Art, Truth, and Reflecting

(“Not All Times” – posters, art prints, greeting cards, and postcards available on

“l’art pour l’art,” “Art for art’s sake,” popped up in the early 19th century.

The idea is that “the only ‘true’ art, is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function.” George Sand, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Chinua Achebe, said it was an empty phrase, self-contradictory, and Eurocentric, respectively. (Wikipedia)

I think it’s a silly idea: at least when applied to anything other than doodling to pass the time.

Come to think of it, in that case creating the doodles is meant to pass time.

At another extreme, there’s the idea that art must be ‘relevant’ — serve the state, be useful in worship, or be ‘uplifting.’

I won’t go that far, either: particularly if it means “art” must be propaganda or persuasion pieces like Currier’s “Drunkard’s Progress” over there.

That sort of thing can backfire, like “Reefer Madness,” and I talked about that last week. (July 10, 2016)

Then there’s sacred art. We’ve two millennia of traditions (lower-case “t”) expressing “…in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words….” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 11591162)

Taking Tradition with a capital “T” seriously doesn’t mean trying to live as if it’s still the 1st, 11th, or 19th century, and that’s another topic. (Catechism, 7583, 12001206)


The stuff I make, like Hangar 7, isn’t even close to being sacred art, which doesn’t bother me. That’s because I try to show some facet of truth and beauty in each picture.

Some, like Night Shift and Inventory, aren’t particularly pretty: but I paid attention to principles of symmetry and composition, and the images may resonate with a viewer’s memories.

Then again, maybe not.

Art and Being Human

Oddly enough, although I think art should involve truth and beauty; every picture is, in a sense, a lie.

René Magritte‘s “La trahison des images/The Treachery of Images,” for example, isn’t a pipe. It’s an image of a pipe — and I am not going to get sidetracked by Plato’s theory of forms, virtual reality, and metaphysics.

Not today, anyway.

I was going somewhere with this. Let me think – – – got it!

Truth is very important:

“‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
(Exodus 20:16)
“‘Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.””
(Matthew 5:33)

I’m pretty sure that representational art isn’t ‘lying,’ since folks I’ve known can easily tell the difference between a picture and the real thing: just as most folks realize that saying “a cat” isn’t the same as a cat.

And that gets me into communication theory: never mind.

Not everyone is an artist, but creating art is part of being human:

“…art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom….”
(Catechism, 2501)

I think art is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important thing in my life:

“…To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.”
(Catechism, 2501)

There’s more to say, but that’ll wait for other posts. For now, I’ll add a few quotes and call it a day.

Artists, Icons, and Reflecting Divine Beauty

From a letter to artists:

“None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.”
(Pope St. John Paul II (April 4, 1999))

About icons and sacred images:

“…Art for art’s sake, which only refers to the author, without establishing a relationship with the divine world, does not have its place in the Christian concept of the icon. No matter what style is adopted, all sacred art must express the faith and hope of the Church. The tradition of the icon shows that the artist must be conscious of fulfilling a mission of service to the Church….”
(“Duodecimum Saeculum,” Pope St. John Paul II (December 4, 1987))

Art and being human:

“…Art certainly must be listed among the noblest manifestations of human genius. Its purpose is to express in human works the infinite divine beauty of which it is, as it were, the reflection. Hence that outworn dictum ‘art for art’s sake’ entirely neglects the end for which every creature is made. Some people wrongly assert that art should be exempted entirely from every rule which does not spring from art itself. Thus this dictum either has no worth at all or is gravely offensive to God Himself, the Creator and Ultimate End.

“Since the freedom of the artist is not a blind instinct to act in accordance with his own whim or some desire for novelty, it is in no way restricted or destroyed, but actually ennobled and perfected, when it is made subject to the divine law….”
(“Musicae Sacrae,” Pope Pius XII (December 25, 1955))


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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Art, Truth, and Reflecting

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Extra comma (the first one): “or 19th, century, and that’s another topic.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!