Posted by: fvbcdm | November 17, 2011

Feast of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (17 Nov 2011)

I am reading an interesting book right now that combines the stories of the lives of four writers, all of them quite well known; all Americans, all Catholics. They are Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. All through the book there are references to the subjects of art and beauty. What is art? How do we distinguish good art from not-so-good?

How do we define beauty? Why do some of the things that hang in art museums strike us as more appropriate for the trash bin? I remember one time visiting an art museum and finding myself standing before one of its offerings. It was a rectangular frame, about 12 inches by 8 inches, with a piece of brown burlap inside it, and glued to the burlap there were two pieces of a lead pencil that had been broken in half and placed on the burlap. Is that beauty? Is that art? I hesitate to say YES or NO, because some people might say it is VERY beautiful; VERY artistlc. However, it certainly isn’t the kind of thing that I’d pay money for or hang in my house, unless I wanted to use it as a joke or conversation piece. And I mustn’t be too quick in saying that it isn’t beautiful or artistic. I know, for example, that when French impressionism first began to be produced, many thought it was awful; others were delighted by it, and now the whole artistic world recognizes the value of Monet, Manet, Corot, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. Even Salvador Dali with his bent watches and other surrealistic features is taken seriously by many “experts,” and recently the Pope consecrated the strange-looking basilica of the Holy Family in Barcelona, which makes me feel sorry for the archbishop of that city who is expected to finish it! I suspect that he secretly wishes it would just go away! One of our most famous Dominican chapels is that in the French Riviera town of Vence; it was decorated by Matisse and is considered a masterpiece, even though the faces of the figures which he drew on the walls of the chapel (Our Lady, the Infant Christ, and Saint Dominic) have no features on their faces, which are simply blank ovals.

This question of beauty is a fascinating one. Years ago, I saw an interesting movie produced in some Spanish-speaking country. It was called “Raices,” which means “Roots.” It consisted in a number of short episodes which had the common theme of art, as I recall. In one of them, a wealthy and well-educated European went to a rural village in Mexico to do some research into the understanding of art by very simple peasants of another culture. He had with him a copy of the Mona Lisa, the masterpiece of DaVinci. Shortly after he got to the village, his Mona Lisa disappeared. He was furious and went around telling everyone that “those good-for-nothing Mexican Indians were a bunch of thieves and couldn’t be trusted.” As he was ranting and raving about that, someone suggested that he go look in the village church. He did, and there, on one of the side altars, he found his copy of the Mona Lisa. One of the villagers had taken the picture, enthroned it on the side altar, decorated it with flowers and burning candles, and a group of the devout villagers were kneeling before it. He was very embarrassed to realize that these simple people whom he had accused of theft were, in fact, admirers of really great art, even to the point of religious veneration. They evidently took the Mona Lisa for a picture of Our Lady or some other beloved saint.

Again, I remember a movie in which a little girl brought into the house a handful of dandelions that she had picked in the yard. Her older sister asked her why she wanted to bring those “weeds” inside. The younger child answered, “They aren’t weeds if you love them.” What about us? Are we stately oak trees or lofty redwoods or maybe exquisite roses or delicate orchids? I don’t know how God would characterize us in terms of the world of trees and flowers, but I know that we aren’t weeds in his estimation, because he loves us. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.

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