Sunday, May 16, 2010

Art, God, Hierarchy, and the Poor

I took a trip to Europe when I was eighteen. For two weeks, I traveled around four countries, performing, touring, and visiting historical sites, while using rudimentary French to get around. I've visited small towns, big cities, mountains, beaches, cathedrals, and concentration camps. I flew for the first time in my life. It was incredible.

Everything struck me when I was there, but a visit to an old church in Dinkelsbühl, Germany gave me a moment of pause. You see, St. George's Catholic church is over a thousand years old, still standing to this day, with all of its beauty intact. When it was built, it was a huge community effort. The wealthy donated money for materials and labor, the artisans made use of their talents in crafting stained glass windows, paintings, and sculptures of the angels, prophets, and saints, and the laborers contributed the work of their hands and strength of their bodies. Not one person was left out. As a result, everyone in the community, regardless of class, age, or social standing, had a place to come together as fellow human beings, and glorify God every Sunday (granted, it never falls exactly to this ideal, people still bring their prejudices, etc, but you get where I'm coming from).

Upon hearing this, and stories of churches and cathedrals worldwide, it always angers me when I hear how we need to, "sell our art and give to the poor." While yes, as Catholics, we are obligated and commanded to give to the poor and fight for social justice, I don't believe this is an accurate statement or effective method. Here are a few reasons.

In the Bible, Jesus did command His disciples to sell what they had and give to the poor. However, there is a striking passage in John, where a woman anoints Jesus' head with oil. Judas rebukes her, stating that the ointment was expensive and the money from its selling could help so many people. Jesus makes an interesting comeback. He says that we'll always have the poor, but only Him for a short while. Sounds contradictory? Not really. Jesus was not being greedy or suggesting we forget about the least of these. Instead, He was acknowledging the importance of giving our talents and resources to God. In our faith, we believe that being generous with God, something we can't see, allows us to be more generous with each other, whom we do see. Does it always work like this? No, because we are broken. However, if one is truly open, you couldn't give your talents to God without sharing them. Should musicians who advocate justice sell their instruments and give to causes? No, because otherwise, others might not hear the message in the same way, as if the musician had written a song about it (hey, it was because of Bono that I made myself learn about world poverty). Same with the art in churches. It helps us to focus on what's really important and can give more voice to the causes of justice (considering you're focusing on a guy who was beaten and killed by an unjust government for suggesting a revolution of love).

Another issue I have with that is my own beliefs about art. I don't believe art was meant to be confined to the hierarchy, to those privileged enough to buy a painting or see a concert. Art, whether in its creation or appreciation, was meant to be enjoyed by humanity. That is our way of manifesting emotions and beauty in ways that mere speech cannot. Because of the Church's preserving art such as that of Michelangelo's, people all over are able to view and share this art, to share the messages (like Mary's grief over losing her Son in the Pietá). If we sold this art, this treasure of humanity, it would go into the hands of the hierarchy, of those who'd make its sharing much more exclusive, those who don't appreciate the significance and profundity of its creation. Further, with the issue of these churches and cathedrals, we're sending a message saying that art is merely for the rich, a luxury item, an exclusive club. For those who made their living through these creations, as well as those who've sacrificed more lucrative careers for art, this is a huge slap in the face.

Finally, while I agree that there are those leaders who could live more simply, I don't believe art is responsible for this poverty. First, in many of these communities, the Church is providing health care, school systems, and other programs not provided by governments (and it's Catholic movements who have been known to call governments to accountability. Think Brazil's land reform movement or Archbishop Romero in El Salvador). Second (and I'm hoping this is true in all cases), we stand against slavery, so I am sure that these workers are paid to create this art. This could be a livelihood for people who otherwise would not have had one. For local artisans, this is a way of preserving culture, showcasing talents, in ways that they might not have been able to otherwise. Poverty is caused by social injustice and unequal distribution of resources, as well as economic turmoil. While maybe some church leaders could do more, I'd hardly peg beautiful churches as the reason for infant mortality.

As Catholics, as people of faith (or no faith), as human beings, we have a responsibility to fight poverty. We have a responsibility to fight social injustice. Yet to take a tool that binds people together, manifests our own creative desires, and to condemn it to hierarchical prostitution is a crime against humanity. We have a right to create and appreciate creation, sacred or otherwise. Art is not a luxury. For some of us, it's how we breathe. Without it, life is mere survival. Beauty is not a privilege for the powerful. It's why we're here, to show the world how it is and what it could be. Blame governments, blame attitudes, blame unkind hearts for poverty. But don't blame humanity's creative power.

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