Understanding the Human Person in Light of Art

In World Youth Alliance’s Certified Training Program (CTP), Christopher Dawson writes: “To understand the art of society is to understand the most vital activity of that society.” Art can be a means to discover a culture’s identity and how it has changed. In the West, contemporary art and the great art of the past demonstrate strikingly different visions of the world, one of beauty and the other of a bleak skepticism blind to goodness and the dignity of the human person. 

Photo by Daian Gan from Pexels

In another CTP essay titled “Learning How to See Again,” Josef Pieper laments the decline of modern man’s ability to see “reality as it truly is.” Compared to the Western artistic tradition, Western contemporary art acutely displays this human loss of insight into the truth of being by its mistrust in and subsequent denial of what Pieper identifies as  “universal realities and their sustaining reasons”: the works of God that evince Him as a loving creator whose created things and creatures are all good. The consequences of this rejection of objective good are manifest in contemporary art. Ugliness abounds and humanity’s freedom to find inner solace and moral guidance in the face of suffering, an endeavor that can be aided by beautiful art, is suppressed.

A good example of the absence of beauty in art is a recent work of Heather Phillipson, titled “The End.” Phillipson’s creation, “a 31-foot statue of a dollop of whipped cream with a fly on it,” sticks out jarringly amidst the neo-classical architecture of London’s Trafalgar Square. The late British conservative philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, would be appalled. Scruton argues in “Why Beauty Matters” that “people have lost their faith in beauty because they have lost their belief in ideals.” “The End” evinces this nihilism. The “dollop of whip cream” demonstrates a cynical view of the human person as a being guided solely by sense impressions, one who will be most immediately drawn to the spectacle for its absurdity rather than the alluring goodness of beauty. Phillipson offers ugliness and senselessness to the beholder.   

Two Women Teaching a Child to Walk (Rembrandt, circa 1635-1637)

In contrast stand the timeless works of Rembrandt, one of the master painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and the German painter Adam Elsheimer. The transcendent quality of Rembrandt’s art was that it rose above the superficiality of appearances and form to reveal the life of the soul, the deeper spiritual life of the human person where the struggle to find meaning and do good amidst the fragility and shortness of life is fought.¹ In the small sketch Two Women Teaching a Child to Walk, Rembrandt expresses so much through the posture of two women, one older and one younger, hand-in-hand with a child. Through only a few brush strokes to reveal the infant’s face and posture, the artist depicts the child’s inner feeling of nervousness and need for the women’s love, care, and guidance.

In The Flight into Egypt depicting the Holy Family, Elsheimer paints with the chiaroscuro effects of light and shadow the beauty of the forest, stars, lake, and moon that surrounds Jesus, Mary, and Joseph while they flee at night from persecution. Rembrandt and Elshiemer’s art affirm the goodness of the human person and the family by depicting with the greatest artistic skill and ingenuity human action in pursuit of the good. 

The Flight into Egypt (Adam Elsheimer, 1609)

“Without the desire for God,” writes Luis Barragán in his acceptance speech for the Pritzker Architecture Prize, “our sorry planet would be a wasteland of ugliness.” Beauty is a necessity that must be rediscovered in humanity and nature through art. Fortunately, we can look to the past and rediscover through its great art what brings the soul peace—the knowledge that we are wonderfully made for a purpose.

Published: August 17, 2020
Written by Justin Lombardi, WYA North America intern

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¹ Seymour Slive. Dutch Painting, 1600-1800 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995): 78.