JPII TO ARTISTS
[I've gotten several requests in the last few days to write something about the Pope . I'm hoping to get something done, but, until I do, here's speech notes for a talk I gave about a year ago on his 1999 Letter to Artists. I really like this talk, but like most of my presentations, it was too dense and the audience was practically comatose by the end. So, to spare you all the same fate, I'm going to print it here at COTM in three different installments. Also, because it was my outline, it's s little spotty in some places. Sorry, best I can do right now.]
John Paul II: Renewing a Dialogue with Artists
By Barbara R. Nicolosi
I am not a scholar. I am not a theologian. I am not particularly well read in the Pope’s writings. There are many other wonderful supporting references about art and beauty that I am sure are out there in the Fathers and philosophers of the Church that I will not be citing here, principally because I am ignorant of them.
However, it seems to me that my very lack of erudition may be an advantage to our purposes today. The Pope notes that his purpose in writing his 1999 Letter to Artists is to “follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists…which, still at the threshold of the Third Millenium, offers rich promise for the future.”
I am an artist, a writer, and a happy, grateful and committed daughter of the Church. Hence, I am a member of the community with whom the Pope wishes to renew a dialogue for the good of the Church and the world. My hope is to share with you what I, as an artist, hear in the Pope’s invitation to dialogue. What’s in it for us artists? What’s in it for the Church? What’s in it for the rest of the world?
So, this will be much less of a intellectual exercise, and much more of a reflection and spiritual exercise.
I will cover the following points:
- Some Comments About the Letter to Artists and a bit of history of Statements from the Official Church to the Arts
- The Church Needs the Arts; There is no Holiness without the Arts
- The Special Vocation of the Artist
- What the Artist Needs From the Church
I. I want to open with the dedication that JPII uses in his Letter:
"To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new
Epiphanies of beauty, so that through their creative
Work as artists, they may offer these as gifts to the world."
This is essentially an outline of a profound theology of the role of artists in the Church. The letter is essentially a concise explication of this dedication. There are many themes here each of which need to be the subject of a dissertation. “Beauty be not caused, it is.” (Emily Dickinson) There is only one Beauty, and the artist’s task is to tap into that Beauty and reveal it facet by facet for the human family… creative ‘work’ – this is a task of nature, skill, education…offer as gifts – something to delight; something to enrich; something to ease a burden;
There are riches like this to be found throughout the Letter to Artists, but still, when I and a few of my artist friends read it, we found it disappointingly incomplete.
(And frankly, even though it strains really hard to be simple, it is still far beyond the ability of ninety-nine percent of the artists I know to interpret. It isn’t that people in Hollywood are stupid. They aren’t. The industry boasts probably the most clever collection of human beings en masse on the planet. The money and power there have created a very competitive climate in which "dull tools" would not survive. The problem is one of language. The Pope’s characteristic way of circling his topic, via Scriptural and philosophical nuances is just not going to be effective with the pragmatic people I know…)
This was not a fault in the Letter as much as a over-reaching in our expectations. As a committed Christian in the arts arena, it is very clear to me that the Church needs a top down rethinking of the role of the arts in Christian life. We in the Church have far to go in our thinking and in our rhetoric before we will ever become once again the Patron of the Arts. I wanted the Letter to Artists to be a much more exhaustive treatment that would be a reference point, an apologia and a guide for those inside and out of the arts.
The Letter isn’t that. It seems to me the Church isn’t ready for that, and the Pope is aware of it. He notes in his Letter that in the modern era, the arts have become subject to a kind of humanism that is “marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God” leading to a “separation of the world of art and the world of faith.” He sees his letter as an invitation to reopen communication.
“…the Church is especially concerned for the dialogue with art and is keen that in our own time, there be a new alliance with artists…
Overall, for the last half a century, the tone of the Church’s Messages about the Arts, Entertainment and Media industries have a distinctly “Us and Them” feel to them. They are written generally, “To You Artists” as opposed to “To Our Artists”. They tend to be wary, and carry warnings – most intent on shielding the People of God from possible harm, instead of encouraging the People of God to seek out the wonderful goods to be found in the arts. The antagonism has to go. The fear and suspicion have to cease. There is nothing pastoral about it. “Even the pagans do as much.”
Near the conclusion to his message to artists,the Pope issues the following plea to artists:
“With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been predicable of art in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in communication…”
So, this recent Letter is much more pastoral than academic. It is the first sally from the Church’s side that is meant to begin a healing process between artists and the Church. This is why the Letter is addressed to artists as opposed to being about the nature of art addressed to the rest of us. It is an admission that the renewal of culture will happen much quicker if we can win back the artistic community, while we also prepare and breed up a new generation of Christian artists.
