Updated: Aug 28, 2021
So one of my favorite artists is Flannery O'Connor. Yeah, yeah, yeah. She was an author. But she was a visual artist as well. She's got some precious childhood drawings of freakish birds, obviously. (I once saw pictures of these drawings in a presentation I watched in one of those live-stream conference thingies, and I don't quite remember which one it was--but I'll share the link when I find it). O'Connor also did a ton of block-print cartoons that you can check out here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/12/flannery-oconnor-cartoons/. Ya dude Bishop Robert Barron does a great job talking about Flannery O'Connor and the philosophy of art in praise of God here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLuGvBSinn4 . Not surprisingly, he subtly mentions Bob Dylan.
Anyway, I love O'Connor because she's a lot like me. Or I'm like her. Or I think I am. We both migrated up north for our studies. Both shy. Both got a morbid sense of humor. Both live with disability. Both love birds with freakish birth defects, as all good Catholic girls should. And she read Aquinas for 20 minutes before bed every night. I'm not cool enough to do that...yet?
The first O'Connor short stories I read were "Good Country People" and "The Life You Save May be Your Own" in high school. It made me want to be an amputee. But I didn't start fan-girling over her until I majored in English Language & Literature at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. One of my favorite classes I took senior year was Literature of the American South taught by Dr. Ernest Suarez. Lucinda Williams was on the syllabus, so you know it was a good class. We read a ton of Robert Penn Warren, who was agnostic, but reading his poetry is kind of like reading St. Augustine with a Southern twang.
We read Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor in that class. I spilled tea on the chapter with Leora Watts, which makes that part even grosser to read. O'Connor's dark humor in this novel is laugh-out-loud good. I mean, it's still grotesque and melancholic and makes you think about Jesus, but it's funny. And disturbing. We weren't made for comfort, and O'Connor is keen to remind us that. I want to do some illustrations from Wise Blood, but in the meantime, here's some Flannery O'Connor fan art:
"Our Lady of Uncommon Grace," 2019. I named it after a lecture I attended at CUA...trying to remember if it was about some Flannery O'Connor scholarship or whatever. It was like put on by Catholic Authors something-or-other. I'll get back to this. But anyway, I used the O'Connor palette here--check out the green, gold, and peacock blue. This lady loved her peacocks, mainly because they're beautiful pompous jerks. There's some theology there. I know she writes an essay about peacocks somewhere, and I wish I could get the text to you. But in the meantime, please enjoy this picture of it here: https://gallery.library.vanderbilt.edu/items/show/1020 Apparently it's at Vandy. Go 'dores!
Here's another depiction of the Blessed Mother in O'Connor's palette, done in 2021. I made it for my girl O'Connor's birthday, which, lo and behold, is March 25 aka Incarnation Day (because it's the Annunciation). Something that distinguishes O'Connor is her preoccupation with the Incarnation, and you can see this a ton in how often she mentions body parts in her work. Not in a weird way. Well, maybe, yes, in a weird way. I used real peacock feathers to press the paint on the peacock feather parts. You're welcome.
This is a watercolor pencil drawing I did of The Misfit from O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Fun fact about the model: he's my dad! Thank goodness I'm blessed with a father who looks like a serial killer at just the right angle.
Yeah, so, don't read this story on a road trip to Florida. Or to your grandmother. Anyway, I've been pretty fascinated by this short story, and I even got to write about it in one of my classes at Notre Dame Seminary (Theological Principles & Methods taught by Jordan Haddad, PhD candidate--it's a good class! Take it if you can!). And no one asked for this, but here's my essay:
"Pierced by Beauty that Saves: The Role of Faith and Philosophy in Catholic Art"
“Beauty will save the world,” Prince Myshkin muses in Fydor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. Gazing upon a portrait of Nastassya Filippovna, whose beauty shines mysteriously despite the disgrace burdening her reputation and inciting her destructive personality, Myshkin reflects: “In that face—there is much suffering.” This suffering recalls the suffering required for sanctification, the suffering Christ bore in His Passion. “Looking along” instead of simply “looking at” the painting allows Prince Myshkin to access this Mystery of Christ’s Passion. He surrenders himself to be pierced by beauty, uniting himself to Christ whose hands were pierced to the Cross and whose side was pierced to gush forth blood and water as a fountain of mercy. A truer maxim reads: “Beauty will save the world--and the Good news is: He already has.”
