Ethical responsibilities in art

On Wednesday, 6 May, at the General Audience held in St Peter’s Square, the Holy Father concluded his reflection on the theology of the body based on the words of the Sermon on the Mount.  The next chapter of his reflections will be based on Christ’s words concerning future resurrection.

Pope John Paul delivered the following address.

1.  In the Sermon on the Mount Christ spoke the words to which we have devoted a series of reflections in the course of almost a year.  Explaining to his listeners the specific meaning of the commandment: “You shall not commit adultery”, Christ expressed himself as follows:  “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28).  The above-mentioned words seem to refer also to the vast spheres of human culture, especially those of artistic activity, with which we have already recently dealt in the course of some of Wednesday meetings.  Today it is opportune for us to dedicate the final part of these reflections to the problem of the relationship between the ethos of the image—or of the description—and the ethos of the viewing and listening, reading or other forms of cognitive reception with which one meets the content of the work of are or of audiovision understood in the broad sense.

The body in art

2. And here we return once more to the problem already previously mentioned: if and to what extent can the human body, in the whole visible truth of its masculinity and femininity, be a subject of works of art and thereby a subject of that specific social “communication” for which these works are intended.  This question refers even more to modern “mass” culture, connected with the audiovisual media.  Can the human body be such a model-subject, since we know that with this is connected that objectivity “without choice” which we first called anonymity, and which seems to bring with it a serious potential threat to the whole sphere of meanings, peculiar to the body of man and woman because of the personal character of the human subject and the character of “communion” of interpersonal relations?

One can add at this point that the expressions “pornography” or “pornovision”—despite their ancient etymology—appeared in language relatively late.  The traditional Latin terminology used the word obscaena, indicating in this way everything that should not appear before the eyes of spectators, what should be surrounded with opportune discretion, what cannot be presented to human view without any choice.

Body a model-subject

3. Asking the preceding question, we realize that, de facto, in the course of whole periods of human culture and artistic activity, the human body has been and is such a model-subject of visual works of art, just as the whole sphere of love between man and woman, and, connected with it, also the “mutual donation” of masculinity and femininity in their corporeal expression, has been, is and will be a subject of literary narrative.  Such narration found its place even in the Bible, especially in the text of the “Song of Songs”, which it will be opportune to take up again on another occasion.  In Fact, it should be noted that in the history of literature or art, in the history of human culture, this subject seems particularly frequent and is particularly important.  In fact, it concerns a problem which in itself is great and important.  We showed this right from the beginning of our reflections, following the tracks of the scriptural texts, which reveal to us the proper dimension of this problem: that is, the dignity of man in his masculine and feminine corporeity, and the nuptial meaning of femininity and masculinity, inscribed in the whole interior—and at the same time visible—structure of the human person.

Special ethical responsibility

4. Our preceding reflections did not intend to question the right to this subject.  They aim merely at proving that its treatment is connected with a special responsibility which is not only artistic, but also ethical in nature.  The artist, who undertakes that theme in any sphere of art or through audiovisual media, must be aware of the full truth of the object, of the whole scale of values connected with it; he must not only take them into account in abstracto, but also live them correctly himself.  This corresponds also to that principle of “purity of heart”, which, in determined cases, must be transferred from the existential sphere of attitudes and ways of behaviour to the intentional sphere of creation or artistic reproduction.

It seems that the process of this creation aims not only at making the model concrete (and in a way at a new “materializing”), but, at the same time, at expressing in such concretizing what can be called the creative idea of the artist, in which his interior world of values, and so also his living the truth of his object, is precisely manifested.  In this process there takes place a characteristic transfiguration of the model or of the material and, in particular, of what is man, the human body in the whole truth of its masculinity or femininity.  (From this point of view, as we have already mentioned, there is a very important difference, for example, between the painting or sculpture and the photograph or film).  The viewer, invited by the artist to look at his work, communicates not only with the concretizing, and so, in a sense, with a new “materializing” of the model or of the material, but at the same time communicates with the truth of the object which the author, in his artistic “materializing”, succeeded in expressing with his own specific media.

