The Human Body, Subject of Works of Art

Author: Pope John Paul II

The Human Body, Subject of Works of Art

Pope John Paul II


To the thousands of faithful gathered in St Peter's Square for the Wednesday General Audience of 15 April, Pope John Paul delivered the following discourse.

Control of the body "in holiness and honour"

1. In our preceding reflections—both in the analysis of Christ's words, in which he refers to the "beginning", and during the Sermon on the Mount, that is, when he refers to the human "heart"—we have tried systematically to show how the dimension of man's personal subjectivity is an indispensable element present in theological hermeneutics, which we must discover and presuppose at the basis of the problem of the human body. Therefore, not only the objective reality of the body, but far more, as it seems, subjective consciousness and also the subjective experience of the body, enter at every step into the structure of the biblical texts, and therefore require to be taken into consideration and find their reflection in theology. Consequently theological hermeneutics must always take these two aspects into account. We cannot consider the body an objective reality outside the personal subjectivity of man, of human beings, male and female. Nearly all the problems of the ethos of the body are bound up at the same time with its ontological identification as the body of the person. They are also bound up with the content and quality of the subjective experience, that is, of the "life" both of one's own body and in its interpersonal relations, especially in the perennial man-woman relationship. Without any doubt, the words of the First Letter to the Thessalonians, in which the author exhorts us to "control our own body in holiness and honor" (that is, the whole problem of "purity of heart") indicate these two dimensions.

Dimensions concerning attitudes of persons

2. They are dimensions which directly concern concrete, living men, their attitudes and behavior. Works of culture, especially of art, enable those dimensions of "being a body" and "experiencing the body" to extend, in a way, outside these living men. Man meets the "reality of the body" and "experiences the body" even when it becomes a subject of creative activity, a work of art, a content of culture. Although generally speaking, it must be recognized that this contact takes place on the plane of aesthetic experience, in which it is a question of viewing the work of art (in Greek aisthá nomai: I look, I observe)—and therefore that, in the given case, it is a question of the objectivized body, outside its ontological identity, in a different way and according to the criteria characteristic of artistic activity—yet the man who is admitted to viewing in this way is a priori too deeply bound up with the meaning of the prototype, or model, which in this case is himself:—the living man and the living human body—to be able to detach and separate completely that act, substantially an aesthetic one, of the work in itself and of its contemplation from those dynamisms or reactions of behavior and from the evaluations which direct that first experience and that first way of living. By its very nature, this looking is aesthetic. It cannot be completely isolated, in man's subjective conscience, from that looking of which Christ speaks in the Sermon on the Mount: warning against lust.

Creating climate favourable to purity

3. Therefore, in this way the whole sphere of aesthetic experiences is, at the same time, in the area of the ethos of the body. Rightly we must think here too of the necessity of creating a climate favorable to purity. This climate can be threatened not only in the way in which the relations and society of living men take place, but also in the area of the objectivizations characteristic of works of culture; in the area of social communications, when it is a question of the spoken or written word; in the area of the image, that is, of representation and vision, both in the traditional meaning of this term and in the modern one. In this way we reach the various fields and products of artistic, plastic and dramatic culture, as also that based on modern audio-visual techniques. In this field, a vast and very differentiated one, we must ask ourselves a question in the light of the ethos of the body, outlined in the analyses made so far on the human body as an object of culture.

Living human body creates object of art

4. First of all it must be noted that the human body is a perennial object of culture, in the widest meaning of the term. This is for the simple reason that man himself is a subject of culture, and in his cultural and creative activity he involves his humanity, including his body. In these reflections, however, we must restrict the concept of object of culture, limiting ourselves to the concept understood as the subject of works of culture and in particular of works of art. It is a question, in a word, of the thematic nature, that is, of the "objectivation" [sic] of the body in these works. However, some distinctions must be made here at once, even if by way of example. One thing is the living human body, of man and of woman, which creates in itself the object of art and the work of art (for example, in the theater, in the ballet and, to a certain point, also in the course of a concert). Another thing is the body as the model of the work of art, as in the plastic arts, sculpture or painting. Is it possible to also put films or the photographic art in a wide sense on the same level? It seems so, although from the point of view of the body as object-theme, a quite essential difference takes place in this case. In painting or sculpture the human body always remains a model, undergoing specific elaboration on the part of the artist. In the film, and even more in the photographic art, it is not the model that is transfigured, but the living man is reproduced. In this case man, the human body, is not a model for the work of art, but the object of a reproduction obtained by means of suitable techniques.

Important distinction

5. It should be pointed out right away that the above-mentioned distinction is important from the point of view of the ethos of the body in works of culture. It should be added at once that when artistic reproduction becomes the content of representation and transmission (on television or in films), it loses, in a way, its fundamental contact with the human body, of which it is a reproduction. It often becomes an anonymous object, just like an anonymous photographic document published in illustrated magazines, or an image diffused on the screens of the whole world. This anonymity is the effect of the "propagation" of the image-reproduction of the human body, objectivized first with the help of the techniques of reproduction, which—as has been recalled above—seems to be essentially differentiated from the transfiguration of the model typical of the work of art, especially in the plastic arts. This anonymity (which, moreover, is a way of veiling or hiding the identity of the person reproduced) also constitutes a specific problem from the point of view of the ethos of the human body in works of culture, especially in the modern works of mass culture, as it is called.

Let us confine ourselves today to these preliminary considerations, which have a fundamental meaning for the ethos of the human body in works of artistic culture. Subsequently these considerations will make us aware of how closely bound they are to the words which Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, comparing "looking lustfully" with "adultery committed in the heart." The extension of these words to the area of artistic culture is especially important, insofar as it is a question of "creating an atmosphere favorable to chastity," which Paul VI spoke of in Humanae Vitae. Let us try to understand this subject in a deep and fundamental way.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 April 1981, page 11

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