THE WORK OF CHRISTIAN ART
A Protestation by Antonio Miroli, a rhetorician
The Beginning of Wisdom is the Fear of God
Michelangelo (1475-1564), "The Last Judgment"
The Work of Christian Art must shock. The closer artist’s heart is to Christ, the more shocking that work will be. The farther removed the artist’s heart is from Christ, the more mundane—the more worldly—that work will be. The artist’s purpose is not to shock. The artist’s purpose is to seek singly-mindedly after Christ. Yet if this is done, and done truly, the Work of Christian Art will surely shock. The Work of Christian Art
must shock for the gospel shocks. Christ shocks. And a work cannot have a character different than its model, just as branches cannot bear fruit different than the vine. This is not unlike saying that the art of the Marxist-Leninist must advance the proletariat’s worldwide revolution. The artist for whom Communism is not merely a political adornment or the accident of citizenship but rather a deeply held conviction—to this artist certainly nothing could be more important than the final establishment of the workers’ state and its glorification. And that would be the purpose of the artist’s work: the single-minded promotion of revolution and the strengthening of the proletariat. So Yen Ching Chung leads his score of the Yellow River Concerto with the words of Chairman Mao: “Our literature and art is all for the masses, and primarily for the workers, peasants, and soldiers; it is created for the workers, peasants, and soldiers, and is for their use.” And at the concerto’s climax, Yen writes below the score in bold red ink: “Advance holding high the great red flag of Marxism, Leninism and Mao Tse-Tung Thought!” Western critics sneer at such works of “Socialist Realism.” For them, art is for art’s sake alone. For art to serve any other purpose, they argue, is to demean it, to somehow fundamentally dirty its inherent purity. And certainly part of these critics’ complaint must be acknowledged. Much of what passes for “Communist” art is aesthetically puerile and technically shoddy. The Yellow River Concerto suffers from both of these faults. Yet the blame for these shortcomings lies not in the notion of Socialist Realism itself, not in the desire to write for the glory of the proletariat, but rather in the manner in which such works are produced and judged. Instead of allowing the artist to be the judge of his own work, the Communist states establish committees-- writers’ unions, all union congresses of composers and the like—that regulate artists “production.” These organs commission works, and approve or disapprove of the completed products. But when artists produce what they are instructed to produce, when they do as they are told to do and as they are paid to do, they then abandon their calling as artists (for it is the duty of the artist to surrender to no one his judgment as an artist), becoming instead artisans, even perhaps highly skilled artisans, and hirelings, grinding-out what they are commanded to grind-out. “Yellow here? Yes Comrade! A bit off the nose? Of course, Comrade! The chin a bit to the left? What taste Comrade!” The works of these artists is not the result of their Communism, it is not the flower of their own deeply held and dearly bought convictions. They are not the passionate evangelists of the worker’s revolution and class equality, but just cogs in a propaganda machine, turning as they are cranked. These are accidental Communists, but intentional employees. They do as they are told, and their work is as banal as their employers’ tastes: the “art” of this proletariat is as stupid as Le Brun’s ceilings at Versailles.
Charles LeBrun: Louis XIV as the Sun God, Hall of Apollo, Palace of Versailles (c. 1684)
Yet, when an artist who is a Marxist-Leninist out of conviction serves courageously as his own judge (which is his duty as an artist—a craftsman is a pleaser of patrons), he is able to produce works of unassailable aesthetic quality and great political power, as did Diego Rivera for Rockefeller Center’s RCA Building and Hans Werner Henze in his song cycle “El Cimarron.” But such artists pay a price for their single-mindedness. Their works will offend. Rivera’s pictures scandalized both Communists and Capitalists. John D. Rockefeller Jr himself had Rivera’s murals ripped-off the wall and the artist was expelled from the Communist Party in the 1930’s. The committed Marxist-Leninist artist is very much like the Christian artist who, desiring to serve the Gospel with his art, seeks to create a Work of Christian Art, a work which shocks. But what is this “shock?” When we say that thus and so “shocked” us, we mean that some event was unexpected and that it had some sort of forceful, and perhaps unpleasant—impact upon us. Something violently intruded itself into our daily business.
Diego Rivera, El hombre controlador del universo o El hombre en la máquina del tiempo New York, Rockefeller Center (destroyed 1934) Mexico Dity, Palacio de Bellas Artes (re-created)
Let us imagine a friend, someone who we know fairly well, a decent man who seeks a live fulfilled by happiness, a friend not unlike us perhaps, and most of our friends. Now, should we read of an earthquake striking this friend’s city, we might speak together of the earthquake sending “shocks” through his city, shocks that came out of nowhere, interrupting the regular pace of his afternoon, filling the air with roars and turning the ground beneath his feet into a very unsteady Jell-O, throwing his life into danger. Or, perhaps this friend might speak of a dinner party that was shattered by the breaking of some sort of taboo—and obscene gesture or a particularly lewd comment, the social pleasure of entertaining conversation broken by a breach of the barriers defining the frontiers of what society considered polite from the commerce of the great unwashed. Or again, our friend might read one morning in a newspaper that an acquaintance, someone with whom he had dined and even shared confidences, that this acquaintance had been convicted of multiple infanticide. Our friend would be shocked, for that man, who he thought he knew, who he thought he understood, was not the person he had believed him to be. In all these cases, the “shocks” were surprises, something for which our friend could neither prepare nor anticipate. And they were violent, the earthquake physically violent and the social breach and the acquaintance’s duplicity psychologically violent. Our friend was left shaken. He was shocked. And he was made afraid. But there is a kind of shock other than the kind brought about by the earthquake or the acquaintance’s duplicity, the fruit of which is still fear. This is the shock of the lotterywinner, of the successful suitor, the shock of happy news. But how can this kind of shock, which causes such abounding happiness, still end in fear? Let us consider the case of a friend who finds himself suddenly the winner of a great lottery. Our friend, one of the millions of possible people who enter the lottery, selects a
few numbers from the countless number of possible digits. He always considered it possible to win, but he knows that it was unlikely—there are so many other people in the lottery, and so many other possible combinations of numbers--and thus pinned no serious expectations on the lottery’s happy outcome. Yet, when the numbers are drawn and he sees that he has won—what euphoria! What happiness! What delight! Of all the possibilities of people who chose various other combinations of numbers—his is the right one, he is the winner! But quickly, within the shadow of our friend’s euphoria, comes something unexpected, something which, as the euphoria wanes, waxes. Quietly, as time goes on and the moment of the lottery’s conclusion recedes, it grows, and grows to where the thought of it eclipses the memory of the lottery’s drawing. What if the prize were to be lost? Our friend was not always rich. He was made rich quickly, suddenly. Can’t he just as quickly, just as suddenly, be made again poor? What if the bank fails? Or what if he has failed to take good account of his fortune’s whereabouts? What if it were stolen? Or, what if some clerk, checking accounts most carefully, discovers some mistake, some irregularity in the lottery, and the judges of the lottery decide to rule the contest now invalid? In any of these ways, and in many others, the fortune would be lost and our friend would again be poor. And so he is frightened. And his fear propels him to seek out protection for his fortune and stratagems for its enhancement. He hedges his fortune to protect it. He invests heavily in his fortune’s defense. And he comes to realize that he is not the possessor of a fortune, but rather is in the possession of a fear. So here too, the shock of delight ends in fear. Fear is the fruit of shock. But that fear is not like anxiety, diffuse and unspecific. The fear that follows in a shock’s shadow is not a general mood, but rather a real fear of something specific. A shock makes us afraid of because it carries something more than just surprise and violence. A shock carries with it revelation.1 In the shock of the earthquake our friend finds revealed a picture of the nature of his existence: that the happiness he seeks today can be torn away from him instantly, without warning. The ground under his feet—to which he gave no thought at all, but always assumed would support his every effort—is not solid. The earthquake reveals to 1
Wagner knew the fear caused by revelation. When Siegliende greets with a shriek Siegmund’s extraction of the sword Notung from the World Ash Tree in Die Walkuerie, she does so not only because she is frightened, but because the shock of Siegmund’s action reveals to her Siegmund’s status as the Wanderer’s son (and her brother). Later, in Goetterdaemerung, Bruenhilde screams in shock when Siegfried, in Gunther’s form, takes the Ring from her. But her scream stems not just from the act’s violence, but more brutally from her sudden intuitive recognition of who the stranger really is. Her horror at the rape of the Ring is in the revelation that the treachery is Siegfried’s. Brunhilde screams when she is confronted with the truth.
our friend that he walks on a fluid earth’s crust, and that earth can break itself open, swallowing him and all his accomplishments in seconds. In the earthquake, our friend sees nature confronting him moment by moment with death, but not only his own death, but also the utter destruction of all of his and his ancestors’ accomplishments. In the shock of the social breach our friend finds himself confronted by the fragility of culture, seeing now how thin the shell is he has made to protect himself from the violence of barbarism; showing him, if but for a moment, how terribly easy it would be him to descent into a life of perpetual cut and thrust, grapple and mall. The acquaintance’s duplicity, his falsity—and the virtuosity of his deceit—illuminates the superficiality of our friend’s most intimate relationships.
