Sunday, October 07, 2007

The world will be saved by beauty...

From the Letter of Pope John Paul II to Artists, those who "are passionately dedicated to the search for new epiphanies of beauty":
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. 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.
The pope elaborates on this essential point by specifically encouraging artists to respond to their powerful vocation:
Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art. It is right then to speak, even if only analogically, of “moments of grace”, because the human being is able to experience in some way the Absolute who is utterly beyond.

On the threshold of the Third Millennium, my hope for all of you who are artists is that you will have an especially intense experience of creative inspiration. May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.

From this wonder there can come that enthusiasm of which Norwid spoke in the poem to which I referred earlier. 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”.

Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.
And, of course, just as artists must respond to and cultivate such a vocation, we must leverage the beauty in art and train ourselves to truly and authentically appreciate the beauty in art.

I never understood how to appreciate the beauty revealed by art of any form until I became a Catholic. It's not that I couldn't perceive beauty. Somewhere in my soul, I recognized that beauty stood in the context of an eternal reality. It revealed something intrinsic about the nature of the universe and the transcendent, but what was that to someone as I was, whose world was merely temporal, moving from one moment to the next? In the end, I only really appreciated the superficiality of beauty.

The Catholic Church taught me how to frame beauty and comprehend it because she taught me how to be patient with beauty. She did this then and does this now through a variety of ways, not the least of which is liturgy. The pope also describes beauty as a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence, that it should stir that hidden nostalgia for God. So beauty should certainly captivate us and inspire us toward wonder, yet it must also disturb us toward humility. It must destroy the ego while at the same time communicate its redemption and care with relation to God, who is the ultimate source of all that is really beautiful.

When the Church does this well, she truly reflects that inner illumination of which Pope John Paul II speaks, that divine breath of the Creator Spirit that has reached out to human genius and has stirred its creative power. Of course, this inner illumination doesn't always represent itself in things that are specifically Catholic, and we should recognize that. Nonetheless, it reflects something very Catholic, very universal, in nature. It should perhaps be of no surprise to anyone why history has called the Church the true Patron of the Arts, even though she hasn't always lived up to that title.

Continue reading in Beauty, Part 2.

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