Welcome to Part Three of our section-by-section look at Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists (for links to the previous posts, see below). In today’s quotation, John Paul considers the role of beauty and art.
* If you would like to read the full Letter you can do so at the Vatican’s website here.
The artistic vocation in the service of beauty
3. A noted Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, wrote that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.
The theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art. It was already present when I stressed God’s delighted gaze upon creation. In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well.(4) The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful”.
It is in living and acting that man establishes his relationship with being, with the truth and with the good. The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents (cf. Mt 25:14-30).
Here we touch on an essential point. 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.
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)
- “[B]eauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up” I shall try to remember this on Monday morning though it will be hard!
- “The theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art” This feels a troubling statement. If beauty is the face of good (see quote below) what do we say about books where no good is present. Actually, is there any book where good is not present?
- “[B]eauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty” I really like this statement. It makes God present in an incredibly rich and diverse way.
- Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful” I hope nobody thought this anyway but clearly, wisdom was not denied to the pagans.
- “[B]eauty is the vocation bestowed on [the artist] by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”” Here, John Paul raises the dignity of beauty immeasurably. It is not just part of the artist’s arsenal but is fundamental to what he or she does, or, the very reason why he or she creates/crafts.
- Artists put their talent at “the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.” I wonder if this is a statement that would completely divide Catholic artists from non-Catholic ones; maybe it would even divide Catholic artists themselves.
Pope Saint John Paul II Ora Pro Nobis!