St. Teresa Benedicta on the Role of Artists


from The Science of the Cross: Introduction
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

But--in contrast to a holy realism--the artist's receptivity to impressions is one that the world views in the light of a particular domain of values too readily at the expense of other values. This results in a particular sort of responsive behaviors. It is characteristic of the artist to transform into image anything that causes an interior stirring and demands to be expressed exteriorly. Image here is not to be restricted to the visual arts; it must be understood to refer to any artistic expression including the poetic and musical. It is simultaneously image (Bild) in which something is presented and structure (Gebilde) as something formed into a complete and all-encompassing world of its own. Every genuine work of art is in addition a symbol (Sinnbild) whether or not this is its creator's intention, be he naturalist or symbolist.

It is a symbol: that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning (Sinn) into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning, which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service.

Despite this, it is clear that there is a danger in an artitistic inclination, and not only when the artist lacks an understanding of the sacredness of his task. The danger lies in the possibility that in constructing the image, the artist proceeds as though there were no further responsibility than producing it. What is meant here can be demonstrated most clearly by the example of images of the cross. There will sacrcely be a believieng artist who has not felt compelled to portray Christ on the cross or carrying the cross.

But the Crucified One demands from the artist more than a mere portrayal of the image. He demands that the artist, just as every other pesron, follow him: that he both make himself and allow himself to be made into an image of the one who carries the cross and is crucified.

(Note to T.S.--this definitely adds to Mr. Gibson's accomplishment in that the media excoriation is a definitive image of the One scourged. I too have little use for the detractors from the film who see only what they wish to see.)

The other aspect of responsibility for the art is too readily dismissed by modernists and postmodernists. Once the work is created they disavow any reactions or results of the art. We get crucifixes in urine and dung-smeared Madonnas and outrage when such works of "art" are criticized or publically declaimed. We get eminem saying that his lyrics encouraging hatred of women and of homosexuals aren't there to inspire hatred (then, what, pray tell, are they there for, because they certainly don't edify or entertain); we get filmakers who produce films that "tell the truth" (or so much of it as they are capable of seeing) who say they are not responsible for offending, hurting, or inspiring acts of terrorism and hatred. Nonsense. The artist's responsiblity does not stop at the production of the work. This is part of my problem with Stockhausen's comments after 9/11. The artist is also responsible for some interpretations of the work. Stravinsky was not responsible for the battles that broke out over The Rite of Spring but he was responsible for the music that resulted from his work. An artist cannot bear the burden of responsibility for every crackpot interpretation of his work, but as Mr. Gibson once again amply demonstrates, he must in some way answer for it--publicly or before God. Personally, I'd rather face the public than offend my God.

St. Teresa Benedicta goes on to point out another crucial responsibility of the sacred artist and that is to live out the life he is called to. Just as every one of us is called to imitate Christ in His mysteries, so too the artist is called to so. And perhaps an artist is called to do so more publicly because their work is in the realm of the public. That is, when we as individuals think matters less in some very real ways, than what those who have access to the media think and do. Thus, we have a personal, community, and familial responsibility to imitate Christ, but the more public the figure, the greater the burden of responsibility for the proper representation of Christlikeness. This is why so many are hurt and disappointed when Christian artists do patently non-Christian things. We have an example before us presently that needs our constant prayer that the party involved realize the implications of his action and learn to do the right thing rather than buying into the lies of the culture of death.

So the artist's work is a sacred undertaking because it draws our attention to Meaning and the One who is inexhaustible. And also the artist's responsibility is commensurately greater as his work is more popular.

All of this from an introduction to a book about St. John of the Cross and his doctrine. One can readily see why St. Teresa Benedicta is so much lauded and admired for her intelligence and her thought. And The Science of the Cross is her EASY book.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 25, 2004 9:11 AM.

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