San Francisco after the 1906 Earthquake
The shock carries with it revelation: the revelation of death’s nearness, of culture’s fragility, of the exiguity of our relationships. And this is the reason for our friend’s fear: the shock reveals the world as it truly is and not has he has pretended it to be. Like a bolt of lightening, that slashing across the night sky lays bare each mountain crag and scrub of brush, the shock illuminates the world as it truly is: brutal, unpredictable, capricious. The earthquake rattles the shack and the palace alike. There is nowhere for the clever to hide, no place for the swift to run, no market from which the rich can buy 6
their escape. In the ruble, amid the broken stone and convoluted tendons of braided steel, the cries of the executive and the errand runner, the woman of fashion and the bag lady all grind together in deadly ensemble. The wise hurts beside the fool. The kindly are maimed along with the cruel, and the rosy lipped baby lies mauled beside the pimp. This is the world that the shock lays naked to our friend’s eyes. Yet there is more. Not all die. Not everyone suffers. There are survivors. There, among the ruins, shoving aside the rubble, pushing away the broken walls that would crush them—here the survivors crawl to the surface. These, the strong and the lucky, these live on. They live on, living-on perhaps to rescue others, perhaps to scavenge, the choice is theirs. Rescuing who they will, taking what they want, hunting through the rubble, they live on, and living-on they flourish. And they have a right to live on and to flourish because they are lucky and strong. Theirs is theirs because they have survived to take it. And having taken it, they grasp it tightly. And grasping it tightly, they proclaim their grasping “Law” and their taking “right of conquest.” And because of their lawfulness they pronounce themselves “righteous.” And they are righteous because they are lawful. And they are lawful because they can take and hold. And they can take and hold because they are lucky and strong. Through the shock, our friend glimpses all of this. And glimpsing this—the world revealed through the shock—we see our friend covering his face with his hands and cowering, trying to hide himself from the sight. For the earthquake, or the social breach, or the acquaintance’s duplicity has revealed to him, if but for a moment—a horrible moment—what the world really is, and not what he has pretended it to be. For our friend had told himself that he walked on a solid earth. He thought that he had known his society’s rules and, assuring himself of their strength and of the earth’s continuity, he has made plans for the future and set into motion schemes to fulfill his plans. And, believing himself clever, and a good judge of character, our friend enlisted the help of others, trusting them with parts of his scheme’s completion. He has summoned designers, and contractors, and laborers, and assistants, and has raised great barns. But, shaken now by the acquaintance’s duplicity, or the social breach, or the earthquake, our friend now views his plan with fear. For who knows if the great project can be finished? For there is no certainty that tomorrow will be like today. He cannot plan with assurance that he will live to see the project completed or, living, that he will have either the good health to enjoy his project or to even summon any continued enthusiasm for it. The earth may sallow him up. Or his will with the project may change. Or others, who our friend thought he knew (and whose actions he thought he could count on) might turn out to be other than they presented themselves to be and frustrate, or destroy, his project. So the shock reveals to our friend the folly of pursuing the happiness of achieving his own pleasure. And so we look at our friend, our friend who has experienced the shock. But what is this that we see? And why do we see it? Is it simply this new bit of information, this dif-
ferent gathering of data, this new perspective, that has driven him to that posture? Is it simply the recognition that life is full of unexpected changes that has so deeply troubled him? And if that is the case, what should be so significant about simply putting aside such childish notions as expecting tomorrow to be like today and thinking that others are simply as they appear to be? So again we look at our friend, but we look closer. Is it really just the vision of the disaster, or the shock of the social breach, or the surprise of duplicity, that has caused his tears? Is this a man who is now simply older and wiser, matured through the richness of a life fully lived, or a man broken, in the full grip of despair? No. It is not that new data that has driven him to this state. It is not the mere cataloguing of fresh, objective, information, hitherto unknown (or concealed), but now brought to light through research (or the circumstance of the shock) that makes him cower. It is not the assembly of new facts that strips away his richly woven veils of illusion. No, rather the new facts would call for new programs, new ministries, new projects. That sight, the landscape twisted by the earthquake or that view revealed by the acquaintance’s duplicity—that new vision of the world as it truly is—calls not for a clawed face burned by tears, but for a new world order, a world order not based upon the pursuit of happiness but instead upon self-sacrifice and high ethics. “This is not right!” our friend would proclaim. “This is not as it ought to be! It is not right that those—the lucky and the strong—should survive and flourish while all the rest wither away! It is not right that those—the lucky and strong—should grasp and hold and call their grasping initiative and their holding righteous while the empty-handed perish! It is not right that they—the lucky and the strong—should have all while the rest have naught, or have only that it might be taken from them!” Our friend now warms to his task. He stands, raising a clenched fist, his voice cracks with emotion. “If this is the world as it truly is, if this is the vision that has been revealed, then the world must be remade! Let the old order burn. Let it’s cinders be ground to dust. Let the patriots of truth re-create a new and better world on the ashes of the old. Let the graspers be put to the sword while the empty handed are filled with bounty! Let there be new laws and statues and customs! Let that landscape, the landscape of carnage and despair, be plowed under and re-sown with a landscape of hope, and beauty, and equity! In the name of What is Right and for The Sake Of Truth, let us summon all within us to make a just and equitable society! To arms! To arms! To arms!”2 2
This is the view of Hugo’s Enjolras: the world as it is seen from the top of the barricade. But Enjolras, in all his eloquence, is deluded and his delusions will fuel the engines of all those who would engineer paradise, greasing progress’s gears with blood . For the ideal state, the earthly paradise of Enjolras’s harangue—no poverty, no superstition, no war, a realm of light into light and universal comradeship—that paradise lies not in a new century of technological progress but rather stands with him at the barricade; there, but invisible to him, invisible because Enjolras does not have the character to see it. Hugo places Jean Valjean beside Enjolras at the barricade, putting side-by-side the violent social engineer and the embodiment of the ideal state. Where is the society of generosity, of charity, of kindness and humility? Where is the culture of intelligence and industry and philanthropy? It’s in the person of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean comes to the barricade not to spill blood but to save it, he is not there because of his idealized
Transfixed by this vision of hope, we could imagine our friend calling us to the barricades, singing the hymn of revolution as we fight for the founding of the virtuous state. And so quickened is our friend by the world revealed to him by the shock, and so invigorated by the horrible splendor of that revelation, that for the establishment of the New Order he will risk life and limb, surrendering them all to the good of The Cause.
