Since the release of my Augustinian soul album, Late to Love, I've faced a number of questions about the identity of this music I've made and, more intimately, my own identity as its maker. Many have wondered how my work as a musician can be reconciled to my work as an academic and a father. Others have wondered about the religious identity of my work, across its different mediums, and have been generous in allowing me to offer a series of difficult answers.
In some cases, such as this piece by Pia di Solenni, the position argued for since at least Jacques Maritain has been granted to me: I don't need to be a Christian or Catholic artist, I simply need to be an artist, which implies being a good one. Image Journal, which is hosting me for a concert on October 22, has neatly packaged this idea into the claim that the term 'Christian' should not function as an adjective.
For the last 10 years of my life, I took claims like these to be wholesale endorsements of my work and, out of sheer convenience, I accepted them in an uncritical way. Of course, for most of that time, I was not producing very much work; I was still honing my crafts. Over the last few months of this artistic creation process, however, I've developed some distance from this idea that art need not be religious in any devotional or confessional way. More and more, I am finding a great deal of existential comfort in being classified as a Catholic artist, with all the baggage that such classification brings.
I think where we all agree is that art cannot be terrible and too much of the art made by Christians nowadays is, indeed, terrible. My greatest fear is that I don't meet that mark either. To be a serious artist is to know the most severe weaknesses and limitations of one’s craft, trying to fix what can be fixed, not be paralyzed, and even sometimes embracing one’s vulnerabilities and finding the secrets they conceal. Few people achieve the technical mastery of an instrument that we witness in some of the great masters, but even in those instances mastery is fleeting, not muscular, and the search goes on.
None of this is helped by the fact that every sentimentally opportune news story, like the karaoke-singing nun in Italy or the priest who gave a mediocre if not awful rendition of Leonard Cohen in a wedding homily, becomes an easy occasion to add insult to the many injuries of serious artists with or without religious inclinations who long for the glamour of even the slightest, flash-in-the-pan popularity that could launch an indie album into a very modest success. But beyond the ceaseless work of strategic self-promotion and the decreasing returns of marketing, in what remains for the artist to practice and write and perform, the existential questions lay siege.
These questions of artistic identity may not be about art in the sense that is strictly related to the making and crafting of music or other things. I suspect that the desires of the artist are nothing more or less than the desires of every person: to be what and who one is, or to at least not be otherwise. The making of a work of art may indeed offer a sharper and more descriptive image of that desire in certain cases, but my intuition is that there is nothing special about it. The questions of the arts are not unique or elevated above the domain of human life more generally speaking.
This separation between a generic and an artistic way of life, between being an artist and being a person, is an outright mistake. And the possible objection that collapsing the work of the artist into the general human condition is to disgrace the uniqueness of the arts misunderstands the danger implied in this distinction. Of course art is special, of course the human person offers its closest imitatio Dei when she creates something anew, of course the traditions and objects of the arts are the most precious treasure we can hold in our cultural hands. All of this is true. Yet behind each work of art, there is the worker, the artist: the person who does not have the luxury of ever being finished or complete.
When I feel myself on the precipice of making a grand platitudinous claim about art, I must walk away. It is not my business or concern to figure out how art and the artist can reconcile their identities with any satisfaction. But I cannot resist feeling that these tensions are more common than we might be led to think.
Speaking only for myself, I know that my music is probably never destined for mass secular or sacred popularity. Indie musicians, most of very good calibre, are struggling everywhere, and the sacrifices required to survive are great. Most musicians whom I admire in genres I enjoy listening to—even those who are relatively well known—worked day jobs well into early middle age. The glamour and celebrity of the artist is highly overblown and underappreciated is its dogged grit and rigour.
There is no shortage of quality music or musicians out there. That few of them are Catholic or Christian doesn’t move me one way or the other. I simply do not care. But I am a Catholic artist because I am a Catholic person. I have no roots or allegiances beyond family and friends besides this Church. As I’ve described earlier, there is no exit for me from my faith. As Paulo Freire once put it, “I am in my faith.” I have little clue as to what that means exactly, but I know deeply what it is in my life—and this is the essential subject matter of my music, writing, and teaching.
There has recently been some online speculation about religious academics in the postmodern university, suggesting that secular academia is a hostile and dangerous environment for us. For me this has never been the case. In fact, while many of my brothers and sisters in the Church have given me the freedom to not be Catholic in my music, most of my sisters and brothers outside the Church have encouraged and supported me in being a Catholic in my academic and artistic work. This may seem to be an odd reversal of expectations, but I see it as evidence of grace.
The intuition behind letting the arts speak for themselves, on their own terms, with as few burdens as possible, is salutary on the whole. This is a good basic guideline. But it is also risks a profession of faith that may in fact be necessary for the artist. I suppose classification will always force things into specialized parts, but for my tastes, as an artist and a person, I’d rather be whole.