Catholic Distance University

Who is the Artist?

Eileen Cunis

An artist is a human person who, like all persons, is marked by his Creator with an ultimate purpose. He pursues his unique vocation by power of certain characteristics shared by all humans, and in addition, if the artist is to fulfill this vocation well, enjoys special gifts of the intellect and the body that dispose him for his work. An accurate portrayal of the artist’s identity must develop out of the context of his human purpose; there can be no setting aside of his fundamental being without a drastic warping of his secondary calling. As critic Amanda Coomaraswamy writes, “the artist can be separated from the man in logic and for purposes of understanding; but actually, the artist can only be divorced from his humanity by what is called a disintegration of personality.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, man “alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. “There should be no underestimation of the significance of this reality. Man’s sublime end determines that his soul be shaped specifically to encounter and receive the living God. There is no human perfection nor fulfillment of human longing without a participation in God’s own life. In the words of Coomaraswamy, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” The rejection of God automatically handicaps the person in his quest to become fully human. As St. Thomas writes in the Summa Theologiae, “It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness….God alone can satisfy the will of man.” Jacques Maritain, the twentieth-century Thomist, expands in his The Responsibility of the Artist: “Man cannot live a genuine human life except by participating to some extent in the supra-human life of the spirit, or of what is eternal in him.”

The indelibility of the person’s end does not preclude his freedom; indeed, freedom is requisite to the fulfillment of that end. “The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts.” 1 Man’s freedom gives him the dignity suited to his divine purpose; without it his relationship with God would not be one of intelligent, loving participation but of unthinking, automatic reaction. The openness of freedom allows for growth and transformation, as the Catechism reminds us: “By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” Any use of his freedom that separates him from God causes also a narrowing of a man’s freedom, a lessening of its power, for freedom itself is oriented toward God. No one, Pope John Paul II says, can rightly claim that obedience to God curtails freedom: “God’s plan poses no threat to man’s genuine freedom; on the contrary, the acceptance of God’s plan is the only way to affirm that freedom.”

The fulfillment of human destiny in freedom is made possible by the person and saving work of Jesus Christ. “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.” 2 St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that

[God] destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.3

The Catholic vision finds its focal point in Christ. The Incarnation is the road by which all men will reach their final fullness of being, their complete self-understanding, their unity as a race and place in creation.

An understanding of these fundamentals of human nature is necessary to the proper ordering of man’s work within his world. Without it, work and the world threaten to take a controlling position in man’s life, separating him from his own truth. John Paul II tells us that “[man’s] nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being.” The artist, to maintain his human freedom, must not become a “prisoner of any of his cultures;” he must remember his divine destiny and order his life toward its source, the Triune God.

Within this human nature, from which springs human culture, lies an inherent desire to make things, an operation so singular and fundamental that it is classed by some along with knowing and acting. The philosopher Etienne Gilson makes this point:

There is art only when the operation, essentially and in its very substance, does not consist in knowing or acting, but in making. Man as capable of making (homo faber) is first a making being (ens faber) because his activity as a craftsman is like an outer manifestation of his act of existing….Prehistory is sure of the presence of man only when it can establish the existence of objects which cannot be considered works of nature.

The things made by man identify him among all other creatures; as Gilson says, they manifest his existence because making is intrinsic to him. It is one way in which man is made in the image of God, Whose first revealed act in the Bible is to have “created the heavens and the earth.” God, who is Being himself, was pleased to multiply beings in plenitude: “even He Who Is seems to have been unable eternally to subsist in Himself without giving in to the desire of ‘making something’. In his own finite condition man too feels an urge to make other beings….Because it is good that things should be, every being entails the will to cause other beings.” 4 The urge to bring into being is expressed most universally in procreation, but it may have just as prolific an output in the making of things; and, though not all people today are makers, makers are yet representative of their race. The Son of God, who lived a fully human life, was Himself a maker. As Jacques Maritain writes, “If Christ willed to be an artisan in a little village, it is because He wanted to assume the common condition of humanity.”

The artist is a person in whom this desire is particularly strong; so much so, that his peace of mind depends upon doing this work. The work may be done for any number of outward reasons—to earn a living, to express an idea, to please a loved one—but there lies within a deeper compulsion which led the artist to his vocation in the first place. He does not need any other reason to pursue his work, as Gilson writes in The Arts of the Beautiful: “Indeed, the origin of art is not a desire to know, but a desire to make; not a sight, but a project.” Though making is a part of human nature, and countless persons have left behind them immeasurable numbers of things made, the artist is set apart in that he proceeds out of a simple love for his work and his works of art. All of the processes—those of the intellect and of the body—that create these works are set into motion by the artist’s desire, writes Gilson: “Whatever the intellect contributes to the making of a work of art is initiated and brought about by the artist’s love for the being of the work to be born.”