Eugene Delacroix: “Liberty Leading the People (28 July 1830)”
But we look again. And we see our friend, the seer of the world as it truly is, isn’t running along the barricade’s top and summoning men into battle. He is not seeking through subtle persuasion or force of arms to change the world (to alter the data). No. There is none of that. Our friend huddles in a corner. He trembles, shivers, he is so afraid. So deeply afraid. But perhaps, instead of inspiring our friend to raise the flag of revolution, the shock, which revealed the world as it truly is, might lead him elsewhere. Might he not think that hatred of injustice but because of his love for Cosette. Paradise stands within Enjolras’ reach but he does not have the capacity, or the character, to touch it. He does not really see Jean Valjean because he does not really see himself as himself. He does not see his own horror.
if the world was indeed the way he glimpsed it for that moment—brutal, unpredictable, and capricious—he should also be brutal, unpredictable, and capricious? If this is indeed the world as it truly is (and not as he pretended it to be) where the strong and the lucky flourish, what could of greater importance than gaining strength and courting luck? And so our friend, glimpsing the world as it truly is, might seek now, single mindedly, to grow ever stronger, courting luck slavishly, stretching-out his hands so that they might grow ever stronger and his grasp ever wider, seizing and holding continually more things to be seized and held—and, glorying in his grasp, becoming a virtuoso of pleasure and a connoisseur of concupiscence. Or perhaps again our friend, sensing the fear that is the shock’s fruit, simply slams his eyes shut, resolving never again to think of that vision which for a second intruded itself upon him. He will not again look. He will not listen. He will not remember. Having seen the world as it truly is (and not as he has pretended it to be), he with utmost will, and with brutal strength, strangles that memory within him. He lives as before. But not quite, for he is now blind and deaf and living with a dead memory, rotting and stinking inside him. Yet, when we turn to our friend, we do now see a voluptuary or a revolutionary or a man blind and deaf –but neither do we see him as we remember him before the shock, for he has changed since. We look again. And we see him now, crouched, shivering, pressing himself into the corner, his legs pulled up and his hands over his eyes. We kneel in front of him, looking more closely, more carefully. Welts and bruises cover his naked arms and thighs. His nails are bloody. Jagged lacerations tear his cheeks. His eyes, swollen from crying, are crusty and dry for no tears will come. But look (and how could we have missed this before?) His mouth gapes, stretched wide, we see him howl. We see, for there is no sound. He legs convulse. He claws his hair. He opens his mouth as if to shatter the heavens with his cries. But his mouth is soundless and his eyes are tearless—for what words could convey the enormity of his suffering or rivers bear the weight of his misery? For he has seen the world as it truly is (and not as he has pretended it to be) and knows that it is his fault. He has seen that the horror of the cityscape after the earthquake lies not out there, at a locale which can be gestured to and talked about, studied and re-built, but rather within himself. The falseness of the acquaintance (he who was not who he pretended to be) our friend knows illuminates not the other man’s personality flaw (which can be argued in court, and punished in prison, and tabulated by crime rates), but rather his own deep duplicity. For the shock does not carry with it a revelation in the form of some new set of information, some uncovering of previously hidden data, things to be known about matters “out there.” Such stuff, objective information about particular or general circumstances, weights and measures and graphs and charts which can be piled-up and processed and pawed-over and referenced (in the earthquake 4,502 dead, 150,000 homeless, 3,012 structures destroyed, etc. etc.)—that kind of information does not lead to
eyes emptied of tears by crying. Rather it leads to more objective information, perhaps the altering of graphs and charts and the like by revolution, the revolution making its own data, and that data added on top of the old data, there still, but now obsolete. No, the shock carries with it not the revelation of objective facts, but rather revelation in the form of self-recognition. Our friend knows that the acquaintance who has led a multiple life, one of respectability and another as a murderer of children, that acquaintance is no different than himself, for he too has multiple lives and crowds of wants. And if, in the confusion of his diffuse wants, has not assaulted and murdered children, it is not because he finds himself incapable of the crime, or even repulsed by it (for with thought, he can imagine how the pleasure of such a deed might be learned, and rehearsed, and honed, and made ever more exquisite), it is but that he has not made for himself, or found for himself, an opportunity to do so. And seeing himself, and seeing that the will to do so lies quiet but healthy and well within him (as do so many other wills) our friend---imagining his own children bloody in his hands---lacerates that flesh which would house such darkness, and he howls. And our friend, seeing the city around him tremble in the earthquake, and hearing the screams of the maimed and orphaned, recognizes in himself a man both afraid for his own life (for what could be more terrible than to lose his life, or for his precious flesh to be no more? What could be more horrible than the pursuit of happiness be swallowed by the abyss of death?) and a man invigorated by the sight of such destruction. And he knows that he too could find it within himself to destroy a city—perhaps for a noble reason (pull down the slums, straighten the streets, to fulfill a vow) or perhaps just for the pleasure of the sight (for Nero and Alexander too were men, like our friend). But even more than this—knowing that he could sing and toast while the city burned, or while he spilled the blood of his children—our friend knows that were the world pure, were the world free of pain and decay and corruption of any kind—that there lies within himself, strong, and virile, and potent, the will to bring all those things upon the world, and not only the will, but he knows too that he would find the strength to do it, and more than that, he knows that in every opportunity he has had to do it—to pollute the pure, the hurt the well, to sicken the healthy—that he has done it, but more than this: he has taken pleasure and pride in doing it. And being clever, he knows that he has justified his acts: he had no other choice (“The woman whom thou gavest to me. . . .”), or they were required for the good of many (perhaps to drain a marsh: “verweile doch, du bist so schoen”), or simply the natural fruit of a higher ethic (the natural evolution of the superior being). And so he howls. He howls, and howls, and howls until only the shape of the howl is left, its substance being too fragile for the ferocity of his despair. For he is not a monster. Our friend recognizes good and evil. Yet the shock has revealed to him what the world truly is and more importantly, through the shock he has seen himself as himself, and
seeing himself as he truly is—and not as he presented himself to be, our friend judges himself (for he knows good and evil), and judging himself, he howls.3 Oh, but that he could be unmade!
Is this all too dramatic? No, not at all! We have the entire process on film, from June 7, 1961. A prisoner at Auschwitz, Yehiel De-Nur is called to the witness box during the trial of Adolph Eichmann. After an opening statement in which De-Nur describes Auschwitz as a “planet of ashes,” De-Nur looks up and suddenly collapses, almost as if some invisible hand has maliciously struck him down. Unable to continue with his testimony, De-Nur is escorted from the court. Did the Nazi Eichmann, sitting across the court from De-Nur, possess the Evil Eye? Did this man have some sort of occult power with which he could
assail his enemies from across the room? No, not at all. De-Nur later explained that he had known Eichmann through the horrors of the camp, a camp where both his brother and sister were killed after having been brutalized by their Nazi captors. Yet now, eighteen years later, when De-Nur looked up from the witness box across the court at Eichmann, De-Nur didn’t see the inhuman monster who had supervised the deaths of so many, someone who was a freak, a misshapen farce of humanity—the Eichmann of his memory and hatred. Instead De-Nur saw an ordinary middle-aged man in an ordinary business suit—an ordinary man like De-Nur was an ordinary man. And at that moment, with that glance across the court, DeNur said that he recognized not the fact that Eichmann was a monster but that he, Yehiel De-Nur, could be a monster, just like Eichmann. The violence of this shock, the full horror of this self-recognition, this revelation of his own character, lead to De-Nur’s collapse in the court.
So, with all his strength, our friend stretches out his arms, trying with every nerve of his being to grasp the stars so that he might stop them in their courses and, having stopped them, push them back in their orbits, back before the time of his acting, back before the time of his breathing, back before the time of his making, back so that the deed that made him might be undone. But his arms are too short, and there is no rack big enough on which to stretch them (even though he would have happily submitted himself to the torture had there been any hope of success, so great is his present misery). Yet the stars continue in their courses, marking-off hours which in turn mark-off days and days months, each addition to the progression only compounding our friendâ€™s misery. And there is no escape from his pain. Even though the white-teethed tides may gnaw away continents, time gives our friend no such possible destruction, even by degrees. With time, his agony only grows. For he knows that he cannot do the good that he wills to do, but more than that, the hurt he causes, the evil he does, he does willfully. And he knows that he does it willfully (that is his fault) because he has seen himself as he truly is. The shock has shown him the world as it truly is, but more importantly, through it he has seen himself as he truly is, and not has he has pretended to be. And seeing himself, he is ashamed. He condemns himself (for he knows good and evil), and condemned, he huddles for he knows that he is trapped and can do nothing to rescue himself. And being trapped, his shivers, wondering when the one who set the trap will come to collect its prey, and he is afraid. The Work of Christian Art will be like this. It will be like the earthquake, or the social breach, or the duplicitous acquaintance because it will shock. The Work Of Christian Art will hold-up to the observer the world as it truly is, and the observer will be shocked. And in the course of that showing, and in the course of that shock, the observer will be led obliquely to the recognition of his own self, a revelation of the world out there understood by the character of the world in here. And in that moment of self-revelation, of self-revelation of life as it truly is (and not as it is pretended to be), leads to the discovery of fear, and fear leads to the discovery of shame. So the Work of Christian Art will show the observer what it is like to be afraid, and it will make the observer ashamed.4
Is this not the meaning of â€œthe fear of God is the beginning of wisdomâ€?? Were not our ancestors afraid because of their shame in the Garden? And was not that shame the beginning of their redemption?
