Letter To Artists 2: The Special Vocation of the Artist

Let’s look at “The special vocation of the artist” with Pope John Paul II:

2. Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.

God gives us a life, and why not say that it is a work to be crafted in grace, something to be made into art? Our interactions, loves, passions, gifts, and such all are perfect ingredients to put into a multimedia masterpiece.

It is important to recognize the distinction, but also the connection, between these two aspects of human activity. The distinction is clear. It is one thing for human beings to be the authors of their own acts, with responsibility for their moral value; it is another to be an artist, able, that is, to respond to the demands of art and faithfully to accept art’s specific dictates.(The moral virtues, and among them prudence in particular, allow the subject to act in harmony with the criterion of moral good and evil: according to recta ratio agibilium (the right criterion of action). Art, however, is defined by philosophy as recta ratio factibilium (the right criterion of production)) This is what makes the artist capable of producing objects, but it says nothing as yet of his moral character. We are speaking not of molding oneself, of forming one’s own personality, but simply of actualizing one’s productive capacities, giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind.

The equation is not exact, but it can help people to discern a better path. As an artist, I don’t have a problem with including such considerations. All the better if it inspires people to make great and beautiful things of their lives. Or rather, to cooperate deeply with God’s effort.

The distinction between the moral and artistic aspects is fundamental, but no less important is the connection between them. Each conditions the other in a profound way. In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are. And there are endless examples of this in human history. In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.

Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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