Moving the artist to create, in addition to this first impetus, is a second: the love of beauty. Here is another trait shared by all men by virtue of their very nature. Eric Gill affirms that “there is in my mind an image called man, and this creature…is one for whom beauty is the first need, not the last.” If man’s first purpose is unity with God, how can beauty be the first need? This can be so when beauty is defined as a thing that manifests God and brings about an encounter with Him. Gilson writes that “the beautiful is the good of an intelligent sensibility . . . an object of desire and love.” The “intelligent sensibility” seeks a revelation of the inner meaning of things that the Scholastics described as “clarity:” “the ontological secret that they bear within them, their spiritual being, their operating mystery.” 5

Beauty was described by Eric Gill as “radiance,” as the object’s “principle of intelligibility,” that which can be expressed in no other way than by the revelation of the thing itself in its own unique order, proportion, and wholeness, seen the way that God intended it to be seen. The pleasure that is experienced in beauty “is the delight of the mind in seeing the thing itself….It is the result of the mind’s recognition of what is after its own kind. In things of beauty the mind comes into its own.” The mind rejoices in its apprehension of a thing’s form, defined by Aquinas in the Summa as “that by which a thing is,” “what is conceived and preordained . . . the principle of action.” Form, toward which the intellect is drawn, differentiates matter into the multitudes of things and creatures that populate the universe; it is the truth of each thing, its key and its secret. “To define the beautiful by the radiance of form is in reality to define it by the radiance of a mystery,” asserts Maritain in Art and Scholasticism. When confronted with the mystery of the “ontological secret,” that mystery which is beauty, the person (if he has the eyes to see it) is witness to God’s creative power perpetually holding all in being. The great hunger for fellowship with God, the impetus for man’s existence, is appended by a hunger for beauty which dramatically shapes his nature. In Gill’s words: “Man’s avidity for beauty is more significant than any of his other appetites. He apprehends beauty immediately, and therefore apprehends Being.” 6 In beauty man confronts the forms of things: their truth, that for which the intellect longs.

Man cannot see the God whom he desires; beauty brings irreplaceable comfort and nourishment through his time of waiting. The artist is blessed, with all men, with the longing for beauty. Gill cites beauty as the motivation for all artists: “The fact is, however, that we are artists because we believe in Beauty, and not that we believe in Beauty because we are artists.” However, if beauty is a revelation of the “ontological secret” of a subject, it is clear that not all minds may be disposed to receive such a revelation. If true beauty is, as Catholic author John Saward writes, “confirmation of the spiritual dignity of [the viewer’s] intellect”, certainly there will be viewers who reject their own spirituality (even their own intellect!) and will be impervious to beauty; this holds true for artists as well. Though the desire for God is common to all men, not all men acknowledge that desire. So with the desire for beauty. As there are those who are deaf to God’s word, there will be those, artists or not, who see only ugliness and the surfaces of things, who find pleasure in fallacies rather than in the “radiance of a mystery.” But John Paul II in his Letter to Artists is clear as to the dependence of the creation of art upon the pursuit of this mystery: “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.” Perhaps the genuine artist may be recognized by his acceptance of his own “ontological secret”, which includes that inborn desire for the beauty that reveals the inner and original forms of things. Jacques Maritain sees the artist as someone who seeks and finds the knowledge of these forms within their Creator:

The human artist or poet, whose intellect is not the cause of things . . . cannot draw this form entirely from his creative spirit: he goes and imbibes it first. . . . From this point of view he is first and foremost a man who sees more deeply than other men, and who discloses in the real spiritual radiances which others cannot discern. 7

These qualities—the desire to make and the love of beauty—are intrinsic to human nature, and they result in the making of art. What are the special gifts that set the artist apart from other people? Individuals who are naturally able to draw well, who have perfect pitch, natural rhythm, or a fine singing voice, who enjoy writing and are good with words, receive recognition and are labeled as “artistic,” often at an early age. What all these abilities have in common is a certain sensitivity and attention to the world, often combined with a physical dexterity enabling use of tools for making. Drawing well demands that one sees well; musicians must listen well, as must writers. The development of any of these gifts requires strengthening of these senses through self-discipline. But clearly, this is not what Maritain means in saying that an artist “sees more deeply than other men”. There exists a gift of spiritual “sight” that perceives “the real spiritual radiances” of things; this gift is not given to everyone who can draw well or use words, and sometimes belongs to those whose fluency with words or colors is poor. John Paul II writes, again in the Letter to Artists, that artists “…by their very nature are alert to every ‘epiphany’ of the inner beauty of things”, 8 echoing Gerald Bednar’s concept of an increased sensitivity to reality, a “well-tuned sensibility to the human dimensions that are reflected in everyone’s lives.” The artists who stand out as remarkable creators—Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Bach, Dante—have possessed both the physical and the spiritual gifts in abundance. Jacques Barzun says well that “creation requires an uncommon mind and strong will serving an original view of life and the world.” 9

