‘Pure creativity gets just as dull’

Ben Conroy interviews art critic Elizabeth Lev:

I’m curious about how Lev thinks the Church should go about engaging with the world of art in the modern age. In a space and time where Catholicism has less cachet, how do we make art that actually leads people to God?

Lev’s answer surprises me. Catholics, she says, shouldn’t be afraid to make more explicitly and deliberately Catholic art. “There’s this whole 19th-century concept of ‘art should be free’, the separation from the artist from any kind of artistic standard or any kind of theme. The Church today when it tries to re-engage with art still has this 19th-century mantra drummed into its head.” Some of the art commissioned by the hierarchy, Lev thinks, is as a result not recognisably Catholic. “It’s, you know, ‘you should make me something that makes you think of Genesis’. There’s a work in the Vatican Museums, which is a blank canvas, and it’s supposed to be inspired by Genesis. This is 100 feet from Michelangelo’s image of Genesis.”

In order to get people excited about the story Catholicism tells about the world, Lev thinks, the art has to portray or engage with that story. Lay people need to be more willing to commission and support good art that does just that.

But if you make requirements too strict, I ask, won’t that drive away people who are likely to make good art? Isn’t the problem with much of Christian art today that it’s too didactic: Christian movies that are little more than sermons with a plot slapped onto them?

Lev has a similarly low opinion of a lot of Christian film-making, but doesn’t think that overtly Christian content is the problem. She thinks that a healthy “tension between the sacred and the profane” actually makes art better. Sacred subject matter alone gives you twee holy cards, but without any structure or external standards for art; ‘pure creativity’ gets just as dull. “My favourite example, of course, is the Duchamp Fountain, the urinal … the man saw the whole situation right there!”

We have to make and sponsor art, Lev says, from a position “where we’re in love with our own story”. The key to creating more excellent Catholic art is not giving artists, film-makers, and storytellers maximal freedom, but creating structures that will reward them for excellence.

“Hollywood expects you to follow a certain line when you produce a work of art. Hollywood has a whole bunch of interesting, very defined rules about what you’re allowed and not allowed to do and yet somehow they attract the biggest and the best. Why? Because at the end of the day, you can become famous. You can become known, you can become more. At the end of the day an artist wants to communicate. So the great artists need a forum in which it looks like they’re going to be communicating to the many.”

“[W]ithout any structure or external standards for art; ‘pure creativity’ gets just as dull”.