Voices November 10, 2017
Sacred art should not emulate secular culture
“I hate Winnipeg,” sings the ironic
refrain of the song One Great City! by Winnipeg indie band The Weakerthans.
In the last verse of the song, an “arcing wrecking ball” delivers the brutal sentiment on behalf of “our Golden Business Boy,” who “up above us all, leaning into sky,” tells a pious lie (“I love this town”) as he watches “the North End die.”
The lyrics refer to the statue gazing northward on the dome of the Manitoba Legislative Building. Popularly known as the Golden Boy, the “Eternal Youth” (his official name) surveys the architecture of Winnipeg.
In the poetic lyrics of The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, the statue symbolizes the commercial imperatives of secular culture. Money and power rule the city, extracting profit from the weak.
The genius of the song consists in its many ironic contrasts between words and deeds. For example, money and power demolish the past, proclaiming love for “one great city” (on Winnipeg’s highway welcome signs) at the same time as they wreck it for further profit.
On the other hand, a humble artist writes a tune repeating, “I hate Winnipeg.” Yet with its wistful music and poignant storytelling, the song communicates his real love of home.
I reflected on this song about my hometown as I travelled back.
I reflected on this song about my hometown as I travelled back from my visit to Chicago for the Catholic Art Guild’s Oct. 29 conference on Beauty and the Restoration of the Sacred.
Keynote speaker Sir Roger Scruton was joined by Catholic artist Anthony Visco, architect Duncan Stroik, and architectural historian Dr. Denis McNamara (author of the books Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, How to Read Churches, and Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago).
Each gentleman offered a superb lecture. Duncan Stroik gave the talk that caused me most to reflect on the importance of architecture for one’s sense of home.
Stroik is a Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His award-winning work includes the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel on the Thomas Aquinas College campus in Santa Paula, California.
Architects like working with good budgets, nice materials, and a commitment to excellence, said Stroik. What they don’t like is the commercial imperative of secular culture to obtain maximum quantity for minimal cost.
He told the story of a structural engineer who sends away churches.
He told the story of a structural engineer who sends away churches by giving them money and telling them to go hire his competitor, because working for churches is so hard.
Unfortunately, churches have the reputation of being terrible clients who don’t like to hire the best talent and to pay top dollar. So they end up getting what they pay for: cheap and uninspired.
They should be trying to build something timeless and beautiful, argued Stroik. He spoke eloquently of the need for the Church to foster a healthy sense of competition among the most talented architects that would have them always vying to work for the Church.
Just as Christ approved of his body being anointed with fine and expensive oil, churches need to rediscover what they do with their treasure reflects their highest aspirations.
The Church has always invested in art, said Stroik, because it realizes the patron plays a vital role, together with the artist, in maintaining high standards. Behind every beautiful building there stands two people; namely, the artist and the patron, whose role is not simply to provide funding.
Patrons should find and foster artists.
Patrons should find and foster artists (an activity akin to investing in start-ups, said Stroik). Patrons must foster a healthy art market, and cultivate the training of artists for the future (for example, in a sacred arts academy).
As patron, the Church needs to work actively with the artist in providing theological wisdom and support. Yet whenever there are moments of disagreement between the patron and the artist, Stroik said patrons must trust the artist and dare to support artistic innovation.
In Stroik’s inspiring vision, I feel
how the example of sacred architecture, in the midst of a crude and rapacious
secular culture, can instead cultivate for humans a real and lasting sense of home.
Without such beautiful architecture, utilitarian commercial interests will define the landscape of one’s hometown. The ugly skyline created by such cruel economic motivations contrasts ironically with real humans, whose nature will always seek to love the place where they live, just as The Weakerthans observe in their song:
And in the dollar store
The clerk is closing up
And counting loonies, trying not to say
I hate Winnipeg.
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