The Holier the Artist, the Better the Art


The holier the artist, the better the art. The better the art, the holier the artist.

This is a controversial statement. Certainly the evidence stands against it. Many great poets, writers, visual artists, musicians, and actors were also great sinners. And many holy people were terrible artists. Art is not a strictly moral activity, which John Paul II acknowledges in his Letter to Artists:

It is one thing for human beings to be the authors of their own acts, with responsibility for their moral value; it is another to be an artist, able, that is, to respond to the demands of art and faithfully to accept art’s specific dictates. This is what makes the artist capable of producing objects, but it says nothing as yet of his moral character. We are speaking not of molding oneself, of forming one’s own personality, but simply of actualizing one’s productive capacities, giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind (2).

Artistic intuition and technical skillfulness are natural talents, God-given but not contingent on the life of grace, and certainly not distributed equally among all His children. Natural talents simply are, and a person need not be religious to practice and improve his art. This is why someone can be both a great artist and tortured soul.

Yet, while making a clear distinction between art and morality, John Paul claims that art itself provides an artist with an opportunity to grow in holiness, insofar as he is willing.

In my forthcoming historical novel, my main character is a talented mantua-maker, or dressmaker. Molly considers herself an artist; she certainly has the “genuine artistic intuition” that John Paul speaks of. Molly also happens to be exceptionally beautiful, with a pretty face and shapely figure, “the object of men’s lust and women’s envy.” Yet she is not vain. For her, attention is a cross, not a compliment.

I knew this about Molly early on in the drafting of my book, but I worried about its veracity. Few people are indifferent to attention. Molly has faults aplenty, but her lack of vanity was a point of characterization that stretched credulity.

Then I remembered she was an artist, and everything made sense.

Why? Because Molly’s mother taught her that humility was an essential virtue for the practice of art. Truly great artists remove themselves from the center of attention, stand back, and observe. Only then can they perceive and communicate essential truths, seeing things as they really are by thinking more about others and less about themselves.

The best of gowns flattered not only a woman’s body, but her soul. “Artists must be observant and empathetic,” Mama had said. “Look for the goodness in others, and art will follow” (Ortiz, In Pieces, Ch. 1).

Molly’s task as a mantua-maker is to reveal the beauty of another person through the art of dress. Here we see how this can be a means of character formation with regards vanity. An artist has no time for personal vanity when she attentive to the beauty of another person. In order for the artist to “reach beneath reality’s surface” and “interpret its hidden mystery,” as John Paul puts it, egotism must give way. Thanks to her mother’s instruction, Molly’s interest in art supersedes any temptation she may have had to self-aggrandizement.

“The distinction between the moral and artistic aspects is fundamental, but no less important is the connection between them,” John Paul says:

Each conditions the other in a profound way. In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are. And there are endless examples of this in human history. In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth (2).

The more the artist focuses on his work, the more he sees the truths of God and His creation. Sin darkens the intellect; grace gives sight to the blind. The better he sees, the better his formation. The better his formation, the greater his union with the Great Artist Himself. The closer he draws to God, the better he can perceive and communicate these truths. The holier the artist, the better the art. The better the art, the holier the artist.

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