We, the Aristocrats

In his reflections on art and the media in his theology of the body, Pope John Paul II draws attention to the often neglected fact that the moral dimensions of art are not confined to the artist, but also to the recipient of the work.

Although he addresses this only to the problem of representations of the human body in works of art, it is a point that has broader implications that are worthy of consideration.

In the past, art was produced under the patronage of rich aristocrats. The obligations of this class were relatively clear: The aristocracy knew that they were the aristocracy, that without their involvement, sophisticated art would be impossible, and that they were accountable for the moral content of the art that they commissioned.

Today the situation is similar, but the division of responsibility is less clear.

Most people living in the modern West have a tendency to think of themselves as “hard-working, middle-class” folks. There are a few people at the top of the social hierarchy who have the resources to act as artistic patrons in the traditional sense, but most of this patronage is devoted to the preservation of the “great works” of the past.

So how do we produce the great works of this century, and on whom does the onus fall to ensure that it happens?

It has been argued that we have come, more and more, to live in a “global village” — a world where national boundaries are blurred; where cultural and economic life no longer exist in a localized way.

If this is the case, the idea of the average North American being part of the working class or middle class is slightly absurd.

Almost all of us enjoy the highest income and highest standard of living available in the world. We are, in a sense, a continent of aristocrats.

This is borne out by the fact that we, more than anyone else in the world, enjoy leisure.

Most of us have heard that the average American watches about four hours of television a day. We usually respond either by feeling guilty about our own viewing habits or by throwing out the TV and moralizing about how people should get off the couch and do something useful with their lives.

There is a false assumption here. The person who “wastes” four hours a day vegetating in front of a sparkly screen doesn’t do it because he is lazy or stupid, but because he is seeking a genuine good. He is trying to fulfill a part of the purpose for which God has given us free time: He is trying to appreciate art.

Some might be inclined to wonder why this is worthwhile in the first place. When there are people starving around the world, people living in the streets of our own cities, why should we bother with movies, television and concerts?

This objection falls into the error of thinking that man can live by bread alone. Like communism and commercialism, it reduces man to a creature that consumes goods.

Art holds up a different notion of the dignity of the human person. It declares that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and it strives to realize this image in a variety of ways.

First, it shows the image of God looking down on his creation and declaring it to be “good.” The artist does not merely represent the created world, he represents his attitudes towards it, and grapples with the mysteries and meanings that lie beneath the surface.

The artist lifts away the film of concupiscence and drudgery that has settled over the created world since the Fall, and he gives us a glimpse of the world as it ought to be. In this way, he unearths the potential of creation to serve as a testimonial to the existence and genius of God.

The revelation of beauty in the arts is like a finger pointing towards heaven. It gives us a taste of the sublime, and reflects some small part of the vision of God which we hope to enjoy in heaven.

The arts also grant us a foretaste of the communion of saints. In the highest forms of art, we are able to actually participate in the subjective experiences of another person, almost as though these experiences were our own. We are allowed to “get inside another person’s head,” and through this, to come to love him as we love ourselves.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, draws the reader into the world of a murderer. Instead of justifying murder, it shows us that same concupiscence that draws us towards small vices draws others towards great sins.

We become able to sympathize, and we no longer want to see the murderer punished so much as we want to see him saved.

This does not mean that we should enjoy only “serious” works. Comedy, also, has its place in revealing human nature. Properly done, the comedic genius neither mocks nor induces us to scorn. It reveals the foolishness of human life, and helps us to take our own lives less seriously.

The artist does not create solely from the powers of his own self: He does not usurp the prerogatives of God. Instead, like a mother, the artist is privileged to participate in the creation of beauty.

What he creates he offers to the world as a gift that springs from the wedding of his self and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What is created in this manner possesses a kind of life. One might almost say that it is an incarnation of the Good and the True.

Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel lecture on literature, tells us that, “Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power — and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. … If the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light — yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.”

This is the power of art. Goodness can be made to seem like puritanical drudgery. Truth can be defeated by sophistries. The testimonial of beauty is unanswerable.

As recipients of art, we have an obligation to receive the gift that is given to us, to cultivate it, and to preserve it for future generations. The arts are like talents which God places in our hands.

We ought not to bury it in under a pile of the puerile, insipid entertainments with which the culture of death invites us to squander our leisure.

Next week, we’ll examine the “art” of the culture of death in more detail, so that by better understanding the disease that eats at the roots of civilization, we may prescribe a fitting cure.

Melinda Selmys writes from Etibicoke, Ontario.