Spiritual vision emerges in the mind. Though all that is apprehended passes through the senses, it is in the mind that knowledge resides and form is recognized; this is why Maritain claims that “art stands entirely on the side of the mind.” 10 As seen earlier, St. Thomas taught that art is an intellectual virtue, proceeding first from an idea that the artist wishes to make manifest. Although the body and its emotions become intimately involved in the work of art—Gilson asserts, with reference to Hegel, the necessity of both body and mind to art—the physical and emotional are secondary to art’s creation. Coomaraswamy writes: “We forget that sensation is an animal property, and knowledge distinctly human; and that art, if thought of as distinctly human and particularly if we think of art as a department of the ‘higher things in life,’ must likewise have to do much more with knowledge than with feeling.” The “uncommon mind” with which the artist is gifted will not necessarily shine academically, retaining massive information or performing analytical feats; his mind is unique more in its capacity for imagination and contemplation.

Eric Gill defines imagination as “the faculty by which what the eye sees and what the mind thinks about is re-created into what the man loves.” Imagination makes use of all of the senses, mining the memory for their imprints there to use in constructing new concepts. When the artist “sees more than other men,” his imagination is working to draw together whatever memories it can find to form an expression of the truth it is perceiving; he must see within his mind’s eye something not physically existent, and so must use his imagination. This process is not necessarily what is called “make believe”—it can lead to the truth, for it wrestles with reality in search of meaning. The imagining of Christ suffering on the Cross may lead to a deepened understanding of His love; imagining oneself in another’s shoes may increase mercy and compassion. As Bednar says, “the work of the imagination is thus critical in its ability to produce images that allow a person to contact reality successfully.” It is necessary because not all that is real can be perceived immediately by the senses, and because in the making of new things, there must be an end product imagined before the work can begin.

Imagination is also ubiquitous, a function continually in use by all persons. Gill writes: “Not to use the imagination is to be less than human.” This faculty must be particularly active and agile in an artist; in the Catholic, it must be open to the influence of the Holy Spirit, Who can feed and guide it. In the words of the bishops of the United States, “Like the gift of prophecy, religious imagination is a power through which the Holy Spirit can move and speak.” 11

Here it is important to note that the artist is free to open or close his perception and imagination to the influence of the Holy Spirit. The artist’s concern is with the thing to be made, and he may exercise prodigious gifts in making things of phenomenal beauty yet, as said before, close his eyes to the existence of the Source of all beauty. Sensitivity to the forms of creation, part of the intellectual virtue of art, does not guarantee the assent of the will to what God is saying through those forms. St. Thomas notes in the Summa that “the good of things made by art is not the good of man’s appetite, but the good of those things themselves; wherefore art does not presuppose rectitude of the appetite.” 12 Vices which corrupt the appetite of the artist (which resides in the will) may leave the gift of art (residing in the intellect) intact, and may cause the use of that great gift to serve vile purposes. Beautiful murals array temples where human sacrifice was performed; stunningly composed photographs display acts of sadism.

Because human history reveals so much misuse of the gift of art, the Christian might hold the use of imagination under suspicion; but this need not be, for all gifts may be opened to God for good use. For those whose desire is to work in concert with Christ, the gift of imagination may be incorporated into the act of contemplation.

Cardinal Schonborn writes, “Imagination is not something negative, it is a natural potential. On the way to contemplation there is no need to eliminate it…it only ought to be purified, just like all other powers of the soul.” Imagination alone does not bring the artist into epiphanies “of the inner beauty of things”. Those insights are the fruits of contemplation, and this is why the vocation of the artist, when pursued in submission to God’s will, overlaps with that of the contemplative. Philosopher Josef Pieper, considering the creation of a work of art in Only the Lover Sings, emphatically declares: “I still say: the beginning of it all is contemplation!” 13 He elaborates:

The true artist…is not someone who simply and in any way whatever “sees” things. So that he can create form and image…he must be endowed with the ability to see in an exceptionally intensive manner. The concept of contemplation also contains this special intensified way of seeing….Art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is. Such art does not want to depict what everybody already sees but to make visible what not everybody sees. 14