Masaccio (1401-1428) "The Expulsion from Paradise" Florence c. 1426
II Yet this is not all that the Work of Christian Art must do. To the person who sees life as it truly is, a person like our friend who has experienced the shock and in that seeing feels shame and trembles fearfully, and in that trembling, and through that feeling becomes human, that is a being, huddled in a garden, frightened, naked, and trapped—to this person the Work of Art testifies to the hope of joy. The Work of Christian Arts points to a way out of the trap, a course of deliverance—a path to joy. But more than just pointing, it itself becomes a vehicle of escape and a tool of rescue. For the Work of Christian Art provides a person with a syntax and a vocabulary and a context and a range of discourse in which joy is not only gestured to, as we might point out a star in the night sky, but also realized first in the imagination and then in life, as we might fly to that star to live.5 The Work of Christian Art will not only show us shame (and make us afraid), it will also testify of joy.6
By placing his readers into starkly realistic yet bizarre situations (starkly realistic because of the cruel simplicity of his writing and bizarre because of the dissonance between the everydayness of his locales and the grotesqueness of what goes on in them: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”), Franz Kafka is particularly adept at making his readers deeply uneasy and afraid. Yes his art is by no means Christian. In the rare places where Kafka deals with hope, it becomes clear that the notion is a chimera. Furthermore, the profound confusion that makes so many of his characters afraid (although “anxious” is a more precise description of their condition), never results in shame. Indeed, shame does not seem to exist for Kafka. The Trial begins, “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” Joseph K. is not to be blamed for anything, for the accusation (which is never made clear) must have been based upon lies. His situation is not his fault. Indeed, he is not really responsible for anything since he is apparently just a cog in some sort of machine, “apparently” because even the existence of this machine is ambiguous. Although terrifying, Kafka’s tales are not terrifying enough for a Work of Christian Art for they never place his readers in a situation where their own purposeful and carefully cultivated grotesqueness is held up for their own inspection.
Tolkein uses the term eucatastrophe in a similar way to describe this kind of joy. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. . . It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy…It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairystory were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it has possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. . . It look forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but is it pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite_ high and joyous.” J.R.R. Tolkein, Essays Presented to Charles Williams (grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eedrmans Publishing Company, 1966), pp. 83-84.
But what is this joy? If fear and shame are shock’s fruit, the result of a person’s full selfrevelation of his own true condition unmuted by deception—that is, huddled in a garden, naked and ashamed—then what is joy? Joy is not a mood like happiness. It is not an emotion, like either anger or grief. It is no the result of family background or present circumstance. It cannot be inherited or manufactured. It cannot be transposed from one person to another, as one friend might “cheer-up” another friend, perhaps by causing him to forget some sorrow. Joy is not the antithesis of sorrow, or even its absence. In many ways, joy is rather the intensification of sorrow, the sharpening of sorrow’s sword, not its sheathing. Joy cannot be brought about only by the effort of the will. It is neither the residue of an aesthetic experience nor the result of an encounter with a particular philosophy. If shame is the fundamental characteristic of the person who knows himself without illusion or fantasy—the person who knows that he is condemned, and trapped, and is afraid—so joy is the fundamental characteristic of the person who both knows that there is a of rescue and is embarked upon that journey. The name of that journey, and its character, is joy. Joy is characterized by faith in the undemonstratable, hope in the presence of futility, curiosity before opaqueness, courage in the grip of defeat, happiness in the tongs of suffering, obedience before suicidal orders, simplicity in the company of the most baroque artificiality, and charity in the midst of rapacity. Because a girl is joyful, she can say, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to they word,” and a young man can sigh “never-the-less, not my will, but thine, be done.” Because he is joyful and old man can mutter “Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace.” Because of joy, a prophetess can exult over her enemies’ defeat, and a patriarch can raise over his son a knife. Joy makes a boy bold enough to challenge a giant to a duel over the honor of God, and a sage stubborn enough to build a boat where there is no sea. Joy makes a people follow a pillar of fire into the wilderness, and fills fishermen with the courage to preach to the ends of the earth. Joy gives the demigod the vigor to name creation and the old man the faithfulness to say, “Lo, though the Lord slay me, yet shall I love him.” But joy is more than this. Joy is more than just one of many traits that might make up a person’s character which those things above might at first suggest. It is not that David was joyful when he challenged Goliath but in despair at Absolom’s death, having joy like a coin in his hand at one moment and dropping it at another. And it is not that Mary was joyful when she bowed before Gabriel but was joyless beneath the cross. Then joy would be like gaiety, a mood here for one moment and gone the next. Rather, joy is a disposition, the defining characteristic of a person. It is out of joy that all other aspects of a person’s character spring. To be fully human is to be disposed to joyfulness.7 7
See Paul Holmer on disposition: “A disposition describes a potential to behave in a certain way. A dog is prone to bark under certain circumstances and we think it’s barking a natural bit of behavior. The sugar will dissolve when placed in water and that again is its natural property. With a normal grain of difficulties with which we are confronted, human beings are very likely to complain and to remonstrate. Then a host of negative emotions, highly unpleasurable, ensue. All of us know the agonies of spirit that are so likely.
