Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-Election Thought: Perhaps We Need Art?

Artists know they are tapping into something infinite when they create. Most artists will admit that what they create comes from something outside of themselves, something greater than their own mind, something universal and unifying. People of faith will say that art is a participation in the very creative nature of God.

Recently, while I was reading Blessed Pope John Paul II's letter to artists I was struck by one particular line:
The [artistic] intuition .. springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.
Picasso's Guernica, 1937
Unity is something often found beneath great art because art's message, while not always easily articulated, calls us to see our common humanity. This is why I think politicized art rarely becomes great art. Often when an artist has an agenda, their work loses power.  God always has messages that are deeper and higher than our own.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica is an example of political art done right. Rather than overtly taking sides in the Spanish Civil War, the painting simply expresses the horror of war.

When Picasso was pressed to explain the painting, he responded:
If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.
This, I think, is a beautiful description of the artistic process and a reason that politics and art can never be true bedfellows. Politics demands articulation. Art calls a person to something beyond articulation.

But this does not mean that art cannot be highly effective in shaping a person's view of moral issues, which can then impact the political world. This may seem like an obvious point but I think it is lost on many Christians who seek to change minds and hearts. We often resort to logical arguments before we get creative.

And honestly, I think the reason lies in our desire to control. We are fearful of where our country is headed, so we want to control our message. We would rather write poor imitations of Mere Christianity, than the Chronicles of Narnia. Or make movies like October Baby rather than Bella or The Tree of Life.

So instead of taking risks, we often just stick to cold, hard, logic. The problem with good logic is that it depends on well formed premises. People are not always open to questioning the flawed premises that underlie erroneous moral beliefs. When we focus only on logic, we battle head to head but it often looks like no one is really winning because the actual premises of the logic on both sides are rarely discussed.

Art gets to premises. It gets to our gut. It does a limbo dance under our overactive and error prone minds and cuts right to the heart.

I think this is something to think about as the election season wraps up. How did we as Christians express our morality informed by faith in this election? I am not saying that reasoned arguments aren't necessary, certainly they are. But perhaps more good art, the kind of art that taps into peoples' hearts on a deeper level and leaves them with more freedom to come to their own conclusions, would be more effective? And perhaps, as an added bonus, because of the unifying nature of art, it would lead to less divisive politics.

Certainly there were big stakes in this election and in our society, but perhaps the fight requires some different tactics.

Perhaps there is another way.

Perhaps we need art.


Anonymous said...

There is a resistance to art: puritanical streak, we might think it is a bit beneath us, bit sentimental etc ..
Sure, there is bad art. And we musn't idolize good art over God. But good art can help bring us closer to God, therefore its certainly an important gift of God. Also, the elements of metaphor and the psychology etc in the arts sharpen certain tools in being able to understand the Bible better (and the Bible in turn inspires artists and helps us to appreciate the arts in general).
But actually, i think we can't just focus on the arts, without, also, focusing on having an overview, too, of science, philosophy of science, philosophy, psychology, and so on, as they are all interconnected at a fundamental level, all help us to understand and appreciate the arts, and scripture, theology, doctrine, prayer, and God better!
Ed (UK)

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of something so similar to this the day of the election. Not only are people unwilling to question flawed premises, I think they're also closed to hearing any logic coming from people or organizations that are labeled "conservative." A lot has happened in our culture to create this over the years and it won't be undone easily if ever.

Couple that with our current culture where the national attention span has only enough focus for sound bites, and our future looks bleak. I kept fantasizing that I could come up with the one blogpost, meme or bumper sticker statement that would go viral and open eyes. Needless to say, I failed (although not for a lack of trying - let's not go into that).

You're right, Sr. Theresa. Art would be a MUCH more effective medium, or should I say limbo dance!

tagnes said...

Ed, I agree - all of the above - is important, but I also think among everything we can use to communicate our faith, art is being overlooked and underestimated.

"I kept fantasizing that I could come up with the one blogpost, meme or bumper sticker statement that would go viral and open eyes. Needless to say, I failed (although not for a lack of trying - let's not go into that)." - I hope you keep trying my friend!

Anonymous said...

