Dana Gioia Offers Commentary on Catholic Artists in Contemporary American Culture and the "Angel with the Broken Wing" poem
An Article from the archives of March 08, 2011.
Gioia's poem "Angel with a Broken Wing" is posted at the bottom.
Dana Gioia, Catholic poet and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks on "The Catholic Writer Today" during a Feb. 28 lecture at The Catholic University of America. He will also speak at the 25th annual dinner of the John Carroll Society, on May 7 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington.
Faithful Catholics have all but disappeared from the arts in America—leaving the arts "spiritually impoverished" .....
and undercutting the ways the Church "speaks to the world," according to Dana Gioia, Catholic poet and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Catholic artists today are virtually invisible," Gioia observed in a lecture, "The Catholic Writer Today" he delivered at The Catholic University of America on Feb. 28.
Gioia's talk was part of a series of events celebrating the January inauguration of the university's new president, John Garvey. Garvey attended the lecture, along with approximately 200 students, priests, university deans, professors and visitors.
Gioia told the group that the lack of Catholics in the arts is a "paradox," given the Catholic Church's long tradition as "patron and mentor" to the arts and the strength of the largest cultural minority in the United States. It is particularly ironic, Gioia added, in a nation where "diversity of culture and ethnicity are actively celebrated."
But "contemporary American culture has little use for Catholicism," said Gioia. Anti-Catholicism, he noted, remains "the one respectable form of intellectual bigotry."
Gioia compared the dwindling numbers and influence of Catholic artists to the modern exodus of the "upwardly mobile" out of the nation's immigrant, big city neighborhoods.
Young Catholic artists no longer see their religion as a "core identity" in spiritual or aesthetic terms—but something to be "hidden or discarded" to achieve success in a secular and "increasingly anti-religious" arts culture, he said.
In the mid-20th century, believing Catholics played a "prominent, prestigious" role in the arts, specifically literature, Gioia explained. He included Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Hisaye Yamamoto, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Merton.
Along with the British Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers, Gioia said Catholic writers became "the center of American and British letters"—and were covered and published by the best secular and Catholic journals and presses.
"Catholicism was not only seen as a world view consistent with a literary and artistic vocation," Gioia noted, but even "the most naturally compatible world view for an artist, and it was never surprising to hear that some writer had converted."
Today, most cultural critics, Gioia said, would be unable to name a single, major, living American artist for whom Catholicism is "a central, positive force in their art and ideas." Yet, they could identify "an anti-Catholic ex-Catholic or ex-Catholic who writes about the faith that he lost" or a few "cultural Catholics," he said.
The schism between Christianity and the arts has resulted in two "vast impoverishments" for the arts world and the Church, Gioia observed.
Losing "a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred" and 2,000 years of Christian symbolism and tradition, the American arts are spiritually bereft, Gioia said. What remains are "shallow novelty" and "lost cost nihilism."
"Once you remove the religious as one of the possibilities of art . . . you don't remove the hungers of either the artist or the audience," Gioia explained. "You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious and the sentimental. You replace Flannery O'Connor with 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'"
Meanwhile, the "loss of the aesthetic sensibility," he said, has weakened the Catholic Church's ability "to make its call heard in the world"—as it did previously through artists like Dante, Michelangelo and El Greco.
The weakness is evident, he said, in churches with "graceless architecture, their banal and formulaic painting and sculpture, their awkward and often ill-conceived music" and in liturgies which are "often not seraphic but pedestrian."
Gioia called Catholics to regain their place in the arts and "transform" the common cultural life—using faith, hope and ingenuity.
"It is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination and move back to the 'big city,' where we can renovate those remarkable districts of the imagination which have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition," Gioia stated. "It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition."
With faith, the Catholic artist can replace the "cynicism" pervading modern arts, he said. Also key is hope in "the possibility of art and one's own efforts."
"But the writer also needs good works—good literary works," Gioia added. That means "to write superbly, to create powerful, expressive, memorable works of art"—with a "personal passion for perfection" and honesty in depicting "the material world while also reveling behind it in another invisible and eternal dimension."
Following the talk, there was a question and answer period covering topics from the morality of art to Catholic themes in the TV show, "Lost." To a question on the role of government in the arts, Gioia—who was NEA head from 2003-2009—said, "If you're going to have a National Endowment for the Arts, your job is to reach all of America . . . and not to marginalize people of faith who constitute the majority of Americans."
By PATRICIA COLL FREEMAN
Special to the Standard
The Angel with the Broken WingDana Gioia
I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.
The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts--
The perfect emblem of futility.
Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.
I heard their women whispering at my feet--
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.
I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.
For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.
There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.
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