There are principles in the Letter to Artists that should serve as the starting point for many dialogues that need to happen – not only in public forums, but in the work of theologians, in the preaching of the Church’s pastors, and especially in the hearts and minds of the People of God, and especially artists.
We will look at some of these principles…
II. Everyone is called to be an artist.
Every human person is called to make a work of art of their own life. St. Paul’s “new man” can be understood as the work of art that we undertake in collaboration with Christ.
“All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own lives; in a certain sense they are to make of their life, a work of art, a masterpiece.” (Letter to Artists, 2)
If you had to describe your life up till now, would it be a masterpiece? Would it be a reproduction or an original? Would it be inspiring or depressing? Would it be the kind of thing you would feel safe to expose children to? Is it mostly tragedy or comedy? Is it an ascent (a story of growth?) or a descent (a story of squandering?) or is it without any climax at all?
- "Art is how we will preserve our own lives." (Joseph Pieper, Only the Lover Sings)
- Man was made with the unique ability to praise and decorate.
The idea that “In the Beginning, God created…” teaches us that there was a moment in which He was done creating. The Pope makes the point in His letter, that the process of creation wasn’t so much accomplished as passed on. When God created men, he made them the summit of creation because they had the ability to continue the process of creation. By creating men, God preserved the act of creation as an ongoing force in the universe.
“Finally, He created the human being: the noblest fruit of His design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.” (Letter to Artists, 1)
It has been said, that in all of creation, there is only one creature that is extra. That is, the whole world would continue just fine, none of the food chains would be interrupted, the whole balance of the universe would continue, if men were completely lifted out. But we know that God is incapable of waste. So then, it behooves us to look closer, and figure out what is man’s special purpose in creation. Man’s purpose is to be present in creation as God was in the beginning: To create/decorate, and then to sit back and say, “It is good.”/praise.
No matter how advanced your dog is, he will never have the impulse to lay out his crunchy Alpo chunks in quaint patterns around his bowl. The smartest dolphin will never pause at a sunset and feel a longing to pray....or even to be a better dolphin.
But aside from the general call of every man to be as artist, there are also some among men who have been divinely touched with gifts of creativity, whose vocation is particularly to find “new epiphanies of beauty.”
III. The Artist has a special vocation in the Church
The Pope is very clear on this point in his Letter. Just as the human “village” needs preasts, and teachers, and workers, and politicians, so, too artists have an irreplaceable role in human society. It is a prophetic role.
We need to hear this right now in the Church. “Artist” has perhaps never had a lower connotation among the People of God than it does now. The Gospel speaks of the pariahs of its day for religious people, as “prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners.” Now we could say, “painters and actors and sinners.” We could almost paraphrase the Gospel: “Now, a woman came in who had performed in many off Broadway shows. And the religious leaders thought to themselves, ‘Surely, if this man were holy, he would know what kind of woman it is that touches him.’ Or again, “Master, we caught this man in the act of producing a television show. Latin Mass magazine says such men should be stoned. What do you say?”
There are two ways that most of the People of God regard art these days: as ugly/offensive, or as extra/optional. Many Christians regard “great art” as a thing of the past.
It seems to me that for many godly people, anything that is a part of popular culture is ipso facto evil. Like, if it was so great, then the masses should not be able to appreciate it. But some things are popular because they are great, like soap or the wheel.
Nowadays for godly people, art is most often something to be grimaced at, avoided and contended with. It is something to be wary of, and something from which we shelter our children. (“Would you allow your little child to gaze upon the David? Or the walls of the Cathedral of Orvieto? Or the nudity of the Sistine Chapel?”) It is certainly secondary to the studies of the catechism for children. Not even secondary. It is not generally included in our training of young people at all.
This isn’t the mind of the Church. Art isn’t something that you study after you have studied other things. Art is a means to study all those other things.
Artists perform a kind of priesthood, creating sacraments. Sacraments are visible signs that point to other hidden realities. Art is like that.
[The Pope quotes from the theologian Fr. Dominique Chenu] “…the work of the historian of theology would be incomplete if he failed to give due attention to works of art both literary and figurative, which are in their own way not only aesthetic representations (that is decorations of our lives), but genuine sources of theology.” (Letter to Artists, 11)
So artists are a kind of theologian.
“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore, translate into meaningful terms that which in itself is ineffable.” (Letter to Artists, 12)
“The Church has always appealed to their [artists] creative powers in interpreting the Gospel message and discerning its precise application in the life of the Christian community.” (Letter to Artists, 13)
[...to be continued...]