Liturgy, Beauty and Truth

Interview With Artist David Clayton

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MERRIMACK, New Hampshire, DEC. 2, 2009 ( Catholic liturgy has a great capacity to instruct people in appreciating beauty, which will in turn help attract them to truth, says artist David Clayton.

Clayton is an artist-in-residence at Thomas More College, and a teacher for the newly launched Way of Beauty program.

In this interview with ZENIT, he speaks about the program’s goals to instruct artists and their patrons in the appreciation of true beauty.

Clayton reflects on Benedict XVI’s words in a Nov. 18 general audience, when the Pontiff spoke about Christian architecture, focusing on Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres and Notre Dame.

ZENIT: What struck you about the Pope’s statement?

Clayton: Well, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts has put into place a program aimed at training students to do exactly what he is calling for. He even used the same name, the Way of Beauty (except, being the Pope he used Latin of course, «via pulchtritudinis,» and that makes it sound even better!)

Beauty has an important part to play in attracting people to the truth.

We have to state clearly what the truth is, but we must do so beautifully, otherwise people are less likely to be attracted to it.

ZENIT: Is it pure coincidence that the Pope delivered this speech just after you launched the program?

Clayton: It is a coincidence that we have just started it in the last couple of months, but in another way it isn’t. He made the point that his two predecessors had asked for a return to a culture of beauty. We are doing what we are doing as a direct response to them as well.

It was John Paul II especially and his Letter to Artists that inspired me to try to establish a program at a Catholic school that would enable the «new epiphany of beauty» that he called for.

The writings of the current Pope just seem to build on this. Every week, it seems, his addresses have focused on the Church Fathers in such a way that he seemed to be leading up to this.

So, for example, he refers often to Augustine of course, and he has drawn our attention also to St. Boethius, who is the father whose work was so influential in the teaching of the quadrivium, the «four ways» — the higher part of the seven liberal arts.

This is pretty much a traditional education in beauty and was influential in the School of Chartres, which was at the center of the gothic tradition of the Church.

ZENIT: The Pope had a meeting with artists from all over the world on Nov. 22. What impact do you think this event will have on art?

Clayton: In itself, probably little. Most of the figures are prominent in the current creative environment, which is secular.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think it will be difficult for them to just turn on a tap of beauty in any way that is very different from what they are already doing. It is asking them to change course in what they are already doing and that’s not easy.

However, they may be inspired to get involved in long term projects that point the way to the next generation, and very importantly it draws attention to the issue and gets a lot of publicity, highlighting how important this is from the perspective of within the Church.

ZENIT: What has the Church done, or what could it do, to reach out more to the world of art?

Clayton: I think that more important than persuading the artists, we should be persuading the patrons of the arts.

The artists will always do what they are paid to do. I think that we need enlightened patrons.

Part of this is training priests in seminaries to understand exactly what Catholic culture is. However, I think that as much, if not more, can be done by the laity — really it comes down to us to demand better art and to come up with the money to pay for it.

I am on the board of an organization called the Foundation for Sacred Arts that is trying to promote the idea of knowledgeable artists and architects going into seminaries to give talks and courses that will help the priests to choose what is good.

And of course, we have the Way of Beauty at Thomas More College. It rests on understanding our own culture and, very importantly, how it is rooted in the liturgy.

ZENIT: Why is beauty so often missing from modern art and architecture? And what could or should be done to go back to the original beauty?

Clayton: Modern culture is secular. It reflects a worldview in which God is not acknowledged. It does this very well and so this is why it is so powerful and yet so ugly.

Catholic culture should not, in my view, look to secular culture for inspiration. To do so would be to look at art forms that were developed to communicate an anti-Christian worldview.

If you try to Christianize popular culture, for example, you end up with a form that is trying to communicate values that are good through the medium that was developed to communicate something else. The result is that it loses all its power and it comes across as weak and sentimental.

There is another reason. There is a saying that all the great art movements began on the altar. Catholic culture is always rooted in the cult that is central to Catholicism, that is, the Mass and the Divine Office.

If our liturgy is lacking in dignity and beauty, then Catholic culture will be too.

One of the great things that is happening in the Church now is a liturgical renewal. This is more powerful in creating a culture of beauty than anything else, and it is the current Pope who, more than anyone, is overseeing a restoration of liturgical orthodoxy.

This is the most powerful way to reach out to artists, and for that matter anyone else (if I can come back to your earlier question) that the Church has at its disposal. The reaching out is done by the Holy Spirit; it is a supernatural magnet!

Once we get the liturgy sorted out, everything else will fall into place.

ZENIT: Tell us about your project of the way of beauty. Why did you choose an academic environment in which to establish it?

Clayton: Thomas More College offers a unique practical training in beauty that will enable ordinary Catholics to contribute to the culture of beauty.

Rooted in our own tradition, it is trying to further what the West has been waiting for. We need skillful artists, of course. We also need knowledgeable patrons of the arts. But most of all we need people who know what beauty is, know how to use it in their worship, and demand it in their churches, their homes, their workplaces.

This is why every student at the college goes through this course. They learn to participate in, and create, a culture of beauty that directs us to God. It is based upon the traditional quadrivium that I mentioned earlier. The subjects are number, geometry, harmony/music and cosmology, but these are not taught as they would be normally.

It is a tradition that teaches the patterns and harmony that comprise all that is beautiful and how they correspond to the patterns in the liturgy.

This is reflected in what we think of first when we talk of Catholic culture: art, architecture, literature, music. But these are values and principles that can be employed in all our human activity. Whatever we do, we can do it beautifully, inspired by God.

As beauty is apprehended intuitively, an education in beauty develops our intuitive faculty — we become more creative. True originality is that which looks to the origin of all that is good, God.

Crucial to this education of beauty and creativity is the guided practice of the creation of beauty.

This begins in the teaching of people to pray with visual imagery in the context of the Mass and the Divine Office. We teach through practice, sacred geometry — the traditional abstract art form that manifests these principles and is the basis for the proportion and compositional design in art and architecture.

Those who are artistic can choose to do iconogr
aphy courses and fine carpentry courses. Everyone is required to do creative writing courses that teach using traditional methods.

The result is that we also teach people to recognize the theological language of the artistic traditions of the Church, the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque. We teach people the visual language. As the students go through the whole of our liberal arts program, which is a great books program, they will start to see how the whole of Catholic culture is run through with these values.

As well as being a fascinating journey through our culture, this will give us the knowledge to be enlightened patrons for the Church and to choose images discerningly for our own pray and worship. It is also an excellent foundation for Catholics wishing to go on and study art intensively. They will know how to apply their skills in the service of the Church.

ZENIT: It sounds as though this would be of interest to more than just your students. Is there a way that others can get access to this?

Clayton: Yes, we are running a summer program in 2010. This is for anyone aged 16 and above. It will take place at our college campus in New Hampshire. As well as a course in the Way of Beauty — teaching people the basics of the quadrivium- we also run courses in drawing and painting. We teach iconography and naturalistic drawing in the baroque style using the academic method.

What people should be aware of is that talent has very little to do with being an artist. If you love art and love the Church, then with the right training, you will learn the necessary skills to do it. We have internationally known artists doing the training here and people will be amazed at the results they achieve.

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On the Net:

Way of Beauty:

Foundation for Sacred Arts:

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