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Friday, November 21, 2014

Comfortably Numb: Addressing Our Aesthetic Blind Spot

Written by  Nicholas Rao
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Behold the mysterious existential sorrows of the artist Behold the mysterious existential sorrows of the artist

 This is not how I am.  I have become comfortably numb.   – Pink Floyd     

Editor’s Note: I am happy to introduce our newest columnist, the eldest son of longtime Remnant columnist, Dr. John Rao, and a current freshman at Catholic University of America. Welcome aboard, Nicholas!  MJM 

I was anything but on guard against culture shock as I entered my sophomore year of high school and my first experience of studying alongside fellow Traditionalists in a classroom setting. Granted, they were virtual classrooms where I communicated online with my teachers and peers, but most of us enjoyed a lively rapport, the limitations of the medium notwithstanding.

It was a great experience overall, yet from the first I was disturbed by the artistic, and especially the musical, inclinations of my classmates. I distinctly remember one exchange in the context of which a classmate sent me a link to a song she liked. I don’t remember the name either of the song or the band, and Gmail searches for that link have, alas, proven futile, so I’ll have to rely on my memory…


On an outdoor stage, surrounded by the requisite dozen screens, three or more shaggy-haired males on electric guitars cranked out your standard rock, their voices forced and groaning, on their faces that grimace of agony now the fashionable indication of the mysterious existential sorrows of the artist. The music itself was monotonous and repetitive, structurally unengaging, lacking direction. The audience squirmed and screamed in a state of near-diabolical enthusiasm. The subject of the song was, I believe, death.

A native of Manhattan, NYC, I have hardly passed what could, by any standards, be described as a sheltered youth. I encounter this sort of music all the time. It’s unavoidable. What was genuinely shocking to me was the fact that a fellow Catholic, with whom I had so much in common, could be attracted to this hideous spectacle. But I could cite a hundred similar exchanges. Lady Gaga, Coldplay, One Direction, Madonna, Guns N’ Roses – pieces ranging from the demonically hideous to the mind-numbingly insipid – spring to mind as examples of musicians and music that can claim an alarmingly large number of traditionalist Catholics in their fan base. Why is this? Why do doctrinally and liturgically well-informed, practicing Catholics allow their aesthetic sense to be determined by the mainstream culture?

One answer to this question is social in character. We cannot always be surrounded by individuals, much less by Catholics, of like mind. Most of us must connect and form friendships within circles that are indifferent or hostile to the Faith. To develop such relationships one must begin by establishing common ground. We know we’ll clash head-on with most people on questions of lifestyle, morality, history and politics. So how about a Madonna fan club?

There is, however, a larger problem here, of which poor aesthetic judgment is just a manifestation, and that is the subconscious assumption on the part of many Catholics in the U.S. that Catholicism is merely a parasite to secular culture – that, insofar as there is a Catholic culture, it is what might be called a “culture of subtraction”. In other words, Catholicism does not furnish its own culture. Rather, what we might refer to as a Catholic culture is merely the result of applying moral bans to the mainstream, secular one. It’s what’s left when we filter out the objectionable stuff. There are many problems with this outlook. To begin with, it’s utterly impractical, because the more we conscientiously discard what is immoral in American culture, the less we have at our disposal that can satisfy the very real aesthetic needs of the individual. But this outlook is more fundamentally wrong. Catholicism is far more than The Cautious Man’s guide to Mainstream Culture. It is a whole way of life, a philosophy, a mentality, a religion and a culture. American Catholics are in the unfortunate position of having to grasp this point on a largely abstract level. Unlike most Europeans, the American cannot look around him and recognize the products – or at least the vestiges – of Catholic culture.

