“In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future.”
John Paul II’s hopeful words, penned in 1999, might elicit a sad smile from a contemporary reader. In the following paragraphs, JPII would go on to articulate his belief that the human artist is blessed with a unique connection to Our Lord’s creative faculty. But in 2024, you might say it’s been a while since we’ve seen standout examples of human creativity.
The contemporary world of artistic expression is undeniably dominated by the movie industry, which has floundered in this past year. Emblematic of this is Disney’s recent release of Wish: meant to be a 100-year celebration of the industry titan’s legacy, the movie instead underperformed horrendously, being panned by audiences and critics alike for its uninspired narrative and art direction, as well as its unimpressive score, and has been labeled a box office bomb. Disney was already losing credibility with many due to its insertion of morally problematic messages into its recent content, and many consider this film the final nail in the cinema giant’s coffin.
Of course, Wish is far from the only recent example of the cinema industry’s failure to produce quality content. Unremarkable sequels and failed attempts to create something new abound, many of these also being guilty of including morally subversive messages. This is not to say that other branches of art have not suffered as well, but I’m choosing to focus on film and television since that happens to be what I am most familiar with.
But let’s return to JPII’s Letter for a moment. Does this mean the saint was wrong to be optimistic about the future of art? Not at all! We are just as capable of producing and appreciating great art today as we were back then- but it’s possible we as a culture have lost sight of what constitutes true artistic expression.
With 2024 marking the 25th anniversary of the Letter’s publication, perhaps it would be wise to revisit and analyze its message. A quarter-century later, it undoubtedly contains much that can help us understand what constitutes great art. Going forward, Catholic artists and storytellers can take his insights into their work. Further, any Catholic, inspired by his guidance, can recognize and appreciate what makes a truly great story.
One aspect of JPII’s thought is that art is meant to support the common good. Specifically, the pontiff criticizes the desire for glory and especially monetary profit as motives for creating and sharing stories. He states that artists must put their talents “at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole,” and clarifies that this service consists in “the life and renewal of a people.” We will explore this idea further later on, but a truly good story will make its listeners better, and it must have this as its primary objective, rather than popular or monetary success.
More and more often we hear stories of corporate executives meddling with a film’s production process in order to fill their own pockets. Notably, test screenings of films can be manipulated by said executives to go well or poorly, depending on how the powers that be view the current state of the film, and essentially force directors to make changes that support their own strictly monetary vision.
Several kingpins of the movie industry have spoken out against executive micromanagement. The late John Frankenheimer, a veteran director of numerous successful films, emphatically criticized this practice. But arguably the greatest example of this is George Lucas, who has stated in interviews that Star Wars came about through his desire to ignore authoritative pressure and follow his artistic vision. Whatever your opinions on the Star Wars franchise may be, it is undeniable that these stories have captured millions of hearts. The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes.
Obviously, movie studios play an important role- the money needed to produce and tell meaningful stories must come from somewhere. But were JPII to have his way, profit and popularity would be secondary concerns. Stories are about sending a message, and a good, uplifting message needs to take priority.
Building on this point, John Paul also asserts that good art has an inspirational element to it. Describing the ecstasy experienced by an artist in the act of creation, he claims “they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God.” Good art helps to bridge the gap between the creature and the Creator- but not just in the case of the artist. He argues that true art can uplift man’s soul, bringing him to a greater understanding of himself and his place in the world, and drawing him closer to Our Lord.
For a concrete example, let’s turn to Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life, indisputably one of the most beloved films of all time. The film is remembered so fondly precisely because of this inspirational element. The story of George Bailey’s constant acts of self-sacrifice, repeatedly giving up his dreams so that others may have better lives, culminating in the revelation that he has changed his entire community for the better, and the world would be indisputably worse off without him, is precisely what has earned this film its place in the lineup of cinema’s most cherished masterpieces.
Finally, John Paul consistently emphasizes that art must be beautiful. Now, philosophers have been debating the nature of beauty for thousands of years by this point, and attempting to settle that debate by providing a definition of beauty is unquestionably beyond the scope of this article. But I think it’s fair to say that we know it when we see it. To return to an earlier example, who can keep from grinning from ear to ear when we see George Bailey triumphantly galavanting across town upon his return to Bedford Falls from Pottersville, wishing a merry Christmas to all he meets, because of his newfound gratitude for his life?
Of course, the pontiff does concede that a great story can still have tinges of ugliness, for every great hero needs a great villain to overcome. As he puts it, “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.” Villainous darkness can exist in a great story because it allows the light to shine even more brightly. But allowing darkness to exist for its own sake, as many contemporary stories do to make themselves appealingly “edgy”, is another matter.
To conclude, John Paul’s wisdom can help Catholic creators and consumers alike as the Third Millennium goes on. When looking for the next movie to watch, or preparing a short story or poem to write in our free time, we can recall his insights on the creation and enjoyment of beautiful and uplifting art meant to support the common good. For those who, like me, hope to make a meaningful impact on the artistic world through our own creations, I leave JPII’s final blessing here: “May your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”
Donohoo, T. (2023, December 3). Why Disney’s Wish isn’t Enchanting the Box Office. CBR. https://www.cbr.com/disney-wish-box-office-bomb/
Lang, B. (2015, January 30). George Lucas Rips Hollywood, “Stupid” Cat Videos at Sundance. Variety. https://variety.com/2015/film/markets-festivals/george-lucas-says-movies-are-too-much-circus-no-substance-1201419058/
Letter to Artists, (April 4, 1999): John Paul II. The Holy See. (1999, April 4). https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists.html
Willens, M. (2000, June 25). Putting Films to the Test, Every Time. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/25/movies/film-putting-films-to-the-test-every-time.html