Wherein we discuss Art

[ 7 ] January 4, AD 2012 |

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.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Photo-185-e1313860561659.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathaniel Gotcher is a 19 year old architecture student at the University of Notre Dame. His architectural preference is the Gothic and also listens to anonymous 12th Century polyphony. However his listening habits are not merely medieval. He also enjoys Baroque music, 60s Rock and Christian Punk Pop. He is also an avid reader and a part-time philosopher. He is an idealist and also occasionally gives into his monarchist tendencies. He reflects on life at The Third Order and blathers on about important irrelevancies at The American Commoner.[/author_info] [/author]

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is a 20 year old architecture student at the University of Notre Dame. His architectural preference is the Gothic and also listens to anonymous 12th Century polyphony. However his listening habits are not merely medieval. He also enjoys Baroque music, 60s Rock and Christian Punk Pop. He is also an avid reader and a part-time philosopher. He is an idealist and also occasionally gives into his monarchist tendencies. He reflects on life at holyintheworld.blogspot.com and blathers on about important irrelevancies at theamericancommoner.blogspot.com
  • http://Themanwhowouldbeknight.com Ryan Kraeger

    Beauty should not be divorced from truth or goodness. We sore through our pursuit of beauty, but it is the revelation of truth and the practice of goodness (i.e. virtue) that keep us grounded in reality. It pulls us outside of ourselves and keeps beauty what it is.

  • http://beatencopperlamp.blogspot.com Sarah @ Beaten Copper Lamp

    You raise some good points here, especially that an artist should not be trapped in his own mind. JPII’s Letter to Artists should be required reading.
    However, even Christian art can require some explanation or elucidation – e.g. the meanings of different symbols for saints or elements of scripture. I have found that talking about or explaining art, be it a reredos or a painting or a colonial tea table, leads to better understanding and deeper contemplation.

  • http://virtuouspla.net/ Nathaniel Gotcher

    Yes indeed, for even Revelation comes in steps that need to be explained. I think my main point was that Art should on some level be comprehensible even if the fullest understanding comes with explanation.

  • Ink and Quill

    I heard it said once that most modern art can be explained by one or two sentences because it is primarily text-based. The art is created with a concept or sentence in mind, not with much of a greater purpose–and then the artists proceed to take themselves far too seriously (such as a political statement being made by painting a square canvas a particular shade of blue). That defeats the point of it.
    ~Ink

  • Gretchen

    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.

    Yes, yes, yes!!!

    All too often the mediocre is mistaken for the sublime.

    A famous artist passed away recently. The New York Times, other media outlets, and many of my Facebook friends wrote much about her. The accolades accorded her practically placed her up with The Great Artist Himself.

    I became familiar with her work when I was a student in the mid-80s and my work-study job was at an art museum. The museum had just acquired one of her pieces and it puzzled me. I usually appreciated modern art, but nothing about it appealed to me. It was enormous and mostly green with some black and white seemingly tossed on for variety. I pondered it regularly when I was at work, trying to find meaning.

    One day, as I was standing in front of it, a woman stopped next to me and said, “What do you think about it?” I replied, “I’m not sure… It looks like the paint was just mopped onto the canvas…” She nodded. “We (the Women’s Guild) just shelled out $20K for it. We got to see a movie about how it was made. She (the artist) puts her canvas on the floor and mops the paint onto it. Then she takes her brush and splatters on the other colors. The whole process took about a half hour. I don’t know why it’s worth $20K, but the rest of the Guild seems to be all excited about it.” I remember thinking about The Emperor’s New Clothes. I think the piece should be titled Naked Emperor.

  • http://virtuouspla.net/ Stacy

    Excellent comment Gretchen.

  • http://Themanwhowouldbeknight.com Ryan Kraeger

    Naked Emperor! That is Brilliant!