"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."
Pope Saint John Paul II perhaps understood the sensibility of artists better than most pontiffs. He was, after all, a poet, playwright, and actor himself. His Letter to Artists, written in 1999, deserves special attention among those struggling to find a way to reconcile being an artist with being Christian.
All of us are susceptible to the temptations of the modern world. Pleasure, pride, and power, are the weaknesses of the the human race and the devil takes every opportunity to exploit them. Among those blessed with artistic ability, the devil has had resounding success.
During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment the view of the artist and his art began to change. The focus shifted from the creation to the creator. Artists entered the Renaissance as workers and laborers and emerged as demigods, lauded by popular society. No more was their work attached to any sense of service to something greater, following the Enlightenment artists were told all that mattered was their individual vision and self-expression.
And to bolster this modern outlook, just enough artists "made it," that is, became rich and successful in the eyes of the world, to encourage young and promising creatives to indulge themselves by traveling the down the same road.
The great message running through the letter of St. John Paul II, is to remind artists of the uniqueness of their gifts and the responsibility that comes with those gifts. Recognizing that all of our gifts come from God and are given to us for a purpose, is crucial.
"That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission."
This particular divine gift is a spark of the creative power of God. It has been said that all of creation is meant to teach us about God. If the artist shares in this creative power, as a sub-creator, should his work not likewise teach us about God? The Letter makes this case by pointing out that the vocation of the artist is Beauty. Beauty is a property of being, a transcendental. It is part of everything that is. Beauty teaches us about God every bit as much as does the Good and the True. As a vocation then, it is incumbent upon the artist to develop his skills and abilities.
"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."
This service to the greater good is the purpose of all the gifts that we have been given and The Letter makes it clear that the world desperately needs everyone to properly use their gifts.
"in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis. But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world."
St. John Paul then proceeds to give an overview of the rich artistic heritage that is the result of an ancient alliance between the Church and the artist. From ancient times to the modern era, sacred and religious art has continued to grow and respond to the times. But alongside has also grown a secular view of the arts that does not recognize any purpose for art other than its own existence.
Pope John Paul calls for a renewed dialogue between the artist and the Church, as did Paul VI before him. The Church needs the arts because they have a unique ability to communicate the message entrusted to the church by Christ. Art can make the invisible world, visible, and draw us into the realm of the divine.
Does art need the Church? This is the next question posed by The Letter. In brief, art, and artists, need the Church because it is in the Church that they find their true purpose and vocation.
The Letter concludes with an invitation to artists "to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age." because it is tot h e arts that humanity looks for guidance and direction.
"This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny."
John Paul II's Letter to Artists has much to say to the artist and his vocation, whether it be painting, writing, acting, or music, much more than I can cover in this brief reflection. Like much of the pontiff's writings, nearly every line is theologically rich and worthy of contemplation. In addition to what I have outlined The Letter also speaks of inspiration and grace, reminding the artist of the role the Holy Spirit plays in his chosen vocation.
If you have never read this love letter from the artist pope to his kindred bothers and sisters then please do take the time to do so. It can be found on the Vatican website here:
"Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece."
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