Thursday, 10 June 2010

Art, Mystery and Wonder

On Monday, 7th June I gave the address at the annual Service for Artists of the Royal Academy of Arts, at St. James's Church, Piccadilly. I've pasted the text here, but for the formatted version with references and footnotes, please go to my website.

 When Christianity was an emergent religion in the Roman Empire, some of its early theologians thought that there could be no possible conversation between the Bible and Greek philosophy. In the second century, Tertullian famously asked, ‘what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The answer he expected was ‘nothing at all’. But he lost the argument, and as a result the Christian understanding of God owes as much to the philosophers of the ancient world as it does to the biblical authors.

This means that we in the West worship the God of reason, even when we no longer believe in God. Rationality became the defining characteristic of God and of the creature made in the image of God – the human. It’s little wonder that, when Immanuel Kant dispensed with the notion of a personal God, reason took the place of the divine as the guiding light of our being in the world.

That was the era known as the Enlightenment, when in the eighteenth century western Europe shrugged off its various religious identities – Christianity had by that time fractured into a multitude of warring parties, never having been terribly good at coalitions – and embarked upon the road of science, reason and progress. Today, many still put their faith in that dream of progress, believing that science will deliver us from evil and give us each day our daily bread, if only we can resist being led into temptation by religion with its ignorance, violence and fanaticism.

But as we count the cost of our dreams of progress, we might do well to wonder about this rational god in whose image we are made. Beneath the veneer of rationality, we are beginning to sense a terrifying madness in our way of being in the world.

Is it possible that we’ve got it all wrong? What if we are made in the image, not of the God of reason but of the God of creation? What if it’s not rationality but creativity that marks our species out as unique among the other animals with which we share this fragile and wonderful world? How might that change our understanding of humanity, and indeed of God?

If we set aside the God of reason and turn to the God of the Bible, we encounter a very different God – a God who creates and destroys, a God who thunders and cries out, a God who weeps and grieves, a God who loves with a tender love and who desires with a passionate desire, a God who speaks not in syllogisms, arguments, premises and propositions, but in music and psalms, in the unfolding of human history, in metaphors of feasting and hunger, of eroticism and mourning. In other words, we encounter a God who looks rather more like an artist at work in her studio than a philosopher at work in the university. So, without denying the importance of reason in enabling us to steer our way through this chiaroscuro world with its choices and decisions, what happens if we expand our idea of what it means to be made in the image of a God whose creative mystery far exceeds all our powers of reason and comprehension?

The Bible opens with God creating the world, with a spirit that broods over the darkness and kindles the cosmos into being, and it was very good. When Jesus seeks to reassure his followers, he directs their attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. When he laments over Jerusalem, he likens himself to a mother hen, brooding over her chicks. When the psalmist seeks the God his heart desires, he looks to the hills and he compares himself to the deer that pants for running water. When he sees the stars and the oceans, the forests and the mountains, his heart overflows with the wonder of God. And when God challenges Job in the midst of his anguish, he speaks out of the whirlwind and points to the grandeur of creation.

The Book of Job has inspired countless writers and artists, with its contemplation on the mystery of suffering and the impossibility of searching the mind of God. It offers us a disturbing picture of Job as a good man who loses everything he cherishes most – livelihood, family, health – because it seems he is the victim of a wager between Satan and God. Job’s friends are the philosophers who try to make him see reason, offering various spectacularly unhelpful suggestions and explanations as to why Job’s life has been plunged into chaos – as friends are wont to do, sometimes. Maybe God is teaching you a lesson, Job. Maybe you’ve brought it on yourself, Job. Are you sure you haven’t screwed up, Job? But that extract we heard in the reading is God’s response to Job. Look at creation, and accept the mystery that you are part of.

Surely, that is the vocation of the artist? To gaze in wonder on the world until that transcendent mystery begins to emerge in all its anguish and glory? To release from the forms and matter of nature that enigmatic other coiled within, to allow it to speak and to reveal itself through the textures and surfaces of canvas and oil, of marble and clay, of pigment and paint? To liberate it into the space between sight and silence, touch and absence, invoking the unspeakable, unnameable other and persuading it to come forth into the space of contemplation and insight, of wonder and terror?

If you go to Binham Priory Church in Norfolk, you’ll see a medieval wall painting of Christ the Man of Sorrows, partially obscured by the biblical texts which were painted over it in the Reformation. It’s a cliché to say that a picture paints a thousand words, but clichés are sometimes only truths that we’ve used too often. Let me read you Michael Begley’s description of the Binham image:
Christ is shown standing, holding a cross. A gold cape is fastened at the neck but falls back to reveal his wounds from which blood streams. Devotion to the five wounds of Christ was a huge cult throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages. ... It was the sinfulness of human beings that had inflicted those wounds, and yet it was by the same wounds that man was saved. The bleeding wounds were seen as wells of God's grace and mercy. The wound in Christ's side was particularly venerated as it gave access to His heart.
The image gives immediate access to the deepest doctrines of the Christian faith, and even the most eloquent words can only blunder in by way of explanation. This is particularly important when we remember that most people who participated in those medieval devotions were illiterate. To paint a text over an image is an act of high cultural elitism, in a society where only the few can read.

