The Singapore branch of the Asian Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums held its first 2019 event on 31 March: a dinner and talk at Atout restaurant at Dempsey. 

During dinner, APAVM chairman Mr Ben Chang introduced the work of the Patrons to non-patrons who attended and highlighted the restoration work that was done in the Vatican museums with donations from the Asian Patrons.

He also spoke about APAVM trips in the past and the one planned for May 2020 to Malta, Rome and Vatican City.

Our guest speaker for the evening was The Rev Deacon Dr Sherman Kuek, OFS, a secular Franciscan, theologian and permanent deacon of the Catholic Church. He is incardinated in the diocese of Melaka-Johore, Malaysia, and is the convenor of the Splendour Project

Deacon Kuek spoke about art being a must in our lives, and without it, our lives will be impoverished. To be truly human, one needs art. The full text of his talk may be found here.

 

Art as an Imperative of Human Existence

Rev. Deacon Dr Sherman Kuek OFS

Long before the coming of Jesus Christ, the ancient Greek philosophers had already explicated the idea of a unitary source of truth (ἀληθές), beauty (καλόν) and goodness (ἀγαθόν). Plato, for example, posited that we should struggle to transcend the abyss that is our mediocre human condition towards an eternal state that he called the Forms, that is, a unified realm with a singular Supreme Form of the Good par excellence.

In Christian theology, these three elements of truth, beauty and goodness – also called the Transcendentals – are contemplated upon in relation to our doctrine of God. Truth, beauty and goodness are the ultimate desires of man. Man innately strives for perfection, that is, the attainment of ultimate truth, beauty, and goodness. In so doing, man strives to reach for the divine, just as the Catholic Church teaches that God is himself Truth, Beauty and Goodness. This explains the perennial belief that the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness transcends time and space, culture and context.

 

 

ART AND THE MODERN DECADENCE OF RELATIVISM

Considering the state in which Western human civilisation exists as a result of the 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment which birthed forth the elusive monster of epistemological and moral relativism, the Greek philosophers’ explication of the Transcendentals by way of truth, beauty and goodness cannot be more apt. Virtually every field of study and praxis common to modern society has been contaminated by the fallacy of non-absolutism: law, history, economics, psychology, philosophy, art, literature, theology, and sociology, among many others. Humanity has and increasingly continues to lose hold of its endeavours for the absolutes of life and existence. In specific reference to the Transcendentals, humanity has lost its appetite for truth and goodness. But the recovery of this buried appetite for truth and goodness is precisely that which is needed for the healing of modern man’s cognitive dissonance. René Descartes propagated that once we clearly perceive truth and goodness, these virtues constrain human judgement to once again assent to the true and to desire the good such that “a great light in the intellect generates a great propensity in the will”.

This is where I submit that art finds its rightful place in the mitigation of the modern human malady. The art to which this brief treatise refers is sacred art, that is, art that is anagogic in nature (meaning, art that leads one on an upward ascent). For this purpose, we cannot but speak of art in its noblest form. The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the due stature of such art as “a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches” (CCC 2501). Where man’s faculty of reason no longer is the arbiter of truth and goodness, art’s language of beauty and aesthetics continues to draw him into the truth and the goodness it represents. Whilst the ancient philosophers posited that truth, beauty and goodness were three equals that were interior to one another, beauty was considered to be their outward expression, their external appearance.

Inasmuch as it may sound perverted, even diabolical, to the modern ears, the role of sacred art is to invoke erotic love. The term used by the Holy Catholic Church for the natural reaction of humanity towards beauty is eros. Much like the resonance of a tuning fork, beauty awakens man’s eros, that is, his longing and desire for something beyond himself. It passes through the alley of finite realities and propels us towards the infinite. Humanity has a natural, perhaps a divinely imbued, appetite for this experience. This too was affirmed by Saint Basil of Caesarea (379 AD), “By nature men desire the beautiful.”

The Russian Orthodox novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in one of his four greatest novels entitled Demons, argued, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” More than a century after Dostoyevsky, a Polish pope, himself an accomplished actor and poet, echoed his clarion call for artists to create beauty. His Holiness, Saint John Paul II, in 1999, wrote in his Letter to Artists, “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…”

 

THE IMPERATIVE OF AUTHENTIC BEAUTY

In the current climate of moral relativism which incessantly grips contemporary culture, the ability of humanity to recognise and appreciate beauty has been severely distorted. This in turn has resulted in the worrying inability to recognise moral truth. This is the reality which Pope Benedict XVI described as “anti-culture” or “an overbearing cultural bias”, that is, man’s distorted ability to recognise the transcendentals. Thus, a natural and perhaps unspoken onus rests on the artist of ensuring the integrity of his art. The vocation of the artist must be one of lifting the human spirit beyond himself rather than causing the person to sink into a whirlpool of intoxicating banality. To use Benedict XVI’s language, art must set its beholder “on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves”, making the “purification of vision that is a purification of the heart”.