Sr Theresa,
Btw, apologies for ranting away on your blog so often but fairly recently returned to Catholicism and renewed interest in Christianity, and so being reading a lot, lots of thinking etc hence all the (lengthy) comments! Thanks for your interest / patience ..
I can't tell you how important i think art is (in Christianity).
Firstly, for understanding the Bible! A dull mind reads the Bible, literally, at every point. The Bible is, ultimately, a LOVE STORY not (ultimately) a book of morals (although as fallen beings we need morals and the strict discipline of teaching them which is why i have so much time for - well, i fully submit to - orthodox Catholic teaching and the authority of the Pope). We need the arts to flesh out the love story, humanity and divine imagination of the Bible (pointing to the heavenly). And consider how so many great literary figures are inspired by the Bible (Lord of the Rings etc). And consider how Charles Dickens considered the Prodigal Son the greatest story ever created (and just about to start the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen famous book on Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son).

Thr arts help to bring out the imagination, humour and humanity in us - all essential characteristics which the great Christian apologists had / have (CS Lewis, Chesterton and others). So the arts don't just help us understand and flesh out the Bible, nor just help us grow as human beings, they, also, help us in bringing our faith alive to others. We communicate The Good News. The Good News is something lively, full of light, and salt, and joy.

Can't tell you how Christian writers such ad Dostoevsky have helped me (and Tolkein and many others). But you can, also, get so much out of books that aren't necessarily so obviously Christian or religious but still reflect something of Divine order and imagination, whether it be Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, WB Yeats etc ..

Dali's Crucifixion, showing Our Lord suspended on the Cross really helped me to understand the spiritual nature of Jesus' Passion (that it's not just a historical event).
And you can't beat Eastern icons for revealing the beautiful mystery of Christianity.
So many artists evoke the Divine order and imagination, don't know where to begin.
And then the Christian music of Bach, Handel, Mozart etc .. (i always challenge atheists where did this music come from?!)

But, i also, think its really important to have some sort of knowledge of modern science such as quantum physics and cosmology (the great God-believing quantum physicists such as Heisenberg and Planck believed there was something mystical, ultimately, about nature). Science can tell us so much about God.

And we should have a knowledge of philosophy of science, and philosophy of course (and challenging non-believers over things such as the nature of sentience, and conscience, free will, beauty in nature and the arts, above all unconditional love etc ..)

And psychology and the nature of consciousness (and our consciousness of the Divine and how to control ourselves and love others).

All the subjects tie in with each other at some point. Not just helping to bring our evangelical efforts more to life, but, also, our efforts in theology, scripture, knowing and loving others (including our own souls / natures / being) and above all, God.

God bless
Ed (UK)

Anonymous said...

Also, Theresa
(nearly finished ..) reading the arts has helped me hugely in my prayer life.
Sometimes i pray and i feel nothing. Sometimes, i think, this is good, as we're still progressing in the darkness even though we might not be aware of it. And it's an opportunity to practice St John of the Cross' idea of kenosis.

But at other times we should try reading something (arts, philosophy, science etc) to liven up the mind (or put it in order to if it is all over the place). I often find that after doing this i can fall into prayer where it becomes not a chore but something beautiful. Various variations of this: read some scripture, too, contemplate God in some new way, or in some renewed way, before going into prayer.
Note how Theresa of Avila loved reading, how John of the Cross loved the arts, in particular poetry, how Francis of Assisi loved song and poetry (Canticle of the Sun), how Jesus loved talking in parables and metaphor ... see a pattern emerging here (i do at least, and this has helped to renew and transform my Christian experience, at least).
In Christ,
Ed (UK)
(lecture over, bye ..)

Anonymous said...

(although Jesus' teaching, of course, isn't just confined to parable and metaphor, he, also, talks literally, and in other ways, too) E.

tagnes said...


You are always welcome to comment! I enjoy hearing your insights. I especially liked that you saw art as expressing the love story that is our relationship with God - that is BEAUTIFUL and so true. And I agree, science can tell us a lot about our faith also, because it tells us more about the world, which is God's greatest work of art.

Thank you as always for sharing!

Sr. Theresa

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sr Teresa,
Hope you're doing well.
God bless,
Ed (UK)