Contemplation is essentially a receptive activity, one requiring a self-discipline that can resist distraction and maintain a physical repose. In the Catholic faith, “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus.” 15 It takes a posture of humility, poverty, and surrender. But “far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child.” 16 In the artist, this gazing upon the Lord can bring forth a new perception of beauty. Maritain notes: “At that moment the contemplative activity in contact with the transcendental, which constitutes the proper life of the fine arts and their rules, is clearly predominant.” 17 The “proper life” of the work of the artist is rooted in contemplation, the exchange with the Creator that provides the artist with his vision. But the artist is not a contemplative in the vocational sense of the word; he is also committed to activity in the world to bring his vision to light. Maritain explains, “The poet is both a madman carried along by irrational inspiration and a craftsman exercising for his work the shrewdest operative reason.” 18

As the Catholic artist seeks to understand himself, he will be helped first by remembering that he shares the fundamental force of human existence with all other men: the desire for God. Consequently, artists must, as John Paul II says, learn “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.” 19 No man can comprehend his purpose outside of this perspective. For the artist, denial of God closes off the elemental source of Being and so of the Life that perpetuates the making of new beings, the stream that is always original and true. The heightened ability to “see,” to receive the messages of creation’s secrets, that sets the artist apart from other men, will not reach its full potential without divine illumination. With “eyes able to contemplate and give thanks,” he perceives new glimmers of the mystery of being and, using his gifts of the hands or voice, body and mind, manifests these insights to others. Separated from God, the artist will continue to make things, for this is what he above all desires to do; he may produce beautiful work, technically excellent work, or stirring work, for his gift provides an avenue for greatness even if he is unconscious of its source. But apart from God he will not understand himself or the meaning of his gift or ever attain the fullness for which that gift has been given.

Here, having seen some of what sets the artist apart from other men, and what drives him to his formidable task, we come to the consideration of what precisely that task entails, and the responsibilities incumbent upon it.

The Vocation of the Artist

Beauty calls man to the feet of God; she also calls the artist to bring forth his gifts. John Paul II writes that “the artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of ‘artistic talent.’” 20 Beauty, being a quality and not an operation, becomes a calling in terms of how it speaks to the artist and how it is spoken by him. Its presence can be the object of the artist’s contemplation, and can direct his contemplation to the objects possessing it. It may also be a quality of the works made by the artist. The artistic calling, drawing definition from John Paul’s statement, would be first to contemplate beauty, to apprehend it, and then to bring it forth in works of art. Etienne Gilson speaks to this second step of the vocation to beauty: “The true artist is he whose works, whatever their subject, pursue as their proximate end the creation of beauty.” 21 Such a definition of the end of art appears narrow until one remembers how beauty is a “transcendental of being, and being approached as such is always to reach the threshold of the sacred.” 22 Beauty leads to Being—beauty is its banner, its song; the vocation to beauty explores the secrets of Being itself. Beauty is a language understood by all persons, and the artist, who is set apart by a special aptitude for beauty, is drawn irresistibly to her. Paul Klee, a twentieth-century painter, writes movingly of his devotion to beauty in a diary entry from 1901:

Often I said that I served Beauty by drawing her enemies (caricature, satire). But that is not enough. I must shape her directly with the full strength of my conviction. A distant, noble aim. Half asleep, I already set out on that path. When I am awake, it will have to be accomplished. Perhaps the road is longer than my life.

Whatever shape Klee’s faith took, surely he perceived something of the eternal in the Beauty he served.

All beauty touches the spiritual in man, but there is a “supreme beauty,” a divine illumination, which John Paul II, in a 2004 address to representatives of the Cultural and Artistic Formation Center of Poland, distinguishes from the everyday:

If the artist can perceive a ray of the supreme beauty among the many manifestations of the beautiful, then art becomes a way to God and spurs the artist to continue his creative talent with his commitment to a life of ever greater conformity to the divine law.

There is a heightened level of perception in which the vision of beauty reveals its source in God, where the artist understands that Beauty is not just an end, but a way. At this point his calling deepens from the contemplation of beauty to that of God. Such a call and the gifts of spiritual sensitivity given with it are to be prized, as Pope Pius XII stated in his 1952 address to artists: “The artist is of himself a privileged person among men, but the Christian artist is, in a certain sense, a chosen one, because it is proper to those chosen to contemplate, to enjoy and to express God’s perfections.” This calling-within-a-calling is the very soul of the artist’s vocation, a depth plumbed not frequently enough, which demands great love, humility, and sacrifice. It is well expressed in the poetry of John Paul II, in his Roman Triptych, as he imagines God speaking to the great painter of the Sistine Chapel:

You, O man, you who also see, come—
I am calling you, all “who see,” down the ages.
I am calling you, Michelangelo!
In the Vatican a chapel awaits the fruition of your vision!
The vision was awaiting an image. 
From the time that the Word became flesh,
	the vision continued to wait.

