The purpose of art is threefold: It reveals to us the beauty of God, it shows us the truth about the human person, and it allows as to participate in God’s work of creation.
It is school for the formation of the soul, and a foretaste of the mysteries of heaven.
It is not merely that souls are brought to God through an appreciation of the beautiful — though it seems likely that Lord of the Rings and the Brothers Karamazov have done more to evangelize the world than most works of theology written in the last three centuries.
The created world is given to us as a gift, as a means of coming to know and rejoice in our Creator.
Art is a part of the process whereby the beauty of the world is translated into interior truth. As John Paul II noted in his Letter to Artists, “Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.”
Art also gives us a foretaste of the communion of saints. When we experience a great work of art, we have the experience of the artist communicated to us. We do not merely see God’s creation, we see it as another person saw it.
The beauty of the idea of the communion of saints lies in the mystery of subjectivity: in the fact that we have not merely been given a beautiful world in which to live, and an infinite God to love in the world to come, but that each soul views that beauty from a different perspective.
We each receive God’s gifts in a unique way. When we fall in love with another person, we get to share in their perspective. As our communion with another soul becomes more intimate, the joy we are able to find in the world is doubled, for we experience not only the glory that we ourselves are privileged to see, but also that which is given to the beloved.
Art expands this.
The artist gives some part of his own experience to the world, as a gift. The more perfect the communication, the more fully the audience is able to enter into communion with the artist. Out of this comes a further multiplication of glory: Just as each person experiences the creation of God through his own eyes, each person who receives a work of art receives it in his own way.
This earthly reflection of divine light through the prism of art onto the mirror of the soul seems, when imagined, to be nearly infinite. It is more than our minds can encompass, but it is only a sliver of what we will find when all souls are brought into perfect communion in heaven.
The artist, like a mother, is allowed to become an agent in the work of God’s creation.
A work of art is fundamentally collaborative.
It is not merely the muse seizing the artist by the wrist and wielding the pen or brush for herself. John Paul II says that the artist receives inspiration “from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.” The desire comes from the artist, the vision of beauty from God.
This means that when we view a work of art — be it a piece of music, a poem or a film — we are receiving a gift. This implies responsibility.
In the first place, we must be discerning. There are false inspirations that do not come from God. Although art is not moral, in the sense of being a sort of crude vehicle for expounding moral principles, it is not without a moral dimension. Satan knows that souls can be touched by beauty, and does not hesitate to co-opt this strategy to draw souls to hell.
Secondly, we ought to seek out and patronize works that are actually art. The leisure time that we are given is an investment, like the talents given to the three servants. It may legitimately be enjoyed in the contemplation of works of beauty. It ought not to be squandered on soul-numbing banality.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the state of art in the modern world, and try to gain an understanding of the problems that we face in combating the aesthetic side of the culture of death.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer