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Art and culture commission


Carlo Chenis

Expectation, as our usual experience of life confirms, is rich in suggestions no less than the event. It opens the personal and collective imagination towards ideal worlds where ancestral memories build fantastic dreams for the delight of the senses, the intellect and also the religious spirit. Therefore expectation is a period filled with - more or less precise - emotions, which cannot but influence the demon of art.

How can we express these emotions that plough the ocean of the imagination of many minds? How can we incarnate in the sensible those still disunited intuitions that are awakening in the depths of the intellect of many artists? How can we give form to our own "sense of the end of the millennium" in an age that has been content to be situated "after" its own past, filling its language and culture with terms that include the jaded "post-" prefix?

So this period at the end of the millennium seems a challenge to the contemporary conscience. There are those who would like to describe it as the slow and relentless decline of humanity, others instead as the dawn, a herald of good omens, of the "civilization of love". So for some it predicts the ill-fated dies irae, for many instead it is the start of the dies Domini. Thus the intrigues of a culture that, after inventing new forms of material and spiritual poverty, is now saturated and decadent, can be countered with the auroral - a little Franciscan - ingenuity of a culture which again wants to put the person at the centre of history. In this sense this period becomes an "opportune time" where one can concentrate better on the urgency of living the springtime of the Spirit desired by Vatican II, by working with pentecostal fantasy for the consecratio mundi through zeal for charity and respect for creation. The art of well-being and of expressing the desire for a new life with perceptible forms demands genius and discipline since it is necessary to create an asceticism capable of giving concrete form to ideals of renewal and conveying them in enjoyable works.

Becoming part of this ambitious project is a foolhardy affair, but the believer grows in the conviction that the call to holiness involves his own transformation and consequently the transformation of the world. Thus one's own inner experience must be communicated for the benefit of others, one's own external commitment must be manifested in the results. Who more than the artist can express in the sensible the workings of his own of mind, heart and will in its quest for God? Who more than he can convey beauty in the world of forms to make them a sign of the new creation? Especially at this time, when a chronological era is symbolically ending, the artist is called not so much to be a Cassandra who predicts catastrophes, as the prophet of a new adventure of the spirit. So he will have to reveal to the masses the dark evil of individualism, he will have to make them feel the malaise of a secularized civilization, he will have to place his finger in the wound of indifference, but he must do this in the exalted splendour of art so that the evils of the present time may stimulate in peoples and in the young - the obvious sign of the future - a vigorous, constructive and creative critical conscience.

So art espouses the sacred since it is appointed to re-awaken consciences and open them to the values of the spirit. To speak of sacred art as a preamble to the faith, to speak of the role of contemporary sacred art as the chosen instrument for sensitizing the jubilee path is a good thing, which can encourage the artists of this difficult, yet ever exciting cultural season, to test their ability on the religious event. Therefore we must explain the meaning of art, ask ourselves which artistic expressions are open to the sacred, which sacred is truly suitable for transmitting the values of the Gospel, but above all we must allow artists to speak, we must give them cultural space so that they may create. If on the one hand we need to deduce the meaning of artists' poetry, on the other they must be urged to make their works understandable so that they may really be a gift for all humanity. Art in this sense expresses man's liberal action and therefore it emancipates him in what he is and in what he desires; art progresses, so it becomes part of the environment, it uses the experience of others and offers new ones; art is communication and therefore it cannot reach its peak in a private soliloquy. Moreover the sacred cannot be reduced to a nostalgic sense of the mysterious, it is not expressed in undifferentiated mythologies, but it evokes the encounter with the Absolute and reveals God's initiative in this evocation. If man can only depict his desire for the infinite, God can meet man in an act of love.

For art and for the faith there are no provincial areas, since they are both transcendental for man, the former through the grace of creation, the latter through the grace of the Spirit. On the other hand, past ages have shown with numerous examples how - even in humble and remote regions - civil and religious communities have invested in art in order to honour God, to manifest their love for their native region and at times for a proud display of power. Therefore every community is destined to portray its own religious sentiments as if to express, in the splendour of forms, the power of the redemption.

Hence in this historic moment at the end of the millennium we need a critical reflection on beauty and spirituality. Art has expressed the turmoil of our generations and made public the drama of the people of our times. At times art has been associated with the nihilist drama, and has remained a drama since it has not known how to help art-lovers cross the threshold of hope. Instead John Paul II's jubilee programme repeatedly urges us to cross the threshold of hope, after we have made a suitable penitential journey.

The penitential journey needs cleanliness of the spirit and of all its manifestations; it needs a constructive will instead of hysterical and apathetic denunciations; it requires a clear goal divined with the force of one's own intellect; it demands emotional zeal where the outpouring of the sentiments is ruled by love. This is the propitious beginning of the new creation in which men and women discover they are made in the image of God and therefore they become the creators of good and beautiful things.

Art is sacred if it is above all beautiful, that is, intrinsically splendid, because it is fully intelligible, so that it makes first the artist and then the person who enjoys it want to cross over into infinity. This art is religious if it produces a longing for the divine, namely, if it leads one to transcend one's own self in order to meet God and with him one's neighbour. This art is Christian if, through the adventures of the spirit, it recounts what happened between God and man in the history of salvation, if it rises to God like a sweet and profound prayer, if it makes "God's glory" visible, though in a hidden manner, in the celebration of the divine mysteries.

The artist of the sacred is called to gamble on art, on religion, on Christ. Above all on art, which must be liberal while recounting the drama of human existence, which is not without hope; then on religion, since he must join the human immanent dimension to God's transcendence; and especially on Christ, true man and true God, for since he wants to narrate the exploits of human existence he finds its embodiment in the crucified and glorious Christ, where death is conquered by life. For the believer the darkness that covers Good Friday removing the colours from creation, is scattered immediately without showing any resistance in the radiant light of the Resurrection which re-forms the rainbow of peace between God and humankind.

The contemporary artist is called to restore life to the withered bones of a human society corrupted by indifference. So he is not a phenomenologist of the crisis, he is a prophet who breathes the Spirit that is not his own, but which he has had the sublime task of pouring forth over the face of the earth. In expressing this divine intuition the artist must submit to the logic of the incarnation. So in his art he needs to make a careful and creative study of the subject he transforms even though he begins where there are already technical solutions and at the same time it is exemplarily before every attempt. His art requires constancy and creativity since it is not dissolute improvisation nor academic virtuosity.

We hope that the desired alliance between artists and the Church will be renewed so that after the impalpable opposition between faith and culture, and especially between faith and art, the time will come when we can again express our faith with art. In this path towards the third millennium art-lovers must help the people of our time, "weary and oppressed" by the crisis in spiritual values, to become pilgrims of the Absolute. They must arouse in them, through their enjoyment of perceptible beauty, a desire to contemplate the face of Christ. In this "time of grace" artists are called to suffuse their works with their personal and at times tormented experience of God so that He may reveal himself ad gentes, that is, to the Gentiles of our time, through the fragile mediation of human work.

We hope to "travel together" towards the year 2000 impelled to higher spiritual values by the liberal arts. In this journey we must leave aside the "desire for power" and the presumption of angelic purity in order to understand that in human actions there will always be mixed aspects of transgression and wisdom. Therefore, not a falsely pure and disembodied art but an art that knows how to sublimate the daily scenario in the divine.

If «per ardorem caritatis datur cognitio veritatis» (Thomas of Aquino), per pulchritudinem artis datur contemplatio gloriae Dei. Therefore, art can foster friendship among nations and the encounter with God, thus establishing peace in the depths of the human soul.