Catholic art, directing us to Beauty Himself, is essential to Sacred Tradition. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger even distinguishes the beauty of Catholic art as evidence of our faith’s reasonableness. Lifting the beholder from the sensible world to access higher truths, beauty has a privileged role in the work of evangelization. It has power to pierce the heart, a piercing Bishop Robert Barron declares as a mysteriously “unthreatening” assault, pedagogical in nature. He asserts, “the best evangelical strategy is one that moves [...] first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!).” Beauty therefore appeals to the human disposition to wonder, spurring action as beauty awakens “a desire, perhaps vague at first, to participate in the moral universe that made those artistic expressions possible. And finally, the participation would conduce toward a true and experiential understanding of the thought patterns that undergird that way of life.” Though captivating, beauty is no fetter--it leads to conversion, and finally, in the spirit of Matthew 28: 16-20, mission.
In Barron’s perspective, to reverse the order beautiful-good-true compromises the rhythm of effective evangelization. It risks an off-putting presentation of the Economy of Salvation as he explains, “Especially within our cultural matrix, so dominated by relativism and the valorization of the right to create one’s own system of meaning, commencing with either moral demand or the claim to truth will likely raise insuperable blocks in the person one wishes to evangelize.” Meanwhile, because of its intimate symbiosis with wonder, beauty possesses a certain humility that is inviting--even alluring. Catholic artist and author of The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expresses the allure of wonder in the work of conversion: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Beauty sparks wonder, a disposition necessary for self-awareness and apprehension of higher realities, as Aristotle establishes in the Metaphysics: “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize.”
Considering today’s dominance of relativism, what constitutes as beauty? The axiom “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has echoed since ancient times. Perhaps today, art’s meaning and value exist simply as what is projected upon it by the beholder. Can it be true that what is piercingly beautiful and evocative of the faith to one person is simultaneously offensive to another person? Lapsed Catholic artist Kurt Vonnegut explores this tension in his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions when abstract expressionist artist Rabo Karabekian produces a $50,000 painting titled The Temptation of Saint Anthony and defends it as a profoundly spiritual examination of the human soul. This painting, however, is simply a solid green canvas with a thin band of orange tape stretched across it. It appears to follow no coherent logic in relation to its title. What heralds as a sacred and profound invitation into contemplation for Karabekian is instead, to his patrons, a tacky and disposable frame of wood shrouded in a lazily painted canvas, which one disgusted patron describes as something a five-year-old could have produced. It seems that not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, but so too is any goodness and truth artists attempt to communicate in their work.
But the reality is: beauty in its true sense is not simply subjective--in the classical tradition, beauty is primarily objective. In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II reflects on how classical thought informs standards of beauty, establishing that philosophy and art are not mutually exclusive. Aristotle makes this apparent as he provides standards of beauty in his work the Poetics: “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must […] present a certain order in its arrangement of parts.” He likewise states in Metaphysics that “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.” This inspires St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae I.39.8c to claim that beauty occurs at the intersection of actuality, proportion, radiance, and integrity, a set of standards informed by the Holy Trinity and manifested especially in the Son, whose Incarnation reveals Him to be the pinnacle of Catholic art. Philosophers such as St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius likewise ground their standards of beauty in Platonic and Neoplatonic thought illuminated in the Christian lens. These thinkers agree that true beauty adheres to a pattern of reason that protects it from relativistic and otherwise illogical misinterpretations. So, just as one must be trained to understand the truth and appreciate the good, one must be trained to see the beautiful. The challenge to the contemporary Catholic artist and beholder of art is “to resist very consciously the prejudice in favor of a subjectivising of the beautiful.” The success of the authentic Catholic artist is that he recognizes that because God created the world in accordance with a pattern of logic, the artist is obligated in his own craft to obey a system of reason that in turn elevates and frames his own creativity with cohesion and clarity. Thus, like the theologian and the leaders of the Magisterium, the Catholic artist acknowledges that in order to translate the Mystery of God to His people, he must appeal not only to faith, but also to reason. After all, as Pope John Paul II asserts in Fides et Ratio, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
Here, the Catholic artist has a privileged mission participating in the image of God the Creator. The Catholic artist responds in this relationship by performing in humility as a craftsman, as Pope John Paul II clarifies, “The one who creates bestows being itself [...which] belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning.” This assertion reveals the fault of Vonnegut’s Karabekian character who declares, “The painting did not exist until I made it.” This is a hubristic claim, for the Catholic artist accepts that he is an instrument mediating beauty already established by God. The Catholic artist is not the source, but instead is a minister presenting art as a sacrament which “in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.” Submitting to the discipline of adhering to the truths of Divine Revelation and exercising a habit of exploration in his talent of creativity, the Catholic artist operates as a theologian who communicates the Mystery of God out of obedience and service in a creative way not burdened by the jargon of academic language.
