Hello, and welcome to Part Four of our section-by-section read-through of Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999). In today’s extract, the pope looks at why we – as individuals and as a society – need artists and what artists give to Mankind in their work. In the second paragraph, John Paul considers what the spirituality of artistic service might (or rather might not) be.
* If you would like to read the whole letter, you can do so at the Vatican’s website here
The artist and the common good
4. Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.
The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)
‘Society needs artists‘ This statement is pleasant enough to read by itself but when you see how John Paul puts artists at the centre of society – well, one can only be very inspired indeed
‘… that supreme art form which is “the art of education”‘ Here John Paul places artists in their contexts. They aren’t here to create art in a vacuum, they are here to educate individuals and society as a whole. This enables artists to –
‘… render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.‘ Does being an educator rule out creating certain kinds of works, or can it be said that God may still be found in them, just as He is in all of broken humanity?
‘Artists… must labour without…‘ Pope John Paul identifies three things that artists must do without. ‘Empty glory’ and ‘cheap popularity’ are easy to turn away from but to expect someone to not have half an eye on earning money from their work – that is surely harder. The worker is worth his wages; why should he not inspire himself to continue in his labour by giving thought to them from time-to-time?
‘… a “spirituality” of artistic service‘ Working for the common good and turning your back on vainglory and profit – this is the spirituality of the artist. It sounds good but you just know that in real life it will be hard. That, unfortunately – or maybe I should say fortunately – is how it is with good spiritualities!
Pope Saint John Paul II Ora Pro Nobis!