Friday, September 19, 2014

Art as Prophecy

 "Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still..."
T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton."

 If art is communication of vision, then true art is prophesy. Each human person sees, or at least is called to see, some aspect of God that no other creature in existence can ever see. I believe that this is the true basis for that mysterious quality which we call individuality, but that requires a good deal more thought. What I am certain of is that God communicates a part of Himself to us that He communicates to no other person. Or to put it differently, He communicates His whole being to us in a way that He does for no other person. Whenever a human being sees a glimpse of that communication and tries to share it with another human being, art is born. This transcends the formal arts, music, writing, painting, sculpture, acting and so forth. This permeates all truly human activities down to the most mundane. Thus we can speak of an "art" to good conversation; an "art" of letter writing; an "art" to hospitality; an "art" to flipping burgers. When we say that someone does some mundane task artfully, we meant that he or she is doing it purposefully, meaningfully, in the best manner possible and this raises their activities to the level of art. 
humanly.They are not simply tying a shoe, they are tying it well, with attention to the shape of the knot, the length and balance of the loops and tails. They are seeking to do what must be done

Art is prophecy, in this sense, because the beauty that one person sees in the restrained elegance of the Japanese tea ceremony is a reflection of God. The beauty that another seas in the barely controlled chaos of the mudroom when the kids come in from a ramble through the woods in mid-March is also a reflection of God. To share either beauty with the other, to translate it so that they can see and appreciate it, is to broaden their appetite for beauty, to show them a truth they were not aware of, or had forgotten, or simply had never exercised. It shares a part of God with them that otherwise they would not have seen.

It is this that I mean when I say that art is prophecy. It is usually unconscious, I suppose, a reaching after "we know not what." That is what makes art universal when it is at its best. It is an expression of longings that remain inarticulate. The methods of art can be used as a distraction from those longings, which I would classify as entertainment rather than art. This too has its place as a rest, to help us refit until we are strong and ready to begin the pursuit once more. Art, however, should not distract from the longing, the not-enough-ness. It should point it out, set a finger on it and say, "I try to capture the 'more' but it will not be captured."

It need not be unconscious, though.
"The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action."
  T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages."

An artist may know what he is truly striving after, put a name to Him, and by discipline, prayer and observance, the "lifetime's death in love/ ardour and selflessness and self-surrender," bring himself more and more to mirror that light, to enter into that relationship, and to gaze upon the beauty he seeks to communicate. It is necessary, in the end, or else he runs the risk of being more in love with his communication of the beauty than with Beauty Himself. In the end I suppose he will come with Thomas Aquinas to know that everything he has ever created has been only straw, valuable to God only because God loves Him. In the end, the reader, the viewer, the sharer of the art will also be drawn beyond the art. They will leave behind our best works like forgotten toys, and that which once inspired us will be no longer relevant, loved for old time's sake, as a grown up may keep a teddy bear in the box in his closet.

This is to be expected, even to be hoped for. Our glimpses are partial, shadowy, incomplete. They were never meant to satisfy. They were meant to introduce, to excite, to tease and urge onward. The reality is "further up and further in."

If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.

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