The vision which Michelangelo received, as do all those who share his gift, was of that “supreme beauty,” the opening of the heavens in a moment of revelation. The artist’s call was then, and is now, to provide an image for that vision—to produce by his art a means for others to share the vision, by which others will be drawn to God and thus to their own conversion and transformation. The beauty created by the artist, according to his calling, is not geared toward any other end; if it serves only to arouse emotions it will have fallen short (or will have been misapprehended). The purpose of the artwork is made clear in the theology of the icon-painter, expressed in Ouspensky and Lossky’s The Meaning of Icons: the icon’s “task is not to provoke . . . one or another natural human emotion, but to guide every emotion as well as the reason and all the other faculties of human nature on the way towards transfiguration.” 23

Vocation begins with a call, or a task; it is fulfilled in time by concrete acts taken in response to the call. The artist, like any person called to a purpose, has certain responsibilities toward his vocation, an ethic intrinsic to the call, which should guide his actions in response to it. A discussion of the artist’s responsibility 24 may begin with a statement from Etienne Gilson: “The perfect artist is not he who puts the highest art at the service of the highest truth, but he who puts the highest truth at the service of the most perfect art.” 25

Gilson wishes to make clear that the artist is called first to develop his gift of art, his facility for making, to its utmost, and to use it most perfectly in creating his works. The “highest truth” is put to art’s service in that it becomes the intellectual matter with which this art creates. Nowhere does Gilson suggest that the artist can change the truth, or create the truth himself; but his responsibility toward his gift of art is so strong that it is never licit to compromise the pure functioning of art in attempts to serve truth.

Maritain gives background to this rule by describing art itself as an entity theoretically separable from the person engaged in using it.

Art . . . stands outside the human sphere; it has ends, rules, values, which are not those of men, but those of the work to be produced. This work is everything for Art; there is for Art but one law—the exigencies and the good of the work. 26

The “ends, rules, values” belonging to the work and comprising its good are, in part, the various standards of technical execution in each of the arts. Musicians seek a purity of tone, rhythm, and volume; poets a quality of sound and vividness of image, painters a mastery of color and space. Aristotle called for the drama to contain the unities of place, time, and action. St. Thomas in the Summa expresses this demand very simply: “When anyone endowed with an art produces bad workmanship, this is not the work of that art, in fact it is contrary to the art, even as when a man lies, while knowing the truth, his words are not in accord with his knowledge, but contrary thereto.” 27 Good craftsmanship is an issue of honesty regarding the gift of art. But more than technical excellence is demanded by “the good of the work.” The artist must also proceed in complete self-giving, opening all of his soul for the use of the work, and with full attention to the inner demands of the work itself. These demands will range widely, from decoration created to add pleasure to the use of a tool, to sacred art which takes part in the prayer of the Church. Whatever they are, they are to be fulfilled with beauty, the demand so primary that, as Herbert Read writes, “every intellectual virtue or emotional tone must be given an aesthetic justification….Sentimentality or decadence sets in once the balance of these values is lost.” Any feeling or meaning in a work must only be put there if it can be justified according to beauty; it must belong organically to the inner sense of the work. “The good of the work” is, like beauty, a goal not always reached but always beckoning; whether it is achieved depends in great part upon the artist’s abilities. Whatever their level, he is always called to use those abilities to the utmost, to highly value his work as an expression of self and of the world; in a word, to love his work.

Another way to understand the artist’s responsibility is offered by painter Wassily Kandinsky, who speaks of the “inner need” of the artist, the elemental drive that causes him to work, which he must faithfully obey. There are three “mystical elements” which make up this need:

(1) Every artist, as a creator, has something in him which calls for expression (this is the element of personality). (2) Every artist, as child of his age, is impelled to express the spirit of his age (this is the element of style)—dictated by the period and particular country to which the artist belongs. (3) Every artist, as a servant of art, has to help the cause of art (this is the element of pure artistry). 28

The fulfillment of these elements of the “inner need” is, in Kandinsky’s view, the test of a work’s integrity. The paramount concern of the good of the work, identified by these elements, makes the artist free to use any means available on its behalf. “All means are sacred which are called for by the inner need. All means are sinful which obscure that inner need.” 29 Any use of his gifts that denies the need for truthful self-expression, refuses humble recognition of his grounding in time and place, or neglects craftsmanship and attention to beauty, is sinful. Thus there is no purpose that excuses the artist from observing these demands, be it political or personal or religious. This is what Gilson meant by putting the highest truth at the service of art. Maritain expresses the gravity of a departure from this call:

The artist who, yielding to ill-advised moral exhortations, decides to betray his own singular truth as an artist, and his artistic conscience, breaks within himself one of the springs, the sacred springs, of human conscience, and to that extent wounds moral conscience itself. 30

Like St. Thomas, Maritain finds the central question to be one of honesty and fidelity to the gift of art which God has given. Betrayal of the gift is a sin.

