Page 7, 19th February 2010

19th February 2010
Page 7
Page 7, 19th February 2010 — Art for art’s sake

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Art for art’s sake

Pope John Paul II hinted, in his Letter to Artists, that today’s world of the arts needs the Church. The reason is that the Church is a natural haven for beauty in art. Secular art, by implication, has lost this beauty.

In the secular world Modernism in art has promoted other values: the rebellious, or the grotesque, the obscene, the obsessive, the static, the purely decorative and the meaningless. This is proving a dead end. For secular art, no new aesthetic is emerging – only “postpost-modernism”, the name itself a tacit admission that nothing really new has happened or is possible.

The door is open for the Church to become, by default, the leader in newly created, serious music and art. One has only to imagine what it would mean if the Church becomes the primary place to find the serene or beautiful, meaningful, dynamic, harmonious or truly human in art and music. This would represent a huge opportunity for evangelisation.

It follows that the Church should want to welcome with open arms, or invite in, those highly skilled professional artists who want to explore what beauty means for their art, especially when they are fleeing a secular world that won’t allow beauty. In so doing, the Church as patron should not succumb to the illusion of artistic Modernism that says art can only express either the artist himself or his society (artists can, for example, portray truths that are timeless and beyond themselves). On the flip side of this, artists do not need to think that, in order to create sacred art, one must be a hidden saint. It is true that one genre of sacred art does require prayerfulness and penance (traditional icon painting) in preparation for the work on the art. But artists coming to the Church don’t have to labour under the idea that the Church’s fine art requires the artist to possess the level of sanctity that is portrayed in an art work. That would be the modern paradigm at work again. You don’t have to actually be a St Francis to paint his picture. Nonetheless, the audience for art expects that there might be, at least, spiritual insight coming from his portrayal.

Contrary to Modernist ideas, several schools of depth psychology, especially the Freudian and Jungian, have shown that much of the greatest art is compensatory (and not ust a reflection of the artist or society). Most really great artists are working on their art out of a wound in their inner selves. This is a cross they bear that is different from the cross of the saint. It is what drives them to become artists and is in truth a sign of their vocation to be an artist. The old Latin adage “the worst makes the best” is often borne out when examining artists' lives. In regard to society, artists often balance out life and sometimes contradict it – they do not simply express it. Thus an artist might bring universal truths to bear on a society’s excesses and actually oppose his society with truth that does not originate from himself alone.

This has led to discussion among psychologists about the categorical differences between three familiar human types – the saint, the artist, and the insane person – different types, each having a different make-up. At rare times the borderlines between these types can become blurred. Many artists are neurotics; there were only a few great artists who were seriously mentally ill. (Robert Schumann, for example, whose music is still much admired.) Very few artists were eventually recognised as being saintly; Fra Angelico is a rare example. Many saints were at first suspected, by friends or family, of madness. They did things contrary to societal norms that, if motivated by anything other than sanctity, would really have been acts of insanity. Most of the time, however, these types remain separate. The great artist is not often a great saint.

It is important for patrons of art not to let these distinctions lessen the expectation of significant spiritual insight coming from artists. Just because the vocation of an artist is rarely that of a saint, it doesn’t mean the artist is not capable of depicting deep spiritual things. He may be more capable of insight than the average person. The perceptions of artists, coupled with the power of their art forms, and enhanced by inspiration, can lead to the most profound sense of truth.

For example, Michelangelo was a deeply complex person. He doubtless had a profound experience of Christian truth. Were we to psychoanalyse him, we would find he was a man working out powerful psychological conflicts. But that is not the point when a viewer appreciates the Pietà in the Vatican. What one experiences is the power of everything Michelangelo intended to express at the time. Knowing about him as a man, or knowing about his other works of sculpture, might help us appreciate this particular Pietà in a scholarly way, but that may only contribute a little to the power of the work itself.

What the artist creates does not merely express what he is – it may compensate what he is. An artist might create a wonderful vision of heaven, for example, precisely because his personal life is no heaven at all. In creating this vision, the artist is somehow healed. Likewise, we, the audience for his art, do not enjoy his vision of heaven because we are all saints in heaven. In truth, his compensatory art heals us as well, precisely because we also are not in heaven and need healing.

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