What Is Art?

Eileen Cunis


In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II recognized and honored the unique place the artist holds in the Church and in the human community. The artist, writes the Pope, is given by God “a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” Despite the insurmountable difference between the infinite and eternal God and finite man, “the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator.” It is through his contemplation of the wonder of his gift that the artist apprehends its meaning:

This is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.

The Pope recognizes here how difficult it can be for the artist to understand his place in a world full of differing beliefs and cultures. Without reference to the Creator, all men—and artists in particular—become detached from their purpose, their source of life and love, and the meanings underlying all experience. As the Fathers of Vatican II said in Gaudium et Spes no. 36, “once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well.” In order to discover his meaning as a person and as a worker, the artist must see with “eyes able to contemplate and give thanks,” eyes of faith, hope, and love. Even more, the sacramental life lived within the nurture of the Church brings the artist the grace needed to truly fulfill his calling. In pursuing the fulfillment of man’s original vocation, that of sharing in the very life of the Trinity, the Catholic artist does not abandon nor compromise his responsibility to art; rather, he is enabled to fulfill that responsibility in the most perfect way.

This series will attempt to demonstrate why the Catholic artist possesses such an advantage; in doing so, it will be necessary to uncover a better understanding of artists—in John Paul II’s formula—in “themselves, their vocation, and their mission.” By way of introduction to this discussion, this essay will propose a basic definition of art itself. The next will briefly describe the historical context out of which the artist works today, with particular concentration on the visual arts, showing why men and women of the twenty-first century are in such confusion about the purposes of art and the role of the artist, as compared to earlier ages. The final essay will present proposals regarding the identity of the artist himself, his unique vocation, and his mission, particularly as a Catholic artist.

What is Art?

In attempting to answer this question, “what is Art?”, thinkers of all stripes have tied themselves in knots searching for clues about method, meaning, style, self, nature, and society. Looking at this confusion, historian Jacques Barzun writes in The Culture We Deserve,

I prefer to say that art is an extension of life. Art uses the physical materials of ordinary experience . . . and puts them together in such a way that the sensations they set off arouse our memories of living, add to them, and thereby extend our life.

Barzun does two notable things here; first, in speaking of art as “an extension of life,” he says that art necessarily makes some contribution to its receivers. Second, he speaks of art not as a product but as a power that uses materials to make a product. Whether the results of any particular art “arouse our memories of living” is a subjective and disputable question, leading toward thorny disagreements; but that art “uses the physical means of ordinary experience” to add a new thing to human existence comes to the point of a truly simple concept. St. Thomas Aquinas, understanding art as a power, writes in the Summa Theologica that “art is the right reason of things to be made; whereas prudence is the right reason of things to be done.” Whereas prudence guides man to choose actions in accord with God’s law, art will guide the artist to make things according to how they should be made. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a twentieth-century art historian, writes in Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, “The thing made is a work of art, made by art, but not itself art; the art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.” Art makes things, and its success is in the goodness of those things, the fittingness they possess to their own purposes. These things contribute to the total of human experience, be they expressions of weighty thought or objects to furnish our homes. Art can, as Barzun suggests, “cast an intense light on the great questions and events,” but it can also produce simple and homely things that bring help and enjoyment to daily life. The artist Eric Gill asserts that “this is true art—to make well what is worth making—for love of God and for the service of our fellow men and women.” History has seen many changes in the kinds of things artists make and the standards of goodness held for their making, but fundamentally the artist’s concern has always been to contribute to his time and place in the making of new things by his gift of art.

Present knowledge of the beginnings of Christian art begins with the catacomb paintings in Rome, dated from the third century AD. The subject matter of these wall decorations was taken from common Roman pictorial schemes: the shepherd with his sheep, fish and birds, geometric shapes, and portions of landscape. The Christian artist, however, transformed these schemes, infusing the culture’s existing imagery with a new religious significance that transcended mere ornament. These early works were made for the edification of the viewer, such that—in the words of art historian John Richards—“the central purpose of imagery was decisively diverted into the illumination of those spiritual values that might ensure the eternal life of our souls in paradise.” The catacomb artists helped to set apart places of prayer as Christian spaces, using images from the outside environment to draw the minds of their brethren to God.

With the emperor Constantine’s freeing of Christians from persecution in the year 313, and the development of Christianity as the state religion, the Church began in earnest to make use of the arts to lead men to knowledge and worship of the Triune God. In painting, mosaic, and architecture, Richards says, “the inculcation of awe in the presence of divinity remains constant, on the one hand through the glory of an omnipotent god, and on the other through the human reality of the corporeal presences of Christ and the Saints on earth.” Through the collapse of the Roman Empire and the sundering of the Churches of East and West, this singleness of purpose remained constant in the art of the Church, which preserved and developed skills in manuscript illumination, stained glass creation, painting, tapestry, and other areas. As Christendom reached its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, writes art historian Robert Gibbs, “the overriding concern of European culture was the service of the Christian faith which governed public and private, spiritual and political activity. . . . Painting was concerned primarily with content, with didactic and devotional purposes.”

