Art for Goodness’ Sake
The Virgin of Humility (1435-1445) by Fra Angelico (Bl. Giovanni da Fiesole). Located in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.
How many famous artists can you name who have been canonized? You’re doing well if you name Fra Angelico, the patron of artists—except that he’s only been beatified, and officially just since 1982. Catherine of Bologna, patroness of artists (and perhaps suitably enough, temptations), has been canonized, though painting was only one of her accomplishments and her work today is not widely known. Hildegard of Bingen? Similar story, and never formally canonized. Tradition has it that St. Luke had time to practice art between doctoring and writing: The disputed Black Madonna of Czestochowa is said to be from his hand—but few art history books recognize him in their indexes.
The embarrassing reality is that there aren’t any. Apart from one or two obscure artist-saints (ever heard of St. Anthony Primaldi or St. Tutilo?), no one out of the entire panoply of artistic greats has received official recognition by the Church for a life of holiness. For all that the Church has lavished painters, sculptors, mosaicists, and architects with honors and commissioned and proudly displayed their works in places of worship from the humblest country chapel to St. Peter’s itself, there is no St. Leonardo, no St. Michelangelo, no St. Rubens.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that heaven is actually devoid of these or other artistic geniuses, only that the Church has so far had no motive to make positive declarations about any of them. And the story is different for the Orthodox, who celebrate numerous iconographer-saints in their calendar (none more famous than Andrei Rublev). Nevertheless, two questions arise in connection with this apparent deficiency: What’s the deal with artists, and should their personal holiness or lack thereof affect our response to their work?
Just Like Everybody Else
The deal with artists, to begin with, and with creative people of all types, is that they are by and large an egotistical, narcissistic bunch—or at least they can seem that way. Artists exercise what can look like overweening confidence in the face of criticism, attention to the task at hand that smacks of insensitivity to other people’s needs, and unstinting introspection that may be indistinguishable from naked self-absorption. And given the sometimes difficult-to-appreciate results of their labor, it’s easy to accuse artists of useless self-indulgence.
These may be nothing more than the impressions of prejudiced observers, or they may be very real spiritual defects. More difficult to avoid is the practical truth that art-making is a time-consuming and typically solitary activity that does nothing directly to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or comfort the afflicted, save perhaps in some metaphorical sense.
None of this is the behavior we expect from saints; taken all together, it’s no wonder that artists can have image problems (no pun intended) when it comes to the evaluation of their causes. “How hard it is for artists to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle . . .”
Of course many, perhaps most, artists are quiet, hardworking folk who are no better or worse than the rest of humanity, morally speaking. Like the followers of every other vocation, artists are afflicted with their own mix of familiar temptations and weaknesses—pride, ambition, jealousy, sloth, sensuality, and self-pity are common pitfalls. But perhaps artists most often fall victim to a danger unique to their calling, namely aestheticism, whose damaging effects may go a long way toward explaining the canonization deficit.
What I Did for Art
Aestheticism presumes to elevate the artistic vocation above any moral jurisdiction. Art is everything, aesthetic law the supreme authority. Those given to this tempting error believe it authorizes them, indeed requires them, to do whatever it takes to bring their creative vision to a successful conclusion. The finished work of art is a goal that must be reached at all costs, and any sin or transgression met with along the way will be justified and atoned for by the work itself. For an “outsider” like the Church to attempt to hinder them or set limits by invoking a proscriptive moral code is to summon up outraged cries of “censorship.”
Human nature being what it is, advocates of aestheticism (notably, the romantics and their descendants) will time and again perversely assert their supposed license by deliberate acts of moral and aesthetic rebellion. They let it be known that to nurture their creative vision they will preferentially seek inspiration down the darker avenues of human experience, instead of along the bright paths of holiness, and they will produce art as shocking or “transgressive” as they choose. Consequently, there’s no vice, excess of appetite, or character defect so great, no dissipation so low, no neglect of religious duty so complete, that it has not been excused with the words, “I am an Artist. I do what I do for Art.”
