Arts and Culture

Great Art Reveals What Is Real

Fourth in a series

IN WRITING THIS series of columns about art and literature, I have been tapping into a lifetime of experiences in literature, theater, film and other works of art. For me, it has been a wonderful trip down memory lane.

A friend of mine, whenever we disagree about the meaning of a film, he says something like, “Well that’s from your point of view.”

Of course, he is correct. But everyone interprets art, film, literature and everything else from a particular point of view, from a personal perspective. What each of us is trying to do is reach what is objective, a meaning beyond our particular tastes or prejudices, or anything else that might improperly cloud our judgment and prevent us from seeing what is real.

The Demands of Greatness

Great art and literature reveal to us what is most real. That does not always mean that great art or literature is easy to interpret. The greatness may make special demands of us.

Several years ago, I had a wonderful experience in reading. I had the opportunity to take a course on the Irish writer James Joyce, with a special emphasis on his novel “Ulysses.” It was one of the great intellectual experiences of my life. The professor was marvelous, really brilliant. I found Joyce’s text difficult to penetrate even with the help of the professor.

The way I approached the course was as follows: first, I read a chapter in the novel; next, I read a commentary about the chapter that I had read; then I listened to the professor’s lecture, and finally, I read the chapter in “Ulysses” again.

When I told a priest friend of mine what I was doing, he asked, “Is it worth all that work?”

I said that it was, that I had never previously realized what a human mind could do. There were levels of meaning in the novel and my effort helped me to grasp some of them.

My priest friend asked: “Couldn’t it all be a gigantic joke on the reader, that the meanings you think you are discovering through all this effort are not really in the text? Couldn’t it be possible that James Joyce has executed an amazing hoax?”

I replied that it was not possible and encouraged my friend to read the novel and judge for himself.

Of course, all art demands some interpretation on the part of the person experiencing the work of art. Critics are fallible human beings and can make errors. Great works of art may be neglected for years, and then suddenly appreciated in a new way, a way that they had never previously been appreciated. Also, some works of art that are inferior can be judged to be masterpieces by some critics.

In Emmanuel Mounier’s wonderful book, “Personalism” (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1952, pp. 132), he writes:

“Art that appeals only to a small and sophisticated public declines into complexity, enigma and calculation, whereas art needs to be a search for beings and forms which are real. Thus ’realist’ by nature, however, art must also be ‘abstract,’ if it be true that the transcendent can communicate itself only indirectly and by signs. As an interpretation of the superhuman, art cannot wholly avoid obscurity and isolation.” (pp.78-79)

I believe that great art and great literature, even if created by an atheist, at least indirectly reveals something of the divine. This can happen even if the artist does not consciously affirm the existence of the divine. God is everywhere, including the depths of reality.

A Ray of Divine Light

If an artist or author can shed light on the depths of reality, then that artist or author is, at least indirectly, shedding light on the mystery of God. Experiencing that light can be a marvelous experience. Mounier writes the following:

“Transcendent as it is, ‘sublime’ in the proper sense of the word, art cannot be reduced either to the greed for sensation or the intoxication of life; nor is it, when embodied in its works, reducible to the pure contemplation of the idea, nor to the constructive power of the mind. It is the sensitive expression, throughout the whole range of our existence, of life’s intimately unexpected character; it delights in disconcerting our customary vision, in shedding a ray of divine light upon a familiar object, or introducing into the realm of the sublime some movingly homely observation.” (pp. 77-78).

I have great admiration for all writers and artists, but especially for those who try to express the mystery of God. Even when they fail, I suspect that they are performing an important service. Their efforts can remind us of what is most real, namely God.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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