When the reformers turned their backs on art and sacramentality, when they denied to our human senses the capacity to touch, taste, see, hear and smell the grace of God shivering and shimmering in the created world, they unwittingly set us along a path of disgrace, a path which would lead to the ruination we are now unleashing on the natural world. In his poem, The Incarnate One, Edwin Muir expresses something of what was lost:
The windless northern surge, the sea-gull's scream,
And Calvin's kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd's dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.
Today, institutionalised Christianity is gaining ground only in its more extreme and dogmatic forms. It has largely lost the capacity to nurture sacramental visions of grace discovered in nature, art and creativity, although we should not underestimate how many artists, musicians and writers continue to draw water from the wells of the Christian faith. Indeed, if those wells were really to run dry, not only would much of our cultural heritage be lost, for we would lack the religious literacy to interpret it, but might the very sources of inspiration evaporate, burned off in the cold white blaze of rationality stripped of wonder, awe and mystery?

George Steiner, literary critic and agnostic Jew, refers to ‘the one question ineradicable in man: Is there or is there not God? Is there or is there not meaning to being?’ He writes of great art being ‘touched by the fire and the ice of God’, even in our own era of ‘vexed modernity’ when
it is not a forgetting which is instrumental, but a negative theism, a peculiarly vivid sense of God’s absence or, to be precise, of His recession. The ‘other’ has withdrawn from the incarnate, leaving either uncertain secular spoors or an emptiness which echoes still with the vibrance of departure.’
Peter Fuller, the atheist art critic who acknowledged a debt to Steiner, similarly insisted that art is only possible before an open horizon of transcendent possibility. He wrote of the ‘palpable and yet mysterious presence of art itself’ and of the crisis created for art and cultural life by the experience described in Matthew Arnold’s poem of ‘“the long-withdrawing roar” of “the Sea of Faith” and the exposure of the naked shingles of the world’.

In this wilderness of contemporary faith, might we seek a revival of meaning in art? As a society, we have lost our appetite for church-going, and yet religious art and music still attract vast crowds. One need only think of the Seeing Salvation exhibition at the National Gallery, or last year’s Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. Can we discern the shadowy contours of an emergent artistic sensibility, capable of opening the postmodern mind to the mystery which is woven into the fabric of creation and expresses itself through the creativity of the artist open to the creative otherness of God? In asking this, I am suggesting that great art is sacramental in its capacity to overcome the dualism between spirit and body, creator and creation, by weaving a sense of transcendent and unknowable otherness into the materiality of the world, thus rendering opaque the density of objects and bodies so that a luminous eternity glistens within them.

Art has no power to change the world, for great art exerts a different kind of power – not the power of violence and revolution, but the potent vulnerability of imagination and memory, of mourning and of hope. To quote John Updike, ‘The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. ... That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy.’ Art is powerless in itself, and yet it stands as an obstacle in the path of every destructive and oppressive force. That is why every tyrant and ideologue has sought to silence or to control the artistic imagination.

Art is a form of expression in which the quest for truth breaks free of the struggle for domination. It opens up spaces for the exploration of truth in a different idiom, in which many visions and voices co-exist. The Czech writer Milan Kundera suggests that, ‘Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them.’

In these imaginary journeys to chart unknown lands, we can all be seekers after truth along the pathways of art. Of course, art alone will not feed the hungry nor clothe the naked, but it may answer to a deeper need than our basic physical needs. It may be of the very essence of our humanity that we hunger for beauty as much as we hunger for food, and those who seek to do good in the world must be providers of beauty as well as of food to those in need.

There is an extract from a diary in London’s Imperial War Museum, written by one of the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen:
It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived ... that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick.
I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and in her hand was a piece of lipstick.

At last someone had done something to make them individuals again; they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. ...

That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
Today, our humanity is under threat from many directions, as we are squeezed between the encroaching pressures of an inhumane technocracy on the one hand, and a looming natural catastrophe on the other. Religion becomes part of this dehumanising process, when it privileges dogma over mystery, truth over wonder, law over love. But the Christian religion, like many others, has always found its most expressive and eloquent voice, not through philosophy and theology but through art and music, poetry and literature. Perhaps it’s the vocation of the artist today to give us back our humanity, by reminding us that we are creatures of beauty and transcendence, capable of discerning the eternal within the ephemeral, the infinite within the finite, if only we know how to look.

Let me end with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem to the grandeur of God, which has a prophetic poignancy for those of us who watch in helpless sorrow as nature drowns in torrents of oil:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful address. Thank you.

    1. "Every tyrant and ideologue has sought to control the artistic imagination" Discuss with special reference to Christian art.

    2. Organic material, released from its burial, returns to the surface from whence it came. Who suffers from this uncontrolled resurrection, the economy or nature?

    3 How can we encourage fruitfulness and flourish and find again the "dearest freshness" and "bright wings" ?


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