Sunday, November 21, 2004

Epiphanies of Beauty: The Arts in a Post-Christian Culture

Since its inception, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture has sought to include within its influence not only those working within the academy, but also those who do work in other areas important to culture. As there are few areas of culture more important than that of the arts, the Center devoted its fifth annual fall conference on November 18-20, 2004, to the theme: “Epiphanies of Beauty: The Arts in a Post-Christian Culture.”

The phrase “Epiphanies of Beauty” comes from an open letter to artists written in 1999 by Pope John Paul II. The Letter to Artists is dedicated “[t]o all those who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.” In the letter, John Paul II celebrates the arts as capable of generating epiphanies or manifestations of God’s glory. Indeed, the pope notes that part of what it means to be made in the image of God is to imitate God in being a craftsman of beauty. Of crucial moment to the Center’s mission and to the aims of the conference, the letter states, in a phrase the conference took as a kind of motto, that “[e]ven beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.” To identify ways in which such a “bridge” ought best to be constructed was the central goal of “Epiphanies of Beauty.”

But why “The Arts in a Post-Christian Culture”? Not because Christianity in general, and Christian artists in particular, have ceased to maintain a voice in our culture. But rather because a secular outlook predominates in those areas — in business, politics, academia, the media, the entertainment industry — that exert the most infl uence upon culture. So the conference addressed itself to the issue of how the arts, and Christian artists most especially, can help build a bridge to religious experience in a predominantly secular world.

This fall, we were again honored by the presence of many distinguished speakers at the conference. The conference keynote, delivered as usual on the first evening of the conference, Thursday, November 18, was given by Gregory Wolfe, founder, publisher and editor of IMAGE, a journal of the arts and religion. Prof. Wolfe is also director of the Center for Religious Humanism in Seattle, as well as writer in residence and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. Prof. Wolfe’s address was entitled “Shouts or Whispers? Faith and Doubt in Contemporary American Literature.”

His remarks depicted a contrast between, on the one hand, those writers who made up what has come to be called the Catholic literary revival in the mid-20th century (such as Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor), and on the other hand, present-day Christian writers who wish to explore questions of faith in the midst of an increasingly fragmented, postmodern world. The earlier set of writers, Wolfe argued, chose to create characters who make what Wolfe called “the grand gesture” as a response to drastic secularization — such as the martyrdom of the whisky priest in Greene’s The Power and the Glory. But given “the form and pressure” of the present age, Wolfe contended, it is more suitable for writers interested in exploring questions of faith to prefer “the quiet gesture.” For in our fragmented world, the intimate is the only place where communication can occur. The writers Wolfe discussed portray “grapplers,” characters either not perfectly situated in faith, or who live it out in fear and trembling.

Among the other invited speakers was Barbara Nicolosi, founder and executive director of Act One, a non-profit organization located in Hollywood, Calif., founded to train people of faith for careers in mainstream fi lm and television. Her talk, entitled, “Isolation, Community and the Artistic Life,” was an attempt to delineate a spirituality of the artist’s life, specifically in regard to its essential loneliness and consequent need for a supporting community.

Leo Linbeck III, president and CEO of Linbeck Construction in Houston, Tex., delivered a provocative and very humorous talk called “First, Kill All the Lawyers: Intellectual Property and the Re-Feudalization of Culture.” David Lyle Jeffrey, provost of Baylor University, spoke on “Epiphanies, Beauty and a Father’s Love,” and H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. of Rice University reflected on beauty and liturgy. The Center’s Senior Research Fellow Alasdair MacIntyre gave a lecture on the question “What Makes a Painting a Religious Painting?”, in which he compared and contrasted the work of El Greco and Mark Rothko. The conference also featured talks on architecture from Notre Dame architecture professors Philip Bess, Thomas Gordon Smith and Duncan Stroik, and a panel on fi lm with Thomas Hibbs of Baylor University and Jorge Garcia, professor of philosophy
at Boston College.

Yet one of the chief aims of the conference was not just to present academic discussions of the arts, but to put academics into conversation with working artists who would be present to showcase and discuss their work. And indeed throughout the weekend approximately 25 artists displayed their works around the conference venue, Notre Dame’s McKenna Hall, for all to enjoy between sessions. This goal also inspired a wonderful session in which Notre Dame alumnus and artist William Schickel, whose painting “Spring Morning” was used as the conference logo, talked about hisown work and the influence of his background in T omist philosophy. He was joined in the session by Gregory Wolfe, who had written a biography of Schickel and who helped to elucidate further his artistic style and influences.

As usual, the conference culminated on Saturday evening with a festive banquet in McKenna Hall, with Center Director David Solomon providing the after-dinner remarks.

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