"Art is not a plaything, but an influence upon our lives, real and distinct." - Wyke Bayliss
We suffer from a surfeit of art. We are surrounded by it in all forms of expression every moment of our lives. It is so ubiquitous that it has become virtually invisible and we have forgotten what a powerful tool it can be in skilled hands. We have made the uncommon, common, and the extraordinary, ordinary.
A Fable and a Parable
Wyke Bayliss was a British painter, author, and poet. During the time in which he lived, the period which we refer to as "the Enlightenment" was well on its way to robbing art and Beauty of its power. In his book "The Witness of Art," Bayliss retells the fable of Beauty and the Beast as a commentary on the influence of art and poetry in our lives.
For Bayliss, the beast was man, the son of the King. The Beast is suffering and dying because Beauty had deserted him. Beauty is the King's messenger, the message she bears is art, which is the language of the beautiful.
Three times the Beast asks Beauty to marry him and three times she refuses. At each refusal the Beast sighs and becomes more despondent. When Beauty leaves to visit her sisters (Truth and Goodness) the Beast finds that he can no longer live without her. When she has been absent for too long the Beast begins to die.
Beauty has a dream in which she sees the dying Beast and rushes back to his palace, but he is not in any of the rooms. Beauty at last finds him in the garden. The Beast is dying and has forsaken all the man-made pleasures of his palace in order to die among the beauty that was created by God. Bayliss closes his retelling:
"'No, dear Beast,' cried Beauty passionately, 'you shall not die, but live. I thought it was only friendship, but now I know it was love.' This was the message. She covered her eyes and cried for joy; when she looked up the Beast was gone. He had become the King's son."
The Power of Art
We have inherited the legacy of the "Enlightenment." We no longer see the power of art. Art is "for us all; to refine us, to ennoble us, to raise us from the baser pleasures, to fill our eyes with beauty and our hearts with gladness, to show us that we are not beasts but the King's children, and that Beauty is His messenger." (Bayliss)
The arts interpret God's message to us. It is through the arts that we see the splendor of the beauty of the created world. It is through art that we see a flower, sheltered in a crevasse against the eternal snows, and recognize in it a symbol of the love of Christ. It is through the arts that we may still look upon the face of a loved one long ago lost to us.
This is part of the problem with contemporary art, the focus has shifted away from the incredible power of art to transform us, to sanctify us, and instead has become all about the artist and self-expression. Too many people blessed with all sorts of talents, squander them on selfish pursuits. Perhaps there are too many artists who look upon their gifts as a toy to be used for their own amusement. They turn their art upon themselves using it to journey inward in a vain effort to find themselves within themselves. Beauty is irrelevant in such a journey, the artist's own ego is supreme.
To such an artist even an audience is secondary. All that matters is that they are allowed to express themselves in whatever way they desire, and call it art. They have no thought about how their art affects others, so long as they themselves are satisfied.
We see the results of such an attitude all around us every day.
Art for Art's Sake
This is art for art's sake. A very modern concept, one which Pablo Picasso called a hoax; and of which French novelist George Sand wrote:
“Art for art's sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.”
We are not given these gifts to turn them inward upon ourselves. We are given these gifts to turn them outward to help our brothers and sisters, and ourselves, rise above our fallen nature.
Saint John Paul II wrote that the vocation of the artist is Beauty. Wyke Bayliss wrote that our encounter with Beauty raises us above our bestial nature, reminding us of the grace and dignity God intended for us to have. Like the fable, it is Beauty that transforms us from Beast to man, from a slave of our own selfishness and desires to princes and princesses, children of the King.
Perhaps all too often these days the artist treats his talent as a toy, ignorant of its power to affect lives in a very real way. This applies to all of our gifts and talents, do we use them to amuse ourselves or do we use them properly for the benefit of all?
We have ventured too far into the wilderness. Beauty is still calling us back, calling us to recognize the proper use of our gifts, it is time we listened to her and resumed our journey home.
this article originally appeared at www.DeaconLawrence.org
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org