And this is the greatest shock of all, before which the earthquake or the social breach or the acquaintance’s duplicity evaporates: that to be human is to be disposed to joyfulness. Yet how can this be? How can our friend, he who through the shock has seen the world as it truly is, and not as he pretended it to be, and has seen that it is his fault—that he is responsible—because he has seen himself as he truly is, and not as he pretended himself to be, and—in utter exhaustion and complete self-loathing (for he has torn at himself until his flesh hangs in strips, howling until his throat is mute) he has recognized his shame, and in his shame he condemns himself (because he knows good and evil), and condemned he knows the justice of his damnation, and justly damned he huddles, trapped, naked, shivering, and afraid---how can this pathetic fellow ever be disposed to joyfulness? For how can there be any release for him, except he kill his jailor? And how can he clothe his nakedness, except he flay others? And how can he overcome fear, unless he becomes all powerful? And who is there to rescue him, since he is justly condemned? What does joy have to do with this? Our friend’s vision of the world, and his recognition of shame, and his acceptance of condemnation—this most true of all of his, out our, self-revelations is itself still deeply false. It is itself an illusion. Indeed, it is the deepest and most malefic illusion of them all. It is an illusion because it is a false revelation for the self is false. For even when our friend sees himself most clearly, and most honestly, and most courageously, he still sees falsely. His vision even here is clouded, unclear, distorted. For when he looks at himself he sees only himself, and even that partially and narrowly. And even that partial and fractured view is seen through eyes themselves false and cracked and understood by a mind itself twisted and soiled. What our friend sees and understands he sees as through a smudged and cracked glass and understands with a perverted syntax. It is as if an actor in a play were asked to judge his performance in the play. The actor can, and does, criticize elements of his performance – this line delivered too fast, here the verse skewered, that cue given a bit too slow, these gestures overdrawn, those too subtle, etc. etc., yet there is a certain oddness to these kinds of judgments. For the actor, acting himself, sees not himself as an actor, but only parts of himself – here an outstretched hand, there a foot, perhaps a bit of wig out of the corner of his eye or the glint of a sword’s steel as it cuts the air in a particular flourish. And his speeches? How can he simultaneously deliver a speech and carefully weigh the impact of each syllable profile of But Christianity is also a mode of training in the new disposition, quite different than those which seem so natural and so obvious. Aristotle thought that all virtues were acquired and were secondary powers in contrast to the “things that exist by nature.” Christian literature simply assumes that what we are by nature must be converted and a second nature acquired. The new life in Jesus Christ has strong things to say about how we can now be disposed as reborn creatures. . . Our dispositions do not only change; rather it is the fact that God’s grace will supply a new disposition, that of thankfulness.” Although Holmer’s comments are in the context of gratitude, what here is called joy would fit as a “disposition.” Paul Holmer: “About Thankfulness” (unpublished MS, n.d.), p. 5
the whole? How can he both speak and judge his speech? Clearly this is absurd. The actor cannot judge his acting for he doesn’t see his acting. He sees instead a glimpse of a hand, a wisp of a speech, a flash of steel – all parts of his acting but not the whole of it. And even those parts he mis-sees. For that bit of wig (perhaps from the distance of a fraction of an inch), or that sword (which is not steel at all but stage iron) are all intended to be seen not from the actor’s perspective, and not even from the perspective of those in the wings, but instead from the proscenium’s far side, from the audience. The actor can not be the judge of his performance. And neither can the performance be judged from his colleagues on stage or in the wings, anyone inside the proscenium, under the lights. Instead it is the audience, who sees everyone and everything and who knows the progress of the entire play, who judges finally and with authority. It is the audience who rightly bestows praise and malediction. Like the actor, our friend, who huddles, naked, frightened, justly condemned, can not see himself as he truly is and not has he has pretended himself to be. Even now his vision is false, distorted, twisted, nearly blind, his eyes swollen nearly shut by blows and tears. To see himself truly, as he really is, he, like the actor, but depend upon the vision of one beyond the proscenium, above the lights, one who sees all. It is God of the scriptures, who beyond the stellatum, above the lights, sees all. And this is the greatest offense of all, the greatest shock: that our friend’s most true vision of himself, a vision achieved at only the most brutal and cruel personal cost and requiring suffering to achieve and brings with it the most wretched bitterness, it itself a mis-vision. What is true in is elements, like the tawdriness of the actor’s wig glimpsed out of the corner of his eye is a true vision, our friend’s vision of his own humanity--of a being, huddled in a garden, naked, frightened, and utterly alone—is not a vision true enough. It is not the view of the audience, the audience of the scriptures. That audience tells our friend that he is not naked. He is clothed by love. He is not alone. He is befriended. He is not cursed, but blessed. His essence is not monstrous rapaciousness but joyful obedience. His fundamental character is not to destroy (and to revel in the destruction), but to create, to make, and to replenish. That audience tells our friend that he is not trapped, but rescued. Redeemed. Saved. The Work of Christian Art will be like that. It will shock. And the shock will illuminate to the attentive observer the geography of his own misery. It will propel him to fear and testify to the greater hope of joy.
III But the Work of Christian Art here does not refer to either any work made by a professing Christian or to every piece of stuff associated with the religious assembly of Christians. Christians can make many things, and certainly even things of high aesthetic quality, things of great art, without those things being Works of Christian Art. Such things can be merely honestly crafted items for daily use. They can be items of high aesthetic quality and invention. Yet even items set apart from daily use, aesthetic things used in worship, need not be items of Christian Art. They can be merely items of liturgical apparatus. A paten—the plate that holds the communion bread—although intimately associated with the business of the Eucharist, is not always, or even usually, to be considered as a Work of Christian Art. When use by the ministers and the communicants in the business of communion it is an apparatus of liturgy, indeed a sacred object (meaning an object set apart), but not in itself sacred, like a totem, but rather sanctified by the communicants’ faithful reception of Christ’s body. Apart from the liturgy, it is just a plate. Apart from the faithful assembly of believers, it is crockery, or silverware. There is nothing in the particular roundness of the paten that immediately separates it from all other plates. Now the paten can be decorated with symbols and sayings which seek, by their presence, to separate that paten from the great body of plates, but those things are decorations, superficial things ground into the basic roundness of the plate. They can be rubbed-off without altering the paten’s fundamental structure. And though perhaps costly, and make of precious metals, the paten can be fairly easily bought. It can be manufactured and produced in mass. Its manufacturer can design different styles to respond to different market demands and various tastes. These designs can be pictured in a catalogue of church wares, and one kind or another can be ordered on demand. Because of its use in the Eucharist, the paten might be treated with particular respect, perhaps stored apart from other objects out of a caretaker’s devotion, but at the very best this respect, this devotion, is due not to the object itself but vicariously to the faith testified to by the communicants who take Christ’s body from off its surface. None of these things would characterize the Work of Christian Art. And there are those who would say that art, of any kind, and of any quality, would be an example of Christian Art simply because it was made by a professing Christian. And there is a certain reasonableness to this argument. But would we say that any act done by a Christian is a “Christian” act because it is done by a Christian? Are the rapes of children by priests Christian rapes? Are the murders of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian Christians, Christian murders? Or wouldn’t we agree that there must be a certain quality or nature to an act for it to be considered “Christian”? And if there are indeed qualities or characteristics appropriate to a “Christian” act, what might those characteristics or qualities be? For instance, would a “Christian act” be more likely described as cruel or kind? And if we agree in the nonsense of describing any act done by a Christian as a “Christian act,” surely too we can agree in the nonsense of calling any aesthetic artifact, even a work of art produced for religious purposes, made by a Christian a Work of
Christian Art. Not every act by a Christian is a specifically Christian act. And not ever work of art by a Christian is a Christian Work of Art. A paten can be simply a plate used in communion, a piece of liturgical apparatus, serving a particular function, like the plate that covers an electric outlet. It holds the bread. And there is nothing wrong with that. It serves a useful function. Yet, could a paten be a Work of Christian Art? Could it be a Work of Christian Art as well as a liturgical apparatus? Yes, but only with difficulty (as anything of worth is difficult to attain). Imagine first an artist—not an honest craftsman or even a keen artificer, but a creator who is somehow consistently driven over the course of his entire life to the work of disciplined creation, for whom such creation is a passion and not a job or a trade (even an honest and praise worthy trade) but instead an almost providently called life of imaginative creation—an artist. And imagine that this artist is pious, and seeks with all his heart to serve Christ single mindedly. An artist who knows the character of the gospel—but not only knows but seriously tries to live out that character, the gospel being not an adornment to his character—something that he can put on or take off like an overcoat, or even rent perhaps for a particular occasion if the price is high enough—but rather is the bone on which the artist’s life hangs. And that artist—because he has truly seen himself—knows himself, and knowing himself understands trembling and fear and the hope of joy. And because of that hope, creates his art in the face of fear and trembling, offering it in obedience to the command “feed my sheep” knowing that his fate will be the fate of Orpheus, ridicule and scorn, knowing that his art will be the source of his greatest pain. Now, imagine further that such an artist decides to make a paten. This artist knows the paten’s function and fully considers its importance: here is to be displayed the mysterious memorial of the wounded body of Christ, those wounds gouged-in by the minister and the receiver and the artist himself too. And around that paten will gather the church of Christ in obedience to His command to do so in remberance of me, a shadow-play of the celestial banquet, an early vision of eternity, that sacramental assembly itself the icon of joy (and yet too, here, that body wounded, broken). Will not this artist seek to create a paten truly worthy – or as worthy as he can possibly make it – of holding the world’s most precious object, even if it costs him his life? (Tot das Haupt – erstarrt die Locken 8–). 8
Hear Albert Giraud’s Pierrot:
Heilge Kreuze sind die Verse Dran die Dicther stumm verbluten, Blindgeschlagen von der Gier Flatterndem Gespensterschwarme!
Holy crosses are the verses On which poets bleed, mute; Stricken blind by the vultures Flapping like a swarm of ghosts.
