spinning, but it is so far away that one could look for a whole lifetime and not see it alter. There are other galaxies out there, I tell my children, that whirl into each other like discs blending in space without colliding. They pass through each other, those billions of worlds, at thousands of miles per second, yet they do not appear to move at all. The children can just barely believe it, but they do believe it because I am their father and they trust me.
“The universe is deep,” I tell them. “You can look into it forever.”
The astonishing career of the Canadian Catholic painter William Kurelek is an anomaly in the history of modern religious art. His paintings hang in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirschhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institute, the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, the National Gallery of Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and several other museums in North America and Europe. During his lifetime he was honoured with more than thirty national and international awards, no less than six documentary films have been made of his life and work to date, and at least sixteen books of his stories and paintings have been published, including his great project, The Passion of Christ, a series of 160 illustrations of the Gospel of Matthew. Kurelek became increasingly well-known as his work was published and as he attracted more and more attention in international magazines. The New York Times called him “the North American Breughel.” Memories of his childhood surfaced in award-winning books such as A Prairie Boy’s Summer and A Prairie Boy’s Winter. His imaginative Northern Nativity, a redepiction of the birth of Christ in Canadian scenes, became a modern children’s classic. In later years he concentrated on several volumes which illustrated the life of the ethnic peoples of Canada: the Inuit, the Irish, the Jews, the Poles and the Ukrainians. At his death he left an estimated ten thousand works of art (a figure which includes major drawings), two thousand of which were paintings completed during the seventeen years between his first exhibition and his death in 1977. The fame which came to him during those public years was in stark contrast to the desolation of his early life as an artist, during which he labored under chronic depression and almost universal indifference to his message.
We are living in a time of great dangers and great opportunities for man and the world; a time which is also of great responsibility for us all. During the past century man’s possibilities and his dominion over matter grew by truly unthinkable measures. However, his power to dispose of the world has been such as to allow his capacity for destruction to reach dimensions which at times horrify us. In this connection, the threat of terrorism comes spontaneously to mind, this new war without boundaries or fronts.
Less visible, but no less disquieting, are the possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.
Thus, the splendor of being an image of God no longer shines over man, which is what confers on him his dignity and inviolability, and he is left only to the power of his own human capacities. He is no more than the image of man—of what man?
Everywhere I go I meet incredibly gifted young people in all the arts, yet the overwhelming majority of them feel that they have no hope for realizing their talents. This is a colossal tragedy and loss for the Church and the world. We are not producing a culture of life because we are not willing to pay the price. And therein lies our problem. Catholic people want God and Mammon. This is our crisis and this is our test. By and large, Catholics and Christians as a whole are failing their test.
There are consequences to this failure. Each generation has less and less genuine culture, each coming generation feeds more and more on false culture, or at least on corrupt or greatly flawed culture, and thus each generation becomes less able to recognize truth and to understand the nature of love. It’s a two-fold problem. Gifted people must be willing to respond to God’s call to engage, sacrifice, and commit their lives to creating no matter what the cost, and to entrust their lives and their vocations to God. Parallel with this, our people (the non-artists) must understand that unless we support genuine Christian culture, the next generation is going to be starved at some fundamental level.