The Catholic Thing
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By David Warren   
Saturday, 23 August 2014

Some distance from the land of the Hebrews, and some centuries before the foundation of Holy Church, Plato anticipated many of her teachings. He seems privy to mysteries much deeper than those known to the pagan Greek religion – itself not contemptible.

We turn to him for insight, not doctrine. We require what I would call a certain Socratic aloofness to make sense of him. He creates the most elaborate models in the reader’s mind, in order to present his ideas; and that reader may easily fall into mistaking his models for the ideas they represent.

Hence, the condemnation of Plato, sometimes as a “heretic,” which given his time and place he could not possibly be.

The great genius Origen, who came after Christ, but not so long after, is similarly condemned: for he is sometimes unorthodox. But what was orthodox had not yet been quite established from out of the deposit of our faith. Origen himself bows humbly before the ultimate authority of Holy Church, through which this orthodoxy will emerge – in significant part because of the light which has been cast on ultimate questions by such as Origen.

This is a light that still shines, and can be used still to approach the most high and most holy – again, with that spirit of Socratic aloofness. Origen writes not falsely but truthfully, yet incompletely. He does not intend incompleteness.

Hence, too, the modern (or I would say, “post-modern”) tendency to read and condemn Plato as a totalitarian politician. He has often been convicted, through The Republic and The Laws, of proposing a dirigiste, utopian order for this world, when that cannot have been his intention. For these are philosophical works of art.

In the absence of Socratic aloofness, or shall we say Platonic irony, we eliminate that which is of real and permanent value: profound insight into human nature and the human order. Men are in need, in desperate need, of guidance. They will not find a worthy way of life by laissez-faire. Wisdom will require of them humility and obedience. Nor must that love of wisdom (“philosophy” is the word) be absent from those who rule: for they, too, must look upward, in humility and obedience.

For instance, an immensely foolish book by the sincere but literal-minded Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) presented Plato as the “historicist” ancestor of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. It turns Plato upside down.

The Catholic Church is unusual, among the religions of mankind, for the emphasis, even the reliance she has placed, on the arts, including philosophy. Plato was the ancient exponent of “education through art.” The Church through twenty centuries has put this into practice.

She has always decorated her churches, with art, poetry, music of the highest quality, intended to expound her truths; she has decorated her monasteries with philosophical inquiry; she has been open to instruction even while instructing. She has herself been taught, repeatedly, by saints, and too by the artists and thinkers who have gone beyond mere words, reconstructing again and again her Gloria – the very substance of religion most easily lost in the mire of this world.

Georges Braque with L’oiseau et son nid

These thoughts are occasioned by a lithograph after a painting by Georges Braque, entitled L’oiseau et son nid (“The bird and its nest”). The original painting dominated Braque’s studio at Varengeville. He would set it up on a tall easel that had belonged to his father. He even carried it with him when he travelled away from his studio.

Braque is associated with Picasso in the public mind, as co-inventors of “cubism.” But they were radically opposed in their intentions. Just how opposite, might be conveyed by an anecdote from Picasso’s studio at Vallauris, where for self-inspiration Picasso kept a giant, “heroic” photograph of his own head -- one copy by his bed so he would see it first thing every morning; another overlooking his work space.

It was one of the tragedies of the twentieth century that perhaps its greatest painter -- for Picasso was arguably the most talented draughtsman since Rubens -- worshipped himself as his god.

He was untypical in that respect. The great modern artists we associate with the School of Paris – Matisse, Roualt, Kandinsky, Chagall, Giacometti are the first five names that come to my mind – were almost to a man what we would call today “religious nutjobs.” Most were in fact very earnest Roman Catholics.

I think of an abstract painting by Alfred Manessier, executed in the year of my birth: Paysage aérien (1953). I have a photograph of it hanging on a wall in his home. His family are gathered at a table beneath it. Above the painting, the artist has placed a crucifix.

One thinks of the decoration of the chapel at Vence, among the genuinely heroic late works by Matisse. He was very old, and ill; like Michelangelo before him, he would not be deflected.

But of this grand oiseau of Braque, what is its meaning?

When asked by the fine American photographer Alexander Liberman, to explain its hypnotic power, Braque said only, “It is as if one heard the fluttering of wings.”

Persisting in his inquiry, Liberman extracted more than this. Plato is quoted: “The soul ... when perfect and fully winged, soars upward.” It is purified. The bird in its flight is symbolic, as the dove, of the Holy Ghost.

Not that “peace dove” of Picasso’s, which became iconic through a thousand posters, and was used as symbol by innumerable Communist front organizations, for unambiguously material political causes. For that dove is flatly heraldic; it does not flutter. It is flourished smugly, like the silkscreen from Korda’s famous photo of Che Guevara – exalting the psychopath as revolutionary hero.

