Letter To Artists 3a-b: In The Service of Beauty

Section 3 is titled, “The artistic vocation in the service of beauty.” We hear a lot about beauty and art these days. Some people wonder if the two are connected any longer. After an initial citation:

3. A noted Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, wrote that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.( Promethidion, Bogumil, vv. 185-186: Pisma wybrane, Warsaw 1968, vol. 2, p. 216)

John Paul II weighs in in the affirmative, drawing on linguistic scholarship and returning to God’s affirmation of Creation in the Genesis stories:

The theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art. It was already present when I stressed God’s delighted gaze upon creation. In perceiving that all he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well.(The Greek translation of the Septuagint expresses this well in rendering the Hebrew term t(o-)b (good) as kalón (beautiful)) The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful”.(Philebus, 65 A)

And yet, the admiration of beauty can hobble us. Young women and girls labor under impossible expectations. Celebrities clutch at their physical attraction to others. Disfigured people or deformity repulses many people. Does something have to be outwardly beautiful? And to be sure, I’m confident that John Paul II would not reject those Pope Francis has embraced. The question: Do we rely too much on beauty, the wrong kind of beauty, a shallow beauty that does not bear close scrutiny? In other words, have we mistaken prettiness for beauty?

What do you think?

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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