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Formed by Beauty: Catholic Artists Plan the Way Forward for Our Culture

An unseasonably warm and moodily rainy November 4 in Chicago saw artists and patrons from around the nation gathering for the Second Annual Catholic Art Guild Conference and Gala. Titled “Formed by Beauty,” this event was an opportunity for artists, musicians, composers, architects, writers, and their patrons and supporters to gather for high-level discussion, networking, mutual encouragement, and prayer.

The event began with a Choral Latin Mass at the glowingly restored St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, with Fr. Scott Haynes leading orchestra and choir in Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D, K 194. Also memorable was the offertory, Aiblinger’s luminous Magnificat. The polyphony wound its way into the incense at the altar, pressing out the smoke of Satan with the sweet fragrance of magisterial fidelity. For the remainder of the day, conference attendees repeatedly commented on the stunning and transcendent Mass that had begun their day and unified them in spiritual purpose.

After the Mass, attendees were ferried by coach bus to the Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago. The time before and between talks became a reunion and networking event, as conference attendees saw old friends, actualized online and distant friendships in personal meetings, and made valuable new connections in their field. Many of those in attendance spoke of being encouraged and re-energized through meeting so many like-minded colleagues from around the world.

Lunch and coffee were followed by the evening’s first speaker, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski. His talk – “On Living Tradition: The Basic Good of Catholic Culture and the Spiritual Discipline of Fine Art” – was both a heartfelt apologia and an intellectual tour-de-force on behalf of tradition and the pursuit of authentic beauty. Kwasniewski began by speaking about the skepticism frequently encountered in the Church toward the renewal of tradition, and how many simply think organically connecting to the (seemingly distant) past is impossible and hopelessly naïve. To counter this position, he spoke of his own experience as a composer and theologian and how drawing firmly on the past allowed him to make these traditions his lived experience. One drew parallels to the experience a child may have in learning his first piece by Bach – which to him is fresh and vitally new music – and that of a young person first coming to learn the traditional Catholic liturgy. Linked to the permanence of truth and the objective nature of true beauty, Kwasniewski argued an unbroken link only waiting to be rediscovered and authentically embraced as a lived spiritual reality. Dr. Kwasniewski further argued that the arts demonstrate the possible continuity with a long tradition, a concrete reality engaged even when it is opposed. Ultimately, he rejected the notions of a sundering from tradition along with the invented problems that come from such a paradigm.

In a powerful conclusion, he said:

I have to wonder where the phenomenon of proudly clinging to our modern mediocrity comes from. Why do otherwise intelligent people needlessly problematize the situation of the Church and of the Catholic in the modern world, wringing their hands at supposedly insoluble problems, feeling tempted to rush along with fads and fashions, and resisting the still, small voice that calls them back to the potent treasury of the ages? Let us do what we can to break through and break down this enervating tendency to problematize what is obviously good, holy, noble, and sublime, to which, instead, we should dedicate ourselves, embracing it wholeheartedly. It is understandable that the devil would do all he can to thwart this conversion. For in each and every soul that undergoes it, tradition lives again in our midst, and brings new life to a world out of date.

Classical realist artist, author, and atelier Juliette Aristides followed up Kwasniewski’s talk with a comparatively gentle yet powerfully personal reflection, “Beauty as a Portal to Meaning.” Her talk began humbly and developed into surprisingly mystical strains, often taking the audience by surprise. She explained the paradox of how beauty can lead to the most virulent disagreements by stating that culturally, “beauty becomes a shorthand for meaning.” Delineating between subjective ideas of beauty and the pursuit of a rational, objective beauty, Aristides presented beauty as a “way of seeing” and declared its importance, given the difference “between seeing and perceiving” in art and – by extension – spiritual life.

She then talked about obstacles to true seeing, most potently the fragility of our own civilization. As an example, Aristides ventured into the topic of depression and suicide. Showing shocking statistics regarding the increase of youth suicide (despite supposed “improvements” in treatment), she wondered if, in our broken world, we are not pathologizing a rightful and natural sadness that is often not an illness, as opposed to an indicator of the need for change, let alone a predictable consequence of the fallen human condition. In a world replete with meaninglessness, her talk presented “Beauty as a Portal to Meaning” as an antidote to the encroaching darkness, and the arts as a potent participant in this necessary social conversion.

Ethan Anthony was next. The principal architect and president at the renowned Cram and Fergusson Architects for nearly three decades, Anthony brought a wealth of experience to his presentation. He spoke of the “Symphony of Creation,” taking his captive audience on a tour of the daily nitty-gritty details and complex teamwork necessary to bring even a single new column in a Church to full fruition. He also spoke at length of the history of iconoclasm, and how Pugin (as the first legally Catholic architect in England during the post-oppression neo-Gothic revival) counteracted this deadly time with an approach both highly spiritual and imminently practical. A surprising part of his talk dealt with the differences between natural structures and architecture, and why he thinks certain forms of architecture that take nature into consideration may be aesthetically superior to the nature being imitated itself.

The conclusion of his talk was both somber and hopeful: finishing with images of the ruins of great Catholic buildings, he spoke of the long cycle of religious “building up and tearing down,” and how we all can continue the phase of rebuilding and building anew so long as we are willing – in our own little corners of the Church – to “pick up our spade and dig enthusiastically.”