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Is there a solution? I believe that there not only is, but also that it is simply expressed and easily executed. Don’t pick and choose, produce. For American Catholics, being fully counter-cultural means more than being abstemious. It means altogether replacing the secular culture with a far richer, Catholic one. With respect to art specifically, this means developing and teaching the skills necessary to produce your own art. I know many, though not enough, Catholic families who have given their children instruction in violin, cello, piano, flute and other traditional instruments, and they all seem to have at least one thing in common. They’ve never presented their kids with guidelines for determining whether or not a contemporary musical hit is “appropriate”. Why? Because the subject never arises. And, counter-culturalism aside, why should it? Clearly the bulk of modern music is, by design, impossible to replicate, being defined as much by the persona of its creator as by its strictly musical attributes. Why should anyone capable of performing a timeless repertoire prefer pieces that suffer from a built-in obsolescence? I will revisit this point in a minute. Of course, a musical education alone won’t render anyone immune to ugliness. It must be preceded by a Catholic understanding of the purpose of art, viz. its role in human salvation.

What then is Catholic art? St. Justin Martyr famously said that “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians”. That is, because Christianity is the fullness of truth, any true statement may be called Christian. The observation can as easily apply to beauty. Anything that is beautiful is Christian.

Many ancient and medieval philosophers, including Aristotle, Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus and St. Thomas, furnished helpful insights into the nature of beauty. However, I am not interested in presenting a truly philosophical definition of beauty here; rather, I will attempt to formulate a less technical definition of beautiful art that may prove of practical use to the reader. Beautiful art is art that both directs the intellect to order and engages the emotions in a manner that directs the will to virtue. When the intellect is directed to order and the will to virtue, the whole person is oriented towards God and disposed to the reception of grace.

Aristotle argues that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must … present a certain order in its arrangement of parts”. “Order,” according to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, “is the balanced adjustment of the details of the work separately, and as to the whole, the arrangement of the proportion with a view to a symmetrical result.” However, in terms of the creative arts, particularly music, order is not everything. A work of art may be well arranged, yet not effective. For example, a disposition to the reception of grace is the final cause, or purpose, of sacred art. That cause can only be accomplished if the work itself is engaging. An uninspiring painting will hardly possess the spiritual efficacy of a Giotto fresco. While the supreme effect of any beautiful work of art is the attraction of the intellect to order and the will to virtue, this cannot be accomplished if the emotions are not engaged. Emotional appeal is then essential to artistic beauty – though, depending on the art form and work, it will assume varying degrees of importance.

Finally, the emotions must be directed to a suitable object. Refusal to acknowledge this often leads to the most easily identifiable problem in much of contemporary music, namely, its highly sensuous character. That being said, Catholics frequently err to the opposite extreme, instinctively embracing much that, while not sensuous in character, is poor structurally and otherwise. Christian rock exemplifies this perfectly. Although lyrically religious, and not necessarily erotic (much of it is, in fact, centered on the sensuous mannerisms of its artists), it offers little to engage the intellect. It also suffers from one essential defect common to all rock, i.e. the presentation of the artist as the emotional object. Since the advent of Jazz, the persona of the singer-songwriter in popular music has become inextricably intertwined with the song itself, to such a degree that a “musical” experience is now as much a celebration of the artist as it is properly musical.

My answer to the challenge of identifying and contributing to a truly Catholic culture is then two-fold. We must seriously incorporate the development of technical artistic skill into our education and, led by a Catholic understanding of beauty, create. This will not only render irrelevant the whole question of what can and cannot be accepted from the mainstream culture; it will also be of immense social benefit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a classical musician in New York City, it is that Catholicism is by no means the only positive counter-cultural influence. There are a great number of secular movements unconsciously championing the traditional Catholic meaning of beauty. As a member of the New York Youth Symphony orchestra and chamber music programs, I have experienced the efforts of non-Catholics to keep live, classical music widely available. At hospitals and nursing homes I have participated in concerts organized by individuals who, knowing next to nothing of the Faith, nevertheless recognize the transcendence and spiritual value of beauty.

This past year I performed as a volunteer for a small opera company newly-created by the mother (again, not Catholic – not anything) of a musical acquaintance. An orchestra and choral ensemble composed entirely of friends and volunteers, we presented an act of a Wagner opera. This January the company will perform all of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. Where are the Catholics doing this? It is our job not only to find and participate in such projects, but, as heirs to the fullness of truth and beauty, also to initiate them. Others are doing our work. Unguarded by truth, however, the cause of beauty is doomed. We Catholics must lead the charge. ■

Last modified on Friday, November 21, 2014