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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The State of the Arts and the Restoration of Beauty: An Interview with David Clayton

David Clayton is Thomas More College’s Artist-in-Residence and is an internationally known painter of icons. David trained in natural sciences at Oxford University, and studied drawing and painting at Charles Cecil Studios at Florence, Italy. He was taught iconography by Aidan Hart in England. He has received commissions at churches and monasteries in Europe and the US, including the London Oratory, and has illustrated a variety of Catholic books, most recently one by scripture scholar Scott Hahn. He has recently appeared on EWTN talking about his work and the Way of Beauty programme. David has also worked with Catholic TV in Boston on a 13-part series called The Way of Beauty.

I recently spoke with David about the state of art in the West and some of the means by which he and others are working to restore an authentic vision of beauty, goodness, and truth in art, both in the Church and in the secular realm. Here is our conversation.

Ignatius Insight: What has been the state of the fine arts, in general, in the West since the middle of the twentieth century?

David Clayton: The best way of summing up the whole thing is a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The Enlightenment pushed faith into a kind of intellectual and even social ghetto. Contemporary culture turned away from the faith and trod another path, so that faith took flight in historicism, the copying of the past, or else attempted compromise or lost itself in resignation and cultural abstinence.”

From the middle of the 18th century onwards we see a steady separation of the culture of faith and the broader culture. This means that in the context of art, mainstream art reflected the values of the Enlightenment. Initially, the difference was small. Up to the end of the 19th century, the basic training of artists was the same but the connection with Catholic theology, philosophy and liturgical principles was lost. Stylistically, the manifestation of this was very subtle but real. In the 19th century you see a dualism reflected in a divergence of artistic styles from a Christian balance in the center: on the one hand there was cold and over polished sterile “realism”, or on the other hand an over-emotional Romanticism. This should be contrasted with17th century baroque art, which is authentically Catholic and has a balance of resemblance to natural appearances and idealization.

With the impressionists (and after them the expressionists) even the adherence to traditional training methods was discarded and the floodgates opened. The principle of individualism dominated, without reference to any Christian worldview, and we see ugliness. The initial reaction of many in the Church was to form a Catholic cultural ghetto and keep the mainstream culture out. Others sought to try to Christianise mainstream culture. This latter process really started to take off in the 1950s and then accelerated in the 60s and 70s, and you get, as the Pope calls it, “compromise”. The result—rather than taking a beautiful Catholic culture out to the world—was the reverse: ugly secular styles dominated the art, architecture and music of our churches and contributed to the undermining of the faith.

Just in recent years, perhaps the last ten or maybe even five years, there has been the beginning of a movement where people are saying, “We are in trouble but we need to go to the past, understand it (rather than copy it) and then apply the timeless principles today.” This is my approach. We are a generation away, I would say, from seeing this really starting to reap rewards.

Ignatius Insight: What is the proper place of the visual arts within the Church, not only within liturgical settings but in non-liturgical settings? 

 David Clayton: Visual art is vital to the liturgy. It is not Catholic to ignore the importance of it. Again, the Pope makes this absolutely clear in his book. We need a Catholic culture that is vibrant and understands the connection between art and liturgy. Then it will be the basis of a non-liturgical art as well. If you think of the baroque, for example, it began in the 17th century as a liturgical form in art, architecture, music and a so on. But the forms that were in harmony with the liturgy were those that were used in mundane art as well. So, for example, portraits and landscapes used the same stylistic elements that were developed for sacred art in the church. This way, the art of the broader culture is nourished by and in turn nourishes the liturgy. The liturgy then is the basis of culture and you have a culture of faith and broader culture that are connected to each other.

When we have this again, we can we really start to evangelize the world powerfully, I believe, because we will have a culture that will, as in the past, influence all others through its powerful beauty.

Ignatius Insight: What are some of central challenges facing the restoration and growth of good art in the Church? 

 David Clayton: At its core it is liturgical renewal and especially the development of a liturgical piety. This means following the rubrics and participating in an active, but orthodox manner. It applies to the Mass of course, but also vital to this, I think, is the idea of the laity praying the liturgy of the hours. This is a means by which we sanctify our work, and again, this will aid, supernaturally, our efforts to permeate the broader culture with a culture of faith. This is at the core.

Beyond that, it is about teaching those who are likely to commission art—priests, people in parish councils, and so forth—an understanding of what our traditions are so that they will commission the right sort of art. It is also about training artists, certainly, but in fact, this might be less important than the first. On the whole, if you are paying the artist to do something, they will do what they are told and pretty quickly people will come forward who will be able to do what is being asked of them.

A simple but important part of this is the engagement of the whole person in prayer, considering posture, voice, art, incense and so on. If you think about it, I don't see an artist is going to be able to paint art that nourishes prayer if he does not habitually pray with images himself. Otherwise, how is he going to understand how the two are connected? So we must do more than put beautiful art in churches, we must learn to use art actively (and appropriately of course) in our prayer.

Ignatius Insight: Why are the visual arts important in the establishment and promotion of a vibrant and healthy culture? What can ordinary Catholics do to support the arts? 

 David Clayton: The first thing we ask ourselves is this: “Is my participation in the liturgy as it should be?” I know I keep on banging on about this, but this is the basis of what we are after. For most, this will mean taking up the liturgy of the hours in addition to the commandments of the Church. Also, as I said before, praying with visual imagery, so that connection between prayer and the visual sense is stimulated. This will form patrons and artists alike. Second, find out about our traditions. There are options that I know about. I offer three-day courses (contact me through and will travel. Also the Maryvale Institute from Birmingham England offers a diploma called Art, Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective, which is a distance-learning course. This is offered in the United States through the diocese of Kansas City, Kansas. Third, for those who are of college age, come to Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where I work.

Ignatius Insight: What are some of the things being done at Thomas More College to that end? What are some of the main characteristics of the fine arts programs at Thomas More College?

David Clayton: We offer a liberal arts degree. This is a great books program that will form the student in his or her faith. Contained within it is the practical training of everything that I have talked about, but also the justification for this argument in the documents of the Church and the writings of the Fathers and Popes, especially Pope Benedict XVI.

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