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‘What happens to art in a society when belief in God has withered away?’

Picasso admitted that the purpose of art was to elevate and console us

By on Wednesday, 12 June 2013

'Femme au Chien' by Pablo Picasso (PA)

'Femme au Chien' by Pablo Picasso (PA)

I recently reviewed for the Herald the “Spiritual Letters” of the well-known art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett. It is a collection of letters to another nun about God, the religious vocation and other topics. There are few references to artists or works of art but Sister Wendy does briefly mention her love for Paul Klee and for Matisse, yet admits to finding Picasso “a very poor third [by comparison.] All power and no beauty.”

This is a tantalising remark and I wish she had expanded on it. I am no art critic; I confess I am not drawn to Picasso, though I am obviously aware of the cult surrounding him and his place in the 20th century art world. After reading my review a friend has contacted me to say that her father, the late biographer and man of letters, Hugh Ross Williamson, had included a further intriguing reference to Picasso in his book “Letter to Julia”.

She quoted the passage to me: “Among artists, however, Judases are not wanting and we are surrounded by the results of this ultimate treachery, associated in our century primarily with the name of the Communist artist who painted Our Lady as a louse, Pablo Picasso who had, however, his moment of honesty when he wrote to Giovanni Papini as long ago as 1952: “In art people no longer seek consolation and exaltation…they seek after whatever is new, odd, original, extravagant or scandalous. And since cubism and what followed, it is masters and critics such as these that I have sought to please with whatever bizarre extravagances entered my head, and the less they understood, the more they admired me. By dint of amusing myself with such fun and games and meaningless head-splitting riddles, I became a celebrity in no time. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, riches, a fortune. Today, as you know, I am both famous and rich.

“But when I am alone, alone with myself, I haven’t the courage to consider myself an artist in the former grand sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, these were great painters. I am only a public clown who has understood his period and has exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity and the cupidity of his contemporaries.”

An elderly writer on Catholic subjects once told me “Art should elevate us.” In that he would have included the “consolation and exaltation” that Picasso mentioned: the inner journey towards truth, glimpsed through beauty, which is especially significant for those who have not (yet) encountered the God who is beauty himself. What happens to art in a society when belief in God has withered away? Or when you have prodigious gifts of draughtsmanship but no inner vision? I suppose Picasso is the answer. The story of Western art -including the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe – and its magnificent flourishing in the Christian centuries has been told by the late Lord Clark in the celebrated 1960s TV series “Civilization.” Significantly, the series ended with the 20th century – just when Picasso stepped into the circus ring.

  • James M

    This assumes what has to be demonstrated – that Catholicism is uniquely complete. Simply as a matter of history, it has received countless influences from a great number of sources, so as a matter of history, it is simply false to say that it has a “complete vision” of anything.

    If the idea of a “complete vision that is available in Catholicism” is to stand up, it can do so only by metaphysical analysis – by thinking, for instance, of all those influences as “intended” or “directed to” the good of the entity that, historically, is Catholicism. But to assert on historical grounds alone that Catholicism – presumably meaning the religious form associated with the adherents of the Bishop of Rome – is self-sufficient, and in need of nothing from outside, and not influenced by anything from outside, would be to deny a vast amount of the CC’s own history. There is no way of making such an argument – nor does there need to be.

  • James M

    “But I thought about what I said, and I think that Atheists are at their base, sociopaths,”

    ## That puts the article of Brendan O’Neill in “Spiked” that about gay marriage – available somewhere down this page:

    in a completely new light. Since he, being an atheist, is, it seems a “sociopath”, his opinions, though supportive of the CC’s position, are obviously without value.

    Why the CH would include a link to an article by a “sociopath”, who knows ? Maybe some sociopaths are less sociopathic than others – if so, why can the same reasoning not apply to atheists ? Or are theistic sociopaths the only tolerable kind ? Or, is sociopathy unknown except among atheists ?

  • Charles

    When you see a Cardinal Roger Mahoney construct a new monstrous Los Angeles Cathedral or an Archbishop Weakland tear out beautiful altars, communion rails, and statues from an exisiting cathedral, have no doubt that its the spirit of confusion within them; we must not accept this passively any longer but instead take courage and respond with the Godly spirit of harmony and clarity to stop them.

  • Lazarus


    Yes, of course my claim that Catholicism offers a complete vision is an assertion rather than an argument: this is a combox not a library or an entire life.