However, it is not to be thought that this focus overrode the desire for beauty and craftsmanship in works of art; to the medieval mind, the beautiful and the instructive were bound together. According to Umberto Eco in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, “The Medievals found it extremely difficult to separate the two realms of value, not because of some defect in their critical sense, but because of the unity of their moral and aesthetic responses to things.” The driving force in this culture was a longing for a complete vision of metaphysical truth, and it was trusted that all created things had a part in revealing this truth: “Life appeared to them as something wholly integrated,” writes Eco, in a world “filled with references, reminders and overtones of Divinity, manifestations of God in things.” The artist played his role in this scheme of things, participating in creation’s revelation of God and man’s pursuit of the Beatific vision. John Saward explains St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that making things “was an intellectual virtue, a habit of the mind, because its activity consists in printing an idea upon matter.” The arts and crafts were of equal importance, all requiring the work of this same virtue, all fulfilling this same role of service to God and men, and all embodied in a transient form which would one day give way to “a new heaven and a new earth.” This situation was to change dramatically, as lamented by the philosopher Jacques Maritain: “The blessed humility in which the artist was placed exalted his strength and his freedom. The Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make him the most miserable of men.”

The many changes in life and thought that comprise what is commonly called the “Renaissance” are too many to be covered in this short space, but for our purposes it is enough to look at the effect of these developments on the identity of the artist himself. In this period was revived Plato’s concept of the genius of the poet, which possesses him with a “divine frenzy”; now, not only poets but all kinds of artists were believed to be subject to this influence. The “cult of genius” discussed by H. W. Janson viewed artists as “set apart from ordinary mortals by the divine inspiration guiding their efforts” and made possible a new freedom for the artist to dictate his own standards of artistic excellence, while burdening him with a new pressure to produce exceptional work, as Janson notes:

This cult . . . spurred them to vast and ambitious goals, and prompted their awed patrons to support such enterprises. But since these ambitions often went beyond the humanly possible, they were apt to be frustrated by external as well as internal difficulties, leaving the artist with a sense of having been defeated by a malevolent fate.

Under such pressure, and with a heightened sense of artistic possibility, the artists of the Renaissance continued to serve the Church, understanding that their genius was a gift from God and their work owed to Him in thanksgiving. Thus were produced the works of unmatched splendor by Michaelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and many others who both drew life and meaning from the Catholic faith and contributed richly, not only to the Church’s artistic heritage, but to her theology, liturgy, and personal devotions. During the Baroque period which followed in the wake of the Protestant separation and the Church’s own reformation, Catholic art flourished as the Church’s artists boldly celebrated her faith and life, while exploring their own powers and individual visions of Christianity.

The slow turn of Western thought from the Enlightenment onwards to modernity and post-modernity, which increased the distance between God and man until man was left to become his own god, was absorbed also by the artist; in the art works of the past hundred years can be traced the effects of his separation from faith and human fellowship, from creation, and from reason itself. Disintegration of the artist’s relationships to himself, his world, and to God can be seen in the major trends that have determined the course of modern art: first, the turn from an objective viewpoint to a subjective one, so that the artist eventually is recording only his own subconscious, rejecting also the outside world. Next, there is the rejection of the human form and human existence overall; finally, a use of farce, an abandonment of technique, and disdain of the audience that, as Jacques Barzun writes, amounts to “destroying the very idea of art itself.” Let us take a look at each of these trends separately.

The cult of the individual artist and recognition of his divine gift, which was birthed in the Renaissance, gradually lost the assumption of God’s participation in the creative act as Western thought increasingly distanced God from involvement in his creation. This line of thought made an impact upon the composition of artworks. The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset shows how paintings increasingly drew attention to the artist’s singular point of view: “This means that in the beginning the artist’s attention was fixed on external reality; then, on the subjective; finally, on the intra-subjective.” In paintings executed during the Renaissance and before, Barzun writes, each object is painted with “an exclusive and analytic gaze”; each can be examined and enjoyed separately from the rest, and each tied to the others according to a scheme of unity imposed by the artist. A change came in the seventeenth century (Ortega y Gasset pinpoints Velasquez as the first to make the shift) when the artist, in Barzun’s words, “despotically resolve(d) to fix the one point of view.” The viewer now could only see clearly the things on which the artist chose to focus, and other areas of the painting would be blurred or in shadow. The next major step in this process came with the Impressionists, who, according to Richard Viladesau, attempted to “paint the act of seeing itself.” From this step was a very short way to Cezanne and those who followed him, with whom, Viladesau says, “painting only paints ideas.”

The painting of ideas has flown to many different directions, including the interpretation of dreams, the use of and reaction to industrial processes and products, political and ideological statements, and attempts to reduce visual language to elemental notations such as used in the sciences to describe physical processes. All of these attempts have in common a highly personal nature, an outlook limited to the vision of the artist himself. As Eric Gill commented, “The business of holding up a mirror to nature now means holding a mirror up to the nature of the artist.” Such painting may be developed in a very intellectual manner, according to theory and analysis, or could be, like the work of Picasso, the product of intuition. Art historian Herbert Read writes, “There is no doubt that Picasso, in one particular phase of his painting, is projecting images from his unconscious.” The extreme interiority of Picasso’s view of reality, which he prodigiously shared with the world, is revealed when he says, “From the point of view of art, there are no concrete or abstract forms, but only forms which are more or less convincing lies. That these lies are necessary for our spiritual being is beyond any doubt, because with them we form our aesthetic image of the world.” Picasso is a preeminent example of the view of self as the center and creator of reality, a reality that in itself is only a “lie,” an illusion; outside the self, there is no truth at all.