Clearly, this is to make art into an idol, to which some decadent individuals have sacrificed not only their time, talent, and treasure, but their souls as well. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera once remarked, “I’ve never believed in God, but I believe in Picasso.” Aestheticism makes art a god and artists its priests, leaving no room for worship of the true God. When Asbury, the irreligious and self-absorbed writer in Flannery O’Connor’s tale “The Enduring Chill,” ventures the pompous remark, “The artist prays by creating,” the old priest he’d been addressing snaps back, “Not enough! . . . If you do not pray daily, you are neglecting your immortal soul.” “It is absolutely necessary,” writes Jacques Maritain, “that the artist . . . work for something other than his work, for something better loved. God is infinitely more lovable than art” (Art and Scholasticism, ch. 9).
Genius Does Not Equal Sanctity
To a greater or lesser degree, all artists may find themselves susceptible to the false gospel of aestheticism, tempted to glory in the merits of their own efforts. But even those with the noblest intentions, who employ their talents toward the creation of beautiful things, are not excused from saving their souls by the ordinary and recommended means. St. Thomas Aquinas observes that the artist qua artist works for the perfection of the work of art, but the artist qua human being must work out his salvation in fear and trembling like anyone else. Making a great work of art is assuredly—and perhaps unfortunately—an act incapable of perfecting the soul or granting the forgiveness of sins; no more is it a basis for canonization.
Nevertheless, given a choice between producing an artistic masterpiece but remaining a sinner to their dying day, or living a holy life without once setting their hand to the least creative production, how many artists would take the first option and presume on God’s mercy for the rest? We may hope that few would do so, but how else to explain the dearth of canonized artists?
On the other hand, the problem may have less to do with the artistic vocation itself than with malign ambition and the intoxicating effects of praise. The talented and deserving artist may find it just as hard to resist the temptation to lard his self-opinion with the flattery and compliments that come with material success as the CEO, politician, or movie star. Those already predisposed to seek greatness in this world may well obtain it, but to ensure themselves a place in the next is generally not high on the agenda.
Can it be that holiness precludes artistic greatness? Or vice versa? Surely not. But neither one is easy to attain, and to attain both is doubly difficult—”difficulty squared,” says Maritain. Consider that even the humble medieval artisan or cathedral builder is poorly represented in the canon of saints. Bl. Fra Angelico, an indisputably great but famously humble artist, refused honors and riches, and painted only religious subjects. He sought tranquility in the religious life, believing, as he often remarked, that “to paint the things of Christ, you must live as Christ lived.” His is the true artistic priesthood, but few have the conviction or the talent to follow his example.
Angelico’s work glows with innocence and is imbued with a sweetly pious spirit, yet perhaps no more so than the work of some of his less virtuous peers. Which brings us to the second point. Given the sometimes shocking immorality of artists, what are we to make of their art? Is it possible to overlook their moral failings while admiring their creations?
Made by Sinners
Distaste for artists’ sins public or private, known or suspected, easily translates into distaste for their creative output. Paintings have been repudiated, statues ignored, films boycotted—not because of their lack of aesthetic merit or even their objectionable content, but only because they were produced by or feature so-and-so, whose opinions or lifestyle are deemed offensive.
The opposite happens as well: Works are lauded (sometimes in spite of obvious aesthetic mediocrity) chiefly because their maker is a good Christian.
The fallacy here is guilt or innocence by association. Works of art are independent creatures, like children, and neither the sins of their fathers nor their virtues should be visited upon them.
As it happens, every work of art anyone has ever laid eyes on was made by a sinner. Some were more notorious sinners than others: In their biographies artists are shown to be philanderers, adulterers, liars, bullies, thieves, and murderers—and many made not even the slightest appeal to aestheticism in defense of their actions. But if the aesthetic value of art were set by the character and virtue of the artist who created it, then our museums would be sparsely furnished indeed. And if sinners are incapable of performing good works, then we’re all doomed.
Thanks be to God, grace can restore the good and the beautiful in a world marred by sin. Although some sensitive observers claim to detect in works of art flaws and deformities that betray their creators’ sins, it is entirely possible for a great work of art to be made by a great sinner. Indisputably great art has been inspired by great sins, from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the personal sins of the artist. God works out all things for the good, though it were best sin had never entered the world.
Certainly, artists are answerable to God for the uses to which they put their gifts. Art deliberately marked with corruption has little to recommend it. “Art which offends God offends the Christian too, and . . . immediately loses . . . any claim to beauty (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, ch. 9). In the end, it is for us to judge art, not artists. We may enjoy artistic greatness wherever we may find it, no matter by whom produced, and pray God, we may yet meet the artist in the heavenly kingdom.