A Christian Essay in Aesthetic Value
From the nature and purpose of the arts we may discern three criteria whereby the artistic act or work may be judged: firstly, it is a self-communication of the artist; secondly, it is a communication concerning a subject as it presents itself to the artist; and thirdly, because it is a communication of and about creatures, it is a communication of the Creator mediated by the artist. I shall make a few observations on each of these points in turn.
The prerequisite for a successful act of communication is, of course, that artist and audience should form a connection, a personal relationship mediated by the artistic act or work; “personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever”. When, therefore, the medium impedes or prevents a connection it fails in its artistic purpose, thwarting the desire to communicate, whatever its form or content might happen to be. In the first instance it is absolutely necessary that the work be recognised as an artistic act or work if artist and audience are to connect through it, just as the works of God must be seen as such if we are to relate to Him through them; this requires a place of encounter, an intellectual, and ideally also a physical, space where the audience may recognise the artwork and consciously attempt to assimilate it, receiving the intended communication. While the artistic encounter may take place unexpectedly, as when one turns a corner and is struck by the magnificence of the architecture, it is best achieved when the audience chooses to attend the place of encounter with the specific intention of engaging with the artwork, of reading the book, watching the play or listening to the concert. On the other hand, it is difficult to the point of near impossibility for an artwork to be seen as such in contexts in which art is expected not to be found; the decorative arts have long suffered from this disability, but today it is works for the broadcast media that are doomed to failure as television, the internet and radio are generally regarded as being merely parts of our domestic environment, much like the carpets and furniture – ignored equally whether made by dedicated artisans or machine-made and mass-produced, although trade associations and those responsible for paying the bills will shout about it loudly if the former is the case. Consequently, artists working in these forms seek ever more extreme expressions in their attempt to connect with their intended audience, thereby forming a culture in which artists working in less prosaic media feel a corresponding obligation to express themselves in ways that conform to and respond to, or react against, what becomes a cultural norm. Lady Gaga comments thus: “The internet has become a veil over music and the artist. I want to push through the boundaries of that and break through the wall with my monster paws and fists!”
As an act of self-communication the artistic act is an expression of love, “le don de soi-même”, an act of self-realisation through self-sharing in which the artist reaches out to embrace the audience and to hold them in the arms of his or her self-expression. In the practice of the arts we come to know the image of God within ourselves by the imitation of the divine action. The artist begins work by self-reflection, plumbing the depths of his or her own being, reaching into the semiotic unconscious of sensuality, rhythm and archetype where the foundations of the fabric of our being lie hidden, and finding there the reflection of all the words contained in the Word, the primary goodness which begets goodness, giving rise to the effusion of love that seeks to communicate in a union bound together in the contemplation of that goodness. The painter, the sculptor, the writer, the composer, the actor, the musician, “they’re really saying ‘I love you’.”
|Ted Hughes (image Wikipedia)|
Ordinarily speaking, all manner of beasts roam unseen through the undergrowth of our minds, prowling amidst wonders and profundities we simply do not know that we know, hidden within what Ted Hughes called “the dark hole of the head”. Over the last hundred years modern psychological theorists, not least Pope Benedict’s atheist guest at the Assissi conference Julia Kristeva, have explored these aspects of human nature in secular terms, beginning with Jung’s study of the archetype as “an irrepresentable, unconscious, pre-existent form that seems to be part of the inherited structure of the psyche”. Today the cryptozoologist Merrily Harpur advances a Neoplatonist theory to explain the mysterious creatures, such as the Beast of Bodmin, that people sometimes see, suggesting that they are daimones, intermediate beings, having “a dual – indeed interchangeable – existence both in our imaginations and in the World Imagination – the Anima Mundi”, which raises fascinating questions about the boundaries between the interior reality and external objectivity, and also about the relationship between the unconscious and the divine (which Christianity would generally describe in more transcendent terms than these). Many writers and thinkers have described encounters with and experiences of phenomena that, while seeming substantial, were nevertheless not ‘out there’ but in here, the space between the ears, such as Marie Stopes’ Nemesis Halliday Sutherland, whose travels in Scandinavia were attended by a vision of trolls, or Kathleen Raine whose understanding of the nature of the arts was shaped by her vision of the singing fruits of the tree of knowledge. Whilst the artist fosters a sensitivity to such spontaneous manifestations of the unconscious, he or she cannot rely upon them but actively hunts the thought-fox, drawing what is found at the semiotic, generative level up into the symbolic level where, by words, notes and images, it may be constituted into an artistic concept, distinct from the mind in which it is contained, in a process analogous in some measure to the conception of the Eternal Word in the bosom of the Father. From consideration of the artistic concept the will to action arises as we desire to realise the concept externally; thus, in reflecting and participating in the divine action by the practice of the arts, the image of God in us manifests its Trinitarian character.
To be continued...
By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard