Art as a Vocation: Gay and Catholic Book Extra!

Art as a Vocation: Gay and Catholic Book Extra! September 6, 2014

What do we want? Eve’s book! When do we want it? …Soon! (Preorder now; it releases 10/20.)

I drafted a chapter on art as a vocation but cut it because I couldn’t figure out a structure, which is always a sign that my thinking is disjointed and either muddled or in some important respect incomplete. Fortunately, in a blog post I can just post a listicle and call it a day. YOU’RE WELCOME. So, you know, here are some points about art as a vocation, especially a vocation for gay/queer/same-sex attracted Christians.

* Art is both a normal human activity that all of us should do, and a specialty at which some people are unusually talented; but it can be impossible to tell which kind of vocation art will be for you, especially because we live in a culture which massively overvalues public/celebrity/professional creativity and undervalues normal everyday art. Everybody is writing a novel because we have to “express ourselves,” and for some reason just singing to the kids or knitting a great scarf isn’t good enough. I wonder if things like Etsy and self-publishing are making creation a more normal part of the fabric of our lives, or if they’re just reinforcing the idea that if strangers don’t buy your art it doesn’t count. Probably both, really.

In this post, I will probably talk mostly about art for specialists, what art is for “artists.” But I wanted to undermine that category a little bit before we begin.

* Art can be a way of reaching future generations, the people who will live when we are dead. I hit this point hard in my “Death-Haunted Art of Friendship” series so I’ll just say that most of us long to live beyond our deaths in some way. This is not necessarily egotism; it can be instead a desire for fruitfulness, and a longing to take one’s place in the chain of generations. For artists this can be the chain of influence, which can inspire love and hope, not merely anxiety.

* It’s been too long since I read Frederick Roden’s excellent Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, so I apologize if I’m misrepresenting his argument, but I think he speculates that the sensual, swoony nature of Catholicism and High Church Anglicanism were one part of these churches’ attraction for what we might call queer Victorians. I strongly suspect he’s right.

If you know that your sensual desires–the ways your body responds to other bodies–are stigmatized and possibly shameful or sinful, you may become intensely aware of those desires. Sensuality itself may become a sort of terrifying, inflamed category; your skin is shudderingly hot and sensitive to the touch. So it can be profoundly attractive and even healing to have a religion which honors the body, which says that God speaks to us through touch and sound and smell, that our bodies and our responses to beauty don’t need always to be interrogated and rejected. Creation of art, therefore, can be a way of honoring God and honoring our bodies. We respond to beauty, including the beauty of the body, and offer this response of love and longing back to God and to the people around us. This is a form of sublimation.

Being gay makes everything about beauty and sense perception a little strange. You know your responses are different from other people’s, and you have to figure out why, and what to do about it. I know there’s always a lot of confirmation bias in this type of speculation, but I do wonder whether our cultural association between (male) homosexuality and artistry comes from this fact, that gay people have at least one big reason to spend a lot of time investigating and struggling to understand the ways we respond to the physical world and its beauty.Art is a product of the fallen world, in which beauty is experienced as a problem and a wound. In our culture gay/same-sex attracted people are especially well-positioned to notice this problem, and stick our fingers in this wound.* To continue that thread and develop it, here’s a long passage from the chapter I cut:

Gay people are forced to question our identities and our places in society, often without even a safe harbor in our own families, and we’re specifically pressured to interrogate and somehow come to accept how we respond to aesthetic, physical stimuli. Essentially, we end up paying an extraordinary amount of high-pressure attention to beauty and our responses to beauty, because those responses are the basis of our stigmatized group identity. This greater attention to existential questions and to beauty provides the fodder for artistic creation.

This is my favorite explanation [for the cliche that “gay men are more artistic”], because it’s the least banal. It also resonates pretty strongly with my own experience. Many gay men’s memoirs—which I devoured as a teenager, even more than the writing of lesbians—describe this sense of being set apart from a young age precisely by what or whom one considered beautiful.

This explanation also implies certain possibilities for living chastely. If our sexuality is deeply tied to love of beauty, then, for some of us, we can follow that love up Diotima’s ladder toward the God Who is Beauty. The more Platonist among us can, like Augustine, find rest for our restless hearts precisely in the beauty of God.

For me, one of the key questions in my conversion was whether the physical, sensual world had meaning beyond itself: whether a beautiful image or thrilling touch existed solely to give pleasure or also to, in some way, provide insight. In Christianity in Jewish Terms, [one author] describes the belief I ended up with as the belief that “objects in the world are words spoken by God.”And one of these words, whispered to me in a darkened room, was the face of a woman on whom I had a crush; her face appeared from behind a large pillar like the moon coming out from behind clouds. Her beauty seemed resplendent in itself but also somehow unsatisfied, restless, pointing beyond itself to its Creator.

I’ve toyed at times with the idea that chastity can be a way in which I honor “all the girls I’ve loved before”: Because their beauty helped me see the God Who is beauty, loving them transformed my life. See how important you were! I’m not sure whether they’d accept this tribute—I’m not sure how many girls really want to be Beatrice, nor am I sure I make a good Dante—but it is lovingly-meant….

The artist’s love of beauty both provokes and demands expression. In some way Dante is called to write about Beatrice, to create in honor of her and therefore, even more, in honor of the God Who made her. This way of thinking about both love and art may help illuminate one of my problems with the way we tend to describe the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.