Because of the immense demands of art upon the artist, Gilson suggests that “what is artistically good can be morally wrong.” 31 The honesty of the artist may reveal what is corrupted, and do so with great skill and attractiveness. Beautiful art is not created only by saints; the moral indifference of the gift of art allows the good, the bad, and the middling to produce wonderful things. Maritain warns, “Yet thus does art avail itself of anything; even of sin. It behaves like a god; it thinks only of its own glory. The painter may damn himself, painting does not care a straw.” 32

However, for the Catholic artist, nothing may take the place of God, and certainly for a God-given vocation to usurp the Giver’s glory is an absurdity. If the artist “took the end of his art, or the good of his artifact, for his own supreme good and ultimate end, he would be but an idolater.” 33 Instead the artist must find a way to order his responsibilities, toward art and toward God, so that each may be served authentically. Maritain begins to set out this way by clarifying the place art fills when integrated in the human person.

As used by man’s free will art enters a sphere which is not its own, but the sphere of moral standards and values, and in which there is no good against the good of human life….From the point of view of Art, the artist is responsible only to his work. From the point of view of Morality…the artist is responsible to the good of human life, in himself and in his fellow man. 34

Art only exists and functions within the person; though it can in theory be isolated and examined, in reality it manifests itself exclusively through the human soul, and its demands must not be allowed to override the good of that soul. Yet the good of the soul includes the faithful carrying out of its vocation. For the artist this must be done through the gift of art, which “does not care a straw” for anything but the good of the work of art.

The Catholic artist’s passion for Christ can, and must, outstrip his passion for art and be the impetus for his art. Art will retain its integrity if

the passion in question [has] been internalized in the creative source, integrated in the poetic intuition, and therefore transmuted; for then, once it has been thus integrated in poetic intuition, what had been an idea or a passion has become poetic knowledge. 35

When the love of Jesus Christ has become an inseparable part of the artist’s being, it will be infused to his artistic gifts also, and shape his artistic vision. “No wall of separation isolates the virtue of art from the inner universe of man’s desire and love.” 36 The Catholic artist fulfills the demands of his calling by internalizing his faith to such an extent that what springs from his depths and demands expression is love. When the stuff of Christianity is used in the work of art, it must belong to the nature of that work, being authentically at its source, and be deployed in all honesty. If the artist is formed by love of God and of man, that love will animate his artistic vision. Thus, “if the artist loves truth and loves his fellowmen, anything in the work which might distort the truth or deteriorate the human soul will displease him, and lose for him that delight which beauty affords.” 37

Thus it is seen that the artistic calling comes with great responsibilities: for integrity in art’s execution, toward the gift itself, and toward the world which receives its works. The Catholic artist must seek to integrate his faith so thoroughly into his person that the fulfillment of these responsibilities is carried out in love of God and of neighbor. John Paul II identifies purity of motivation as one way that this love must be manifested. He reminds artists that they “must labor without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves.” He goes on then to suggest that “there is therefore an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.” 38 Understanding his special gifts and calling, it is possible to identify aspects of the unique spirituality of the Catholic artist, one rooted in the grace that gives him a share in the life of the Triune God.

An artist’s first impulse may be to make things, but close upon that follows the desire that those things be shared. Artists “do not develop [their talent] for their own satisfaction, but in order to serve with this talent their neighbour and the society in which they live.” 39 An ethic of service, then, is part of the artist’s ethic. He must keep in consideration his duty to his fellow-man. Kandinsky explains that because of this duty, the artist

must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand….He must realize that his every deed, feeling, and thought are raw but sure material from which his work is to arise, that he is free in art but not in life. 40

As Christ exhorts us, “either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” 41 One who, like the artist, opens his soul for the witness of his brothers, is obligated to do all he can to give his brothers “good fruit,” that which will nourish and delight. Pope John Paul II, in a 2004 address, instructed artists that they are responsible morally as well as aesthetically: “If creativity is not guided by good, or worse still, it is directed toward evil, it is not worthy of the title of ‘artist.’” The gift of art is a power; in itself neither good nor evil, but ready to be used in whatever way the artist wills. Works of art, especially those of excellence, exert a strong influence upon the receivers, giving the artist a responsibility; his power, writes Wassily Kandinsky, “must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul….If art refrains from doing this work, a chasm remains unbridged, for no other power can take the place of art in this activity.”

