Catholic Artists--Do you self-censor? Why, why not?

I have an MFA in writing (Poetry) and a BA in English, Creative Writing Concentration. I am a published poet (just establishing credentials hoping to earn the right to post).

I wanted to start a new thread to discuss artistic process for those who consider themselves Catholic specifically, though I won’t limit this exclusively to Catholics. Everyone join in, but remember I’m a Catholic and anything you say may make me feel guilty in a court of law.

Are you like me? Do you fear one day your rough drafts will be discovered and your cause for canonization destroyed? Do you feel the f-word is sometimes appropriate? And then someone comes along and says “What if Jesus read that poem? How would you feel then?” We live in the world, but we are called out of the world. As an art student (and a Catholic) I kept my head low. I wrote about my genitalia and was lauded. I wrote about my faith once and sat alone at lunch for months, an outcast, anathama. I wrote and just didn’t care who read it, and then predictably no one cared to read it. Have you ever wrote a sonnet because people were annoyed with your free verse, and then after writing twenty sonnets you suddenly realized why people stopped writing sonnets in the first place?

I titled this post “Do you self-censor?” I think it is a fair question, and yet once I wrote it, I thought this will be the shortest post ever, even shorter than the posts for Ask an Apologist. You have to get the spirit of the question rather than the letter of the question. Did that make sense? God I hope not.

Is this post only for writers? I don’t think so. I don’t think sculptors or painters have these problems, but I could be wrong.

I am a painter with an MFA and I can guarantee you that painters have these problems-- The more decadent and outrageous the work, the more it attracts art world attention. This is beginning to change a bit. There seems to finally be a broader mindset coming into being, but I don’t see “religious” art being accepted in our postmodern art world anytime soon. (Unless it demeans religion.)

Example: Audrey Flack is a fugurative painter who was inspired to paint a weeping Madonna statue, she was attracted by the glitter and drama of the statue (I believe it was a Spanish Statue.) The art world thought she was making fun of the excesses of religion and loved the work. When she came out publicly and said she truly was moved by the statue and painted it for its beauty-- she (and the formerly loved work) were reviled. I am not sure, but I think she is Jewish- anyway, a non-Catholic.

Now, as I said, this is changing, I am seeing some mystical type art, and more acceptance of figurative art on general. But it still seems that the overweening interest is in sarcasm, negativity, etc. As I am sure you know, sentiment is the kiss of death.

Do I self censor? In many ways we are always doing that. All art is about making decisions. However, I would not paint an overtly Catholic and sentimental scene and then submit it to a juried show- it would be a waste of time. Neither would I submit something I did not want my name on. I have one real rule and it is natural for me to follow it, no effort. I am always respectful. I believe as long as you are respectful you can find a way to make your own art work. By the way, the straightest route to an authentic voice is to truly BE YOU. Only you can really write the things that matter to you in an authentic voice. I know It is hard to find that voice when the voices of postmodern judges are shouting in our ears. You need to be original and you need to be you; one guarantees the other.

But there are different art worlds… it sounds like you have graduated from your MFA program. Surely there is a broader publishing world available to you.

I am a musician/comedian/lay minister. I specialize in parody songs, altho I also have a penchant for original worship music.

When I write a parody song of an established secular tune, I am trying to appropriately balance both the laugh quotient and the meat portion. Being comedy, it is absolutely mandatory that the song be funny–first (otherwise it wouldn’t be a legitimate parody song, and thus be actually stealing a melody, which is breaking copyright law… not to mention a poor witness). In this case, I have my audience clearly in mind: what will they respond to? Will they laugh? Will it work? Will there be jokes that fall flat, or worse? How can I get the best out of the song? I’m aware that this is probably not your calling, your character, and that’s perfectly legitimate…

I sense that my experience in writing parody songs has given me a unique perspective of all this. By all means, you want to share from your heart, to be honest, to express the fullest sense of what you want your work to be. But if you expect to make a living off of your artistry, you know, deep down, that you have to appeal to the aesthetic tastes of your audience. The most successful artists are those who can find the common ground between their artistic excellence and the tastes of the general public.

We have millions upon millions of facets in our unique personality to expose for the world to see. Can we expose all of them? Not likely. Should we expose all of them? Some things are best left private. Can we share a side of ourselves that is challenging, and, daresay it, even obscene to a sizable part of our audience? It depends… much of what is shocking is nothing more than laziness on the part of the artist, knowing full well that an obscene gesture causes more buzz than a well-crafted work. But sometimes, such words are necessary, and no other word can do.

