Goodness, Beauty, & Truth: The Obligation of the Catholic Artist

…Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing.

—CCC 2501

When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always answered without hesitation, “An artist!” Usually, at that age (around first grade), I’d add a little flair to my statement, as if to punctuate it with pride. I considered myself an artist, because others admired my work. And I won awards for my pencil sketches of the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus, for my watercolor creations, and for my poetry.

I learned that most adults don’t consider themselves artists, however. And I came to adopt the societal mindset that artists were quirky, starving, and unconventional. About a year ago, I attended a performing arts demonstration about creativity, and I remembered that God is Creator, and that we, as His Image, are co-creators. In a way, we are all artists.

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.

—St. John Paul II, Letter to Artists

On being a Catholic artist versus being a Catholic who is an artist

After becoming a published author six years ago, I realized there were at least two camps in which artists considered themselves—a Catholic artist or an artist who is Catholic. The distinction, though subtle, is powerful. I inadvertently stumbled into the “Catholic artist” arena, which meant that readers and editors and publishers expected me to deliver work that fit into theology or spirituality all the time.

Those who classify themselves as artists who are Catholic tend to have a broader vision of their work. They don’t neatly assemble everything they create into a tidy box, because it weakens the scope of what they are called to do. In recent years, I have felt a tug in this direction. I’ve found that many who are already branded as a “Catholic artist” feel a sense of loss or guilt in moving away from the very narrow Catholic audience and into a wider world of evangelizing those who may not even be Christian – through art.

Not all of us are called to create literal works of art, as in visual or performing art. We are not all musicians or sculptors or painters or book authors or poets. But we are all co-creators in whatever capacity God has entrusted us with in sharing His mission and work with the world.

Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation…feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent.

—St. John Paul II, Ibid.

On subjective interpretation of objective Truth

If an artist is serious about his or her faith, then naturally it will spill into the work they create. Objective Truth, though unwavering, can be painted on a canvas by ten different people and look entirely different. The same is true for a writer. Suppose we took the famous Gospel passage about Jesus calming the storm and asked for ten painters to share their depiction. We would have some who focus on the storm itself, some who depict Jesus as the central figure, some who are gifted at the use of color or realism or impressionism, etc. 

Likewise, ten different writers would share very different, but equally breathtaking, stories based on this Gospel. Some may write a poem. Others would share a story in first person with the Apostles as narrator; another might make Jesus the narrator. Still another might reflect on some obscure word or phrase that often goes unnoticed.

Irrespective of how an artist uses his or her talents, the point is that they must use them. There is a sense of urgency that to squander one’s perspective that can put into words or emotions what others cannot do themselves is a serious violation of one’s vocation.

Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things…

—St. John Paul II

On merging the active and contemplative ways of being in the world

There’s a common misconception that artists are always holed up in some cluttered studio or shack, buried in their work and inaccessible to even their loved ones. Artists tend to be misunderstood and misinterpreted as esoteric figures, haunting and brooding. Some certainly are. But many are not. 

In Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, her 30+ year research demonstrates that about 20% of the population carries this trait of high sensitivity, which includes the ability to notice subtleties that most overlook. Many artists are highly attuned to the world around them and have a deep, rich inner life, as well—both of which often emerge in their work. This is how they combine the contemplative (inner, meditative) world with the active (real, lived) life—and that is a rare skill.

Artists are dreamers but also doers. They are deep thinkers and playful actors. They are dramatic and quiet. But if they use their gifts wisely and well, their work will become timeless masterpieces that echo of goodness, beauty, and truth generations after they are gone from Earth. The Church and the world need artists, because they reflect back to most of us what we are unable or unwilling to see and ponder. Artists keep our hearts elevated to heaven while our feet are firmly grounded on earth.

Begin or continue your creative calling with this Prayer of Artists.

Photo by Diogo Fagundes on Unsplash

By

Jeannie Ewing is a Catholic spirituality writer who writes about the moving through grief, the value of redemptive suffering, and how to wait for God’s timing fruitfully. Her books include Navigating Deep Waters, From Grief to Grace , A Sea Without A Shore For Those Who Grieve, and Waiting with Purpose. She is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic periodicals. Jeannie, her husband, and their three daughters (plus one baby boy) live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website jeannieewing.com.  Follow Jeannie on social media:  Facebook | LinkedIn |Instagram

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