When the artist disregards morality in his personal life, the degradation of his soul will surely seep into the works he produces, but it also corrupts his gift itself and prevents its full development. In The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain maintains that immoral desires and conduct impair the artist’s receptivity: “are not the inner inclinations of the artist the very channel through which things are revealed to him?” Darkness in the soul of the artist must be his greatest enemy, for it chokes the very power of perception that is the core of his gift. “A moral poison which warps in the long run the power of vision will finally, through an indirect repercussion, warp artistic creativity—though perhaps this poison will have stimulated or sensitized it for a time.” The purity of heart that is demanded by the artist’s duty to his fellow man is also necessary if he is to fulfill his duty to the gift which sets him apart. The artist must recognize “the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it”, 42 and doing so requires commitment to personal holiness—in other words, to a life of love.

It has been shown that the gift and vocation of art are set apart by a heightened sensibility, an ability to “see” the hidden realities of creation, and to communicate those revelations to the world. The exercise of art flows, in Cardinal Schönborn’s words, “from an encounter between heaven and earth, between divine and human realities, and living out this encounter ever anew.” The Catholic recognizes that Jesus Christ is the locus of divine and human encounter; more than a teacher or guide on the quest for vision, Christ Himself contains all vision, all realities, all mysteries.

By participation in Christ, Schönborn writes, the artist’s human vision is transformed: “If Christ appeared on earth to renew man in his total being, to form man after his own image, then we must also say that the artist’s eyes, his sensitivity, and his creative powers, are included in this re-creation as well.” A spirituality of artistic service, like all Christian spiritualities, is (in the words of Jordan Aumann) “participation in the mystery of Christ through the interior life of grace,” and most especially a participation which clears away the obstacles to creative activity and informs that activity with supernatural significance.

Although it is a commonplace that the artist’s purpose is to “express himself,” self-expression is only a by-product of the artist’s individuality and not an end in itself. “The free man is not trying to express himself,” writes Coomaraswamy, “but that which was to be expressed.” The Christian artist who seeks true self-knowledge becomes fully aware of his need for repentance, forgiveness, and transfiguration. He knows that when his creative work is invaded by his ego, he “no longer manifests himself and the world in his work—he unloads himself in it, pours his own complexes and poisons into it” 43 and into the receiver. Because this is a constant, and not always conscious, temptation, the artist’s spirituality must put special emphasis upon the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Without the sacrament of confession, which purifies through repentance, the whole creative work of the painter becomes as it were a public confession. Without repentance, this public confession does not purify or liberate the artist, but infects the spectator with all he has in him. Here the ‘freedom’ of the artist is manifested at the expense of the freedom of the spectator. 44

Purification of the soul frees the artistic nature to absorb what revelation God has in store for it. In order to skillfully and accurately portray that revelation, the artist must have the openness and docility to become, in a way, “possessed” of the vision. “It is true that if the artist has not conformed himself to the pattern of the thing to be made has not really known it and cannot work originally. But if he has thus conformed himself he will be in fact expressing himself in bringing it forth.” (45) When it comes to creating sacred art intended for devotional or, particularly, liturgical use, the need for self-abandonment is most acute—for in that case the artist’s central obligation is to serve as a conduit for grace. “The degree to which the gift of expression is subordinated to the revelation it has to express, determines the spiritual level and purity of the image.” (46) The artist must desire to see within himself a glimmer of the divine light, beauty in his own humanness, portents of the transfiguration that is promised. The theology of the icon teaches that an icon “cannot be invented.” Neither can any authentic sacred art. It must come from personal encounter with the Other, for “no artistic gift can replace actual knowledge, drawn from ‘seeing and contemplating.’” (47) In being conformed to the image of Christ the artist not only is able to produce works more and more consonant with divine truth; his process of work itself takes on the image of the Creator. “He does not imitate God’s works, for that would be to make copies of copies, but imitates God’s manner of working as it is inherent in his nature so to do.” The distinction made here by Eric Gill is elusive, but real. Many artists have spent years (and lifetimes!) practicing their craftsmanship by making imitations of God’s works. But at that moment when an artist is able to perceive the inner reality, the “ontological secret” of his subject, and can focus unwavering attention upon it and submit his work to that light—allowing his inner vision to form the work, rather than a superficial impression—then he has worked in a way analogous to the Creator, becoming at that one moment a true artist. If his inner vision has been refined in the crucible of God’s love, his work will have all the better possibility of bearing beauty into the world.

