There have been a few posts around the Catholic blogosphere on beauty in art that I haven’t linked to yet, partially because others have. Look for some links in a bit, but I wanted to start the first in a series of discussions on the nature of Catholic art. Now these are mostly thoughts in search of an argument, so I ask the reader to bear with me, and most of all, chime in with comments.
In the Western world, there is the concept of mimesis (from the Greek word meaning ‘imitation’). Since Plato thought poets were nuts, we’ll ignore him and start with Aristotle’s view of mimesis. In his Poetics, Aristotle presents mimesis as the chief aim of art, and in particular, drama. So what is art imitating? Life.
A piece of drama, or art, according to Aristotle, can in large part be judged on how close it represents real life. Now, there’s some important nuance here – while an audience must be able to relate to the characters and events of the play, at the same time, there should be some sort of distance between the audience and the events or persons being dramatised. Only in this way can the audience feel catharsis – in other words, if the audience feels they are too close to the characters in a tragedy, the emotions built up by watching the play won’t be released. So there is a bit of a paradox here – the mimesis or representation of life in art should be close to real life, but not too close.
I think this paradox continues in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox icons. Icons are representations of Christ, or of the saints, but they are highly stylized so that they do not resemble a real person too closely. This includes a prohibition on three dimensional art, such as statuary. The aim in this instance is not, of course, to produce catharsis but to emphasise the holiness of the person being depicted.
In the Roman tradition, this stylization is not emulated, and we are all familiar with classic Catholic statues. But any representation of the human figure in a religious context is unique to Catholicism and Orthodoxy amongst the Abrahamic faiths, since in Jewish tradition any depiction of God was strictly forbidden, and in Islam, any visual representation of living beings is a big no no.
So what makes Catholics and the Orthodox willing to depict Christ and the saints in art? The reason is one of the central tenets of our faith: the Word was made flesh, and God became incarnate among us; God chose to enter the material world as one of us, fully human and fully divine.
This central mystery of our faith leads us as Catholics to a different understanding of the material world as well. In all that God has created lies the beauty and holiness of God. In the same book recently alluded to by Pope Benedict, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes Catholicism “supplies a multitude of external forms, in which the Spiritual may be clothed and manifested.” In our art, one of the chief things we are trying to ‘imitate’ or represent is that sacred mystery of the Incarnation.
And in another sense, Catholic artists are all humble imitators. “Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God””
The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman).
What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God.
From Pope John Paul the Great’s Letter to Artists (see link on sidebar).
From here, we still need to discuss sacrament and mystery, touch on some comments about allegory, and we’ll see where we get.