“Society Needs Artists”

"Society Needs Artists"
Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)

“Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”
-Cyprian Norwid

“He created the human being, the noblest fruit of his design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.”
 – John Paul II, Letter to Artists

The Philosopher Pope draws a very wide scope for the realm of art; it encompasses the whole of life. He begins with Genesis. God the creator endows his creature with the capacity for craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is an image of the creator, a pale but powerful image nevertheless. Human beings do not create from nothing, rather they fashion out of the givenness of things. John Paul II interprets the human dominion over the earth as a mandate for art. This notion soars beyond the idea of stewardship to something more noble:

God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. §1

All humans receive this “spark” of creativity. But the “artist” more narrowly defined (fine art) has a special role to play, and it is essential, according to the Philosopher Pope, that their gift be transformed by religion. Why? They have a greater consciousness of their power, their gift —

That 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 abuse of human power stems from the failure to acknowledge the gift-like character of existence; artists, at times the greatest abusers of the gift, can rise to being one of the greatest witnesses to gift.So when John Paul II asserts that society “needs artists” he is not engaging in a sentimental attachment to “art for art’s sake,” nor is he endorsing some separate realm for an elite group of specialists or creative few.

Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favor of the common good.

John Paul understands art as a factor in the “growth of the person” and the development of the community. How does art accomplish this? It must be connected to the awareness of the gift-like character of the whole of existence, from materiality to social forms and cultural heritage. Art is essentially connected to love.

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too 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. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.

Is it possible for artists to develop such a spirituality of artistic service in a society in which fame and notoriety drapes its pall upon every endeavor and commercial interests gobble up whatever is popular or controversial.

Cyprian Norwid has a profound impact upon Karol Wojtyla. As Weigel notes, the work of this  Polish romantic poet was an effort “to probe the truth of things through art, and a deliberate rejection of ‘art for art’s sake’.” (Witness to Hope, 35) He wrote extensively about the dignity of work and respect for the worker. “Work accepted with love is the highest manifestation of human freedom.” What does Norwid mean — how does beauty enthuse us for work? Is it that beauty makes work worthwhile after all, whatever it may be?  What kind of work will raise us up? Is it the integrity of work? The root must be love. Beauty rouses in us a love; so beauty can lead us to accept work with love. Love is primarily love of the person, love of people; but it must also include the love of the excellence of the work itself.

I think of the marvelous scene in One Day in the Life (Solzhenitsyn) in which the men build a brick wall and the main character is enthused for the work, even in sub-freezing temperature, even in the context of an absurd social situation, building a wall that is really for naught; yet the integrity of the work, the cooperation of the men — it is a thing of beauty in the midst of degradation.

In the West, we have little such degradation; and yet “beauty enthused work” seems also rarer than it should be. So indeed, Weigel points out “Norwid criticized what he regarded as the crass materialism he found in the West . . . Technical progress was spiritually empty; a genuine civilization, a real history, could not be built on this basis alone.” (35-36) And yet we still scorn the very idea of a “civilization of love.” Conservatives thinks it lacks the stern stuff of their “realism” and they balk at the raised standard for judgment and action (e.g., universal destination of goods); liberals think it lacks the sweep of their “compassion” i.e., they balk at the stand on high principle which limits the calculations of utility for the greatest number.

But perhaps we misunderstand its meaning — it is neither effete nor sentimental nor limiting nor inhumane but rather the civilization of love is firmly placed in the calloused hands of the laborer, the bleary nights and joyful days of family devotion, and the venerable hands of the priest at the altar, as well as the exquisite craftings of color, sound, and words more commonly called “art.”

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. It is important to recognize the distinction, but also the connection, between these two aspects of human activity. §2


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