Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dana Gioia - An Impressive Guy Part II

For centuries, if you drew a Venn diagram, one circle with Fine Art and another circle with Roman Catholic Art there would be very little found in just one circle. Come the Renaissance and the Reformation the circles began to separate. Still, a majority of the work in the Fine Arts circle (music, paintings, sculpture, literature, etc.) had religious or Biblical themes.
Things have changed, according to Dana Gioia in his essay, "The Catholic Writer Today" (published in the December 2013 issue of First Things and as a pamphlet published by Wiseblood Books.) He writes, "If one asked an arts journalist to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name."

Gioia notes that there are a couple of Catholic writers in the literary world that have respect, Ron Hansen and Alice McDermott for example, but even then there are many more writers that mock or attack organized religion than those that practice or even tolerate it. Fifty or sixty years ago this was not the case when Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers and many other Catholic and Catholic influenced writers dominated the literary scene. Some of the great genre writers of the time, Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake and Walter Miller were also Catholics.

Gioia writes, "Sixty years ago it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as writers and believers. These writers published in the mainstream journals and presses of the time...Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press."

But things have changed. Gioia writes, "Today the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion, distain or condescension...Anti-Catholicism has also been common among the intelligentsia...As the British novelist Hilary Mantel recently declared, 'Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.'"

Gioia argues that the lack of a Catholic (and perhaps even a Christian) voice in literature (and all the fine arts) diminishes the world of art and the intellect. For without it, there is not the dialectic debate of the issues that really matter. Sin, grace, faith, eternity, even love, have unique, long standing meanings in the Catholic understanding of things and have provided some of the great themes of literature. Great literature has come from expounding on these themes from a traditional view and great literature has come from those reacting against them. But without these themes, the world of literature and art is much poorer.

So much of literature today is existential whining because there is no acknowledgement of anything beyond our day to day joys and woes.

Gioia argues the literary world which claims to love diversity doesn't even admit the loss of a Catholic voice, though Catholics are a quarter of the American population. Sadly, he also argues, the Catholic Church itself doesn't seem bothered by this situation either; content to live in a parallel world of art. Church music, writing and other art can exist outside of the mainstream of the art world.

I'm a writer of children's books and my Christian publisher distributes books through Christian bookstores and the internet. They have made a conscious decision to not seek to put their books in secular bookstores in order to keep good relationships with those Christian bookstores. We live in a world with greatly segregated choices. One could read nothing but books from Christian publishers, listen to nothing but Christian radio and even watch Christian film and TV exclusively. Except for certain exceptional breakthroughs, there is a world of Christian art, popular art and fine art; and these worlds all occupy their own Venn Diagram circles, rarely touching.

Gioia doesn't expect a renewal of Catholic arts to take place through the efforts of the Church and certainly not through the efforts of the fine arts community. He writes, "The renewal of Catholic literature - or fail to happen - through the efforts of writers."

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