The standard nice-people Christian line nowadays is that you can have homosexual desires without sinning, but you can’t “act on” them. And by “acting on your desires” they mean, having gay sex. But there are all kinds of ways to act chastely on lesbian desire: to express that desire rather than repressing it. On the most basic level, we act on our sexual desires in some sense in every action we take as part of a romantic relationship. So when I held my girlfriend’s hand and made her soup when she was sick, that too was acting on my lesbian desires. On a deeper level, any use we make of our desires is “acting on” them. Dante “acted on” his desire for Beatrice not by having sex with her, not even by marrying her, but by writing about her.

Perhaps one way to think about these questions is to see desire as more fluid than we tend to assume. If we think of eros as, for example, the poignant desire for union with one who nonetheless remains distinct and Other—this of course describes romantic love. But it also describes the Christian’s love of God. This understanding of eros helps us understand how and why metaphors of sex and marriage are found throughout Scripture and Church history.

Maggie Gallagher’s first book, Enemies of Eros: How the Sexual Revolution Is Killing Family, Marriage, and Sex and What We Can Do About It, has an acute formulation: “Of course Freud was right. Civilization is sublimated eros. But then so is sex.” In other words, eros is a desire which can be channeled or developed in several different ways; sexual desire is only one of those ways. Bridal mysticism is another. Desire may not demand satisfaction—desire for union with one who remains other is a paradox, and can never be fully resolved or satisfied—but love does, I think, demand some form of expression.

* Another excerpt, lol papist proof-texting:

Can art be a form of love? If it can’t, it probably can’t be a vocation. If it can, however, then it must be love of some person, or of the divine Person.

One possible beloved for the artist might be the audience. When that audience is thought of as the generations yet to come, we can see why art might be a vocation especially attractive to those who don’t have children. It offers us a way to shape the future and serve the needs of those who will survive us. As Pope Paul VI said in a message to artists at the close of Vatican II, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands.”

And in fact this is how some gay people see their work. During the debates over gay marriage and childrearing in France, one activist created a website called Homovox where gay people opposed to gay marriage could make their voices heard. I don’t want to talk politics here; what struck me about Homovox was the responses which spoke of alternative vocations. Sometimes they were asked explicitly, “If not in marriage, then how can gay people live well?” Other times they simply brought up alternative vocations on their own. There’s a creativity in these responses which you rarely find in the airless political debates in the United States.

Jean Marc, the mayor of the town of Bergueil (identified only by his first name, as with the other respondents), said, “We (gays) do not have the fertility, in the sense of making a baby. We have plenty of other forms of fertility. Artistic, for example, and other forms of fertility. In my case, I feel I’ve connected with my village, and I’ve reinvigorated a village that was dying, fading. I know how to create ties within my community.” Jean-Pier, who writes television documentaries, said, “The desire for a child, for me, is fulfilled. I am a writer and creator. I create stories for children. That’s a way to address children and respect them. That’s an act of love for them.”

In 1999 Pope John Paul II wrote a Letter to Artists in which he describes art as a form of love of neighbor: “Here we touch on an essential point. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.”

He acknowledges that like all forms of love, it has its own particular forms of suffering, humility, and perseverance: “The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that ‘beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.’ …True artists above all are ready to acknowledge their limits and to make their own the words of the Apostle Paul, according to whom ‘God does not dwell in shrines made by human hands’ so that ‘we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold or silver or stone, a representation by human art and imagination’ (Acts 17:24, 29).”

In 2000 JPII gave a speech for the “Jubilee for Artists”; after contemplating Michelangelo’s Pieta, he said, “The Jubilee invites us to accept this grace of resurrection so that it will penetrate every corner of our lives, healing them not only from sin but also from the dross that sin leaves in us even after we have been reconciled with God. In a certain sense it is a question of ‘sculpting’ the stone of our hearts to bring out the features of Christ the new Man.” This is a lovely way of seeing artistic creation as a metaphor for our love for Him—just as marriage is both a vocation and an image of the love between the soul and God.

And again the pope called artists to humility even as he urged them to give their talents free rein: “The Artist who can do this in depth is the Holy Spirit. However, he requires our responsiveness and docility. Conversion of heart, so to speak, is a work of art jointly produced by the Spirit and our freedom. You artists, accustomed to shaping the most diverse materials according to the inspiration of your genius, know how closely the daily effort to improve one’s life resembles artistic work.”Here again art is not only a form of love for God—a way of showing gratitude, for example—and a form of love of neighbor. It’s also a metaphor for other forms of love of God, such as making progress in our moral lives. Most vocations have this double life in which they are both forms of love in themselves, and images of another love.

The love and the metaphor for love may not be as obvious in art as they are in marriage. They may be obscured by our baser motives—Shakespeare wrote for money. But then, lots of people married for money, and that doesn’t make the Song of Songs an inaccurate portrayal of betrothal.

* There are patron saints of artists–Bl. Fra Angelico, who “never handled a brush without fervent prayer,” is the most obvious. And St John Paul II is not best-known for his plays, to put it mildly, but he did write them. Causes for canonization have also been opened for GK Chesterton and the great Antonio Gaudi.

You guys already know that my own pet artist’s-canonization cause (as yet unopened, because: come on) is Oscar Wilde’s–not solely, and not even mostly, for his sensual and highly moral artwork, but for the operatic thoroughness of his humiliation and repentance. We recognize a saint not by his sinlessness, but by what he does when he acknowledges and repents his sins. Does he let God use his sins? Be the end, has he submitted himself in all humility to God, to do with him as He will? In my opinion Wilde, after the many sordid, cruel, or thoughtless actions of his life, did these things. Santo subito.

* “What is art? Like a declaration of love: the consciousness of our dependence upon each another. A confession. An unconscious act that none the less reflects the true meaning of life–love and sacrifice.” (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art)


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