"Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption ..."
In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good & the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable Canon of essays, speeches & books which will light a candle in the darkness. It is a Canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right.— Tod Worner
It was 1939, and it had only been several weeks. But it was already brutal. Culturally rich and deeply Catholic Poland had, thus far, put up the mightiest resistance of any of the powers, great or small. But in three weeks the proud Polish nation would fall, and the dark night of Nazi wickedness would begin. Though force of arms would not overturn the ruthless Nazi occupation — not yet at least — perhaps the force of truth could. And so 19-year-old Karol Wojtyła and several friends began a clandestine group to pray, read, write, act. It was an effort by artists to, as George Weigel would write, “deliberately [choose] the power of resistance through culture, through the power of the word … (and in Christian terms, the Word).”
Sixty years later Wojtyła penned a letter to artists. Only this time it was in his 20th year as Pope John Paul II. The Nazi scourge had been eradicated. The Communist tyranny had dissolved. But the need to speak truth to power was more vital than ever in a world doubtful that truth even exists.
In writing this letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists, which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the third millennium, offers rich promise for the future … 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 … Artists … know too that they must labor 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” … All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendor that flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. Believers find nothing strange in this: they know they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light that has its original wellspring in God … It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism that has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes … 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. … Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption. It is clear, therefore, why the Church is especially concerned with the dialogue with art and is keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists … In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery … It remains true, however, that because of its central doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word of God, Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in inspiration. What an impoverishment it would be for art to abandon the inexhaustible mine of the Gospel! … May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! … People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” … May you be guided and inspired by the mystery of the risen Christ, whom the Church in these days contemplates with joy.
Whether his world was occupied by the Nazis, subjugated by the Communists or enslaved by a spirit of truthlessness, St. John Paul II knew that the greatest resistance was to tell the truth.
May God help artists do the same.
To read St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists in its entirety, please click here.
Tod Worneris a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs at A Catholic Thinker.