    The uniqueness of the Catholic Church is asserted by Magisterial teaching. I tend to be quite simple minded on this: if you can accept these unique claims, you should be a Catholic; if you can’t, you shouldn’t. That of course leaves open the question as to how you judge the truth of the claims. That isn’t simply a matter of metaphysical analysis, although metaphysics (including natural theology) may well be part of that process of discernment. A fuller account of that process would have to include prayer and sanctification as well as more strictly philosophical elements.

    On the ‘countless influences from a great number of sources’, I have never rejected such an observation. The Catholic claim is that it offers a way of integrating what is good and holy from (eg) natural reason into a complete picture of the world. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘more complete’, for the complete vision will only be achieved in the Beatific Vision of God after death.)

  • Lazarus

    ‘it’s a bit rich for us to expect from atheists the sort of fair-mindedness we (it seems) are not prepared to extend to them :(‘

    I’ll let the commenter (whom I think you’re referring to) defend himself although his remarks are made in the context of a society dominated by atheists rather than isolated atheists.

    As a matter of fact, MC’s remarks about the feebleness of the ‘religious mind’ were in response not to a Catholic poster but to a regular nu-atheist, Acleron. But there’s a wider issue here. Debate about religion isn’t some sort of game where, if one side breaks the rules, the other side can break them as well. Fair mindedness is an epistemic virtue which is part of accessing the truth: not being fair minded damages your own insight into reality. It doesn’t get you an advantage.

    I don’t think MC is being fair minded to Francis’ points which are less about atheist bad/Catholic good, than about a) what happens in a society which abandons God and b) what happens in an individual who abandons the search for the good, the beautiful and the true. Projecting onto those points a simplistic dismissal of all atheist artists as individuals is a clear distortion of what she said.

  • Tom_mcewen

    Nesbyth – Thanks, I am ex-protestant and I have been a catholic convert for 30 years. I worked in a Protestant Homeless shelter teaching computer science. Truly wonderful people, but they hammered me for being part of the Whore of Babylon. Which made me learn my faith. I am gun-shy of the protestant belief it is all you need to do is believe in Jesus to be saved. I seemed to be a form of voo-doo that you hold your mouth a certain way and God is your slave, once saved always saved no matter what you do. This offends me, I am not a slave nor do I wish God to be a slave. I have the freedom to reject God on my death bed, because he made me free. I believe in Mat 25 doing the work, makes you human, it makes you stronger because you do not fear what people think of you. We carry an massive weight of what people think of us, if we can just do the right thing immediately we are free, People stop to think and in the thinking the act stops. When I go to protestant funerals they talk not the dead’s faith but of his works. So we know more of what is expected then what they believe. Work is like prayer, prayer is not change God but to change you, and working as the hands of the Lord also changes you.

  • Tom_mcewen

    Ghengis, Charles – I am now frightened to look at a picture of the Liverpool Cathedral because I know you are right, and it will wound my soul and if it is horrible, how much horrible will be the Los Angeles’ Cathedral, when Californians do ugly it is truly ugly.

    I am a post Vatican II convert, I never saw communion rails but I miss them anyway. We must reclaim art, it is reflection of God and our reflection of our love for God.

    I did a nice painting of Jesus’ head and partial body twice life size on Good Friday for the Monastery outside of Prague which was used as a labor camp by the atheist/communists. Father Antonia put it in his cell instead, so that is Good I think.

    To any atheist who reads this there were many religious sisters here in 1950′s Western Czechoslovakia you arrested 4,735 and raped many of them, while telling them to pray to their God to stop the rape. Why do you do these things?

  • Tom_mcewen

    Parasum ”If atheists are avoided, how are they to be evangelised ?”

    Parasum you are a far better follower of Christ then I am.

    It is like going into a bad neighborhood, there are normal people, drug dealers, drug takers, thieves, and a small percentage of murderers, thou they maybe outnumbered by 1000 or 10,000 to 1, I just avoid all of it by not going into the bad neighborhood.

    To evangelize atheists is truly a gift to God, Thank you.

    But to me to avoid atheists is just wise, the ratio of 1000 good atheists or 10,000 good atheists to 1 bad atheist is too dangerous for me, I don’t take the chance, I just think of all of them as dangerous. I am still alive, so It works for me.

