We know modernism can’t produce good art, but can Protestantism? I have a running argument with a non-Catholic friend about this. My point is that Catholics can produce better art because we have a sacramental system of belief. We really do believe that grace flows through the physical world.
Protestants have problems with this. They’re suspicious of the physical. They’re semi-Manichees (and that is not the guy who composed the Pink Panther theme) Protestants don’t have sacraments because they don’t believe God interacts through the physical like that. They also don’t like the messy miraculousness that comes with sacraments. So they retreat into a safe, intellectually abstract religion of theology and the Word, and take refuge in head games. Out of this comes an art that can only ever be functional–e.g. illustrations for Bible story books, or didactic e.g. pictures with Bible verse captions.
Catholic art, on the other hand, may be illustrative or didactic, but at its greatest it is attempting something else. It is attempting to convey the supernatural through natural materials. It is using canvas, wood, gold leaf, pigment, oil and gesso to create a little window into eternity. Through this window we glimpse glory and Glory glimpses us. The Eastern view of icons explains what we mean best of all. The work of art, produced in the context of prayer, becomes a sacramental. It becomes a physical means of conveying grace.
This kind of thing spooks Protestants. It’s too close to idolatry they say. But hold on, what exactly is idolatry? It is not just the worship of a statue or an image. It is the worship of the demon that the pagan believes inhabits that image or statue. This is far from what we do when we venerate a Christian image. We’re not worshipping a pagan deity within the picture. We’re not even worshipping the saint who is pictured by the image. We’re doing something far more mundane and physical. We’re venerating a physical object that God has used as a channel of his love and light. We do the same thing when the priest kisses the altar, the deacon kisses the gospel book, or the husband kisses the wife, and the mother kisses the child.
The reason Catholic art is so degraded at this time is because Catholic artists have lost touch with their supernatural vocation. They’ve bought the secular art philosophy of the age and drifted into either tacky imitation of earlier fine art or dreary imitations of modernist art which declare nothing but an inner desert of despair.
Catholic art will be renewed not by trying to turn back the clock, but by turning back the heart to the truly supernatural aspirations of the artist– a sub creator with God.