Updated: May 12
J.M.W Turner: Fishing Boat, 1837/38
The main purpose of the arts is to elevate our human condition, to console us in suffering, and to direct us toward heaven. Today, in a culture that constantly pushes us to be ever more efficient and productive, we forget to take a step back, slow down, and contemplate our existence. To counter this culture of industriousness and commerce, the ‘commercial’ culture has even commercialized ‘wellness’ and ‘mindfulness’ with an explosion of new wellness programs such as the CALM app, mindfulness yoga retreats and beach vacations with no smartphones.
Yet, there is an alternative to these commercial solutions to restore a sense of order and sanity to our lives — the fine arts. Josef Pieper in his masterpiece, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, states that work ought to liberate man to be engaged in reading and good culture, an intellectual and spiritual endeavor that elevates the human spirit towards the heavens. He states that man in the 20th Century is focused on becoming an industrious worker to the detriment of his soul, his morality and his existence. This can be seen in Europe where beautiful old towns symbolizing a harmony of man with society are demolished to make way for large towers to serve banks and other technology industries that symbolize income inequality.
For Pieper, the fine arts, the practice of drawing, painting, reading, writing, classical music and the spiritual life teaches us to form our souls to grow in deeper unity with the three transcendentals — truth, goodness and beauty. The Fine Arts is a mechanism to liberate our ourselves from our own selfishness, ignorance, fear, sinfulness and anxieties to freely love the Summum Bonum, the highest good — God, who is the source of all goodness. For ‘man cannot live this way insofar as he is man, but only insofar as something divine dwells in him’ (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle).
The fine arts can help us to grow in virtue and liberate ourselves from our own failings.
Fine Arts and the Virtues
Truth, Goodness and Beauty are the three transcendentals that form us to be children of God and to live in His presence. The transcendentals serve to help us grow in virtue and live out the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. This growth and movement help elevate our existence. The longing for love, truth and beauty provides us with a clear vision and direction to form our souls with the virtues of integrity, charity, justice, prudence, fortitude and other excellences to become better stewards of ourselves, our families and our communities.
Such virtues are essential for human flourishing and help advance a culture that is rooted in Truth and authentic excellence. For the fine arts challenge us to demand perfection out of ourselves. A perfection that seeks to honor God in everything that we do. St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, once said that the fine statues positioned at the heights of the Duomo of Milan point toward God for the statues seek to honor God rather than the skills of man. For the artists who sculpted those statues and their patrons offered their talents to honor God and not to entertain the world, and by doing so they mastered an art form that is far more rigorous, sophisticated and difficult compared to postmodernism.
Florence, Italy — Home of the Medicis and the Birthplace of Numerous Artists, Artisans, Architects, Sculptures and Writers.
Beauty and Identity — Fine Arts and the City
The longing for love, truth and beauty plays an important role not only in forming our souls but in shaping our cultural identity. This can be seen in the timeless elegance of beautiful cities such as Sienna, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Venice, and different regions of Europe. Including regions of the new world where the first missionaries built beautiful baroque Mission churches and towns throughout the Americas and in certain regions of Asia. Artisan cultures existed prior to the arrival of Catholicism in the new world with local artisan traditions adopted to shape a unique culture in those regions of the world.
These principles of the fine and classical arts played an important role in adopting local cultural traditions to give a unique and shared identity to a region. The loss of this identity in an era of globalization is the loss of the identity of who we are as a people and where we come from.
Contemporary philosophers and theologians such as the late Sir Roger Scruton, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and many practitioners of the fine arts talk extensively about the importance of protecting and furthering these artistic traditions that extend beyond architecture but also to theater, music and art (Roger Scruton — Why Beauty Matters). These traditions are important to preserving one’s cultural identity, and sense of one’s place in the messiness of modern-day life. People who are genuinely interested in truth will discover that taking the time to practice the fine arts and engage in extensive reading, writing, and personal formation will help them grow out of a spirit of materialism, superficiality, and ignorance. They will find such endeavors deeply rewarding.
Over the past few weeks due to the ongoing crisis, museums, art galleries and foundations for the preservation of the fine arts have stepped up to provide free digital content and resources for the general public at no charge. This includes free online galleries to view the works of Flemish painters, free musical performances from leading symphonies from around the world, exhibitions on the fine arts featuring Raphael linked above commemorating 400 years of the death of this great artist and other free lectures on the ‘old masters’ from the 15th century.