The Proper Role of the


The Proper Role of the Artist
I may be sharing a lot of this particular letter, as it is one that speaks to me, and yet one in which I find a certain dissatisfaction and a certain wrestling with meaning and possibility.

However to start the discussion, there is no disagreement whatsoever with the following excerpt.

from "Letter to Artists" His Holiness Pope John Paul II

3. A noted Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, wrote that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.(3)

The theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art. It was already present when I stressed God's delighted gaze upon creation. In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well.(4) The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful”.(5)

It is in living and acting that man establishes his relationship with being, with the truth and with the good. The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents (cf. Mt 25:14-30).

Here we touch on an essential point. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.

One minor quibble--a point which probably should have been brought forth more explicitly, particularly in light of the Keatsian destruction of the ancient triad, is the relationship of Truth to both beauty and goodness. This may be developed more explicitly later in the letter, but it is an essentially ingredient in any art.

What I find profound here is the discussion of the vocation of the artist as one to seek out the beautiful. This is not necessarily the pleasing, nor is it necessarily the profound, although in truly beautiful things both meaning and depth are likely to be present. But it is certainly not the outré, the bizarre, the merely offensive. I suppose it is possible that true beauty is likely to offend. The beauty of the Cross is a scandal among men. The beauty of the lives of Martyrs and their witness (although this sort of beauty is not art in the human sense but in the divine sense.) Art is truly about exploring boundaries and widening itself to make more accessible and redemptive the expression of beauty. In this sense we are able to wander through endless galleries of much modern "art"--broken mirrors and bricks on museum floors, dung encrusted paintings, and much else.

Let me reflect on one art "experience" I had. Within the exhibit space, a small room had been built of mesh with one wooden wall on which was a grid that held, perhaps 200 ears of dry field corn. Within the room was a large bin of dog food from which a bold of coarse muslin had been draped. Throughout the room were thousands of white moths, being bred in the dog food. The "artist" sat on a stool and knitted a la Madame Defarge, a never-ending scarf and answered questions about her performance. While I found the whole thing interesting, perhaps intriguing, I also found it ultimately futile and pretentious. This "work of art" vanished when the exhibit was disassembled. Now, the fact that it made some impression on a few people might cause one to think that it has a lasting effect. But does it really? And was it really about beauty? The best that could be said of such a work is that it was not offensive. There was no obscene writing nor any unsavory element (save perhaps for the smell of the dog food) about the thing. But is it really art? Is it really an expression of goodness and beauty? Perhaps, but I would tend to say no--it was an interesting experiment in what the limits of art could be. It was more effective that the room with a spiral of slate stones laid out, the room with the thirty-five mechanical toy horses and the film loop of Niagara falls, or any of the other twenty or thirty exhibits that I cannot at this remove recall even in the slightest.

Art is about beauty and goodness and truth. If any of these three is lacking, the work is simply not art. You can call it art, and you can redefine your parameters to display any sort of mess at all. But it is simply not art and cannot be. Given all of these things, I would propose further that Art, to be Art, should be comprehensible by someone other than the artist. That isn't to say that others would know the fullness of the design or plan, but that each might be able to perceive something of it and take it away. This is particularly true of literature. When words cease to mean and become simply sounds or images on a page, I think that the language has moved away from Art.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 2, 2002 9:03 AM.

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