Faith & Thought

Judge Art on Merits, Not On Whether It Speaks to Faith

When I was reading the March 2024 edition of Commonweal magazine, I felt as though I had received a special gift. The magazine is approaching its 100th anniversary and is reprinting some outstanding essays from its past history. 

In the March issue, an essay by critic Walter Kerr that had originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 1952, issue, was reprinted. Reading Kerr’s essay brought back many memories. 

I began to subscribe to Commonweal in January 1953, and so I did not read Kerr’s essay when it originally appeared. The essay is classic Kerr, insightful and beautifully written. The following is the opening paragraph of Kerr’s essay: 

“Bad taste is not one of the seven capital sins and nobody is going to hell for having preferred ‘Quo Vadis’ over ‘God Needs Men.’ But neither is there any wisdom in elevating bad taste to the level of a virtue, or in confusing it with virtue itself. 

“And it does seem to me that American Catholic criticism of the popular arts — especially the sort of criticism which is generally meted out to the motion picture — is rapidly driving itself into such an unattractive, and philosophically untenable, corner.” 

I recall “Quo Vadis” as an overblown MGM spectacle, and “God Needs Men” is a wonderful French film starring Pierre Fresnay. The plot is about a parish that has no priest and the parishioners turn to the sacristan to fulfill a priest’s duties. 

The climax of the film is when the sacristan at the insistence of the parishioners is preparing to celebrate a Mass. I won’t reveal the ending of the film but I agree with Kerr that it is a much better film than “Quo Vadis.” 

I suspect that some Catholics, and I hope that I am not one of them, feel so desperate to find films and theater and contemporary novels that speak to their faith that they wind up praising some inferior films, theater, and novels because they are not overtly offensive. 

This can lead some to go overboard in their enthusiasm for work that is seriously inferior art. An artistically inferior film about Jesus is still an artistically inferior film no matter how noble the intentions of its creators were. 

Great art has enormous power to humanize us, to help us enter more deeply into the mystery of being human. Claiming that work that is seriously deficient is a masterpiece helps no one. 

I thought Kerr was an exceptionally perceptive critic. I thought his reviews in the Herald Tribune and in the New York Times were special. I recall one in which Kerr claimed that a piece of dialogue in a particular play was the beginning of the play falling apart. I went to see the play and was amazed to realize that Kerr was right on target. 

Many years ago Kerr gave a series of lectures at the Museum of Modern Art about film. I attended and after one of those evenings had dinner with him. For me that was a wonderful experience. Kerr was as insightful in person as he was in his essays. 

I think that the essay Commonweal has reprinted touches on some very important points that anyone interested in art and education should take seriously. I think great art, whether it be a play, film, or novel has a unique power to touch us deeply and reveal to us the mystery of ourselves and also, at least indirectly, the mystery God. 

So many memories about Walter Kerr are returning to me. A few years ago I was working very hard on an essay about art. I knew I wanted to make a particular point about great art but however I struggled I just could not get my idea onto paper. 

Then in the middle of my struggles I somehow came upon some essay in which Kerr was commenting on art, and there was the idea I was struggling with stated clearly in a brief paragraph. 

In representing Kerr’s essay, the editors of Commonweal wrote the following: 

“In keeping with Kerr’s argument, Commonweal’s cultural coverage has long tried to assess the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of artists and their work on their own terms rather than reducing them to their compatibility with Catholic moral doctrine. 

“In recognition of this long-standing tradition of literary and cultural criticism, we present Walter Kerr’s “Catholics and Hollywood, which reminds us that the … spirit of experimentation and aesthetic integrity remains central to the intellectual of both the country and the Church.” 

For more than 20 years I conducted film festivals at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston. I think I presented over 300 films. I presented only classics and “near classics.” 

I refused to show any film that I judged was an inferior film. The reaction of those who came to the festivals was very positive. I think Walter Kerr would have approved. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.