Playing the law of averages, there is a way you can expose facets of who you are, without compromise, in an artful matter, that the general public will embrace. It takes a real talent to be able to see the bigger picture. Part of this bigger picture is being a disciple of John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists”–well worth studying and applying.

Hi, I am a painter, wrote you a private message. I will write more later, just wanted to jump on the thread.
I have a BFA in painting and it is really an answered prayer that you started this thread!
talk with you later!

I am a painter with a BFA. I’ve been accused of not self-censoring enough, and also of self-censoring too much, so I must be fairly close to the right balance.

I specifically chose the job I’m in right now, in order to paint subjects that I really like for a “captive” audience who will appreciate them. :slight_smile:

I am working on my MFA right now. Fortunately, I am in a figurative painting program at a college which values traditional forms of art. So while my work is not religious in nature, I am not being pressured to go “post-modern”, or to be offensive or controversial just for the sake of it, in the same way that I was when I was working on my undergrad at another art college in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Self-censorship is not something I have to deal with because I honestly am not driven to express myself in ways that others may find offensive. I am more concerned with beauty. As an undergrad, this was a problem and I found myself forcing a wild side that I really didn’t posses. Now, looking back at some of the work I produced in those days, I wince in embarrassment at how self-conscious it is. If I had to do it all over again, I would never attend the same kind of mainstream art school, but would seek out training more befitting my own tastes and temperament, even if it meant not earning a degree. Traditional atelier training, or some kind of apprenticeship with an established artist, would have been much better for me.

As for the high-end art world, traditional art is slowly making a comeback, but it is still a tight niche. I am not so concerned with breaking into that; I will very happy if I manage to get gallery representation and reasonably steady sales so that I can contribute to the support of our family.

Interesting thread!

I got my BA in writing (though, I haven’t kept up with it as much as I’d like).

I think Nick’s post was great. There certainly is a balance between doing what you want to do, doing something that is good, and doing what will sell. Ideally, all three are perfectly in tune, but in reality it often doesn’t work that way. We sometimes make decisions that will fulfill one at the expense of the other.

As Nick said, too, a lot of it has to do with context. In many of my classes, it was the norm for students to use all sorts of profanity in their poems or short stories. Personally, I never felt right doing that myself, and I think that, in the majority of cases, when other people used those words, it wasn’t necessary nor did it contribute to the value of the poetry/prose. It was more like “Hee, hee hee, we couldn’t use these words in our High School English classes!” But, I wouldn’t deny that there might be appropriate times for such things (although I cannot at the moment think of any redeeming artisitic merit for poems about our genitalia ;)).

I like the OP’s comment about fearing the discovery of our rough drafts impeding our cause of canonization. LOL, I’ve thought exactly the same thing before. :slight_smile:

Hello! I’m so happy you all found me here! :smiley: This will be a most excellent thread! (sorry for Bill and Ted ref).

I’ve been tying up loose ends on other threads. Spending a lot of time on the masturbation ones, and boy is my hand tired (from *typing *that is!) bdddddddddddd PISH! (drum roll/cymbal–I think I just invented the onomatopoeia of rim shots!)

I’m following along, and will be back later! :thumbsup:

I’ve written three novels, two (one science-fiction and the other dark fantasy) nearly ready for publication, and I have no degree in writing–I’m self-taught.

I do self-censor, but mostly in the cause of artistry. If it’s out of character for a character to cuss, he won’t. If he’s a British Special Forces soldier from the West End of London…you do know they use the f-word as a stammerative, right? :wink: But my books are fairly emphatically not for children anyway.

I also, of course, don’t depict sex acts in any detail (actually I don’t depict them at all; I’m a big fan of the “fall down on the bed, fade to black” school when I have to narrate that), although I discuss them a bit (not graphically, but there’s some frank conversations). As for violence–I’m sorry, but I write action stories. I need a lot of blood and broken bones. I do leave out the guts, but that, again, is mainly for aesthetic reasons.

Fiction is a different kind of art from the plastic/visual arts, of course, but one ought to remember that there is a kind of ugliness that can be beautifully depicted–even evil, if depicted honestly, can be edifying, especially if depicted within the context of redemption; and (pace Nietzsche, who was a better art critic than a philosopher), the True and the Beautiful are one.