Therefore, it is rather crucial that the beauty promoted by way of art be authentic. Given the alternative of authentic art, that is counterfeit art, humanity’s appetite for beauty could be severely misled. We must not neglect the propensity for counterfeit in the artistic senses of modern humanity. Where such has been the case, art has become a commodity for the intoxication of human senses rather than the ascension of human faculties. Pope Benedict XVI, in his meeting with artists, warned them of this:

Too often…the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy… Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.

The first ever encyclical by Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (which was actually drafted primarily by Benedict XVI), interacts with Nietzsche, Rousseau and Wittgenstein in order to lend weight to the argument that illusory beauty, one which is focused on the self, may end up intoxicating and trapping one within his own subjective experience. Such beauty is false and does nothing to propel one beyond himself towards the true and the good. It truncates and darkens the perceiver in the confines of his own isolation, whereas authentic beauty sheds light on the true and the good. 

The battle for authentic beauty is a battle for the soul and is probably the final bastion that stands against humanity’s crisis of faith in the face of relativism’s current dictatorship. The abiding existence of art is how we know there is yet hope for humanity. For art, by its very intrinsic nature, promotes the transcendence of the human soul. Saint John Paul II said, “Art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption”. 

 

THE VOCATION AND INVOCATION OF ART

The language of beauty is absolutely crucial now, more than ever, for we live in a world of grave moral and intellectual confusion. Against this background of the cultural wasteland in which we find ourselves, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the experience and importance of being “wounded by the arrow of beauty.”

Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the  surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily… Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Saviour, the Holy One and Sanctifier. (CCC 2502)

Inferring from these instructions, beauty in art, for better or for worse, possesses power either to save it or to overthrow it. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in contemplating the dynamics of the Transcendentals, concluded, only in beauty is truth good, and goodness true. Since “beauty is the splendour of truth”, says Plato, we should respond by returning to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s all-confounding premise to conclude the case for why beauty is a non-negotiable in the religious community’s interaction with human civilisation: “Beauty will save the world.”

To that end, there is certainly a worthy project to be upheld among patrons of the arts in the world today. This endeavour goes beyond that of preserving the multitudes of human edifices. Rather, it pertains to the preservation, and if possible, the enhancement of visual literacy and the recovery of respect for the place of art and beauty in the economy of human life.

Taking Christian art as a primary case in point, the persistence of artistic expression from its birth in the catacombs of Rome, its continuity throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and until at least the Counter Reformation of the 16th century, it cannot but be observable that art was indispensable to the formation of faith and life for the grassroots Christians. What the eyes could not conceive by way of alphabet, for the vast majority of them were illiterate, the heart could be drawn into just by the beholding of paintings, icons, mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, and stained glass.

For all its often perceived non-necessity, art has been at least in part responsible for saving human civilisation. Soon after Martin Luther’s departure from the Catholic Church in 1517, the elevated tension between Catholics and Protestants revolved into religious wars across the European continent. The Church, in desperation to restore the unity of the Catholic faith among an illiterate population, turned to the arts. What she could not convey through words and letters, she communicated on stone and canvas. The most effective correction to what she concluded to be widespread heresy was the promulgation of works of sacred art to draw the minds of the populace back to its timeless truth.

But one must not reduce the function of art in human civilisation to a mere concession to illiteracy. To assign such a didactic function to art by reducing its inherent value to its mere meaning would lead to a fallacious conclusion that all that is necessary is to read descriptions of art rather than to behold art itself, to be confronted by it, and to be drawn into it. Beauty is profound in a way that causes the power of words to break down. When life is limited by words, some of its deepest mysteries will be forever beyond its reach. 

Beauty is both ancient and new; its presence surprises, thrills, and consoles. It exists beyond time and space. Likewise, beautiful things facilitate the shining of eternity’s radiant and timeless light upon us. In Chapter X of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo laments the fact that it has taken him 33 years to discover ultimate Beauty:

Late have I loved thee, O beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved thee. For see, Thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things Thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with Thee. These things kept me far from Thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in Thee.

 

Presenter Profile

The Rev. Deacon Dr Sherman Kuek OFS is a Permanent Deacon of the Catholic Church, a Secular Franciscan and a theologian. He was a Protestant minister for many years before being received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Malacca Johore, Malaysia. Deacon Sherman is the convenor of the Splendour Project (www.splendourproject.com), a community of friends who have put their charisms and apostolates together to be of service in the evangelising mission of the Catholic Church. He spends much of his time giving catechetical instruction through speaking, writing and media production. He also travels around the region to assist in the catechetical ministry of the Church in various parishes and dioceses.

Deacon Sherman is the author of The Master’s Voice: 100 Reflections on Following Christ (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 2012) and Faith Speaks: Essays on Issues Confronting Christians Today (Malaysia: NAC Publications, 2013). He is also the author of various adult faith formation courses that are being taught in parishes and dioceses around Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. His Doctor of Theology degree, majoring in Theology and Social Theory, was conferred by Trinity Theological College (Singapore). More information about him can be found on www.shermankuek.com.