Of course, beautiful work depends upon technical skills and physical attributes, in addition to the contemplative habit, all to be developed by persevering effort. Maritain reminds us that “art, like love, proceeds from a spontaneous instinct, and it must be cultivated like friendship; for it is a virtue like friendship.” (48) He adds that “the virtue of art involves an improvement of the mind”, the natural object of which is truth. The gift of art is worthy of time spent in practicing, learning, and meditation. Artist and chronicler Giorgio Vasari, in his biography of Michelangelo, defended his subject’s choice of the celibate life by explaining that “he who wishes to work well must withdraw himself from all cares and vexations, since art demands contemplation, solitude, and ease of life, and will not suffer the mind to wander.” And Eric Gill states that “the man incapable of contemplation cannot be an artist, but only a skillful workman; it is demanded of the artist to be both a contemplative and a good workman.” The skillful workman has contributed a multitude of wonderful things to human experience; but it is the true artist who lifts human awareness above ordinary existence. Josef Pieper provides an illuminating conclusion:

Wherever the arts are nourished through the festive contemplation of universal realities and their sustaining reasons, there in truth something like a liberation occurs: the stepping-out into the open under an endless sky, not only for the creative artist himself but for the beholder as well, even the most humble. Such liberation, such foreshadowing of the ultimate and perfect fulfillment, is necessary for man, almost more necessary than his daily bread, which is indeed indispensable and yet insufficient.

As the artist brings his whole self with his unique gifts and calling to the feet of Christ, allowing Him to permeate it all, he has the great hope of being empowered to bring such nourishment to his fellow man. A spirituality characterized by contemplation and confession, together with prayerful labor aimed to the edification, comfort, and joy of his fellow man, will bring the artist forward toward his goal.

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.


1. John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth.

2. Gaudium et Spes, no. 22.

3. Eph 1:5, 9–10.

4. Veritatis Splendor, no. 53.

5. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, p. 24.

6. In addition, the reader may wish to consult John Saward’s The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty: Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism for an extensive and perceptive exploration of beauty and holiness.

7. Art and Scholasticism, p. 59.

8. no. 6.

9. From Dawn to Decadence, 788.

10. Art and Scholasticism, 14.

11. Built of Living Stones, no. 150.

12. I–II, 57, 4.

13. 72.

14. 73–74.

15. CCC, no. 2715.

16. CCC, no. 2716.

17. Art and Scholasticism, no. 45.

18. The Responsibility of the Artist, 105.

19. Letter to Artists, no. 1.

20. Letter to Artists, no. 3.

21. Arts of the Beautiful, 44.

22. Arts of the Beautiful, 182.

23. 39.

24. The following discussion relies heavily upon Maritain’s The Responsibility of the Artist, which is highly recommended for the reader wishing to pursue the topic.

25. Arts of the Beautiful, 15.

26. Art and Scholasticism, 9.

27. I–II, 57, 3.

28. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 33.

29. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 35.

30. The Responsibility of the Artist, 37.

31. Arts of the Beautiful, 44.

32. The Responsibility of the Artist, 29.

33. The Responsibility of the Artist, 39.

34. The Responsibility of the Artist, 39–40.

35. The Responsibility of the Artist, 71.

36. The Responsibility of the Artist, 50.

37. The Responsibility of the Artist, 60.

38. Letter to Artists, no. 4.

39. John Paul II, Address, January 28, 2004.

40. 54, italics added.

41. Mt 12:33.

42. Letter to Artists, no. 3.

43. The Responsibility of the Artist, 54.

44. Ouspensky and Lossky, 42.

45. Coomaraswamy, 36.

46. Ouspensky and Lossky, 45.

47. Ouspensky and Lossky, 41–42.

48. Art and Scholasticism, 41. Note that friendship is a moral virtue, and to be such it must be used rightly; art is an intellectual virtue which operates apart from moral considerations.

References (alphabetical)

Aumann, Jordan. Spiritual Theology. London: Sheed and Ward, 1980.

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

Bednar, Gerald J. Faith as Imagination: The Contribution of William F. Lynch, S.J. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1996.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

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

Gilson, Etienne. Arts of the Beautiful. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Gilson, Etienne. Forms and Substances in the Arts. Trans. Salvator Attanasio. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2001.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M. T. H. Sadler. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.

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

Klee, Paul. The Diaries of Paul Klee. html.gloklee/net.constable

Maritain, Jacques. The Responsibility of the Artist. New York: Gordian Press, 1972.

Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism.

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Lossky, Vladimir. The Meaning of Icons. Trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999.

Pieper, Josef. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. Trans. Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Pope John Paul II. Address to representatives of the Cultural and Artistic Formation Center of Poland, January 2004. www.vatican.va

Pope John Paul II. Letter to Artists, 1998. www.vatican.va

Pope John Paul II. The Poetry of John Paul II: Roman Triptych—Meditations. Trans. Jerzy Peterkiewicz. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2003.

Pope John Paul II. The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor). www.vatican.va

Pope Pius XII. Address to Italian artists, April 8, 1952. www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/p12art.htm

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

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

Schönborn, Cardinal Christoph, OP. God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon. Trans. Lothar Krauth. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1994. St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Brothers, Inc., 1948.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000.

Vasari, Giorgio. Life of Michelangelo. Trans. Gaston du C. de Vere. New York: Society of St. Paul, 2003.

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