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In the Easter issue of Dappled Things , a magazine devoted to the artistic and cultural life of young Catholics in America, First Things contributor Matthew Milliner writes on how Catholics can renew the world of contemporary art. Playing off the title of Joseph Bottum’s article ” When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America ,” Milliner titles his piece ” When the Eagles Don’t Fit in Capistrano ,” and his suggestions are quite compelling:

My art history professor there was John Walford, a stately Cambridge-trained Brit, and in this lecture he outlined different strategies for Christian engagement of the world of art, using birds as a typology. There was the phoenix, which sought to resurrect the great Christian art of the past, but ran the risk of merely resurrecting a corpse. There was the parrot, offering only timid imitations of contemporary art. Then there was the bald eagle, which rose above resuscitation or replica with soaring, original talent. The note Walford ended on, however, was not the eagle—such a rare bird—but the sparrow. Eagles, be they Raphael, Rembrandt or Rouault, are needed; but more likely most of us are artistic sparrows. The aim of the sparrow, in Walford’s typology, was not to make an indelible impact on the art world or provide the next chapter in art history (perhaps now too fragmented to even be written). The aim of the sparrow was more modest. Sparrows enhance the life of a local community, providing for aesthetic needs the same way a family doctor or local schoolteacher provide their respective services. The names of these sparrows, explained Walford, “will rarely appear in art books, but their contribution is nevertheless invaluable. They paint or sculpt for the local community much as Van Goyen and Ruisdael did for the citizens of Leiden and Amsterdam.” . . .

The eagles coming back to Capistrano is a rather horrifying image. At best the mission could support one, and even that would be distracting. Notre Dame de Toute Grace sought to sponsor several, and a case could be made that it is indeed, a rather distracting space. Worshipping there, as I did several years ago, one is tempted to contemplate art history more than the Mass. Even birds as large as seagulls descending on a church only brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps a better model for the renewal of Catholic and Protestant culture is a slow, steady cultivation of serious faithful art, guided by traditional formations, yet free also to move—cautiously— in unexpected directions. The pattern for this is less the Renaissance than the Middle Ages, when the glory of artists gave way to the greater glory of God.



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