An example of a Catholic artist whose attention to philosophy and reason elevates the theological meaning in her work as a craftsman is Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Gothic author noted for her stories which feature moments of conversion and redemption amidst the grotesque. In Word on Fire’s The Flannery O’Connor Collection, Bishop Barron reflects on O’Connor’s impressive fusing of philosophical thought with her craft:
“[...] Flannery O’Connor was not only a masterful teller of tales; she was also one of the most perceptive literary theorists of the twentieth century. She once famously defines herself as a ‘hillbilly Thomist,’ and the aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas do indeed inform the way she thought about her own work. For Thomas, morality is recta ratio agibilium (right reason in regard to things to be done), and art is recta ratio factibilium (right reason in regard to what is to be made). A work of art--be it a chair, a fresco, or a cathedral--is beautiful in the measure that it is done according to the intelligible principles that rightly govern its making. When so many artists were under the sway of modern subjectivism--art expresses the feeling of the artist--Flannery O’Connor exulted in Aquinas’ bracing objectivism. She saw herself accordingly as a craftsman, making stories the way a carpenter makes an aesthetically pleasing and useful table” (ix).
Fascinated by reason’s interplay with mystery, O’Connor flexes her talent as a theologian by demonstrating Tracy Rowland’s standard that mystery of any kind exceeds any system, as O’Connor claims, “The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully” and later states “[...] you’ll failed when the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get instant enlightenment.” While her careful word choice and arrangement of symbols illustrate her discipline as a writer, she maintains a habit of exploration as she summons mystery to haunt her work in a holy manner. Beauty is “unthreatening,” but this does not mean beauty is not violent. This notion informs her technique, resulting in O’Connor’s conquering the stereotype of Catholic art as being sappy by positing her messages of morality amidst grotesque scenarios and characters who are both physically and morally disabled. But despite the apparent tragedies of her stories, a message of grace always triumphs. Indeed, it is a narrative pattern participating in the Paschal Mystery wherein the beauty of Redemption triumphs over the violent sorrow of the Cross.
In appealing to both reason and faith when communicating her theological messages, O’Connor employs method to her masterpieces. With antique philosophical thought informing both its technique and its content, her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is an authentically beautiful work of Catholic art. Here, the Thomistic thought guiding her intuition as a craftsman echoes Aristotle’s account of depiction from the Poetics and an understanding of the Philosophy of Light as presented by Pseudo-Dionysius in The Celestial Hierarchy. Attention to these patterns of reason aids the reader in interpreting the metaphysical truths O’Connor carefully shrouds within her work to be inherently theological, without overshadowing the human artistry of her craft.
In the Poetics, Aristotle describes that all art is imitation. One form of this imitation is piction, which is the “literal imitation or representation” in a work of art and “what the work of art signifies at the literal level, at the level appearance.” Supervening piction is depiction, where different “patterns [...] imitate character, emotions, and actions.” Depiction is the essence, the logos of art; piction is merely art’s lexis, for “depiction is what the work of art signifies at the level of meaning, and thus crosses the boundary from physics into metaphysics.” In order to fully understand a work of art, one must consider the possibility of art mediating higher metaphysical truths through depiction. This movement follows C.S. Lewis’ assertion that apprehending reality in all of its aspects requires both “looking at” and “looking along” our surroundings.
In terms of mere piction, O’Connor’s story presents a seemingly unqualifiedly grotesque situation: a road-tripping family have their car flipped into a ditch and are soon shot to death by a group of criminals led by a serial killer called The Misfit. The piction is so inherently grotesque that the reader immediately apprehends a nihilistic scene. Contributing to this disturbance is that there seems to be no redeeming qualities in the characters: the children are bratty, the father is irritable, the grandmother is imposing, and The Misfit is stoic and unforgiving. These grotesque characters evoke no immediate pathos. Thus, the story’s ending leaves the reader puzzled with no apparent opportunity to purge and balance an emotive response through catharsis.
