The War of Art

Ask nine out of ten people what the purpose of art is, and they will say, "to express yourself."  In fact, art has many purposes, and self-expression is one of the least important.  No one could mistake "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "Ave Maria" for expressions of self. One of the most important purposes of art is the expression of national character, with The Iliad and The Odyssey the best examples.  The most important, which The Iliad and The Odyssey also in part serve, is the subject of this essay.

Since the making and enjoyment of art are fundamental to what it means to be human, the failure to understand its purposes means the failure to understand ourselves and our creations.  Today it also means a failure to understand the present world crisis, which pits an Islamic world that objects to the West as much on aesthetic grounds as any other, with its advocates, all of their other arguments refuted, making their last stand on the claim that the beauty they see in the Koran is proof of its divinity, against a Western world abysmally ignorant of the competing sensibilities and unable to defend its own art and civilization because it does not know what their highest purpose is or how they carry it out.  Even the disputes within our own country are more aesthetic than anything else, as one crummy song, in compressed format, no less, often defeats sixteen rational arguments.

One should not confuse the purposes of art with the purposes of its creators.  Homer's purpose is of little moment; Greece's purpose is not.  Of greatest moment, however, is the purpose of the works themselves, whatever their author may have been thinking and whatever uses the Greeks may have put them to.

These distinctions are crucial for understanding the most important purpose of art because an artist may serve that purpose without knowing that it exists by modeling his work on works whose authors serve that purpose consciously or on works that are themselves modeled on works whose authors serve it consciously, and so on down through the centuries.

The most important principle of Western art is that a poem, a song, a painting, a work of fiction, should point by analogy to the Creator of the universe by displaying its own "fictive," that is, "made," character, "fiction" coming from the Latin fictio, which itself comes from the Latin fingere, "to form, fashion, make."  A work of art is a human creation that calls attention to the creativity of the universe.  Its truth, beauty, and goodness reflect the truth, beauty and goodness of the world, which participate in the truth, beauty, and goodness of God.  A work of art is a creation within a creation.  Its truth, beauty, and goodness are a simplified, distilled, intensified participation in the truth, beauty, and goodness of God, simpler, purer, and more intense than the ordinary truth, beauty, and goodness we experience every day.

People live in time.  God is eternal.  But living in time is not the same as living in the present.  If we lived entirely in the present, we would not remember the past or anticipate the future.  We would hear only one note in a song and not remember the notes that went before or anticipate the ones that come after.  The note we would hear would be just a note, not part of a song.  To hear a song, we have to lift ourselves a little way out of the present, as it were, and a little way into eternity, which is not timeless, but the simultaneous embrace of all times.  We must hear the song as a whole or at least experience it more than one note at a time.  Art is not timeless, but full of time.  It is not no time or one time but many times at once.  Art is eternal, not because it lasts forever, but because it is an entrance to eternity.  Art is indeed divine.  No, Eric Clapton is not God, as some have said, but Johann Bach and John Coltrane lift us over the threshold on wings of melody.

When we look out upon the world, we see two apparently contradictory principles at work: on the one hand, we see a bewildering welter of events seemingly without rhyme or reason; on the other hand, we see beauty, order, and the obedience of nature to laws systematically related to one another in a unity beyond the creations of painter or pianist.  A work of art makes sense of its confusing and chaotic materials and gives us hope that the confusion and chaos so distressingly prevalent in the world ultimately make sense.  The unity of a work of art reflects the unity of God.

A work of art, like any genuine intellectual activity, is a reflection of God.  It is a participation in God.  It derives its being from God.

This principle is capable of infinite variation, which is why so many people are unaware of it.  I love a bird hopping beside a puddle or a dog wagging its tail.  Why?  Because God loves the world, and I can participate in that love.  And a song can awaken in me a little of the love that God has for us. 

I do not presume to give a full explanation of Islamic art, and it would be foolish not to admit that it is capable of great beauty and thus divinity.  The most obvious difference between it and Western art is its rejection of human images, which is based on its rejection of the divinity of the human Christ.  To the Jew or Christian, Islam seems to be in touch with the majesty of God, but not the kindness.  We certainly see little kindness in those who most loudly proclaim their Islamic faith.

Understanding Islam is important, but far more important is understanding ourselves.  People who are embedded in the grand Western traditions already know enough to recognize the one-sidedness, the imbalance, the heartlessness, of our Islamofascist foe.  They can tell the difference between peacefulness and pacifism, patience and passivity, discipline and dictatorship, justice and judgment, charity and taxation, paternal love and paternalism, tolerance and indifference, intellect and intellectuals, visions and hallucinations, wholeness and holism, stars and stars, music and noise, plots and conspiracies, candor and insult, tact and diplomacy, femininity and feminism, sentiment and sentimentality, purity and prurience, chastity and sexlessness, longing and lust, love and lasciviousness, rebirth and repetition.

