It’s Sunday so we return to Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists. You can read part one here. The full text can be found on the Vatican website here. As last week, I have followed the extract with some of my own thoughts. Feel free to agree, disagree or comment on anything I or John Paul says.
The special vocation of the artist
2. 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.
It is important to recognize the distinction, but also the connection, between these two aspects of human activity. The distinction is clear. It is one thing for human beings to be the authors of their own acts, with responsibility for their moral value; it is another to be an artist, able, that is, to respond to the demands of art and faithfully to accept art’s specific dictates. This is what makes the artist capable of producing objects, but it says nothing as yet of his moral character. We are speaking not of moulding oneself, of forming one’s own personality, but simply of actualizing one’s productive capacities, giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind.
The distinction between the moral and artistic aspects is fundamental, but no less important is the connection between them. Each conditions the other in a profound way. In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are. And there are endless examples of this in human history. 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. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, 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, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.
- In Section 1, John Paul distinguished between the Creator (God) and craftsmen (artists). Today, he distinguishes between men and women who ‘craft’ their lives but who are not craftsmen in the artistic sense. The former are still related to the latter, however, for like them, they ‘are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece‘
- For John Paul, ‘crafting’ a work has a moral as well as aesthetic aspect. In this, it is similar to the way we ‘craft’ our lives. We do not live in a moral vacuum but must – for our good and our neighbours – seek to live in a moral way. I should think most people would agree with this (the disagreement will be in discerning what is moral) but the idea that a ‘crafted’ work should be moral might be more challenging as it seems to impinge upon an artist’s creative freedom
- Art reveals the self. It is ‘a unique disclosure of [the artist’s] own being‘. I have to admit, I always shy away from affirming any autobiographical element in anything I write but if a work comes from within us it makes sense that is of us.
- ‘For [the artist] art offers … an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth.‘
- ‘Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them.‘ This takes place not only in creative works but non-fiction as well. Works about historical figures, for example, are in a sense dialogues with history on one or more layers
- ‘Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life…‘ The phrase ‘inner life’ really brought home what the pope was saying here. It seems almost impertinent to think we can know someone’s inner life but again, if a work comes from within – .
Letters to Artists
Pope Saint John Paul II Ora Pro Nobis!