In den Leibern schwelgten Schwerter Prunkend in des Blutes Scharlach Heilge Kreuze sinde die Verse Dran die Dichter stumm verbluten.
Swords gorged upon the bodies On parade in bloody scarlet! Holy crosses are the verses On which the poets bleed, mute.
Will not this artist seek-out the most precious materials for his paten (those materials made precious not by the market place, but by the care and imagination and discipline with which the artist handles them)? But not only will he seek-out such materials, but will he not make certain that he has the virtuoso craftsmanship required for shaping his project? And if not, will he not eagerly and steadfastly seek-out the best teachers to instruct him, perhaps apprenticing himself for many, many years even before beginning the first steps of his paten’s creation? And furthermore, will he not continually, every day and night, during every step of creation, scourge his imagination, always asking himself, “is this truly the very best that this can be?” –just as, every day and night, the artist continually seeks to be more fully conformed to Christ, praying things such “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner”? The business of taste, and who might or who might not find the paten to his liking—the stuff of the church ware catalogue and the market analyst and even the board of elders or the council of bishops—all of that is of no consequence to the artist who cares seriously about himself as an individual before God, and strives with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind to make his work the very best that he can offer Him. For the paten, like the artist’s life, is a work of deadly seriousness, and not a bauble knocked-together for the gratification of some fashionable whim, some peculiar deacon’s tastes or the most recent sales graph of a shopkeeper. For no matter how costly the paten’s materials, the real Work of Christian Art is the artist himself, his life, and that life is of the most high cost and of the most deadly seriousness, and always points to something outside of itself: “When a woman makes an altar cloth, so far as she is able, she makes every flower as lovely as the graceful flowers of the field, as far as she is able, every star as sparkling as the glistening stars of the night. She withholds nothing, but uses the most precious things she possesses. She sells off every other claim upon her life that she may purchase the most uninterrupted and favorable time of the day and night for her one and only, for her beloved work. But when the cloth is finished and put to its sacred use: then she is deeply distressed if someone should make the mistake of looking at her art, instead of at the meaning of the cloth; or make the mistake of looking at a defect, instead of at the meaning of the cloth. For she could not work the sacred meaning of the cloth into the cloth itself, nor could she sew it on the cloth as though it were one more ornament. The meaning really lies in the beholder and in the beholder’s understanding, if he, in the endless distance of separation, above himself and above his own self, has completely forgotten the needlewoman and what was hers to do. It was allowable, it was proper, it was a duty, it was a precious duty, it was the highest happiness of all for the needlewoman to do everything in order to accomplish what was hers to do; but it was a trespass against God, an insulting misunderstanding of the poor needlewoman, when
Todd as Haupt – erstarrt die Locken – Fern, verweht der Laerm des Poebles. Langsam sinkt die Sonne nieder, Eine rote Koenigskrone. Heilge Kreuze sind die Verse!
Dead the head, stiff the locks In the distance dies the rabble’s noise. Slowly sinks the sun A king’s crimson crown. Holy crosses are the verses!
someone looked wrongly and saw what was only there, not to attract attention to itself, but rather so that its omission would not distract by drawing attention to itself”.9
The maker of the Work of Christian Art, will do all those things: stretch his technique, sell off what is superfluous to his task, risk his reputation, all for the purpose of his paten. The paten, the result of his labors—the fruit of his life—will bear the stamp of the gospel. And like Kierkegaard’s parable of the single minded seamstress, it will shock. The paten will be of such a form and in such a design that the ministers will tremble when touching it and the communicants quake when it is held out to them. For through the paten they will each find themselves confronted by themselves, in a manner they cannot misunderstand, confronted by the truth of themselves and of the eternal seriousness of the grace which is held out to them so freely to receive. Through the artist’s paten, they will each find themselves rebuked by themselves, and confronted by themselves in the cost of their redemption and the character of their lives. And, furthermore, in that paten they will see themselves and each other as receivers of joy made corporeal. And having seen all this some will truly knell, their hearts filled with joy and their lives lighted by the radiance of saving grace and their minds fixed upon heaven. But some, having glimpsed the paten from the corner of their eye, will quickly turn away their eye, taking the bread off the paten, hurrying back down the aisle to their own judgment. Others will remain in the pews but comment on the paten’s astounding novelty, and beauty, and sublime craftsmanship, and perhaps even praise its maker, proclaiming him an artist of true achievement, a genius—but all that the empty braying of asses who are empty of even the pretense of understanding. But others, will look at the paten and understand it--and they will know themselves—and turn to the paten and hate it, crying that it be smashed and its maker stoned. But all will be shocked.10
Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, pp. 27-28, trans. By Douglas Steere.
Nicholas Wolterstorff writes: “Liturgical art, much of it participatory in character, is the art of a community, at the service of its liturgical actions and not at he service of aesthetic contemplation. For the purposes of aesthetic contemplation, much of it—maybe most if it—is inferior to a great many other works available in our culture. When it is not, its aesthetic magnificence tends to distract us from the liturgy. Bach’s cantatas are a great exception, superb both aesthetically and liturgically. But concerning these we must be reminded that listening to them aesthetically is very different from listening to them in such a way that the choir sings to God on one’s own behalf. Our great twentieth-century composers have produced a good deal of religious music. Of liturgical music they have produced almost nothing (Vaughan Williams being the exception). A few days before writing these words I heard a marvelous performance of Bach’s “Magnificat.” For me the performance was as sobering as it was exhilarating, however. When Bach composed his work, it belonged to the art of the tribe, for aesthetically glorious as it is, it was then a humble servant of the Lutheran liturgy. Now it sadly belongs almost entirely to the art of our cultural elite, who listen to it in concert halls, taking note only of its aesthetic qualities. Is it too much to hope that some day the church will once again find composers who are willing to turn their backs, for a time, on the institution of high art to compose works which are of aesthetic magnificence and yet of humble service to the liturgy?” Wolterstorff echoes a complaint common among critics who, while having a general liking for “high art,” have only a superficial understanding of it. To describe Bach’s music as a “humble servant of the Lutheran liturgy” (as if to say that either there was one particular attitude to the “Lutheran liturgy in eighteenth century Germany—which completely ignores the contemporary debates between Orthodoxy and Pietism—
The paten will shock. But not only will the paten, but also the life of the artist who produced it, that life will shock too. The seriousness with which the artist takes his task, his willingness to sacrifice for its creation, his impatience with half-measures and contempt for ordinary imagination, these things too will shock. This artist will offend other smiths and potters who content themselves with craft—even those who content themselves with high craft. Neighbors who are diffuse in their wants he will offend by his single-mindedness. And taking their cues from the women of Thrace, they will cover his offence with mockery, encouraging his task with ridicule, many with the open ridicule of laughter while those more subtle with the ridicule of indulging tolerance. That kind of paten would be a Work of Christian Art. And that kind of artist would be a Christian artist. The gospel story has so permeated the artist’s character that his life makes no sense apart from it. The gospel is not an ornament to the artist’s life, but rather characterizes the artist’s disposition. The gospel is a fountain welling-up within him that both sustains his creation and quickens it. It is not a story for him to mouth, or even to mouth eloquently, when paid to do so. In the Work of Christian Art, the character of the gospel and the content of the gospel story has so saturated the work’s design that it can have no understandable or reasonable existence apart from the gospel The work does not merely “carry” a gospel story, as a canvas of the nativity might “carry” a picture of a barnyard and a baby and a shepherd, but rather embodies the gospel story in all of its parts. So fully has the artist poured the character of the gospel into the paten’s creation that the finished paten is completely and inextricably removed from the genera of dinnerware. It can reasonably serve as nothing other than that for which it was intended; using a paten as a butter plate---no matter how splendid the banquet—would be the act of a fool, this paten looking ridiculous among tureens and napkin rings and salad bowls.