  • Charles

    Tom, I taught English and stayed in Prague for a full summer and got a chance to see two great monasteries, Loreto and Strahov. The beauty in Prague greatly revived my faith and made me grateful that the Counter Reformation and Velvet Revolution succeeded in saving those divine works. We must fight to preserve them and revive them in current culture.

  • Laurence

    Forgive me, but I believe the point here is that Christian art equates to Caravaggio, Titian, and the Sistine Chapel whereas atheist art equates to Tracey Emin, Picasso, and an unmade bed. None of the latter should, in a decent society, be considered art (but in our atheist-lite society are).

  • bluesuede

    “(but in our atheist-lite society are)”. Yes, but more Catholic-lite and Atheist heavy today.

  • bluesuede

    How will you account to Christ for the talents he’s given you? Can’t hide them and not use them. St. Francis said to his followers, “Preach the Gospel, and if you have to, use words.”

  • bluesuede

    Freedom to express opinions.

  • Frank

    No I don’t agree at all I’m afraid. The only facts I can see is that in the 2011 census 59.3% are Christian, 4.8% muslim and then there are other religions such as Buddjist, Hindu etc.

    You may choose to use those words and make estimates of who belongs to what but as far as I’m concerned this is just guesswork made in a way to suit your own opinion. I could equally argue that the people you describe are actually Christian since there is plenty of evidence to support this view.

    If you want to use the word “active” then this applies to all surely?

    Dictaing what is to be thought occurs through politics, present social norms, “opinion forming” and, especially, the media.

    Catholicism on the other hand is well-founded, is about free will, the search for truth and going on to think and challenge all sorts of superficial values and systems.

    Having visited the BHA website from time to time I can’t agree with you on that either but that’s quite a long story.

  • $20596475

    Yes the word active applies to other attitudes too, but we are specifically discussing believers. I don’t think it is possible to claim that a majority of us are now active believers. By “active” I mean regular church goers, or actively demonstrate their faith in some other way. I think this is self evidently true and needs no further proof.

    Nobody “dictates” what is to be thought. That some organisations exert influence, in some cases undue and unwelcome influence, is doubtless true. That though is a long way from “dictating” thought.

    You have only to read the com boxes here to realise that Catholicism has nothing to do with any expression of free will. Anyone who thinks “outside the box” is slapped down in a tirade of orthodoxy.

    We will just agree to disagree about the BHA then.

  • Laurence

    You arrived ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) about as independently as a fish arrived at sea independent of the water in the river, I’m afraid.

  • Laurence

    Individuals describing themselves as atheists cannot all be sociopaths (by simple mathematics alone, as only about 4% of the–western–population possess sociopathic tendencies – R. Hare). Nevertheless, it is probable that the rate of sociopathy (in those who do not believe in God) is higher than in the general population; viz. an ability to act without concern for the consequences in the Afterlife goes hand in hand with an ability to act without conscience.

  • $20596475

    Silly analogy. Of course I need air, food and water to survive and move. My ideas were though formed by me. I gathered my information, evaluated it and make my own determinations. I don’t rely on others to tell me what I ought to think, or accept rebuke if I stray from a predetermined line. I am a true free thinker. You might disagree with my conclusions, and even think they are flawed, but they are all mine. No-one else has any responsibility for them.

  • Tom_mcewen

    Please come back, I can not guarantee that a tram will not kill you but the beauty is around every corner, up high, down low, around and around. Hike, boat, tramp, go to the pub.

    The biggest houses in Heaven are the Tram drivers, as St. Peter explained to JPII when he showed up, Prague ‘Tram drivers’ put the words ‘Jesus Christ’ on more lips then any Pope, even more then you my friend.

  • Percy_Fleur

    Stupid answer. You practise a form of intellectual solipsism as a self-defence mechanism (“my conclusions [...] are all mine”, “No-one else has any responsibility for them”), while pushing your agenda, which is entirely derivative. The world of free-thinking is in big trouble if you are its model. Your “free-thinking” is full-on Bishop-Berkeley-with-knobs-on subjectivism.
    A proper thinker recognises his debt to his forbears.

  • $20596475

    I completely disagree. I don’t see any need to defend myself against anything because quite frankly I don’t really care what those who are not close to me, think of me.

    So I won’t. You are just wrong.

  • Percy_Fleur


  • Laurence

    Anyone who claims to be a true free thinker, independent from Christian history and others around them, in my opinion must be quite the opposite. (Another silly analogy, perhaps, but any profesional golfer who claimed to think their way through an entire swing would be laughed off the course.)

