"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some Principles of Art

Some essential principles of art as taught by the late Mary Holmes:

Note: The following (originally an answer to some of my nephew’s questions about art) is intended to be a restatement of ideas, not a persuasive argument, which would require many illustrated lectures (in which form the quoted ideas were originally presented). Readers are invited to supply evidence from their own experience.

“Seeing is believing”: Since we are incarnate beings—souls and bodies forming a unity, not merely disembodied spirits nor merely physical beings—we believe with certainty only things that we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. The senses are our medium of experience of reality.

“Art makes the invisible visible”: Because seeing is believing, we need to see things embodied in some way before we can trust in their reality. Hence “art exists to make the invisible visible” to us—that is, to make available to our senses what we need or want to believe but can’t unless we see (hear, touch, taste) it. This is true whether the thing is an invisible physical thing (a past sunset, a distant friend, a future home), an abstract concept (star-crossed love, the fall of Icarus), or a mystical experience (the enlightenment of Buddha).

“Art is whatever is made by a human being”: Whatever a human being makes is art because anything made by a human being is chosen into being by a human mind and will and bears the evidence of that choosing. So the question whether or not something is art is always misleading, and the compliment “now that’s a real work of art” is vapid. If the thing is made by a human being, it is art. The relevant questions are then what kind of work of art is it? what does it mean—that is, what invisible thing is it making visible to us? is that thing real or imaginary? is the making any good? is it pleasing or not? illuminating or misleading? and so on.

“Every artist is a realist”: Every work of art makes visible what the maker of the work believes to be real—whether that is divinity or nature or emotion or beauty or ugliness or sex, power, the past, the future, emptiness, the self, the unconscious, animal impulse, physical laws, or something else.

“Human beings will not live without meaning”: Perhaps the most fundamental fact about human beings is that they “will not live and cannot survive without meaning.” (Compare Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.) And meaning for human beings always lies in recognizing that we are part of something larger, more lasting than ourselves—that is, more real—and in participation in it. Art is one means of that participation. Every work of art is an attempt to give visible (= experience-able) form to the thing that its maker believes, or wishes to believe, is real. The successful work of art then becomes, for all who experience it, a vehicle of participation in that reality, a vehicle of meaning.

Art is also an attempt to satisfy the universal human craving to survive death. Art serves this purpose not only because ars longa vita brevis est (art is long; life is short)—a statement originally made about the art of medicine, which outlasts the patient, though it was later applied to all works of art that outlast their makers—but also because the making and experiencing of art allows us to participate in realities that transcend the individual human life, that do not die though we do die.

“All human beings make art”: For the above reasons, the need for art is built in to human nature, and there have never been human beings without art of one kind or another. The making of art is one of the identifying characteristics of the human species. We know about the most ancient human beings only because we have found their works of art, like the cave paintings of Lascaux. And there is almost no human being who has not engaged in making some work of art (a tasty meal or a witticism or a tool if not a Sistine Ceiling).

That great art is tinged with the universal sadness of death is inevitable because of man’s consciousness of his own mortality, into which condition Genesis figures that we have fallen (see Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”). However, figuring man as created, tested, and judged, Genesis also implies that in man’s awareness of right and wrong lies also the possibility of return, forgiveness, and healing. Hence great art is also tinged with joy or the promise of joy.

In our present state, we are given the hint of that promised joy through the vehicle of great works of art, for when through art we lose ourselves in something greater than ourselves, we are filled with the joy of the experience of meaning, even if, as in tragedy, that meaning remains mysterious and fearsome. At the same time, art has also the power to debilitate us with images that deny joy, that appeal only to our lowest selves and provide but repeated experiences of deluded pleasures, imaginary demons, and triumphant pains. As the positive effects of great art carry over into life by bestowing increase of delight or vision or virtue, so the negative effects of deluding art carry into life as the seductions of sentimentality and sensuality, fear and depression. When art seems to make visible that only negation is real, we are trained to find meaning only in negation. Such art, I think, cannot be called great, though it may be effective in making visible the idea of spiritual nothingness.

“All human beings worship; the only question is what it is they worship”: Human beings worship what they take to be holy, and they take to be holy what they believe to be greater and more real, the source of life’s meaning. This being so, we can say that art is one form of worship, since art exists to be a vehicle of participation in that greater reality. Furthermore, we can say that “all art is religious art,” for though all men worship, there is great variation in what human beings have believed to be holy. If men do not worship God, they will worship self or nature or knowledge or art or money or sex or power or physical laws or other men, and that worship will be revealed in their art. Just as a book interpreting the Ten Commandments or a painting of the Virgin and Child are works of religious art, so are the Communist Manifesto, the TV soap opera, and the pornographic drawing on a bathroom wall. Such works of art reveal and celebrate what their makers take to be most real, and therefore holy, in these cases, dialectical materialism, sentimental feelings, and sex.

The West’s essential gift to the world is the recognition that only the one, eternal, invisible God is to be worshipped and not some idol of man’s own imagination. To this truth it is the mission of the Jews to witness throughout time. The East’s essential gift to the world is the conception that the Ultimate Reality (Brahman, Tao) is one with the whole of the nature of things—in all its variety (India) and in its paradoxical harmony of opposites (China).

Both these conceptions of reality are threatened particularly in our time by the worship of the false god that is man’s own mind—man’s supposed intellectual power to understand and control the physical world (science) and man’s supposed socio-political power to control other men (pragmatism, progressivism, socialism, communism, fascism) in the name of human happiness or pride. Both these forms of idol worship, denying the invisible (God, Ultimate Reality), are accompanied by the despair of transcendent meaning, from which despair many human beings turn to worshipping nothing but their own sensual or material experience. Hence most of the art of our time is spiritually impoverished—images of despair, sentimentality, or sensuality making visible the nothingness that so many have come to believe is real.

Mary Holmes believed that there would be a third testament, a new revelation of the nature of God as Holy Spirit, that would give birth to an age of vision and therefore of great art. Until our age of despair (what Buber calls “the eclipse of God”) yields to a new age in which a renewed vision of meaning prevails, we have still the example of certain human beings who, by moving us with their lives and their works, prove—for seeing is believing—that despair is a path we are neither meant nor content to follow. I think of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Buber, C.S. Lewis, and Mother Teresa. There are many others. Mary Holmes was one. In the light of such examples, those who have the good fortune to know them or to know of them cannot lose faith in the transcendent significance of human life. They have seen meaning incarnated not only in art but in men and women whose lives have made visible the invisible realities of the spirit.