JPII and the vocation of the artist

LUKE PONCE
FINE ARTS COLUMNIST

Luke PonceEarly in my tenure as fine arts columnist for this publication, I issued an exhortation to my fellow artists encouraging them to make art and reminding them that, whatever capacity it takes on, their work is deeply important. Nearly two years later, I would like to return to these themes and offer with them some reflections of the beloved pope, St. John Paul II. The message he shares, articulated in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” is a powerful reminder of how making art can point to the divine and in doing so raise us up to God. In the following paragraphs, I would like to examine the opening of the letter (paragraphs 1-4) and how they address artists generally. 

John Paul begins the letter with a quote from Genesis 1:31: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Artists, he continues, are in the unique position of being able to sense most deeply of anyone “the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands” (1). This connection is by no means accidental. Rather, he adds that God “has wished in some way to associate” our art with the mystery of Creation itself. As we are made in God’s image and likeness, so our creation from the raw materials of inspiration is attuned by analogy to God’s creating action. 

Building on this foundation, John Paul emphasizes a fundamental connection between the artist’s moral and artistic capacities. He writes, “In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it” (2). This is an important point because how we live our lives will inevitably be reflected in our art. If we accept that “beauty is the visible form of the good,” then does it not follow that we should strive for the good in order to express true beauty (3)? 

“It is in living and acting that man establishes his relationship with being, with the truth and with the good,” he writes (3). The artist’s talent is a gift meant to bear fruit. If we are genuinely striving to create art that bears true beauty in it, we should never be ashamed of it merely because we think it is not good enough. The essential point is whether it is a reflection of God’s goodness expressed in our human souls. Any questions of aesthetics will resolve themselves along the way as this gift is developed. 

John Paul also notes the other-oriented aspect of art: that it may be put at the service of our brothers and sisters and our communities at large. For all of the aforementioned reasons, artists “render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good” (4). The role of the artist, then, is one of responsibility and hard work “without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity” (4). It is an essentially spiritual task, meant to draw the artist and the observer closer to God. 

The world in which we live rarely paints for us so high a picture of art. At best, it is portrayed as capable of inducing transcendent experiences of beauty; at worst, it is considered a harmless pastime, an escape from stress or boredom. Often, it is simply regarded as a way of making money if you can become good enough at it. 

At its core, however, art is most essentially a reflection of God’s creative action. It should stir the heart to recollection and greater devotion to him, and it need not be explicitly religious to do so. The awe-inspiring grandeur of a Mozart symphony, for example, offers to the one who has ears to hear (as the Scriptures might put it) an echo of the divine. And for that reason, it is deeply, incredibly important. 

At age 17, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. (I still don’t.) But if there’s one thing Robin Williams’ iconic scene in Dead Poets Society did when I first watched it, it reaffirmed my desire to keep making art no matter where I ended up. He stood there in front of a room full of boys not much younger than me and said, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Now more than ever, this is what the world needs to be reminded of. 

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