  • Laurence

    Entirely derivative indeed. Mijn God, but haven’t we heard it all before at this stage.

  • bluesuede

    Isn’t modern art just saying, ” ME, ME, ME.!” When Picasso turned all his talent to the abstract, he just admitted …. it paid better.

  • Laurence

    I see your point but what is meant by ‘atheist-lite’? Atheism-lite to me is not the full-whack, brutal, Albanian-type enforced atheism (which would, at the very least, be honest) but instead prefers to hang out of the coattails of established Christian societies and Catholic-inspired universities.

  • $20596475

    I have never suggested that we live in a bubble, unaware of history, events and other opinions. We obviously do, and we all obtain information from them. All I have said is that I make up my own mind on things and don’t follow any predetermined view. I think about things free of outside influence.

    Your golfing analogy is indeed silly. Some professional golfers develop somewhat unusual swings. Just look at Jim Furyk for starters, but there are many others. These haven’t been coached into them, they just developed them themselves. Doubtless they tried some other ideas along the way but found what worked best for them.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    I am trying to think if the former atheistic USSR gave us anything of worth in terms of beauty and art…. I can’t point to a single thing.

    They made scientific advances, but as a whole, science may bring and value understanding, yet they also have a myopic view of beauty that would reduce the description of Beethoven’s 9th to and uninteresting series of pressure waves.

  • Laurence

    I don’t catch your drift at all. First you say, naturally enough, that you are influenced (by some 2000 years of Christianity) but then you say you are free from this, “outside influence”. Does not add up.

    Now, as for Furyk, Eamon D’Arcy, Ray Floyd, and John Daly, et al.; are you suggesting, apropos my off-beam analogy, that any of these agricultural golfers thinks their way through the back-swing, the hit, and follow through? In the same way, can it be possible to live in a western culture, while being untouched by 2000 years of Christianity, anymore than the fish? The fish was asked once what he thought of the water; “what water?”, he said. “What Christianity?”, says you.

  • $20596475

    Where did I say I was influenced by “2000 years of Christianity”? I said we don’t live in a bubble, so are aware of other things. Being aware does not equate to being influenced by them. I think about things, evaluate and then form opinions. What I don’t do is accept anything just because someone else has said it. Everything has to make sense to me.

    Of course the golfers don’t think their way through their swings. It is instinctive, which is one reason why your analogy doesn’t work. The point is that not every golfer receives instruction on how to do things right, for there is no doing things right. It either works for them, or it doesn’t.

    Your fish idea just makes no sense to me at all. Many people live in societies untouched by Christian thought. They can still think perfectly well, just as I can. I was a regular attender at an Anglican church until my teens. When I really thought about it I rejected it. It has no influence now on my thinking.

  • JoFro
  • Laurence

    But there wouldn’t be a society to live in without Christianity! I cannot be anymore succinct than that.

  • $20596475

    You couldn’t be more wrong than that!

    It is a ridiculous assertion. Do you think every society everywhere depends upon Christianity, because self evidently they don’t. Many societies are founded on other beliefs, of a great variety of types.

    Our local society happened to be founded on Christianity but would still have existed without it. It might have been different in some ways but, as many human values are universal, I actually think far too much is claimed for the effect of the Christian faith.

    Those who claim that our whole moral basis would never have existed but for Christianity are deluding themselves, and denying their own humanity.

  • Laurence

    I’m sorry that you believe this; I’m sorry that you have bought the propaganda hook, line and sinker; I’m sorry that you are denying your history wholesale. I could rattle off hundreds of examples to prove your thesis incorrect. No free-thinking in evidence, I’m afraid.
    But if for a minute you can be open minded and go against the tide, I would recommmend a youtube talk by Andrew Pinsent, a former scientist at CERN (you could search for ‘andrew pinsent’ or go straight to the following:
    Slán agus beannacht.

  • $20596475

    You reply without evidence, other than a talk by a fellow Catholic, who shares your views.

    I too am sorry, but it is you who have swallowed the propaganda. I have no propaganda to swallow unlike that pushed by your Church.

    I don’t deny my history at all. I am just pointing out that societies can, and have, developed without Christianity and that ours would have done, had we not been one in the past. That is also a historical fact.

    I think you ought to open your mind to the reality that Christianity is not responsible for all of civilisation.