Art and Morality

Fr. Giles O.F.M.

All of creation is a reflection of God. The eyes of the saints were very keen in picking up on the different aspects of God represented in nature, and the world around them. Modern man, or perhaps more correctly _ sinful man, tends to be very dull witted when it comes to recognizing the spiritual aspects of the world around him. He sees the physical bodies, and never goes beyond what he sees. He never asks, "Why is this being here? or why does it grow?" The saints on the other hand were very much attuned to these things. They not only asked, "Why?" but they also found the answer: "God made it this way." Seeing the hand of God at work in His creation, gives to the enlightened soul, a glimpse of God and of Heaven.

The birds of the air are brought into existence, reared, sheltered, and fed by God. He is even aware of each and every one _ so much so, that He knows each and every time one falls from the sky. When we see the care that God gives to such insignificant creatures as these birds, we are forced to think of how much He loves us and all that He has done for us. His perfections: (goodness, truth, beauty, mercy, love, omnipotence, etc.) are constantly brought forth to our conscience, through the simple observation of the world around us. Perhaps none saw this more clearly than St. Francis. He observed all of creation and considered himself a brother to all that God had created. He was able to say: "brother sun, sister moon, sister birds," etc., because he saw that both they and he came from the same Heavenly Father.

Man is a creature of body and soul. These are inseparable as long as man is man. For once we separate the soul from the man, he becomes a corpse, and is no longer a man. Therefore it has become man's duty to be the link between the physical and the spiritual. His duty, as given to him by God through Adam, is to put everything in its correct supernatural order. All nature moans and travails awaiting the coming of the sons of God. We are called therefore to bring all of His creation to a greater love of its Creator.

In order to accomplish this goal, it has become necessary for men to come up with ways of expressing these perfections of God that he sees around him, and of instructing others, so that they too may be elevated to this same knowledge, love and understanding of God and the world around them. These methods we generically call "art". The saints were all artists. They set about using the material things that God has given them to elevate other men's minds and hearts to God, through a demonstration of beautiful things. Their works are art in the truest sense. The pictures, sculptures, poems, prose, songs, etc. that the saints created are true works of art, because they elevate our minds and hearts to God or at least to one or more of His perfections considered abstractly.

Man is an ethical being and all his works have an ethical value. There is no real separation of ethical and esthetic in man, or his works. The further we penetrate into nature _ this spiritual and physical reality in which we live _ and the more we make it ours, the deeper become our reactions and the better do we understand truth, love goodness and admire beauty. And when we give outward expression to the feelings which have been thus deepened, we enhance the value of our lives and those around us. Falsehood, evil and ugliness do not exist in nature; they are a disharmony in our relation with nature, a deterioration or reversal of values. They are in fact a disequilibrium between us and the external world, or between us and ourselves, as of two forces in opposition. It is impossible for falsehood to be good and beautiful, for evil to be true and beautiful, or for ugliness to be true and good.

This absolute and abstract formula may appear to be a paradox, yet it is not. It only appears to be a paradox because we usually do not find the absolute or abstract perfections alone in the concrete physical stuff of human activity. The false, the evil, and the ugly are always interwoven with the true, the good and the beautiful in innumerable grades and qualities, so that now the one, now the other, predominates: and often there is no clear distinction between them. It is very much like trying to explain to children the lives of Saints. "If St. Agustine was a saint and pleasing to God, then the time of his youth really could not have been all that bad." Or "If Sampson were good, then why did he sin?" They often fail to see that sometimes men are good and sometimes the same men may be bad, and we are to imitate the good things and avoid the bad.

If a poet sings of emotions he does not feel, as, for instance, when he writes for a royal wedding or other similar event, his work is said to ring false, like someone singing off key, because he lacks sincerity. He may write verses technically perfect, but he will not produce true poetry. For this reason artists are urged to be sincere, to express what they feel, to live the life of that which they wish to represent, to make it part of themselves, to feel it in its profound reality. Superficiality in art is the beginning of falsity; and all falsity is fundamentally ugly. When the poet deeply feels and understands what he is trying to represent it becomes beautiful. Beauty thus conceived is fundamentally moral. If it is not moral, it is not true beauty, and any part that is not moral will likewise not be beautiful.

The purpose of all art is to idealize, to capture and reproduce for others to enjoy or learn of one or more of God's perfections, either abstractly or in God Himself. And in this it is moral. If the ideals which it presents are true, good and beautiful then it is moral and good art; if the ideals it presents are false, bad, or ugly then it becomes immoral and therefore bad "art" or not even art at all.

There are two extremes here: one that has the ideal but no technical perfection, such as a child's painting for his mother (his picture is filled with the ideal of his love for his mother), but is basically childish scribblings; the other has technical perfection but no ideal or meaning, such as the poet mentioned above. Both fail to be classified as true art. But, if one were to make a judgment of the worth of the two, undoubtedly the work that has the ideal but not the technical perfections would be preferred.

The tendency in most fields of "art" is to push the limits of morality. For example, it is generally considered immodest or immoral to represent naked bodies. Yet at the same time it is generally not considered immoral to see a naked baby, or a naked shipwrecked man. Or, if the naked body represents an ideal or a perfection (such as beauty, love, chastity, etc.) it is generally not considered immoral, and is true art. Nudity becomes pornography and thus indecent and immoral when it is devoid of these things. Many "modern artists" gain their fame by pushing these limits of morality, and playing on the depraved desires of the masses to "safely" experience the forbidden. And they will claim that their perverse representations are art because some other art contains nudity. They will not accept the fact that their "art" lacks any true ideal or perfection, and is therefore not art at all. And those that follow these "artists" will try to go beyond what their predecessors have done by pushing the limits even further, until "modern art" ends in an endless downward spiral of satanic immorality.

As the boundaries of "art" are pushed back further and further, society's morals are pushed back further and further, until we arrive at a state where one can say almost without exception that most modern art (pictorial, carved, written, sung, danced, etc.) has become immoral and therefore is not art at all.

Art which does not idealize is not true art. A purely naturalistic and sensual "art" can never attain true beauty. If technical perfection may compensate, to a certain extent, for poverty of spiritual and ideal substance and sometimes allow us to forget the morbidity of the subject, yet, unaided, it succeeds only in imparting a partial and limited esthetic value to the work of art. True art is like good in itself, it is inseparable from the other perfections. In nature as in art, the true, the good and the beautiful are convertible; they are one and the same reality as known, enjoyed and admired.

Our galleries are filled with the scribblings of undisciplined and often uninspired "artists". We find many works devoid of any technical perfection, and many more devoid of any ideal or reality to portray. Our televisions and cinemas are likewise filled with "art" that has no, or very little, moral value; on the contrary they appeal more to the masses by being shocking and daring in their disregard of morality. Our musical entertainments seek to become louder and wilder in an insatiable desire to cast away the moral limits given us by our predecessors. Or they seek to romanticize and make acceptable the sensuous crimes of others in order entice us to the like crimes against nature and God. The same may be said of all forms of art.

There is much good art available for us to enjoy, but we must learn to search it out and discover the meaning the artists wishes to communicate. We must learn to perceive the perfections and realize that these things should bring us closer to God. But above all, we should remember that the works of the saints are our greatest treasures from which we should learn to know, treasure, enjoy and admire God. They have lead the way to heaven, and have given us many guideposts and maps of the way in which we must travel. If art is true, it will be able to lead us not only to a happiness here on earth, but more importantly to an eternal happiness in heaven with God.

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