As far as hurting my cause for sainthood goes…I’m even less worried about that than I am about hurting my bid to be elected president. Of Iran. Right now.

Realistically, I’m figuring on getting let out of Purgatory with barely enough time to get dressed for the Eschaton.

Hi - just moseyed on into this thread out of curiosity more than anything, I’m not an artist - but just had to say I absolutely love your songs, Nick! :cool: Surprised you find any time to post here, you must be a pretty busy boy, eh?

Thanks for the uplifting comments, Lily! To answer your question, I’ve been a big supporter of Catholic Answers for many years, and was a longtime subscriber to This Rock magazine. These forums are great for me to reconnect to this apostolate, as well as keep myself grounded as to what people are interested in. (It’s also a great procrastination device).

Back to work…

I have to say I knew that you do. When I posted the thread it was 2am my time. I was a little loopy.

When I’m writing about God, this is often the case. One of my poems was published in The Denver Quarterly. It wasn’t a “parody” exactly, but I used the opening scriptures of the Gospel of John, and did simple word replacements.

In the beginning was Clock,
and Clock was with Time,
and Clock *was *Time…etc,

I think it was published because Bin Ramke (who was a teacher of mine for a semester) thought it was a sublte dig on the Bible, as he is an atheist. I was invited to read the poem at an outdoor poetry festival, and was heckled by a homeless man “O Yeah! You want to know about TIME! I’ll TELL you about TIME!” I thought it was an omen. Worse still, I thought it was an angel, as he just walked past the stage and back onto the street, never breaking his pace. I thought the poem could be an interesting teaching tool on the Incarnation. God=Jesus, Time=clock.

Which brings me to an issue I thought people might comment on as well. **As Catholics/Christians we have a lot of religious/spiritual “material.” **Literary references, snippets of prayers, iconography, experiences in ministry, etc. Some might call me a heretic for using the scriptures as I have. But it is all part of my palette, as it were; it’s part of my color repetoire. How much of this use of Catholic/Christian material is okay (I’m not phrasing this right. I know that it is an issue of balance. Someone knows what I’m talking about…hint, hint).

I was once a seminarian, and for any of you who have worked “behind the scenes” in ministry, you know that like any “job” even ministry can become mundane at times, and we say things “behind the scenes” that could be a scandal to the laity. A popular phrase among the acolytes, who had to drink the left over Eucharistic wine from mass, was “I’m a little drunk on Jesus this morning.” I have found, as a Catholic artist, that I can be unsensitive to these things that still have great power.

Absolutely. I hoped that beginning Catholic writers/artists might read the thread and get tips as well. This is artistry 101, kids.

Absolutely. I began the thread as “Self-censorship” hoping that definition would blossom if the thread survived. What to include or not. What color–burnt sienna or van **** brown? (What’s with the profanity sensors? Let me try this: **** VanDyke. Penis VanDyke? Rob Petrie?

Overall poetry is dying. It is becoming subsumed into songwriting. Dylan just won a Pulitzer, I think the first singer/songwriter to ever be acknowledged by the literary community. I have few options, fewer still as someone who incorporates Catholic experience (as opposed to Catholic sentiment) in a postmodern world that reviles the church or anything even hinting at it. If I were referencing Feng Shui or Hinduism it might be different.

Something similar happened to me with a poem I wrote in class. It was titled “Prey” and it was about the distractions that come up while in prayer (hence the pun title). Others in the class loved it because they thought it was a dig at Christianity. :shrug: People can’t help but bring their own experiences to what they read. I think that’s why artists (whether poets or authors or painters or musicians) can often appeal to wide audiences with opposing views. Art lends itself to many interpretations. Hence, even non-religious people greatly enjoy the Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. If it wan’t that way, it would be much harder to earn a living as an artist! :wink:

This is so true! What was wierd was how, over time, even some of the regular vulgarity users got bored with it, because so many people were using them. "Eh, another f-word. Could you be a little more imaginative?

This speaks to the artists desire to create an “effect” in their listener/reader/viewer. Essentially–It is my hope that when you read this, hear this, etc. that you will feel this way, think this thought, ponder this truth, etc. And word choice for writers is crucial (as color is to painters, as chord progressions are to composers). When “the F-bomb” doesn’t create the mushroom cloud you hoped for, then it just didn’t work, que sera sera.

