I have argued before here that art is one of the things that humans do which most fully constitutes our humanity, and sets our nature apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In this post, I would like to take a look at what the practice of art (in all its forms) might say about our relationship to our Creator, and how an assessment of what art is fundamentally all about might shed some light on how our salvation is worked out in the temporal sphere, as we endeavour to uncover more of our true selves, which are ‘hid with Christ, in God’ (Colossians 3:3).
To help me with this task, I will be relying heavily on Rowan Williams’ book Grace and Necessity, in which he reflects at length on the question of what art truly is, and what it may tell us about the true nature of the world around us (i.e.; that the world, especially as encountered and uncovered by the artist, always suggests something more, speaks to us of how things are not only what they are, but immeasurably more). However, I would like to focus on an element of his book which is more immediately to do with the resonances that can be found between the creativity of man, and the timeless, gratuitous act of divine Creation.
Firstly, I shall look at our creative work in the arts, and what this may suggest about the life of the Christian. With reference to the writing of Flannery O’Connor, Williams discusses the artist’s striving to deliver characters with absolute integrity and coherence, characters that make sense, seem real and speak to us not because of any particular ‘message’ invested in them by the author, but because they are utterly themselves – a new creation:
‘O’Connor is claiming that instead of beginning from some kind of search for a metaphor, the imagination shapes a character whose own structural integrity within the fiction produces an excess of meaning which offers a metaphorical possibility…What matters is the inner coherence of the person drawn. Absent this, we have once again the artist’s will emerging as the motor force in composition; no obedience, no sense of an imperative…
…You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose – finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capability in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on.’
Grace and Necessity (2005), pp.143&147.
Just as the artist must strive to deliver a work of ‘structural integrity’, we, in trying to live out lives of Christian discipleship, must also try to be find our inner coherence, our integrity, in obedience to the vision we have received – namely Jesus Christ. As the artist’s task is a proper response to what is received in reality, even if what is received is in glimpses, we must also respond to what has been revealed for us, and be obedient to that task. Original Sin can in large part be said to be an undoing of that inner harmony and integrity – the working out of our salvation is in large part, by the grace of God, in restoring us to it.
This of course means facing the truth about ourselves in the light of that ultimate reality which is Jesus Christ. Just as the artist must strip away layers of their own ego – must ‘dispossess’ themselves of ‘what you want to imagine’ – so that they are more able to respond honestly to the particular vision, the particular piece of work, that they are trying to re-present, we also must constantly strive to engage honestly with who we are, who we are called to be, and the depth of the gap between those two realities. The Christian life is one of endeavouring to reorient the will, which is always seeking to assert itself in ways that undermine our proper integrity, with reality as we now know it to be – to lose our lives that we might save them.
Whilst the artistic process can shed some light on that process by which we uncover our true selves, hidden with Christ in God, it can also reveal to what extent the artist, whether they are committed to a theistic metaphysic or not, necessarily must – if they are going about their art honestly and with the intention of making something good, something real – draw attention to the fact that the material world always carries an excess of meaning. Any prolonged attention given to the world around us will lead us to consider the fact that it seems to ebb towards transcendence, to point beyond itself to deeper patterns of significance and meaning:
‘Human making that is more than functional, more than problem-solving, gives us some clue as to what the theologian means by creation, the setting in being of something that is both an embodiment of what is thought of conceived and also a radically independent reality with its own logic and integrity unfolding over time…
…The artist not only uncovers what is generative in the world, but what is generative in him or herself, the alignments or attunements that make possible an art that is more than repetition or imitation.’
For the artist, this discovery (whether consciously articulated in theological terms or not) always involves a discovery of what our limits are – what inner resources might be expressed in trying to do justice to this particular piece of art. For the disciple, we also discover our true selves the more we are obedient to the true image of humanity revealed in Christ. But for God, this is not the case – He does not have to discover anything about Himself, nor can he exhaust his own possibilities. There is always more to give, but never more that He can know Himself:
‘But though divine creation cannot be imitated, what it does is to define the nature of a love that is involved in making. It is both the gift of self and the gift of self. It bestows life unreservedly on what is other, but the life it bestows is a real selfhood, a solid reality. It is not the exercise of an arbitrary will, one subject seeking to control another…
…The most profoundly free action human beings can take in relation to their identity, the action that most fully realises the image of God, in theological terms, is to elect to discover and mould what they are in the process of “remaking” the world in a love that is both immeasurably different from God’s (because it is to do with the self’s self-identity in history and material relationship) and yet endowed with some share in it (because it is always approaching self-dispossession).’
The ‘dispossession’ of the artist, and of the disciple, is analogous to God’s way of creating, but only to an extent. Ultimately, God cannot be imitated – but the way that He works in creation can be approximated, even participated in, to the degree that the artist or the Christian gives themselves over to what is made (either the art, or the self as new creation) in this mode of utterly self-forgetful, free, and gratuitous love. The artist must, if they are to produce something with integrity and coherence, love the work that is made, and the disciple, if they are to ‘progress’ in the spiritual life, must love Christ – both who He is and what is revealed about us in Him.
The image of God as an artist has biblical precedent, most famously in Jeremiah’s vision of God as the Potter, moulding and reworking His people time and again in response to their faithlessness and iniquity; and also the first chapter of Genesis telescopes in on the grand processes of growth and birth on earth, culminating in the creation of the animals, and finally humanity, all directed by God’s eternal Word. God’s creative work is a key element of the biblical story, and something re-emphasised in his dealing with Israel, particularly through the prophets.
What we do not quite get a sense of in these passages though, is just how completely He gives of Himself in the ongoing act of creation. This is something that is inextricably linked to the image of God as Love which we receive in the New Testament, the implications of which were elucidated by the Church over the course of its early centuries. The dogma of the Holy Trinity tells us that God gives freely and completely of Himself in creation because He gives freely and completely of Himself eternally – to Himself. He loves because He is Love, and loved Himself before He loved the world into being.
There is no sense in which God can be said to exhaust Himself, either in creation or in the Incarnation, but He is always giving Himself, and what we meet in these acts is a real encounter with the living God. In these encounters, we also thus meet the reality which is suggested in all our creative endeavours – what we uncover, what calls out to us in the material world when we reflect on it and attempt to re-present it from a new perspective, always contains glimpses of the divine. God’s love ‘spills over’ through His work, and His creation is teeming with pointers towards the truth which He would have us know and embrace.
Perhaps then, one can say that all art – all good art anyway – is, or at least speaks of, the sacred, whether the artist would give what they are trying to say this name or not. Certainly though, all discipleship can be said to be a creative endeavour, in which we too strive to cooperate with God in restoring the divine image obscured by our sin; and most surely of all, the life that calls both disciple and artist to their respective acts of dispossession and self-discovery, does not depend on whether we discover it or not, but gives itself ceaselessly and without partiality – for God is Love, and is so eternally.