The final and keynote talk was delivered by Alexander Stoddart, sculptor in ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland. The Scottish sculptor immediately charmed the audience with his wit, biting sarcasm, and theatrical flair. He gave an interesting short modern history of what he (and Schopenhauer) terms the “pessimistic religions” (that is, religions that openly acknowledge the dark sides of human nature, such as Christianity) and their interfacing with modern European philosophical and aesthetic movements. Along the way, he combined a self-effacing examination of his own early career with hilarious jabs at some of the great thinkers of our age, including particularly apt digs at Nietzsche. Stoddart ultimately plumbed serious depths toward the end of his presentation. He shocked the audience by comparing some of the ill conceived optimism of the Second Vatican Council and its destructive aftermath with the “bloody optimisms” of various 20th-century totalitarian movements. Also fascinating was his detailing of the brief history of the revival of classical aesthetics and near collapse of modernism before the Second World War. He blamed the fall of this movement and the re-emergence of pessimistic modernism largely on a reaction against Hitler’s enthusiastic embrace of the classical aesthetic, including his plans for the rebuilding of Berlin after the war. Stoddart openly claimed that modernism is an infantile and demonic movement, with Hitler’s embrace of classicism being similarly “inspired.”

Ending in the ruins – much like Anthony’s conclusion – Stoddart encouraged everyone to move forward into authentic aesthetic progress. Condemning iconoclasm and vandalism as similar dark parts of human nature, he claimed that we can cure the culture “by continuing the culture.”

From Kwasniewski’s call to transcend the “outdated” modern culture with a continuation of true beauty to Stoddart’s calls for authentic progress, an enthusiastic unifying strain connecting the four talks could be discerned. Wherein clarion calls to “turn back” or “rebuild” are often the leitmotif of such gatherings, a more optimistic theme of continuing in authenticity echoed in the hall. As the talks transitioned into a time for networking and socialization, numerous conference attendees could be heard discussing various aspects of this positive outlook within the contexts of their own work and disciplines.

After a sumptuous and celebratory four-course banquet in the Drake’s stunning Gold Coast Room, CAG president and founder Kathleen Carr – along with St. John Cantius’s own Fr. Joshua Caswell, himself a key player in the CAG – delivered an impassioned call for the growth and continuation of the guild’s work. The day’s speakers then returned together to the stage for an open panel discussion, moderated by “The Federalist” art critic William Newton. The spirit of camaraderie was heightened by a long Q&A session from the audience, where the speakers engaged, agreed, and sometimes even respectfully clashed on a variety of difficult questions. Wherein last year’s questions were more practical in nature (career advice, styles of patronage, etc.), the questions in 2018 took a decidedly more philosophical turn.

As the official portion of the conference closed, attendees mingled, exchanged contact information, and promised to continue new friendships. A large group would then later congregate for a nightcap at the iconic Drake Coq d’Or, one of the first Chicago establishments to gain a liquor license after the end of prohibition. Continuing the day’s substantive conversations in a more subdued and personal setting, one could witness a number of collaborations and plans being brainstormed and planned.

What the Catholic Art Guild – with its numerous projects, talks, and now two national conferences – has been able to accomplish in a few short years is nothing short of miraculous. Those who have been in the trenches of the frequently ignored and opposed attempts to begin a new North American Catholic Renaissance of sacred art are aware that such seemingly miraculous successes have been built on hard work and tenacity and often set on the ruins of other failed or incomplete efforts in the realm of Catholic sacred arts. The Catholic Art Guild has landed in the right place and during the right time, and seemingly providentially so.

It would not be out of place to mention some public concerns regarding the cost of the conference and the relative luxury of its surroundings, a concern I initially shared. Yet, having attended both conferences now, I understand why this was an appropriate setting. As Catholic artists, our conversations of beauty, form, and fidelity to the aesthetic magisterium are often relegated to musty and dusty Church basements, creating new scenes from the ghetto-izing of our talented people into the literal ecclesial back-alleys of our religious world. The majority of the year, the Catholic Art Guild gives free talks in humble settings, providing such practical workshop environments. In its chief celebration of the year – wherein one year’s efforts culminate and transition to a new year – the combination of a glorious liturgy in a singularly beautiful Church transitioning into the rarefied classical aesthetics of the Drake is both demonstrative and well deserved. Frankly stated, it is entirely fitting that an event meant to celebrate Catholic artists, discuss the loftiest ideas, hold up the objective pursuit of beauty as achievable, and provide joy and support to the artists present should take place in an inspiring space whose appearance reflects the ideals advocated for.

The contrasting negative opinion reveals everything from a false humility thinly covering a self-defeating attitude to a type of Stockholm syndrome brought about by a century of battering down the beautiful. By contrast, those in attendance would argue that the beauty of this day need not be exclusive, but ultimately, we should work to make it accessible and commonplace. That hard pressed artists could occasionally enjoy a lovely meal, high-minded conversation, and spirited social interaction in a beautiful space should also not strike anyone as even remotely scandalous. This author, at least, commends the CAG on its unabashed efforts to give its attendees a day as beautiful as it is informative.

Ultimately, this exciting event represented merely a fraction of the Catholic remnant, a handful of enthusiastic persons wanting to make the pursuit of beauty the realistic aim of their lives. Like the mustard seed from Christ’s parable, this remnant demonstrated an incredible concentration of faith, ability, and determination, waiting only for the grace and blessing necessary to let a new Catholic aesthetic renaissance come into flower.

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