Recently Pope Benedict met with hundreds of contemporary artists (poets, painters, architects, film directors, etc.) in an effort to “renew the Church’s friendship with the world of art.” The meeting took place, appropriately enough, in the Sistine Chapel, which features one of the finest artistic achievements in human history.
In his remarks, the Pope made both positive and negative observations regarding the moral-spiritual potency of art. He noted, on the one hand, that “Beauty…can become a path toward the transcendent, toward the ultimate Mystery, toward God.” On the other hand, he declared, “Too often … the beauty thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful…it imprisons man within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.” These are philosophically pregnant comments. First, note the Pope’s apparent conviction that beauty is a real quality in things. Beauty is not, as the popular slogan goes, merely in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it is an objective fact about the world (though, of course, people’s opinions about beauty vary widely). As such, beauty demands an explanation. And this, it seems, cannot be provided merely in terms of natural facts about the world, whether one aims to do so in terms of human psychology or the properties of the objects themselves. This is why beauty does point toward something transcendent, mysterious, even the Divine.
Second, the Pope does not limit considerations of real beauty to nature. While the physical world is replete with beautiful objects, scenes, sounds, and even flavors, from peacocks to Pleiades to whippoorwill songs to the taste of cinnamon, human productions, such as Michaelangelo’s paintings, Bach’s concertos, and Shakespeare’s sonnets, likewise reflect the Creator who endows people with artistic talent. Indeed, our creativity is one of the more stunning aspects of the imago Dei in us. The human artistic impulse and the capacity for aesthetic appreciation are both pointers to God, particularly in light of the fact that these abilities cannot be explained in Darwinian terms (despite recent efforts on the part of some scholars to do so—e.g., Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct and Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus).
Third, in noting that beauty can be deceitful and even undermine human hope and joy, the Pope affirms that artworks embody worldviews and communicate values and ideals—for better or worse. While I would quibble with his use of the term “beauty” here instead of the more general term “artworks” (I suspect the latter is his actual intention), he is right to note the persuasive power of aesthetically pleasing objects, even when their messages are downright diabolical. As Christians living in a culture which is increasingly opposed to our worldview, but no less committed to artistic endeavor, we must be both worldview savvy and aesthetically alert. More than this, people of faith must be willing to infuse their artwork with spiritual themes and values. The Pope’s exhortation on this point should be embraced by Christian artists everywhere–whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.
For some helpful resources on Christian aesthetics see Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action, Frank Burch Brown’s Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, and chapter nine of Cowan and Spiegel’s The Love of Wisdom.