Artist though you may be, you have created nothing.
I was sitting in an art class in a monastery situated in the foothills of the Austrian Alps when this thought first occurred to me. I was surrounded by beauty. And for the first time in my life, it had been proposed to me that man did not create any of it. On top of that, my professor insinuated that art was not for the sake of self-expression, but for the perpetuation of true beauty. I was stunned. Artist though you may be, you have created nothing.
At first glance this above statement appears to be both startling and harsh. Nevertheless, the weight that it carries is enough to cause anyone who calls himself an artist to ponder his role in the propagation of the beautiful. So often, we see a unique artist with a seemingly new style, and label them as “creative.” But what is it that we are implying about that person’s relation to beauty when we say that? As John Paul II points out in his Letter to Artists, the artist, in order to fully understand their relation to beauty, must understand the role that they are being called to, namely, that of the craftsman.
The artist is not called to create. In fact, no being save God, if one were to take the classical definition of God, is called to create. No creature even has the ability to create ex nihilo sui et subiecti (a whole new substance of which nothing existed before). This mode of operation is simply not available to us. However, Saint Pope John Paul II goes on to say that, “the craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man” (1). The artist, therefore, must take created things and communicate to them a meaning.
While self-expression and the communication of the artist’s inner being is certainly valuable, it is important for the artist to note that self-expression is not the end or goal of the production of art. Rather, the artist works in the service of objective beauty. In promoting, protecting, and propagating beauty, the artist also takes on the role of guarding what is good, for the good and the beautiful are naturally linked. John Paul II declares, “beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty” (2). He goes on to point out that Plato affirms this in his Philebus when he claims,“the power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful,” thus showing that this concept is not merely a pious Christian view, but is a truth that can be universally accepted by all who reflect on the nature of beauty (3). All artists, regardless of religious creed or adherence, can and should accept their role as guardians of the good. Beauty is objective, and it should be protected against those who seek to twist it.
This is the solemn duty of the artist.
The artist, through his gifts of natural ingenuity and technical skill, serves as the sentinel who reminds the world that amidst so much twisting and ugliness, beauty exists. Beauty is thriving. Beauty is living and moving in our world still to this day. It is not something that has died with the ancients --- it is our current reality. Beauty is timeless and eternal and will never be destroyed. The artist stands as the mediator between his fellow man and the realm of beauty that has been revealed to him. One can see how differently one most hold beauty if one were to believe the ruse that man can create beauty. This would be tragic, as there would be nothing for the artist to defend. The craftsmanship of man is a call to arms; a call to take up the standard of the beautiful and defend it unto the end. So, to all of the artists out there: I hope to encounter you on the battlefield one day as we defend beauty side by side.
- John Paul II, Letter to Artists