Or that Bach’s primary concern was to subsume artistic decisions beneath liturgical conventions) bends both history and Bach’s musical decision beyond recognition. His works are models of aesthetic “shocks” on multiple levels calculated for theological purposes. Wolterstorff ‘s comments about the role of the artist are misplaced. Should the creator of the Christian Work of Art “serve” the liturgy, he is an idolater, serving a created thing instead of the Creator. And should the creator of the Christian Work of Art – the artist – surrender his critical facility to “the liturgy” – the priests and deacons and lay arbitrators of chic and the professors of aesthetics (“Is the color in style?” “Does it perhaps clash with the rug, Father?” “Perhaps it would like nice moved a bit to the left, Father?” “Would you like the oboes softer here, Eminence?”) He surrenders his most precious and desperately honed gift for the potage of somebody else’s approval. He ceases to be an artist. He ceases to be truly himself. He is no longer what the Creator created him to be. He abandons his vocation as an artist for the business of a decorator, a hireling, a chooser of fabrics and a whore of taste. Wolterstorff would do as well to chide Kierkegaard for writing disturbing discourses instead of charmingly illustrated romance novels. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 188189.
Domenico Theotocopuli called El Greco: “The Assumption of the Virgin” (1577)
We need only to consider the plight of El Greco’s 1577 “Assumption” to be reminded of this. How sad, how ironic, the painting now looks in Chicago! The monumental canvas looms coldly over its viewers who peer at it curiously and chat about it briefly--but they look only fleetingly and talk hurriedly because they must move on to the museum’s other galleries, move on to be edified by the room of Dutch Baroque pictures, and then to the gallery of English Augustinian portraits, and then through the hall of Indian bronzes—on and on and on, ticking off one chore accomplished after another until the weight of so much edification and talk drives them all out of the museum to the nearest café—all that looking and seeing nothing. But should we return the El Greco to the high altar at Toledo’s Santo Domingo el Antiquo, place it between the painter’s portraits of Saints
Bernard, Benedict, John the Baptist and John the Apostle and beneath his Holy Trinity, light it with candles, and gaze at it during mass, and now the wall blazes. The painting is not the object of edifying looking, but instead it is a propeller to prayer. We do not look it over and pass on to the next pretty picture, but now glance at it fleetingly, on our knees. In Chicago, in its gallery of Spanish painting, even in its new pseudo-reredos frame and above its false altar and at the summit of the flight of stairs, still the canvas looms over us in haughty judgment of the piracy that kidnapped it from its intended home and of the cupidity of those who sold it and the grasping, and hording, of those who posses it for their pride in possessing. Ridiculous though it is, yet it still disturbs, it still unsettles. There, still in this gallery, few are comfortable to look very long.
We stand long before Monet’s haystacks, but we look at the El Greco and pass on, quickly.11
Alfonso E Peres: “On the Reconstruction of El Greco’s Dispersed Altarpieces, El Greco of Toledo (Boston” Little, Brown and Company, 1982), pp. 149-176.
A thing may be an example of religious art (or craft) if it has as its subject some religious story or as its purpose some liturgical function. But a Work of Christian Art is something so deeply permeated by the full character of the gospel that the beholder is sharply confronted with the truth of eternity. The work will shock and the beholder will be left ashamed and afraid, yet conscious at the same time of the possibility of joy. But we need to consider the possibility of a work of art shocking only because of its aesthetic character: might it be so beautiful that our reaction might be described as a kind of shock? If this is possible, is there then a difference between this kind of shock and the kind of shock brought about by the Work of Christian Art? Now it is indeed possible for an aesthetic object, a great work of art, to deeply surprise and to profoundly delight, a delight so profound that some can even claim that the work of art changes the viewers’ lives. But such works do not shock, or at least shock in the sense of the earthquake. They do not cause fear. And such works do not make a way of escape seem possible. Perhaps we know a man who was deeply moved by a particular exhibition of paintings. Let us say that he visited an exhibition of Monet’s works, an exhibition including the painter’s monumental water lilies canvases. And our friend told us that those paintings, some of the canvases so huge that they spread across whole gallery walls, seemed to assault him with a new awareness of color. And he tells us that standing before them, he discovered—sharply—that until then he had never before really seen color, or certainly never before felt the happiness of color. Walking through those galleries he felt as if in a different existence, almost intoxicated. For the world now was different than he had seen it before; these paintings, these aesthetic objects, had made him vitally aware of a new part of it. He now experienced color as a vocabulary of pleasure. Our friend tells us that Monet changed his life. He explains to us that in those pictures Monet taught him to carefully, and vivaciously, attend to color and to enjoy the pleasure which insightful and fiercely intelligently manipulated color can give. Those paintings deeply moved him, and delighted him, and made him see the world differently than he had seen it before (yet he had been in hundreds of galleries before those). Certainly all of this is good and worthwhile, but when we question him further we find that although wonderful and startling, the paintings did not shock him in the sense that they might have frightened him. And when we talk further still our friend says that the paintings were revelatory, showing him a truer picture of existence but that this was an aesthetic and intellectual revelation. Through an aesthetic and intellectual object he learned an aesthetic and intellectual lesson. He developed, or strengthened, an intellectual and aesthetic capacity. But that was all. This is not the case with a Work of Christian Art. For while a Work of Christian Art, as an aesthetic object, will carry with it an aesthetic illumination, that illumination, or the pleasure the aesthetic object gives, will not be all the work does. The Work of Christian Art will shock. It will lead to not only a revelation of the self’s aesthetic character, but also a revelation of the self’s ethical and religious character.
Claude Monet, “Water Lilies” (1914)
Finally we must at consider if all of this is perhaps overstated. Must the Work of Christian Art always shock? Is this a true characteristic? Or is it possible perhaps for a Work of Christian Art to entertain? Certainly any work of art must maintain some sort of interest, but is it possible for a Work of Christian Art to amuse? Can we not imagine an artist, with the same single-mindedness and seriousness as the patenâ€™s maker, dramatizing a story in such a way that we might call it entertaining and a Work of Christian Art, perhaps as Andrew Lloyd Weber has done with his Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.