However, the reader must not dismiss this story as a product so infected with the grotesque that it cannot point to a higher Good. A nihilistic reading of O’Connor is limited—true, the grotesque imagery is disturbing enough to baffle the reader, but Aristotle in the Poetics challenges readers to look beyond mere piction. An enriched interpretation of O’Connor’s work involves apprehending the work’s depiction, which by its metaphysical nature is not as apparent as the piction which shrouds it. The depiction informs the reader that beyond the description of the physical there must be something more, and for O’Connor, this something more is a mystery of theology.
Mysteries of theology illustrate that God is inseparable from everything; likewise, O’Connor’s Catholicism is inseparable from her writing. In a letter responding to a reviewer of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor states, “I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything. [...] I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to the freedom of the writer, but just the reverse.” She further comments, “Ultimately, you write what you can, what God gives you.” This reflects the concept of procession and return expressed by Pseudo-Dionysius: “Inspired by the Father, each procession of the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. It returns us back to the oneness and deifying simplicity of the Father who gathers us in.” Intuitively adhering to this philosophy, O’Connor embeds beautiful theological truths hidden among the grotesque. We can apprehend these theological truths, informed by the Philosophy of Light, in our ability to apprehend the depictions O’Connor presents, recognizing that the Philosophy of Light assigns a theological nature to these depictions. O’Connor achieves this in the violent ending of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” where The Misfit murders the grandmother. The piction portrays a serial killer shooting an elderly woman to death, but the depiction, informed by the Philosophy of Light to evoke theological truths and un-shroud mysteries, portrays a baptism scene manifesting the power and necessity for God’s grace in transforming people. O’Connor provides imagery recalling the matter of the sacrament. For instance, in the story’s ending, the sky is repeatedly described as “cloudless”: “‘Ain’t a cloud in the sky,” The Misfit declares, and the cloudlessness of the sky is repeatedly mentioned as he converses with the grandmother. Through the repeated word choice “cloudless,” O’Connor makes a statement through what is not stated (that is, language shrouded): the sky is cloudless, so it must be clearly blue overhead, recalling the image of water as the matter of baptism. This cloudlessness re-emphasizes the baptism imagery in the ending’s climax:
‘Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest [...]
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
This moment of the grandmother’s conversion in seeking a maternal connection with The Misfit is a moment of renewing grace bestowed by God through baptism, an image evoked in the pathetic phrase “the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.” This innocence illuminating the grandmother after her death is analogous to the supernatural rebirth Christians experience through the grace of baptism when they become Children of God. This conscious depiction illuminates O’Connor as a successful artist in the classical mind as she employs this imagery to minister her readers to the higher Good, even while this depiction is carefully hidden among grotesque imagery. Through the grotesque, O’Connor is not attempting to seduce the readers by distracting them with ugly forms. Rather, she recognizes that the theological truths she depicts are treasures of mystery--and part of what gives a treasure its value is that it is carefully hidden and must be sought. Apprehending O’Connor’s theological truths requires laborious close-reading, but this treasure hunt is O’Connor’s gift to readers: she participates with the “Father of lights” as she uses literary techniques such as the grotesque piction to shroud her theological depiction just as God uses mysterious ways to shroud mysteries of theology which “lie simple [...] in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.” O’Connor herself participates in this procession and return by giving back the gift of her writing, which, though shrouded in the darkness of the grotesque, mysteriously illuminates truths pointing her readers to the higher Good.
As a guardian of beauty, the Catholic artist is an authentic theologian in that he recognizes the necessity of grounding his craft with reason and elevating it with faith. O’Connor’s attention to philosophical thought in her mediation of beauty pierces violently, but it is a piercing for the sake of our sanctification. Our response must be to conform to Beauty Himself, surrendering to be pierced with Him in transcending the darkest tragedy. We reach goodness and truth by allowing ourselves first to be assaulted by the beauty of God’s triumph. Though this piercing may leave us like the grandmother collapsed and smiling at a cloudless sky in a mysterious wonder, we must remember that this is a beauty that saves the world.
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