Reflections on the letter to all artists by H.H. Pope John Paul II


Hamilton Reed Armstrong


An edited version of this article entitled: "The visible Form of the Good" appeared in the quarterly edition of Sursum Corda/Latin Mass, Summer 2000


Needless to say, as a practicing sculptor dedicated to the restoration of a Christian imagination in contemporary art, I was thrilled by the Holy Father’s Easter of 1999 exhortation to the artists of the world to bring forth " new epiphanies of beauty." After so many years of neglect sponsored by misguided Church reformers who apparently believed ugliness was synonymous with humility, Rome has finally spoken. It is in fact as Plato pointed out over two thousand years ago, "Beauty gives wings to the soul."

Having come out on the side of beauty, goodness, and truth, I do have a caveat. Much, if not most art being produced today does not appear beautiful to the average beholder. A case in point is the recent exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of the Saatchi Collection entitled, "Sensation" where excrement and viscera were ostentatiously displayed.

As the Pope speaks now in this letter of art and beauty, and has spoken in the past about the general need to re-evangelize our culture, I should like to revisit three distinct but inter-related topics covered by the Holy Father in this letter to artists. First is the nature of the artist as "creator", second is the nature of beauty, and third is the relationship between art and religion.

In regard to the first, the nature of the artist as "creator," the Holy Father speaks the relationship of human craftsmanship to God’s act of Creation and even cites the lexical link in Polish between Stwórka , the work of the Creator, and twórka, the work of the craftsman. The artist is undoubtedly a craftsman, or at least traditionally it was so assumed, but is an "artist" simply a craftsman. Is there a difference between the artist and the artisan. And if so what is it? Quoting Nicholas of Cusa, the Pope speaks of a passing on from God of some spark of His own creativity to man as "a communication and share in it." But given the unique character of the initial act of creation out nothing effected by God, it is hard to see how man can be more than a mere craftsman who assembles the given bits and pieces of God’s original and unique act.

British author, Dorothy Sayers, in her 1941 book The Mind of the Maker does, I believe, shed some light on this paradox. Whereas it is traditionally held that the "image of God" lies primarily in the intellect and will, Sayers sees the human mind as most specifically as the "image of God" when engaged in an act of creative imagination. We can not of course make matter from nothing, however, by the rearrangement of things we do continually form new entities which did not exist before. When these new entities show a unique quality we call them a "creation" as they did not exist as such before. Unlike the "craftsman" who knows what he is doing and repeats according to skill and formula, the artist must struggle with the unknown in the creative process to bring forth a new "work of art." The artist, according to Miss. Sayers, starts his creative process in much the same way as the Almighty Creator by an incipient personal thought. This thought is then given material reality through whatever medium the artist has chosen. The difference, of course, is that the expression of God through the Divine Logos is "cosmos," whereas in the case of the human artist it is simply "a work of art." Miss. Sayers, a devout Christian, in no way tries to denigrate the unique Creative act of God, but tries to show the exalted mission of those who have the genuine gift of creativity. This gift, as it is gratuitous, and thus in accordance with the Divine plan, fully respects our free will and is in itself neither good nor evil. There can be great art that draws its inspiration from such value neutral sources as geometry or nature, but great art may also soar to the heights of sanctity or even plumb the depths of depravity as well. By contrast, mediocre or even bad works of art may derive from the noblest of motives. This is unfortunately the case of much contemporary church art done by devout believers who simply lack the gratia grati dati of genuine talent. There is no need to include examples of this last category as they abound in the catalogues we all receive in our homes. To demonstrate the variety of genuine artistic inspiration I have included four illustrations of works that are generally considered to be great art. (Figure 1) An exquisite 6th Century BC Greek urn, based on complex geometric forms contained in an overall shape of overwhelming simplicity, (Figure 2) a 19th century landscape by Thomas Cole, clearly showing the artists keen eye as well as deep love for the harmonies of nature, (Figure 3) a 15th century portrait of St. Dominic by Fra Angelico, where the artist has drawn on his own deep interior life to capture this vision of sanctity, and (figure 4) a 1954 composition by Francis Bacon titled, figure with meat, where it is evident that the British painter was influenced by his own drug alcohol, and sexual addictions to create some of the most powerful yet disturbing paintings of the twentieth century.