Art, philosophy, may be used to guide men upward, towards God; or downward into the gutter of politics and “humanist” dystopias. Magnificent talents will be used for good or ill. If the Church is not the primary patron of art, the devil will be.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Myshkin, August 23, 2014
Braque usually lives in the shadow of Picasso these days, so it's good to be reminded of his stature and invention as an artist. But let's not make him into something he was not, and never intended to be: a faithful Roman Catholic. As Alex Danchev writes in his recent biography, "Georges Braque: A Life" (2012), "[he] was not properly speaking an unbeliever! he was more of an agnostic with spiritual tendencies ... He seldom went to Church, or to Church services - he did not attend his nephew's first communion - but that did not stop him from making a number of objects for Church use ..." Although he was a close friend of Pere Couturier, O.P., his religious notions were not primarily Roman Catholic, but an amalgam of Taoism and ersatz Zen dicta, picked up through desultory reading.

Famously, St Justin Martyr held Plato cribbed his philosophical theology from the Pentateuch (First Apology, 59-60). I suppose David might argue that Braque cribbed his symbology of birds from the Church's iconography of the Holy Spirit. But that might smack of "winging it."
written by Other Joe, August 23, 2014
Mr. Warren has the uncanny ability to sidelight a subject and so reveal new details. If God is the source of truth and beauty, which perhaps could be seen as colors in the spectrum of love, then the connection with human creations (we say "art" for shorthand) is indeed profound. To harness that flying horse to the jangly peddler's wagon of politics (art as a promissory lie) is to demean not only the crafter, but all who encounter the artifice and ultimately the culture itself.
written by Howard Kainz, August 23, 2014
"Plato was the ancient exponent of 'education through art'”? How does this jibe with his banishment of poets in Book X of the Republic?
written by Eriugena, August 23, 2014
Mr Kainz,

In the Republic, Plato was delineating a perfect, ideal polis; one absolutely in accord with truth, and so one with no need of toleration for a mimesis that might fall short of truth. Of course such a thing is not realizable in this fallen world, it being ideal and all; and just as Heaven cannot be realized on Earth, but will have to await a Last Day, so Plato bequeaths us Art, as our Lord bequeaths us a Church, lest we, as Nietzsche puts it, "perish from Truth."
written by senex, August 23, 2014
This is a comment and criticism on your web page. The flashing of the ads next to the article text is extremely annoying and interferes with concentration on the text and message of the article. Please stop this annoyance.
written by Brad Miner, August 23, 2014
Dear senex: Sorry, but those ads help pay the bills. -The Mgt.
written by C. Caso-Rosendi , August 23, 2014
"If the Church is not the primary patron of art, the devil will be."

The phrase reminded me of those epic Soviet official paintings where Stalin -- riding a white horse and pointing forward with a shiny sword -- led the patriotic Red Army to victory in battles where he was never present.
written by JRW, August 23, 2014
Senex, it might help to click on the printer icon and call up the print version which you can read on screen or print out. If it doesn't come up "whole screen," you can expand it or move it to cover the ads. But don't tell the management -- this might be considered subversive.
written by Maria Tierney Koehn, August 24, 2014
Hi Mr. David Warren, There is a painting by Picasso called Mother and Child. My father was an artist and we had a copy of the painting which had canvas texture and the Mother I thought looked just like mine and the child looked like one of my brothers that I thought my father painted it. It was hanging softly in our home for many years.

I found out it wasn't a painting my father did when I young. I think I did not find out it was Picasso's until I inherited it and the paper on the back of the frame was falling off and the canvas pulled away from the gold frame and I took it off the rest of the frame and looked on the canvas back were it is stamped, "Picasso Mother and Child 16x20." On the front in the top right is a copy of his signature that I could not see before because of the frame with 22. Which could be the year or print number.

I wonder if he was not trying to depict The Blessed Mother and the child Jesus. There appears to be in a dark garden behind them. The child's face is at peace and glowing in a rosy shade. His shirt is a Heavenly blue. The Mother helps hold what appears to be a dove I use to think was maybe a wood toy dove, though the doves gentle wing seems to be out and the care in the the eyes of the child looking at the bird seems to be looking at a living creature.

I was wondering if you knew of this piece and was it done early in his career. I'm not a fan of his cubism.

I wish he had done more of his gentle lines and burst of vibrant color paintings or maybe he did and they just didn't "sell."

God Bless, Maria
written by Just a mom, August 26, 2014
Such beautiful writing. Thank you David Warren.

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