When we have a friend say that she found thus and so “entertaining,” doesn’t she usually mean that she found the thing amusing, and pleasurable? When she goes to the theater, and returns describing the play as “entertaining” doesn’t she usually mean that she smiled and laughed at funny jokes, and was amused at cleverly constructed scenarios, and perhaps thrilled by beautiful sets, evocative lighting, and splendid costumes? And doesn’t she mean that she was moved sentimentally with the predicaments of the characters, perhaps even to the point where she cried a bit? All of these various things we associate with the entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with any of them. But can we look further, perhaps asking our friend why she went to the theater, why she wanted to be entertained? Certainly one reason she does so is simply because it is pleasurable, like swimming in a beautiful lagoon is pleasurable or enjoying sun is pleasurable. But there is another reason for her desire for entertainment besides the innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures. Haven’t we also heard it said among theater goers, perhaps as they wait on the sidewalk for a taxi after a performance, that a successful entertainment “helped them forget things,” or that “it took them away for a while”? Haven’t we sometimes heard an entertainment described as an “escape”? But why do they use these phrases? What do they forget and why would they want to forget it? They are taken away from where? They escape from what? Perhaps these are only innocent phrases; the entertainment an escape from an angry boss or an annoying toothache. And certainly there is nothing wrong with an evening of fun; belly laughs and sentimental tears exorcising the little disappointment of the day. But what happens when the entertainment is no long a major exorcism, a phrase to shoo-off an annoyance, but rather becomes our friend’s principle liturgy? What happens when the entertainment becomes a mode of life? What happens when the entertainment becomes the focus of our friend’s existence and that which she places at the center of her life? The pleasure of an entertainment lies in its ability to make our friend forget herself. Or better, the entertainment nurtures her illusions, the forgetfulness that she already has. It is her pretense; it is how she pretends to be who she pretends to be. It allows her to lightly consider other people—the ones on the stage, or on the street, or in her office or at her home around the table (for they are all stage characters to her)—while continuing to ignore herself. At a moment when she might be brought to her senses, by some shock perhaps, or perhaps by the revived throbbing of a habitual pain, the entertainment sweeps her back to her fantasy: that she is a moral being in an eternal world (but even more than that, that it is not her fault). In the entertainment she continues her escape from herself.12 12
This is of course not the case with the kind of dramatic art where we are moved by the stage character’s predicaments because in those predicaments the artist/playwright has held-up to us aspects of our own lives. But such things are not entertainments. There is nothing entertaining when we see a part of our own
These are sweet pleasure for our friend indeed, for more than anything else she strives to ignore her own work and works hard never to look too deeply into herself; perhaps that is what she works at harder than anything else. So the entertainment is her greatest treasure. She zealously cultivates it and guards it. She structures her life so that she might have as many opportunities to be entertained as possible. Her home is focused upon it, the television winks back at her as it devours hour after hour. She wants her teachers to amuse her and her politicians to A child of the rock concert, she feels herself to have worshipped where she is caught-up in a mob, swaying and muttering gibberish to the endless insipidity of a drummer’s ostinato. Or perhaps she is a child of the salon, a woman of elevated taste, and is stricken with religious palpitations by the exquisite diction of the chanted psalm echoing across the sanctuary vaults, spiced with the lingering wisps of incense—in either case, at that moment when she ought to be most terribly confronted by herself as herself, seeing truly the distance between herself and God’s grace, knowing then, as if the landscape of her life has been laid bare and naked in a flash of lightning, that had it been for her alone, had she been the single lost sheep, that the complete drama of the creation’s redemption would have been played out for her salvation—here, at this moment when she kneels to receive the physical memorials of that grace---there again she demands the arias of the opera house or the throbs of the rock bacchanal, pulling over herself the shroud of sound, hiding herself from herself, submerging herself into the ocean of the crowd. And those who spin that shroud for her, the entertainers, and their managers, and agents, and publicists, and publishers, and investors—the whole rabble of camp followers—they who protect her from that terrible landscape of her soul, she rewards lavishly, ecstatically, orgiasticly, heaping upon them mountains of riches and choruses of adulation. For she knows that all of this tribute is required—required, that is if she is to continue nurturing her illusions, keeping her world the way she pretends it to be, guarding herself from herself. Without the entertainments she might perhaps find herself, even if for a moment, naked before her own gaze, protectionless from her own judgment, and she would have nothing to shield herself from what she knows (more keenly and more deeply than anything else) lays near the root of her existence. For she knows what lies there because she has seen it: in those silent moments at three o’clock in the morning when she wakens, shivering, in terror not so much of the night itself but of that which lies in the deeper darkness beyond the night, in those moments she has glimpsed the face of the utter blackness of her pain—a meaningless writhing ache, meaningless because there is no joy to interpret it, writhing because there is no escape from it. The memory of that sight must be forgotten. Its occasion must never be repeated. Our friend arms herself with entertainments, and fortifies her frontiers with amusements. And she surrounds vast foolishness held-up to us in Lear’s posturing, or see our own blood-lust in the blinding of Gloucester, or recognize in Hedda Gabler’s desperation a passing shadow of our own pain.
herself with diverting companions and together they build a civilization of pleasure, a nation of forgetfulness. Yet that vision cannot be forgotten. It cannot be escaped. It can only be submerged. But submerged it continues to grow, secretly, clandestinely, feeding upon our friend, growing stronger (just as an accuser grows ever bolder when prosecuting the justly accused) until the pain has eaten the entertainment and our friendâ€™s shroud becomes her own tunic of Deianeira. And when there is nothing left of our friend but her pain, when the forgetfulness of the entertainment has even snuffed the most fragile flickering of hope, then our friend finds herself in Hell, writhing in an ocean of the condemned.
The web page of the Dove Awards
A Work of Christian Art could never be like that. It could not be an accouterment of Hell. The Work of Christian Art would compel our friend to seriously consider herself—not to forget herself or to surrender herself to a mob. In the Work of Christian Art she would find herself confronted by herself, seeing herself as she is truly and not as she, in her illusion, pretends to be. And confronted by herself through the glass of the Work of Christian Art, our friend would gaze upon her own pain, now held before her by the Work. But the Work of Christian Art would not seek to make her forget her pain but rather to help her endure it and in that endurance find joy by surrendering it to One who endured all pain innocently, and in that surrender find the transcendence of understanding. The Work of Christian Art points to a road where pain is not forgotten but where wounds are healed. And this is how a Work of Christian Art can comfort: not by providing forgetfulness, like an entertainment, but rather by providing understanding, and in that understanding, wisdom, and in that wisdom, joy. A Work of Christian Art could never entertain, or at least entertain in the sense of providing forgetfulness. For while the Work of Christian Art certainly might employ elements of the entertainment--burlesque, farce, satire and even obscenity--the purpose of the Work would not be forgetfulness of ourselves but rather a confrontation with who we are and who we are meant to be.13 And a believing artist (and an artist believing in his call as an artist) could never devote himself to the creation of a Work of Christian Art as an entertainment, or at least an entertainment as described here. For the maker of an entertainment must constantly check his work with his audience, seeing its approval, its approbation, its grins and smiles and applause, congratulations and admiration and medals and awards. His work, the entertainment, fundamentally must please them and the more of “them” the entertainment pleases the better his work is. Indeed, the creator of the entertainment is much more like a tailor than he is an artist for he cuts his material only to fit his client’s present whims. And like clothes, the entertainment’s ultimate standard is its fashionability. The maker of the entertainment cannot focus upon his individuality as a soul before God but rather upon the crowd he must amuse. And he must not make a work in which the individuals in the crowd are addressed as individuals, as souls before God, but rather as members of the crowd, as part of an audience. And the maker of the entertainment is sustained not by the inner conviction that he has truly given the best of himself that is possible for him to give to his work (because that is what God requires of him), but rather by the crowd’s coin and the din of their clappy clappy. But more than anything else, the entertainment must not shock. The entertainment might titillate and it might aggressively attack the fashionable targets of the day, but it must not shock. It must not leave the audience afraid. If it did, it would not be an entertainment. This is why it is impossible for an entertainment to be a Work of Christian Art, the 13
Pascal was more blunt. “All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared then the theater.” Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: The Modern Library, 1941), #11.
purposes of the two are opposed and what would be hailed as a success in one would be reprimanded as a failure in the other. Yet perhaps this is in need of one refinement. Perhaps it is possible for a Christian artist who makes works for children to create entertainments and amusements for good purpose. For when most of us were children we had not yet practiced our illusions for so long nor guarded them so zealously that a shock was needed for us to see ourselves as we really were. When we were children, most of us were not so practiced in pain that we devoted every moment to ignoring it. So through the fun of an amusement, perhaps even of a game, it might be possible for an artist to assist children in seeing the uncompromised brightness of the gospel. But for an adult, a virtuoso in deceit, such a thing would not be possible. But apart from this, must the Work of Christian Art shock? While shock may certainly be a hallmark of the Work, must it be a characteristic of every Work of Christian Art? Might not such a work simply beguile? Might not such a Work be a recreation or even a pleasant pastime? Perhaps there is an artist with a soul so crystalline, a life so thoroughly illuminated by the brilliance of the gospel that there are no places of darkness in it, no polluted recesses ever so secret, no nooks or crannies of the personality left even minutely unexamined, that he himself is in need of no shock, no disturbance, for him to see himself as he truly is. Perhaps such an artist, utterly void of any self-deception, might create a Work in which there is no barb, no prick, no spur to jar the observer into self-awareness (for the artist creates the shock first for himself, so that he might see and understand). And perhaps such an artistâ€™s works might be performed before a community as pure as himself, a community that lives completely without illusion of any kind what-so-ever. Then, perhaps, the Work of Christian Art might not be characterized by a shock because there would not only be no need for it but a shock would be impossible because everything would already be fully known as it truly is. There would be no need for revelation because everything already would be revealed. And there would be no fear for it would have sunk in the wake of wisdom. For that artist, and for that community, the Work of Christian Art would not shock. It could not shock. But there is no such artist. And there is no such community. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. So the Work of Christian Art must shock. It must make its observers afraid because through it they both find themselves revealed to themselves and glimpse the chasm between that sight and the brilliance of grace. And the fear of that sight is the beginning of wisdom and the origin of joy.
Michelangelo, "The Last Judgment"
Published on Jan 15, 2012