Indeed, the movement toward abstraction in the arts, Read writes, was fueled by a tendency “toward a rejection of [the] world.” With the popularization of scientific theories of atomic structure and relativity came a sense that—in Viladesau’s words—“the material world is not made up of the objects we see and feel,” that if subatomic particles and empty space are all that make the material world, then, Viladesau says, “the ‘real’ world is invisible, inaccessible to experience.” There is no profit in reproducing what is seen; the world accessible to the senses tells nothing of truth. Artists must construct their own pictorial language. Those such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, Read says, proceeded upon “an inner conviction, the essence of which [was] their experience ‘that what matters in the end is the abstract meaning or harmonization’ of a picture. On that conviction—we may call it a dogma—the whole structure of modern art depends.”

In the late twentieth century, this modernist “structure” itself was discarded by many artists; art historians Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz write that modernists had created and borrowed symbolic forms in order to communicate, but “postmodernism deconstructed signs as ambiguous, arbitrary, and shifting.” The modernist believed that there existed a truth to be found within the artist himself, but as Stiles and Selz write, “postmodernism understood . . . knowledge to be constructed and determined by relationships of power.” At this point, not only is reality hidden and mysterious, but it is nonexistent outside of oppression, competition, and negotiation.

It remains to note that the suspicion of the material world and distrust of man’s own perceptions have come to a head in rejection of the human person himself. As Cardinal Schönborn has pointed out in God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon, “at no time in history has man’s countenance been disfigured and degraded to such an extent as during the present century.” Man may have godlike powers and be able to create his own realities, but in comparison with the workings of the universe he is paltry. The human form is no longer capable of bearing the weight of truth. As Read puts it, “The mystery of life is too ubiquitous, too diffused, too cosmic to be subordinate to such human vanity and egocentricity.” Carrying no intrinsic meaning or dignity, the human face and figure become merely elements of design—yet elements nonetheless with which viewers maintain a visceral connection, which can be manipulated to elicit all manner of emotion. Thus a surfeit of pornographic, violent, and scatological images is produced. And in reducing the person to such an object for use, it may be asked of what significance the artist can consider himself? Ortega y Gasset suggests that “Being an artist means ceasing to take seriously that very serious person we are when we are not an artist.” Art itself becomes a farce, an absurdity to be enjoyed as such. “Art that has rid itself of human pathos is a thing without consequence—just art with no other pretenses.” How else might one explain the “works of art” that consist of written lists of verbs, the planting of a wheat field, or a computer-generated sculpture that self-destructs? Such an attitude toward the work of the artist is summed up by Andy Warhol: “Art is what you can get away with.”

In this environment, the Catholic artist finds little guidance, little to emulate, and much to reject. Artists, as John Paul II wrote, must “see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise.” The next essay in this series will propose an authentically Catholic way in which artists may come to a better understanding “of themselves, their vocation, and their mission,” compromising neither their fidelity to their faith nor their integrity as artists.

Eileen Cunis paints, writes, and illustrates in her home in central New Hampshire where she lives with her husband David, with appearances at various intervals by their grown children and diminutive granddaughters. An adult convert to Catholicism, she creates artwork for use in her parish’s liturgies, and she serves with the local pregnancy care center. This series of essays was originally written as a thesis paper to complete her master’s degree in theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.

References (in order of first mention)

Pope John Paul II. “Letter to Artists.” www.vatican.va.

Vatican Council II. Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. A. Flannery, OP. Boston: St. Paul Books and Media, 1992.

Jacques Barzun. “What Critics Are Good For.” In The Culture We Deserve. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1948.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

Brian Keeble, ed. A Holy Tradition of Working: Passages From the Writings of Eric Gill. West Stockbridge, MA: The Lindisfarne Press, 1983.

H.W. Janson. History of Art. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.

John Richards. “Early Christian Art.” In The Oxford History of Western Art, ed. Martin Kemp. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rev. John Laux. Church History. Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1989.

Robert Gibbs. “Painting in the Middle Ages.”

Umberto Eco. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. Hugh Bredin. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

John Saward. The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty: Art, Sanctity and the Truth of Catholicism. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997.

Jacques Maritain. Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962.

Jacques Barzun. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

Jose Ortega y Gasset. “On Point of View in the Arts.” In The Dehumanization of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968, 127.

Richard Viladesau. Theology and the Arts: Encountering God Through Music, Art, and Rhetoric. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.

Herbert Read. The Philosophy of Modern Art. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.

Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Christoph Schönborn, OP. God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon, trans. Lothar Krauth. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1994.

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