On November 22, 2009, in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict XVI delivered an address to an audience of 250 singers, musicians, writers, painters, architects, sculptors, actors and film producers. The address, "You Are the Custodians of Beauty," suggested the possibility of "a via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry."
Not surprisingly, the pontiff affirmed the work of artists in bringing beauty into the world and elevating our gaze above its negative elements, combating the decline into resignation and despair. He emphasized the importance of the arts in the realm of faith and vice versa.
As I began to read the address (in translation), I admit that I braced myself for a reduction of art to the attractive and pleasant.
I am thankful to say that I was pleasantly surprised. While Benedict XVI did use the word "beauty" or "beautiful" forty-four times in the short speech, and while his only mention of music was "in the service of the liturgy," it is to his credit that he affirmed even more art's power to challenge and shock, using this quote from painter Georges Braque: "Art is meant to disturb, science reassures."
He went on to say that art "pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path," and stated explicitly that he is not promoting easy, escapist art. This acknowledgment of difficult art was balanced by a rejection of "gratuitous provocation" and of "seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others."
I wonder how many artists feel, as I do, a constant struggle to find what it can possibly mean for me to make art that could lead hearts toward the infinite. Perhaps there is some help to be found in Benedict XVI's words: "The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity."
Could it be in the nature of art itself, the effort to create something meaningful and share something about the nature of being alive--could it be intrinsic to making art? Surely not, or all art would draw us deeper in faith. Is it some mysterious transference of my struggle toward faith that finds its way into my work without any direct intention on my part?
No, I think artists make decisions. Not always--there are surely many mysteries, many happy accidents. But I think it is possible for me to choose to make a destructive work, a work that discourages, that incites rage, and so on. Likewise, I think it is possible for me to make a positive work, not merely "happy" but a work that engages with the nature of life and meaning in some small but beneficial way.
To whatever degree I make these choices, I want to make good ones.