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While the greater portion of Catholics continue their attachment to those prejudices and routines, art evolves, as does society. Catholic intellectual activity is renewed. The religious elites, the salt of the earth, those who will shape the masses of tomorrow, no longer feel anything in common with those outdated works of art. Nothing in them expresses their aspirations. That is why, more often than not, those elites lose interest in art and in its apologetic value. 

It is natural, it is desirable that an artist should participate in the evolution of the society within which he lives, and that, even before the society has seen them clearly, he should give expression to the new forces that are seething within it.

Who among us has not been struck by the outdated (sometimes to the point of the ridiculous) style of certain formulaic prayers printed unthinkingly by lazy editors over the past one and one-half centuries? Religious art suffers from too much resembling that pious boarding school literature. Doubtless dogma and mysticism do not change. But if it is true that man’s thought and sensibility are conditioned and, so to speak, impregnated by the circumstances of time and place, even more so, the ways of expressing such thoughts and sensibilities are subject to constant change. But we hardly see among the moderns any plastic works corresponding to the thought-forms of a Léon Bloy, a Paul Claudel, of a Péguy or a Sertillanges. 

That which makes indisputable the value of of those authors I have mentioned is the conversion they underwent. Their curiosity, their literary originality, served their thought well. Have we a sacred art that can sustain with such force and such a spirit of newness the prestige of Catholicism? 

"A synthesis of the arts with a view to the exterior practise of prayer and for the benefit of interior prayer, that would be the exact formula," writes Fr. Sertillanges. (22) "The beauty of human life, with all its dependencies and in the integrity of all possible flourishing, linked to God through Christ: that would be the effect." Those magnificent words are sufficient for me: I shall not seek for anything more to define the aesthetic needs of the contemporary soul; I would like just to show you how the tendencies of modern art stand in relation to those needs.

(22) Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P. - 1863-1948. French Thomist philosopher, founder in 1893 of La Revue Thomiste. 

If there is anything characteristic and certain about the general evolution of art over the past fifty years, it is that it tends increasingly to flee naturalism, the literal sense of reality, in order to orient itself in a spiritual direction, toward synthesis, decorative expression. 

What notable works have been produced in painting since the realism of Courbet and Manet? What were Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Cubism? 

Whether we like it or not, in the domain of ideas, politics and the arts, we have to take very serious account of those currents that attract and motivate the enthusiasm of our youth. The history of the schools and of their different styles is nothing but the series of efforts by successive generations to surpass themselves, to go beyond what others have done and to adapt to the curve of their times. 

Impressionism was the first step taken out of the groove of naturalism: something similar to what Bergson’s philosophy was in relation to scientific materialism. The geniuses who were most representative - I do not say of that school, but of that style - a Degas, a Renoir, a Rodin - began with the analytical study of nature to arrive at the most concise, the most audacious syntheses. In the beginning, it was just a matter of translating sensation in its spontaneity and freshness, a sensation to be sought in contact with modern life. Under the influence of the Primitives and the Japanese, and in reaction against the conventions of the old Academy, the Impressionists lovingly cultivated their own sensibility and sincerity. They wished for nothing more than to view nature through their temperament, not as she is, but as she might appear to them at a given moment, by means of a given spiritual disposition. They took pains to seize the mobility of things: subjectivism took the place of realism, and they came to think that a landscape could be a state of the soul. 

At the same time, Puvis de Chavannes, continuing the great traditions of classical painting, introduced into his compositions the naïve observation of nature, the subtle harmonies dear to the Impressionists, and so introduced the systematic use of a mode of expression, as old as the arts themselves, but discredited by the Moderns, namely Symbolism. 

So, the old Academy idealised, reducing nature to a conventional type, to the beau ideal. In reaction, the realists strictly and brutally copied nature. Rather than simply reproducing her, the Impressionists represented her according to the requirements of their sensibility. Puvis de Chavannes transposed her into the domains of painting and poetry; he suggested, instead of describing. That was the way ideas succeeded one another in painting. 

This evolution in a spiritual direction (23) was helped along its way by the prestige of the young literary schools of that time, for example, of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, by the need for an ideal which would be manifest in philosophy as well as in letters. At the same time, the progress of photography incited the true artists to express something more than material reality, while at the same time demoralising the others. The masters of the artistic youth were Gustave Moreau, Puvis, Odilon Redon, Gauguin, Cézanne. The influence of Cézanne is at the origins of Cubism and of all the manifestations of art posterior to Impressionism - all of them oriented toward the predominance of the poetic and plastic element over the descriptive element. The abandonment of the descriptive is the factor that unifies the younger schools. And this is true in the decorative arts, as well: the 1889 decorative movement called Art Nouveau, which in the beginning was very close to the 'Modern style' saw the flourishing of the artist’s fantasy, freed from the shackles of the different styles and the need for imitation. The most recent schools have evolved more and more toward abstraction, affirming more and more their desire to create formulas unrelated to reality.

(23) 'Cette évolution spiritualiste'. I don't think though that Denis has in mind 'spiritualism' as a religious movement, though it was fashionable at the time, including in the circles of the painters.