29 December 2023

Artistic Modernism and the Catholic Ghetto

Why did exponents of modernism in the arts and literature, such as Borges and Auden, petition to save the Usus Antiquior? Dr Shaw explains.

From The European Conservative

By the Hon. Joseph Shaw, DPhil (Oxon), FRSA, Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and President of Fœderatio Internationalis Una Voce

To rebel against modernity may involve the overthrow of the modern in the interest of reviving something older.

In my recently published book, The Latin Mass and the Intellectuals, about the people who petitioned the Holy See for the preservation of the Traditional Latin Mass, I note that many of the signatories of the two most important petitions, in 1966 and 1971, were artists, musicians, and writers, many of whom were exponents of artistic modernism. There was the Greek composer, Giorgios Sisilianos, who developed the twelve-tone technique; Carl Dreyer, the creator of surreal films; Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories take the reader into mind-bending fantasy realms; the modernist poets Robert Lowell, W.S. Auden, and David Jones; and many others.

This is a reminder that the relationship between artistic modernism and traditional artistic forms is a complex one. By definition, modernism involves a rejection of artistic conventions, but there is an open question as to which conventions are being overturned. The impulse of modernism is a response to modernity—new technology, social change, and so on—but there is again an open question regarding what form this response will take. 

Those brought up in a strongly-manifested Catholic culture may feel that modernity is a challenge that requires the Church to change in order to address it, or they may feel even that modernity has proved the Church wrong. Artistic modernism may be an expression of this stance: James Joyce is the outstanding artistic example of such a view.

Other artists, no less rebellious, took things in a very different direction. Those whose lives have been dominated by a secularised culture, characterised by mass-produced art, may also take the view that their own culture is inadequate to the demands of the time: demands made, in particular, by the wars, political crises, and economic convulsions of the modern age. It is equally clear, however, that this culture is itself the product of modernity: in other words, modernity has created a culture which does not equip people to deal with modernity. To rebel against it, and to seek out less inadequate cultural forms, may involve the overthrow of the modern in the interest of reviving something older.

Into this category we might place a movement of the 19th century, that of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, who experienced the artistic and cultural challenge of industrialisation and urbanisation, thought that the dominant artistic styles of their youth were inadequate to meet it, and wanted to revive medieval ideas and forms of life instead. Ruskin, for example, saw in Gothic art “a freedom of thought, and rank in the scale of being; such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.” According to such a view, industrial modernity could be redeemed by the spirit of the medieval artisan.

Alater generation of innovators rebelled against the art of their day by developing a modernist artistic style. This might be inspired in some way by the past: cubists and surrealists were influenced by the cave paintings of distant antiquity, and T.S. Eliot was influenced by the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry. There is no question, all the same, that what they were doing was new, and new in relation to the modern: to the art of the current and preceding generation, above all the conventional art of the late 19th century. It was a rebellion against a modern style of art which was regarded as kitsch and inauthentic, with the intention of finding a form of artistic expression which is genuine and worthwhile. 

Naturally enough, different artists used the new language to say different things. Many of the petition signatories used modernist artistic forms to create art with a religious inspiration, from Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc to Auden’s poem-sequence Horae Canonicae. T.S. Eliot, who died in 1965, had also done this, with his own poem-sequence, Four Quartets; and more recently, the Scottish Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan has done the same with many of his works, including his 2019 Christmas Oratorio.

A rebellion against late-19th century ‘chocolate box’ art, from the nostalgic pastoralism of French academic painters to mass-market sentimental novels, is not necessarily a rebellion against religion, any more than it is a rejection of the great art of earlier eras. It could become a rebellion against the Church, however, insofar as the culture of the Church had become associated with this kind of art. More discerning critics, seeing the invasion of the religious sphere by bad art, tried to separate the two. Some of these thought that the liturgical reform promised by the Second Vatican Council would address this issue. The Catholic writer and translator Bernard Wall, for example, wanted to see “a purging of the liturgy of hideous accretions—sugary 19th century hymns and their counterparts, mass-produced statues—but also restoring it to its pristine purity of Latin chanted in the Gregorian manner.” His disappointment was such that he became a leading organiser of the 1971 petition to preserve the Traditional Mass.

One of the central mysteries of the 20th century history of the Catholic Church is the divergence between those who saw the Latin liturgy as a problem—holding back the Church’s evangelising efforts in modern conditions—and those who saw it as part of the solution to the problem posed by modernity. The simple explanation is that the former group were wedded to rationalism, and held that nothing has value if it can’t be understood intellectually. It is not surprising that many artists baulked at this approach. 

At another level, however, there were two kinds of cultural experience of the Church. On the one hand, there were intellectuals who saw pre-Conciliar Catholic culture, combining a pre-modern liturgy with sentimental and kitsch modern decorations, as their starting-point, their universe, and therefore as the thing that any rebellion in favour of a fresh start must be a rebellion against. On the other hand, there were those with a stronger experience of secular culture—from living in a non-Catholic society, from being converts, from being artists engaged in the secular art world, or not being Catholic at all—who saw the Church as an increasingly isolated bastion of spiritual authenticity, albeit one where the enemy had succeeded in invading the sanctuary, to some small extent, with its horrible hymns.

Thus, the Italian historian Massimo Pallotino wrote of his reasons for signing the 1971 petition: “I endorsed the petition as a scholar of history who has been fighting on the front line for the defence of our artistic and cultural heritage for many years, so that one of the greatest living monuments, in the Horatian sense, of our civilisation, that is, the liturgical traditions of our Church, is not mindlessly and gratuitously destroyed.” By contrast, the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton complained, in 1964, of his confreres’ attitude to the Latin liturgy: “The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.”

Although those who can find in the Church an all-enveloping cultural home are fewer in number today than in the 1960s, an echo of this contrast can still be heard. In preparing its submission to the Vatican’s recent Synod on Synodality, the Archdiocese of Edinburgh involved the theologian, Dr. Sara Parvis, who tried to explain the conservatism of young Catholics. Their submission quotes her: “The young and the Vatican II generation … see things very differently … The sheer difference of what the young think the Church is, the generation for whom to be Christian at all is to be effectively an everyday martyr … what the world looks like to young students is so different from what it looked like to my parent’s generation where Christianity was normal.”

It is an unfortunate paradox, though a familiar one, that those who best succeed in creating a comprehensive cultural environment for their children, can find them rebelling against it, even if they often assume it will still be there for them to return to at some later point. In a similar way, the Catholic cultural ghetto of the first half of the 20th century, though never completely cut off from the outside world, was a powerful enough formative influence on some Catholics of intellectual pretensions that they could take the endurance of its fundamental features too much for granted, and use it as the baseline for rebellion. A good many of those who had already experienced the cold winds of the wider cultural scene were appalled to see this. Fortunately, their efforts to preserve the central feature of Catholic spirituality and culture, the ancient Latin Mass, were not entirely in vain.

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