Element of sublimation in true art

5. In the course of the various eras, beginning from antiquity—and above all in the great period of Greek classical art—there are works of art whose subject is the human body in its nakedness, and the contemplation of which makes it possible to concentrate, in a way, on the whole truth of man, on the dignity and the beauty—also the “suprasensual” beauty—of his masculinity and femininity.  These works bear within them, almost hidden, an element of sublimation, which leads the viewer, through the body, to the whole personal mystery of man.  In contact with these works, where we do not feel drawn by their content to “looking lustfully”, about which the Sermon on the Mount speaks, we learn in a way that nuptial meaning of the body which corresponds to, and is the measure of, “purity of heart”.  But there are also works of art, and perhaps even more often reproductions, which arouse objection in the sphere of man’s personal sensitivity—not because of their object, since the human body in itself always has its inalienable dignity—but because of the quality or way of its reproduction, portrayal, artistic representation.  The various coefficients of the work or the reproduction can be decisive with regard to that way and that quality, as well as multiple circumstances, often more of a technical nature than an artistic one.

It is well known that through all these elements and very fundamental intentionality of the work of art or of the product of the respective media becomes, in a way, accessible to the viewer, as to the listener or the reader.  If our personal sensitivity reacts with objection and disapproval, it is because in that fundamental intentionality, together with the concretizing of man and his body, we discover as indispensable for the work of art or its reproduction, his simultaneous reduction to the level of an object, an object of “enjoyment”, intended for the satisfaction of concupiscence itself.  And that is contrary to the dignity of man also in the intentional order of art and reproduction.  By analogy, the same thing must be applied to the various fields of artistic activity—according to the respective specific character—as also to the various audiovisual media.  

Creating an atmosphere

6. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (n.22) emphasizes the “need to create an atmosphere favourable to education in chastity”; and with this he intends to affirm that the way of living the human body in the whole truth of its masculinity and femininity must correspond to the dignity of this body and to its significance in building the communion of persons.  It can be said that his is one of the fundamental dimensions of human culture, understood, as an affirmation which ennobles everything that is human.  Therefore, we have dedicated this brief sketch to the problem which, in synthesis, could be called that of the ethos of the image.  It is a question of the image which serves as an extraordinary “visualization” of man, and which must be understood more or less directly.  The sculpted or painted image expresses man “visually”; the play or the ballet expresses him “visually” in another way, the film in another way; even literary work, in its own way, aims at arousing interior images, using the riches of the imagination or of human memory.  So what we have called the “ethos of the image” cannot be considered apart from the correlative element, which we would have to call the “ethos of seeing”.  Between the two elements is contained the whole process of communication, independently of the vastness of the circles described by this communication which, in this case, is always “social”.

7. The creation of the atmosphere favourable to education in chastity contains these two elements; it concerns, so to speak, a reciprocal circuit which takes place between the image and the seeing, between the ethos of the image and the ethos of seeing.  Just as the creation of the image, in the broad and differentiated sense of the term, imposes on the author, artist or reproducer, obligations not only of an aesthetic but also of an ethical nature, so “looking”, understood according to the same broad analogy, imposes obligations on the one who is the recipient of the works.

True and responsible artistic activity aims at overcoming the anonymity of the human body as an object “without choice”, seeking (as has already been previously said), through creative effort, such an artistic expression of the truth about man in his feminine and masculine corporeity, which is, so to speak, assigned as a task to the viewer and, in the wider range, to every recipient of the work.  It depends on him, in his turn, to decide whether to make his own effort to approach this truth, or to remain merely a superficial “consumer” of impressions, that is, one who exploits the meeting with the anonymous body-subject only at the level of sensuality which, by itself, reacts to its object precisely “without choice”.

We conclude here this important chapter of our reflections on the theology of the body, whose starting point was the words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: words valid for the man of all times, for the “historical” man, and valid for each one of us.

The reflections on the theology of the body would not be complete, however, if we did not consider other words of Christ, namely, those with which he refers to the future resurrection.  So we propose to devote the next cycle of our consideration to them.

L'Osservatore Romano May 11, 1981
Reprinted with permission