Sed Contra: Beauty—Buyer Beware!

Beauty has no trouble finding an audience. Truth and goodness pass by incognito while heads turn paying homage to the handsome passerby. Over a century ago Baudelaire’s poetry reminded us that through beauty we can move toward God or the devil. These days we need to be reminded that our hunger for beauty can make people a lot of money.

Why else did Miramax Films, subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co., plan to open its film Priest on Good Friday? Why else did Miramax go out of its way to invite Catholics to its previews? Obviously Miramax was hoping for the same type of outcry that greeted Scorcese’s laughably-had The Last Temptation of Christ. Given this kind of marketing strategy, judging Priest on aesthetic grounds takes second place to condemning the attempt to cash in on Catholic indignation. Only a director like Robert Altman could do justice to the scene where Miramax executives cooked up this strategy — “Hey, if we are real lucky maybe Act Up will charge into St. Patrick’s Cathedral again!”

The Hollywood establishment just doesn’t “get it” if they think that people are going to flock to movies just because the so-called “religious right” or “fundamentalist reactionaries” condemn them. Too many people have seen through that media smokescreen, too many people have come forward to affirm the traditional religious values so often mocked by the entertainment industry. By embracing wave after wave of left-wing causes, Hollywood has lost its power to provide the imprimatur for American morality and custom. The patina of political commitment, sought so eagerly by many actors and directors, has lost its luster. A movie director with a cause impresses us with all the sincerity of a Washington lobbyist.

Even though Disney still has to face the music over the flagrant multiculturalism of its upcoming Pocahontas, the entertainment conglomerate may prove itself a fast learner. After changing the opening date of Priest, Disney moved quickly to keep Miramax from distributing Kids, a movie about an HIV-positive teenager whose nickname is the “virgin surgeon.” Disney may want to retain its revered status in the eyes of our nation’s children after all.

In his ideal republic Plato thought that artists should be kept on a very short leash. While state control of the arts is not a good idea, it is to Plato’s credit that he recognized the unique power of artists to instruct the mind and shape character. How many of us have benefited from that power, as we enter the great cathedrals, listen to a choir, feel our eye drawn toward the rose window. Who would deny the continuing power of a cathedral or the liturgy to convert?

The beauty of Catholic culture, created by the work of its artists and artisans, still helps convert the heart toward God and Church. Among those who call themselves Christians, Catholics have the least suspicion of the beautiful and the greatest appreciation of the artist. Thus, philosopher Jacques Maritain advises us to protect the freedom of the artist from moralistic objections. The present furor over Priest does not constitute such interference. Miramax has obviously attempted to stir up and then to capitalize on Catholic backlash against their caricatured depictions of troubled priests. Movie-making is a business, and if Disney and Miramax want to manipulate and insult Catholics then they must be prepared to accept the financial consequences.

My daughter already owns two Simba dolls and one Nala from The Lion King, which my wife and I happily bought for her. But nothing will be purchased by my family to support the nonsense of Pocahantas. Priest should be treated the same way — just stay away from it — hopefully it will die quietly leaving both companies with a big loss.

Meanwhile, the best way to combat the worse is to reach for the better. You will have to look beyond the bestseller list to find that Catholic fiction is alive and well in work by Piers Paul Read, Alice Thomas Ellis, Jon Hassler, Torgny Lindgren, and Shusaku Endo. It is a pleasant surprise that the sacred music of Gorecki, Part, and Taverner has become widely appreciated, but now is also the time to rediscover the joys of older music, like Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, Durufle’s Requiem, and Palestrina’s setting of The Song of Songs. Listening to and reading such things makes Priest seem like the small beer that it is.

  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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