‘To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.’
A lady from my Bible Study group sent me an email about the upcoming Uniting Women Conference in Brisbane. Being curious, I checked out the website. My interest was truly piqued when I read that one of the speakers, Lyn Diefenbach, was inspired by Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists.
My brain immediately went ‘WHAT? The Pope wrote a letter to artists?’ It settled after a little while and then reflected that the Roman Catholic Church has actually had a long history with art and perhaps it wasn’t as surprising as I’d first thought. They have the Sistine Chapel after all! I resolved to find it myself and have a read.
As a theologian and contemporary jeweller, I was resoundingly encouraged and inspired.
Written in 1999, at the turn of a new century, Pope John Paul II sees artists and art as an expression of the Imago Dei – the Image of God. While he is clear to differentiate between the Creator God, who can create out of nothing, and the Created Being, who must make something out of items already existing, the artist still holds a unique position as one who grasps a little of the joy and mystery of creating. When an artist fashions anything, they echo the imaginative, fruitful and beautiful creative act of God. In a sense, creativity, in a context of honouring God, is true human fulfilment.
Creative expression comes in many forms. Pope John Paul II acknowledges artists in the fields of painting, sculpture, acting, architecture, music and poetry but does not limit it to these. He encourages all humans to make a masterpiece out of one’s own life. He does, however, recognise those who have a ‘divine spark which is the artistic vocation’ and admonishes them to develop their talent and use it for the ‘service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.’ Being a ‘gift’, it is to be used to see the world and all it contains with clarity, contemplation and thankfulness, helping others to do the same. In doing so, art becomes a hymn of praise, no matter the medium being utilised.
Pope John Paul II goes so far as to say that artists are needed by society as much as scientists, teachers or any other profession. Artists have a unique place in the community. When they create 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’. It is worth noting the theological understanding that he holds about beauty and good. Good is the ‘metaphysical condition of beauty’ and beauty is the ‘visible form of the good’. When God saw all that had been created was good, there is also an acknowledgement that it was beautiful as well.
The Church needs artists
This letter also states that the Church needs artists. Their ‘noble ministry’ is a means by which others can know and acknowledge God. Many people can connect with God more fully through the stirring lyrics of a song, the reflective eyes of an icon or the expansive space of a cathedral. Art can be a source of theology, just as meaningful as scripture or a sermon. In saying this, Christian artists have a unique responsibility to help the Church communicate the message of the gospel that has been entrusted to her.
Art can serve as a bridge between the world and religious experience. Art can be refined and polished or rough and imperfect. It can explore the majesty of creation or the depths of evil. No matter the subject matter, it can appeal to the mystery of God and the desire for human redemption. The dialogue between God, theology, human experience and creation can be fruitfully expressed through the skill of artists.
Art, therefore, has value. I recognise that the world differentiates, between art and craft, high and popular art, theatre and movies, symphony, and rap music. It therefore values these varied creative expressions differently. But perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps God values all art because it is a human expression of being made in the Image of God. Perhaps God sees beauty, imagination and infinite value in both Michelangelo’s David and a little child earnestly making a necklace out of coloured macaroni at pre-school to give to their Mum.
The one area that I struggled with in this letter was the instruction not to make profit out of art. Pope John Paul II warns against artists chasing after ‘empty glory’ or ‘cheap popularity’. If he is also warning against ‘greedy’ profit, then I concur. But artists still need to live – pay the rent, put food on the table, ensure the bills are paid. This attitude has the potential for individuals and societies not to value artists or their work. The belief that artists ‘do it because they love it’ is problematic. Lawyers often love their work, as do doctors, teachers, engineers and those employed in any other job. Yet society says that they are worth a wage. Artists, on the other hand, are often seen barely covering the costs of their materials, let alone paying for their time or their living expenses (the latter two are usually calculated into a wage). They are often expected to work without pay to prove that they can get a job or commission.
For example, consider a jeweller who has a meeting with a potential client. The meeting could last several hours while they discuss exactly what the client wants. Then the jeweller makes up a CAD drawing or does multiple sketches or even a mock up to show the client before a decision is made and a quote given. That can potentially be days of work that cannot be factored into the final price. Photographers, graphic designers, etc. suffer from similar problems.
A part of me would love to see artists receive a stipend, much like ministers do. Rather than a wage, they would receive a viable living allowance that frees them to create art, like ministers are freed to do ministry. This might alleviate some of the poverty and stress that many artists find themselves in or having to work in unrelated and unsatisfying jobs that limit the time they can spend on creating art.
Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists is an inspiring encouragement for artists to practice their craft and honour God with their talent.
The Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists can be found here
Dr Katherine Grocott