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What are the limits to depictions of sin in the arts?

Daniel McInerny - published on 01/18/13

Is there a reason to depict sin in art? Where do we draw the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable?

All the arts, including movies and television, have great power to raise the mind and heart to contemplation of the human condition and the things of God. But in order to depict the human drama faithfully – especially in an era in which secular humanism is becoming more and more rampant and aggressive – artists must at times depict, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “the darkest depths of the soul” and “the most unsettling aspects of evil.” This does not mean that artists should not exercise prudence in portraying sinful behavior. But it does mean that Catholic audiences should not, in the name of a false piety, automatically reject works of art that show the most unsettling aspects of evil.

Already by 1936, the Church had identified the cinema as a significant force for good in society, as well as a tremendous force for corruption. In his encyclical letter, Vigilanti Cura, Pope Pius XI remarked upon the dangers of cinema in words which can still be applied, not only to the cinema, but to all the arts: “Recreation, in its manifold varieties, has become a necessity for people who work under the fatiguing conditions of modern industry, but it must be worthy of the rational nature of man and therefore must be morally healthy. It must be elevated to the rank of a positive factor for good and must seek to arouse noble sentiments. A people who, in time of repose, give themselves to diversions which violate decency, honor, or morality, to recreations which, especially to the young, constitute occasions of sin, are in grave danger of losing their greatness and even their national power” (Part II).

In the same spirit, Pope Pius XII, in his 1957 encyclical letter, Miranda Prorsus, asserted that both art and audience are degraded when art is animated by a mistaken notion of freedom that would assert a right “to depict and propagate anything at all.” Quoting his own short discourse on the fifth centenary of the death of Fra Angelico, Pius XII affirmed: “‘it is true that an explicitly moral or religious function is not demanded of art as art’; but ‘if artistic expression gives publicity to false, empty, and confused forms–those not in harmony with the Creator's design; if, rather than lifting mind and heart to noble sentiments, it stirs the baser passions, it might, perhaps, find welcome among some people, but only by nature of its novelty, a quality not always of value and with but slight content of that reality which is possessed by every type of human expression. But such an art would degrade itself, denying its primary and essential element: it would not be universal and perennial as is the human spirit to which it is addressed.’”

Pius XII speaks of art as an address to the human spirit – a realization that is accomplished by capturing the beautiful, which itself is part of the “language” of the spirit. Beauty, as philosopher Jacques Maritain observes, “belongs to the transcendental and metaphysical order. This is why it tends of itself to draw the soul beyond the created…. The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, that which ennobles and delights our life; one enters into the domain of the spirit. It is remarkable that men really communicate with one another only by passing through being or one of its properties. Only in this way do they escape from the individuality in which matter encloses them. If they remain in the world of their sense needs and sentimental egos, in vain do they tell their stories to one another…” (Art and Scholasticism, Chapter V, “Art and Beauty”).

But the beautiful is not the same thing as the “pretty” or the superficially “pleasing” or the “emotionally soothing.” To pierce through the cloud of what Maritain calls our “sense needs and sentimental egos,” beauty must often provoke and make us uncomfortable. In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope Bl. John Paul II remarks that in our increasingly secular humanist culture, art and faith have grown apart, “in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes” (no. 10). Yet, he continues, “[e]ven beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery” (no. 10). The Holy Father seems to be imagining works by modern artists which, even though they do not deal explicitly with religious themes, or perhaps even reject them, nonetheless open up the mind and heart to the world of the spirit. The creators of such works, he adds, “[e]ven when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil… give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (no. 10).

This last point of Bl. John Paul II is crucial: the human spirit and its universal desire for redemption can be addressed even when the most unsettling aspects of evil are depicted. Some of our finest Catholic artists have recognized that as the world comes to reject God with ever greater self-affirmation, the more the artist has to “name” the evil by which the modern world is enslaved. “The poet and the novelist cannot bestow life but they can point to instances of its loss, and then name and record them,” writes Walker Percy in one of his essays (“Novel-Writing in An Apocalyptic Time”). Flannery O’Connor elaborates upon the same theme in one of her own essays: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures” (“The Fiction Writer and His Country”).

Catholic audiences should not therefore categorically reject works of art that depict violence, illicit sexuality, and other forms of crude and sinful behavior, for such is the stuff of the soul’s drama as it struggles for redemption. Everything rides, however, on how such sin is depicted. Violence, even extreme violence, can be portrayed without being “pornographic” in its intent. Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” climaxes with a serial killer murdering an entire family, including a baby–though all the killings but one happen, as it were, “off stage.” The point of depicting these killings is to set up a point of spiritual transformation in the story’s main character. Contrast this approach with that of a filmmaker who simply delights in eliciting from his audience the superficial shock and recoil from close-ups of blood and gore. Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi sizes up the distinction between these two approaches in this helpful way: “The depiction of evil in art becomes a problem when the evil acts fall into the realm of what Aristotle, in his Poetics, calls ‘spectacle.’ Spectacle, appropriately, is the sixth and lowest element on the hierarchy of story elements. It is the answer to the question, ‘What makes this work fascinating or delightful – especially to the senses – for the audience?’ If the answer to that question is, ‘the gory way in which the life was ejected out of a human body,’ then you have made human suffering your spectacle. This is problematic…. As Blessed John Paul II's personalist ethics stressed: It is never legitimate to use a human being in any way for any purpose. So, in the arts, we can't use the suffering of another human being for entertainment.”

Consider also portrayals of sex. Walker Percy deplored pornography, but believed that it was incumbent upon him as a novelist to portray casual sex as part of the “death-in-life” of modern man. In another of his essays Percy writes: “The real pathology [regarding modern man] is not so much a moral decline, which is a symptom, not a primary phenomenon, but rather an ontological impoverishment; that is, a severe limitation or crippling of the very life of twentieth-century man. If this is the case and if this crippling and impoverishment manifests itself often in sexual behavior, the latter becomes the proper domain of the serious novelist” (“Diagnosing the Modern Malaise”).

Of course, discriminations must always be made in light of particular works. There are general guidelines about how much is too much in the artistic portrayal of sinful behavior. For example, if a work of art, in portraying sinful behavior, somehow critiques the sin it depicts, then there is at least provisional reason for engaging with the work. Conversely, a novel or movie might offer a critique of the base characters it portrays, but if in doing so it depicts such an uncommon amount of lewd behavior, or present it in such a way that, as Nicolosi remarks, it makes spectacle out of it, the clarity and force of the work’s moral critique is diminished. Nothing can replace prudence in these matters, and at times the lines of discernment can become very fine.

“Art,” Nicolosi concludes, “will always need the seven deadly sins. Sin is the essence of the human problem with which so much art is wrestling. The challenge is to represent sin in a way that isn't an occasion of sin.”

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