An excellent point. It’s hard to reach that balance, I imagine, as you want to portray people* as they actually are*, and you really have to in order to provide verisimilitude, but then Catholic guilt (which is really a euphemism for conscience, I think) taps many on the shoulder and we remember everyone will see us in church on Sunday.

Genitalia poems happen on occassion, but mostly in writing workshops, similar Joe to what you said about swearing “I’m going to write about my penis! Isn’t it exciting?” You know what I mean. There is an image from a classmate’s poem from college that I still remember vividly, which must mean it’s effective: something about sitting cross-legged and naked on the kitchen floor and his (scrotum kissed the cold linolium)? Something like that, very imagist.

Not to seem nosy, but what’ your job? I want a captive audience, too.

This quote is perfect. The first time I dropped the “f-bomb” in a poem was out of peer pressure.

There was a guy named Doug in one of my writing workshops, a Pentecostal, and he refused to write anything without God in it. And everything rhymed in a forced sing-songy nursery rhyme kind of way. Students actually got verbally hostile by mid-term “Write about something else!” And what was worse was that his poems really were awful. I *secretly *consoled him, fearing reprisals from a public alliance (isn’t that horrible?). He did eventually write a confessional poem about he and his sister and subtly alluded to their alcoholic father. But next week he was back with 5 pages of rhyming couplets, regurgitations of the psalms.

I think some (I want to say nieve *and *be sensitive) artists think that *because *they wrote about God that God is somehow mystically tied to their art, and it is therefore untouchable. How can one criticize God? I wrote about God; you *have *to like it!

My aunt-by-marriage’s mother was retired when she started painting, in her sixties. She only painted beautiful landscapes, peacocks, yard scenes, and she was quite good. She showed me this apocalyptic portrait she painted of the earth with a throne on it, a lion in the throne, this epic Revelations piece. But she always complained about her teacher (“I just have to ignore her–she ruins everything!”) And I remember her not wanting to paint people naked, seeing it as sinful.

I still remember my first weeks of grad art school, getting off of the elevator on my way to class and a skinny little old man stood in the hall outside a classroom, in a bathrobe and slippers, holding a can of beer. The next week getting off of the elevator and seeing the walls covered in charcoal sketches of a naked old man in various shapes of repose, and a heavy-set woman in a bathrobe in the hall, and the next week sketches of a heavy-set naked woman plastered on the walls, and someone else standing there in a bathrobe. etc.

I charted my ditch days based on who was standing in the hall from one week to the next. :slight_smile:

Yes, I self-censor.

The idea of common decency has been trampled underfoot for far too long in the name of ‘freedom.’ It seems that freedom is all too often mistaken for license.

Great point! A lot of art is about evoking a response from the listener/reader/viewer, and vulgarities often elicit a predictable response (until people become desensitized to them, that is…then it’s on to something more obscene!). I’ve always seen vulgarities as sort of a “artistic shortcut” for those not creative enough to find a better way of getting their point across. :slight_smile:

Another great point. I think this is especially true in much Christian music as well. IMO, it actually does a disservice to God and hinders evangelization. If the only art us Christians have to offer is a dim reflection of our secular counterparts, how can God be all that great? We should give God the best we have to offer. Simply because God is the subject matter of our art does not, in and of itself, make that art good or exempt us from criticism!

As a writer, I self censor. God has established the rules for the benefit of all. Profanity is right out.

As an artist, I also self-censor. In my advanced painting class, I soon realized that peer pressure was a bit more important than self-expression. And when the instructor sat down with a student to discuss their work (in the middle of the class), it was usually the most interesting and amusing stories that got the instructor to encourage the student. If your story was boring or a bit disjointed, the instructor would often claim you hadn’t found “your direction” or “focus” yet.

Art is a communications medium. I believe the artist needs to get his ideas across clearly to people, otherwise, people are unclear about what you have to say. This is especially true in painting. Post-modern? I just want to get a message across regardless of where it fits in. But I am responsible for that message as well. I want it to be uplifting and hopeful not dark and dysfunctional or intentionally offensive in a nihilistic way.

God bless,

Youth Ministry and Sacramental Preparation Coordinator. I make explicitly religious paintings based on the Sacraments, the parables, and the doings of Jesus for the kids, and then put them up and wave them around while doing my talks. :slight_smile:

The kids think they’re great - they become conversation pieces in their own right. It’s refreshing, too, that the paintings exist for the purpose of communicating with a particular audience, rather than “art for art’s sake.”

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