 The common denominator of all of these pieces is the completeness and integrity of vision with which the artist has endowed the particular works of art. All, in there own way, tap into either the reality of the cosmos or the human condition. As the great Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins would say, they touch on the inscape of things. This is not to say that these works of art only tell us about the objective world and man in general, they also reveal the phenomenological vision of the individual artist whether it be of curiosity, sanctity or a state of serious sin. Thus the Holy Father concludes his section on the special vocation of the artist by stating that, "The history of art is not only a story of works produced, but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life…"

Having looked at the nature of the artist as a gifted and especially creative person we come to the second topic, the nature of beauty. Most of us of a certain age and education equate art with the pursuit of beauty. This, of course goes back to the famous dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas that art is, "id quod visum placet" or that which being seen pleases. This view is still echoed in the classic Webster’s dictionary definition that art, or better said, fine art is "the use of skill and creative imagination to make something beautiful…or the objects so made." But in our relativistic age, who is to say what constitutes beauty. Beauty, we are told, is in the eye of the beholder – "de gustibus non est disputandans". The answer lies, as Dr. Jude Dougherty, Dean Emeritus of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America explained in a recent article titled No Art Sans Metaphysics, without a solid foundation grounded in philosophical realism there can be no discussion of art or beauty. We must have solid ground for judging not just the quality but the worth of a given work of art. Truly, to be beautiful, all great art must reflect in some way the order, harmony, proportion, symmetry, rhythm, subtlety, and integrity that the ancient Greeks found inherent in the cosmos. The most congenial definition of beauty I have found is that of German Philosopher, Joseph Pieper found in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues : "Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that radiates from every ordered state of being." This traditional view is echoed by G.K. Chesterton in his " A Defense of Nonsense" where he proposes that "Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art… There must always be a rich moral soil for any artistic growth." Art, although antinomian in regard to the habitus of the creative individual, is objectively tied to the noble vision, as John Paul II points out, "The distinction between the moral and artistic aspects is fundamental, but no less important is the connection between them." And that "In a certain sense beauty is the visible form of the Good." (Emphasis added)

The third theme to be reviewed is the relationship between religion and the arts per se. Although shrouded in the mystery of time it is generally believed that most prehistoric art was produced to serve as some sort of propitiatory, magical, or religious service. No one doubts the religious nature of Sumerian or Egyptian art. The Greeks, with their love of proportion and geometry, were to a large extent the inventors of aesthetics yet they still focused their entire artistic endeavor on mythopoetic depictions of the life of the Olympian Immortals. The geometry itself, used by the Greeks was held to be sacred and offerings were made to the gods at each new discovery. Even the exquisite sculptured portraits done by the Romans were to be placed in family lars or shrines to commemorate in a religious manner the memory of their ancestors. The Holy Father’s glowing enumeration of the great artistic movements of Eastern and Western Christendom in his letter needs no further elaboration. The Christian Faith was clearly the well spring of art right up to the age of Enlightenment. Even following the strained atmosphere of revolutionary politics of the eighteenth century, it was only such men as Baumgartner and Winkleman in this atmosphere of rationalism that dared to approach art from the perceptual science of pure aesthetics. Although the dialectic of classical and romantic secular themes reigned supreme throughout the nineteenth century, artists such as William Blake and Otto Rung attempted to interject a religious message, albeit heterodox, into their work. Although not widely known, a large percentage of twentieth century art draws its source from a spiritual wellspring albeit much of it antithetical to traditional Christianity. The anthological 1987 catalogue produced by the Los Angeles County Museum titled, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985 lists a who’s who of twentieth century artists including Mark Rothko, (Figure 5) Paul Klee, (Figure 6) Piet Mondrian, (Figure 7) Adolph Gotlieb, (Figure 8) Wassily Kandinsky, (Figure 9) architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, and a host of others as having their root inspiration in such alternative spiritualities as gnosticism, spiritism, sacred geometry, and theosophy. Kandinsky a founding father of the influential Blau Reiter school even mentions Helena Blavatsky by name as his guiding light in his seminal work, On the Spiritual in Art. Much of the work produced by these modern pioneers is powerful, disturbing, or hauntingly beautiful. As works of art they must be judged for what they are, the disquieting visions of twentieth century man in an attempt to find meaning in a science driven materialistic society that had lost or ignored its own Christian roots. There is no doubt that most of these figures had genuine talent, and artistic integrity. Their vision, however, as noted in Carl Jung’s seminal work, Man and his Symbols, was alien to and in fact diametrically opposed to the spirit of Christianity.


