Wherein we discuss Art
I have the unfortunate luck to be an artist-philosopher since above all it is the artist-philosopher that most often brings my hand to my forehead in the action known as “facepalm”. I try to claim that I am not one of those artist philosophers and inevitably fail. So as I try to explain the sins of the artist-philosopher in the following article, know that I am speaking as one who suffers from some of the same temptations. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who made the point that he was only able to comment on the sins to which he was most susceptible. Well, I am susceptible and now I am going to comment.
The artist philosopher’s sin is not the making of bad art or the speaking of bad philosophy. Rather, he neatly avoid that sin by not making art or speaking philosophy at all. He is full of ideas about Meaning and Reality, but unfortunately, it is all in vain because he neither knows how to express the right ideas nor even that he’s required to express the ideas at all. His message, if he has one, then becomes either incomprehensible or twisted. Bad either way.
The artist-philosopher is someone like Le Corbusier who builds house according to some high modern theory of the built environment, humanity and geometry and then manages to create houses that are unlivable. It might be that the ideas themselves that cause the confusion, or it might be that Le Corbusier doesn’t know how to express them. In either case, he fails as either an architect or a philosopher.
Another example of the artist-philosopher is someone like John Cage who writes pieces of music that are apparently brilliant and cutting edge based on a highly developed idea of what music means. It might just be me, but if you have to start explaining the piece of art for it to be understood at all, it has failed as art. It’s like the old saying: If you have to explain a joke, it ceases being funny.
And speaking of jokes, the common man is not privy to the joke of the artist-philosopher. His art is like a circle which is closed upon itself and has no starting point and no end. It is only comprehensible to the artist himself and his inner circle of friends. Whenever we try to start understanding it, the artist says “No, no, that’s not right. Oh, la, you are so amusing. You mustn’t start with those assumptions.” When we try to figure out the purpose of the art or its meaning, the artist says, “No, no, that’s not right. Oh, la, you are so amusing. That’s not possibly what I meant.” And yet, we are called upon to heap accolades on these unfortunate souls trapped in their own minds. In fact, we are more often than not called to trap ourselves in their minds with them because if they can’t escape, at least they’ll have company. However, we can’t possibly know their mind if they don’t express their mind through comprehensible actions and words.
And that, so the saying goes, is the rub. The Great Artist’s greatest act was “speaking His Mind”. His point was not to confuse but to make clear. His point was not to hold it all in for his own enjoyment and understanding, but to let all the rest of us look Him in the Face. An artist who does not express his thoughts through his art so that the rest of us can understand it at least on some initial level has in fact distanced himself from the great example from which his art comes. What is worse is if the artist wishes to purposefully destroy some part of the humanity of the viewer, whether the innocence, the sense of right and wrong, or trust in God. These approaches to art are essentially anti-revelation. They either ignore God’s example of revealing Himself to His people or they spit in His Face.
I count myself lucky to be a Christian Artist Philosopher. I have a reason for my art, a Meaning for all I do. I also have a wonderful example to follow, one might almost say a Wonder-Counselor. This is what we are called to as Christian artists, and I truly believe as Pope John Paul II did that artists have a huge role in the New Evangelization. It is through Beauty that we will be able to convert the world and it is the artist who can most easily do this. In fact, I would argue that anyone who expresses the Beauty of Life, Creation and God is an artist of some kind. There is an art to motherhood, to fatherhood. In every vocation there is the opportunity to bring the Good News of Beauty to the world. If we choose to embrace this calling to be artists, we must be careful of the traps that can so often befall the artist, especially when combined with the bright mind of the philosopher.
Consider yourself warned. Now let us go out into the world and do a little bit of Art.