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  • John Paul II’s Letter to Artists and the Force of Beauty
  • James Matthew Wilson (bio)

One of the many remarkable documents of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate was his 1999 Letter to Artists. It exemplified the Pope’s practice of engaging the world and of encouraging the pursuit of various avenues to the Divine as part of the New Evangelization. Further, it recalled the ancient understanding of beauty as integral to the spiritual life of man and as a name of God while confirming the distinctly modern self-image of the Church as the unique preserve of the West’s intellectual and cultural achievements. In the process of answering many questions about how the Church might engage artists and how artists might serve the Church, it raised deeper ones that are touched on but not systematically treated.

One of those questions is decisive for the meaning of the Letter and of serious consequence for us today. Namely, if the artist has a special spiritual vocation in the Church, John Paul says it is to make beautiful things, and the beauty of those things must be capable of enthusing its audience and raising it up in the service of the common good.1 But, it is far from clear that contemporary artists understand their work to have such an aim as beauty, much less a beauty in service of a shared good, as is it questionable whether most persons in [End Page 46] our age can envision artworks as standing outside “the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity” in service of some transcendent end.2 Has not the philosophy of beauty since Kant been only too successful in convincing us that beauty refers only to a certain kind of superficial pleasure, and that art, to the extent that it is serious, no longer concerns itself with beauty at all?3 Rightly or wrongly, the common sense of our day may actually anesthetize most persons against the experience of art that John Paul views as so important. In answer to such a possibility, I would like to examine the implications of John Paul’s account of the artist and to set forth the principles that would have to be true if art and the beautiful were to play a meaningful role in the New Evangelization. I shall then attempt to vindicate the truth of those principles with specific reference to the ontology of beauty that various writers have extrapolated from the theology of Aquinas.

John Paul appeals to a venerable but challenging analogy in the opening paragraphs of his letter, citing the absolute creativity of God as a sign of the distinctiveness of artistic work. He writes, “Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God’ . . . in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him.”4 The fundamental conception of man as image of God specifically in his identity as an intellectual being endowed with free will is not simply assumed here but is also further specified, taking on a new dimension: we see that man, like God, can cause the acts of his intellect and will to bring forth new things that exist apart from themselves.5 The act of making an artifact puts an objective seal on our otherwise private intellectual natures as the image of the Divine Mind. To make something also brings about a kind of self-disclosure, a revealing of one being to another that comes through matter but is fundamentally intellectual or spiritual rather than material in nature.6 This dimension of man’s creativity the Pope had already explored in regard to work in his early poetry and in the social encyclical Laborum Exercens (1981). But, in the Letter, the Pope emphasizes the special [End Page 47] attributes of the fine artist, writing, “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. . . . [Thus, through] his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them.”7

Such language purposefully gives us an immanent conception...


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pp. 46-70
Launched on MUSE
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