Art Must Not Violate the Right to Privacy

Author: Pope John Paul II

Art Must Not Violate the Right to Privacy

Pope John Paul II


Thousands gathered in St Peter's Square in the afternoon of Wednesday, 29 April, for the weekly General Audience. Continuing his treatment of the theology of the human body, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

1. We have already dedicated a series of reflections to the meaning of the words spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he exhorts to purity of heart, calling attention even to the "lustful look." We cannot forget these words of Christ even when it is a question of the vast sphere of artistic culture, particularly that of a visual and spectacular character, as also when it is a question of the sphere of "mass" culture—so significant for our times—connected with the use of the audiovisual communications media. We said recently that the above-mentioned sphere of activity is sometimes accused of pornovision, just as the accusation of pornography is made with regard to literature. Both facts take place by going beyond the limit of shame, that is, of personal sensitivity with regard to what is connected with the human body and its nakedness. It happens when in the artistic work by means of the media of audiovisual production the right to the privacy of the body in its masculinity or femininity is violated, and—in the last analysis—when that intimate and constant destination to the gift and to mutual donation, which is inscribed in that femininity and masculinity through the whole structure of the being-man, is violated. That deep inscription, or rather incision, decides the nuptial meaning of the body, that is, the fundamental call it receives to form a communion of persons and to participate in it.

The human body and model or subject

2. It is obvious that in works of art, or in the products of audiovisual artistic reproduction, the above-mentioned constant destination to the gift, that is, that deep inscription of the meaning of the human body, can be violated only in the intentional order of the reproduction and the representation: it is a question, in fact—as has already been previously said—of the human body as model or subject. However, if the sense of shame and personal sensitivity is offended in these cases, that happens because of their transfer to the dimension of social communication, therefore owing to the fact that what, in man's rightful feeling, belongs and must belong strictly to the interpersonal relationship—which is linked, as has already been pointed out, with the communion of persons itself, and in its sphere corresponds to the interior truth of man, and so also to the complete truth about man—becomes, so to speak, public property.

At this point it is not possible to agree with the representatives of so-called naturalism. They demand the right to "everything that is human" in works of art and in the products of artistic reproduction. They affirm that they act in this way in the name of the realistic truth about man. It is precisely this truth about man—the whole truth about man—that makes it necessary to consider both the sense of the privacy of the body and the consistency of the gift connected with the masculinity and femininity of the body itself, in which the mystery of man, peculiar to the interior structure of the person, is reflected. This truth about man must also be considered in the artistic order, if we want to speak of a full realism.

Value of body in interpersonal communion

3. In this case, it is evident that the deep governing rule related to the communion of persons is in profound agreement with the vast and differentiated area of communication. The human body in its nakedness—as we stated in the preceding analyses (in which we referred to Genesis 2:25)—understood as a manifestation of the person and as his gift, that is, a sign of trust and donation to the other person, who is conscious of the gift, and who is chosen and resolved to respond to it in an equally personal way, becomes the source of a particular interpersonal communication.

As has already been said, this is a particular communication in humanity itself. That interpersonal communication penetrates deeply into the system of communion (communio personarum), and at the same time it grows from it and develops correctly within it. Precisely because of the great value of the body in this system of interpersonal communion, to make the body in its nakedness—which expresses precisely "the element" of the gift—the object-subject of the work of art or of the audiovisual reproduction, is a problem which is not only aesthetic, but also ethical. That "element of the gift" is, so to speak, suspended in the dimension of an unknown reception and an unforeseen response. Thereby it is in a way threatened in the order of intention, in the sense that it may become an anonymous object of appropriation, an object of abuse. Precisely for this reason the integral truth about man constitutes in this case the foundation of the norm according to which the good or evil of determined actions, of behavior, of morals and situations, is modeled. The truth about man, about what is particularly personal and interior in him—precisely because of his body and his sex (femininity-masculinity)—creates here precise limits which it is unlawful to exceed.

Recognizing limits

4. These limits must be recognized and observed by the artist who makes the human body the object, model or subject of the work of art or of the audiovisual reproduction. Neither he nor others who are responsible in this field have the right to demand, propose or bring it about that other people, invited, exhorted or admitted to see, to contemplate the image, should violate those limits together with them, or because of them. It is a question of the image, in which that which in itself constitutes the content and the deeply personal value, that which belongs to the order of the gift and of the mutual donation of person to person, is, as a subject, uprooted from its own authentic substratum. It becomes, through social communication, an object and what is more, in a way, an anonymous object.

As can be seen from what is said above, the whole problem of pornovision and pornography is not the effect of a puritanical mentality or of a narrow moralism, just as it is not the product of a thought imbued with Manichaeism. It is a question of an extremely important, fundamental sphere of values. Before it, man cannot remain indifferent because of the dignity of humanity, the personal character and the eloquence of the human body. By means of works of art and the activity of the audiovisual media, all those contents and values can be modeled and studied. But they can also be distorted and destroyed in the heart of man. As can be seen, we find ourselves continually within the orbit of the words Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount. Also the problems which we are dealing with here must be examined in the light of those words, which consider a look that springs from lust as "adultery committed in the heart."

It seems, therefore, that reflection on these problems, which is important to create a climate favorable to education to chastity, constitutes an indispensable appendage to all the preceding analyses which we have dedicated to this subject in the course of numerous Wednesday meetings.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 May 1981, page 8

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