  I should now like to proceed to my original caveat regarding such "art" as recently seen at the controversial "Sensation" exhibit. Few would dispute that in the closing decades of the twentieth century there has been a proliferation of so called works of art that, although they use traditional Christian iconography, seek to undermine or openly attack traditional Christian Faith and moral values. Some of the more notorious of these include Piss Christ (a store bought plastic crucifix immersed in urine) by Andres Serano, (Figure 10) the sado-masochistic and pedophilic photographs of Robert Maplethorpe, himself presented in full Satanic paraphernalia, and most recently, Nigerian/British artist, Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung and surrounded by pornographic photos as presented at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Art. (Figure 11)

In order to understand these works I do not believe we can either turn to the concept of artistic creativity discussed above nor to a concept of beauty no matter how far removed from our own. To fully grasp the meaning of this type of art we must turn to the great revolutionary movements of the turn of the century and their manifestations in the plastic arts. The greatest of these proponents of revolution in the arts was of course the avowed Communist, Pablo Picasso. In his own words, as recounted by his biographer, Pierre Daix, Picasso told his Mistress Francoise Gilot after visiting an exhibit of African masks in 1914. "Art, he told her, has nothing to do with aesthetics" … "It is a means of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires." (Emphasis added) This was already clearly evident in his 1907 watershed piece of "cubist art, the Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon. This piece of work, hailed by prominent art critic, Leo Steinberg as the beginning of abstract art is nothing more than a thinly veiled statement of Picasso’s desire, dread and ultimate loathing for women. The masked figure on the left represents primal innocence as stepping forth into the red background, symbolic of passion. Compositionally she forms a triad with the two central figures, who with their frank frontal sexuality and dead-eyed faces display not only candid eroticism but also the passive despair of the joyless. The grossly distorted women on the right are covered with bestial masks. For Picasso, who fundamentally loathed and feared women, desire and dread are linked in sex, and sex for Picasso was the god in his groin. Picasso himself referred to this painting as a catharsis or exorcism which placed him in the position of power to take control of his own life.

Perhaps the most violent statement of revolutionary rhetoric, however, came in the Surrealist art journal Arsenal in 1971: "Let us speak plainly. Until the last convict is out of prison and the last ‘madman’ out of the asylum; until the last army has been disbanded and the last government overthrown; until the last church has been burned and the last bank pulverized; until the last capitalist and the last cop have been hanged to death with the guts of the last politician and the last priest; that is, until men and women are truly free, surrealism will continue relentlessly to provide miraculous weapons with which to struggle for this freedom."


This turning away from artistic integrity and the search for beauty and the politicization of art for revolutionary ends is not only endemic in our museums and galleries but is taught in the most prestigious schools. The director of the Rhode Island School of Design, what used to be the flagship art school of the country, wrote some time back, "…(the role of the artist) is to force us to rethink our most cherished assumptions about every issue in life, from religion to politics, from love and sex to death and afterlife."

Viewing the present art scene in this light we should realize that the fine arts may not be dismissed as a trivial pursuit. To quote from the eminent French art historian, Rene Huyghe: "Many think of art as a mere diversion, a thing that is marginal to the real business of life, they do not see that it (visual art) looks into life’s very heart and lays bare its unconscious secrets, that it contains the most honest confessions that within them least element of calculation and must therefore be accounted especially sincere. The soul of an age as here revealed no longer wears a mask, it seeks and discloses itself with the prophetic knowledge that is to be found both with the highly sensitive and the possessed."

These last are sobering thoughts, however, as St. Paul tells us, "where sin abounded, grace abounded more." So let it be in the arts. Thus, near the end of his apostolic letter, the Holy Father points out the way for a Christian renewal in the arts. He reminds us that "because of its central doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word of God, Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in inspiration"…and " what an impoverishment for art [it would be] to abandon the inexhaustible mine of the Gospel." "The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through the arts and in art."


In this letter to artists, just as in his recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio concerning the pursuit of truth, John Paul II does not attempt, however, to give a narrow definition of the object to be pursued. Using his phenomenological understanding of reality he presumes that both truth and beauty can both hide and reveal themselves at the same time according the individual’s perspective. The Holy Father therefore exhorts artists to search out the fullness of beauty that can never be exhausted each according his own individual creative imagination. Each in his own way must lead us to, "that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy."

Let us not curse the darkness but light a candle of true beauty that will start as a faint glow but will grow until its light floods out the darkness. Where chaos, hatred, and confusion abound, beauty must be ever more present. It is beauty, after all, that the Holy Father tells us that must "stir future generations to wonder," a wonder of "the mystery of transcendence."

The Pope ends his letter by commending all artists to the Blessed Virgin, the "tota pulchra," source of inspiration to so many artists in the past and with a curious quote from the Polish nationalist poet, Adam Mickiewicz, "From chaos there rises the world of the spirit." May this spirit be the Spirit of Christ crucified and may we, the artists of the world, partake of this Spirit

Hamilton Reed Armstrong 2/19/00



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