Jonathan David Carson, Ph.D., may be reached here.  For more information, see his website Make Haste Slowly. 
Ask nine out of ten people what the purpose of art is, and they will say, "to express yourself."  In fact, art has many purposes, and self-expression is one of the least important.  No one could mistake "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "Ave Maria" for expressions of self. One of the most important purposes of art is the expression of national character, with The Iliad and The Odyssey the best examples.  The most important, which The Iliad and The Odyssey also in part serve, is the subject of this essay.

Since the making and enjoyment of art are fundamental to what it means to be human, the failure to understand its purposes means the failure to understand ourselves and our creations.  Today it also means a failure to understand the present world crisis, which pits an Islamic world that objects to the West as much on aesthetic grounds as any other, with its advocates, all of their other arguments refuted, making their last stand on the claim that the beauty they see in the Koran is proof of its divinity, against a Western world abysmally ignorant of the competing sensibilities and unable to defend its own art and civilization because it does not know what their highest purpose is or how they carry it out.  Even the disputes within our own country are more aesthetic than anything else, as one crummy song, in compressed format, no less, often defeats sixteen rational arguments.

One should not confuse the purposes of art with the purposes of its creators.  Homer's purpose is of little moment; Greece's purpose is not.  Of greatest moment, however, is the purpose of the works themselves, whatever their author may have been thinking and whatever uses the Greeks may have put them to.

These distinctions are crucial for understanding the most important purpose of art because an artist may serve that purpose without knowing that it exists by modeling his work on works whose authors serve that purpose consciously or on works that are themselves modeled on works whose authors serve it consciously, and so on down through the centuries.

The most important principle of Western art is that a poem, a song, a painting, a work of fiction, should point by analogy to the Creator of the universe by displaying its own "fictive," that is, "made," character, "fiction" coming from the Latin fictio, which itself comes from the Latin fingere, "to form, fashion, make."  A work of art is a human creation that calls attention to the creativity of the universe.  Its truth, beauty, and goodness reflect the truth, beauty and goodness of the world, which participate in the truth, beauty, and goodness of God.  A work of art is a creation within a creation.  Its truth, beauty, and goodness are a simplified, distilled, intensified participation in the truth, beauty, and goodness of God, simpler, purer, and more intense than the ordinary truth, beauty, and goodness we experience every day.

People live in time.  God is eternal.  But living in time is not the same as living in the present.  If we lived entirely in the present, we would not remember the past or anticipate the future.  We would hear only one note in a song and not remember the notes that went before or anticipate the ones that come after.  The note we would hear would be just a note, not part of a song.  To hear a song, we have to lift ourselves a little way out of the present, as it were, and a little way into eternity, which is not timeless, but the simultaneous embrace of all times.  We must hear the song as a whole or at least experience it more than one note at a time.  Art is not timeless, but full of time.  It is not no time or one time but many times at once.  Art is eternal, not because it lasts forever, but because it is an entrance to eternity.  Art is indeed divine.  No, Eric Clapton is not God, as some have said, but Johann Bach and John Coltrane lift us over the threshold on wings of melody.

When we look out upon the world, we see two apparently contradictory principles at work: on the one hand, we see a bewildering welter of events seemingly without rhyme or reason; on the other hand, we see beauty, order, and the obedience of nature to laws systematically related to one another in a unity beyond the creations of painter or pianist.  A work of art makes sense of its confusing and chaotic materials and gives us hope that the confusion and chaos so distressingly prevalent in the world ultimately make sense.  The unity of a work of art reflects the unity of God.

A work of art, like any genuine intellectual activity, is a reflection of God.  It is a participation in God.  It derives its being from God.

This principle is capable of infinite variation, which is why so many people are unaware of it.  I love a bird hopping beside a puddle or a dog wagging its tail.  Why?  Because God loves the world, and I can participate in that love.  And a song can awaken in me a little of the love that God has for us. 

I do not presume to give a full explanation of Islamic art, and it would be foolish not to admit that it is capable of great beauty and thus divinity.  The most obvious difference between it and Western art is its rejection of human images, which is based on its rejection of the divinity of the human Christ.  To the Jew or Christian, Islam seems to be in touch with the majesty of God, but not the kindness.  We certainly see little kindness in those who most loudly proclaim their Islamic faith.

Understanding Islam is important, but far more important is understanding ourselves.  People who are embedded in the grand Western traditions already know enough to recognize the one-sidedness, the imbalance, the heartlessness, of our Islamofascist foe.  They can tell the difference between peacefulness and pacifism, patience and passivity, discipline and dictatorship, justice and judgment, charity and taxation, paternal love and paternalism, tolerance and indifference, intellect and intellectuals, visions and hallucinations, wholeness and holism, stars and stars, music and noise, plots and conspiracies, candor and insult, tact and diplomacy, femininity and feminism, sentiment and sentimentality, purity and prurience, chastity and sexlessness, longing and lust, love and lasciviousness, rebirth and repetition.

Jonathan David Carson, Ph.D., may be reached here.  For more information, see his website Make Haste Slowly.