A son of the Reformation is quite at home in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He finds here a milieu to which his sensibilities are immediately congenial. In the paintings of Pieter de Hooch, Hobbema, the van Ruysdaels, van de Velde, and, of course, Rembrandt van Rijn, he finds a vision of the world that he can share with no difficulty at all. The celebration and immortalization of the bucolic, the tranquil, the humble, and the commonplace responds to the call that he hears in his own sold (and indeed, a call that all men must sense) for a vision of life that is immediate, lucid, and uncomplicated by the demands of sacramental transfiguration which the works of, say, del Sarto, Filippo Lippi, or Fra Bartolommeo make. The clean blue-and-white tile floors of Vermeer, the portraits of Van Dyck, Jan Steen, and Frans Hals, and Rembrandt’s wonderful sketches of biblical scenes that look as though he drew them with a twig—here are things that evoke a world that he can understand and love.
But then he travels south into Bavaria and Austria and tumbles into a world of the baroque: a frantic scramble of gilded altars, painted statuary, frescoes, reliquaries, fonts, and baldachinos that he finds dizzying, if not altogether unsettling. He realizes that he has come upon a vision of God and the world that differs radically from his own, yet one that would call itself above all Christian. He can either decide that the whole thing is an unfortunate botch, or pause to ask himself whether or not it is worth looking into.
And then he comes to Florence and Michelangelo. Here, surely, true religion has flown out the window, and Pan and Cybele and Bacchus have surged through the door. Here is a town, a Paradise, with its warm sunlit stucco set in the enchanting hills of Tuscany, cypress and olive trees and vineyards all about—a town that is crowded with painting and sculpture celebrating at once the celestial and the earthy. He eventually makes the disturbing discovery that the glory of the human form shines more brightly here than does the glory of Christ, the Virgin, and the Apostles. And he asks himself: Have we two antithetical worlds here, with no bridge between them? Is there on the one hand a “religious” world, represented by the churches, and on the other a world that is unapologetically pagan? Or is there a unity of vision here that sees no breakdown between the true worship of God and a profound sense of wonder at all the phenomena of life, that is not embarrassed over its joy in the human form?
The question that finally emerges, and with which these notes are concerned, is whether or not it is possible to have a view that has the proper priorities and hierarchies and yet is able to affirm with joy the Creation and say, “Benedicite, omnia opera Domini.”
Only if the answer to this question is yes can the discussion about evangelicalism and the creative arts go on. For if the answer is no, then we would do well to pack in and concentrate on our mission of discursive preaching. For it comes to this: the creation of great art presupposes a view that sees the stuff of this existence to be radically significant; indeed, that sees it (and not Paradise) to be the only matrix from which high art can rise.
To a non-religious person, this of course presents no problem. There is no other existence to which he can refer, and therefore any commentary must spring from and speak to this one. But to a person with a vigorously eschatological view of things—and I think we evangelicals fit in here—whose theology has taught him that the phenomena of this existence are meaningful only in so far as they find an ultimate point of reference in Paradise, such a view is sometimes difficult.
The water is often muddied in that, without ever having examined just why we look askance at the fine arts—or at least the appropriateness of a Christian’s pursuing them—we argue that time is short and we must get on with the job of winning souls; or that painting, sculpture, and drama are mere embellishment to life, and that people with a task of ultimacy laid upon them cannot truckle with this sort of thing; or that the world of the arts is so rancid with beatniks, libertines, homosexuals, and other frightening types that a Christian has no business getting embroiled.
But the philosophical problem is prior to all these. And there is a problem. We must decide whether or not the patent transitoriness of this existence and the heavy urgency of being spokesmen for what we understand to be the Word from God cancel the fine arts as a field for excursion. Put more simply, it is the question that has hundreds of students in evangelical institutions gnashing their teeth: May I—can I—before God, explore passionately my obvious artistic or poetic or dramatic talent, without any immediately utilitarian motives? Or shall I find areas where my talents can be used “for the Lord”?
There is the rub. “For the Lord.” Our understanding of this has been a utilitarian one. To us it means one thing: souls. But how shall we test the work of Dante, Milton, Bach, Rembrandt, Dr. Johnson, G. M. Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and a thousand others by this? These men were all Christian. Obviously it cannot be done. (One does not think of Dr. Johnson as a soul-winner. Boswell does not have much to say about his witness in the coffeehouses of the city.) So that either we must find warrant for art that is not subject to this test, or these things must retire as candidates for our attention.
This is, let us be candid, a partisan article. I am sure my position is no secret. I do not feel the utilitarian test to be valid. I believe that the radical affirmation of human experience crucial to art is one that can—nay, that must—be made by the Christian. We must have the courage to shape our anguish and our joy into beautiful forms—into poetry, into pictures, into ballet. We must celebrate beauty—all kinds of beauty—on instruments of ten strings, and with a chisel. We must paint the tawdry, the spurious, and the hideous as it is: shall we leave this to Toulouse-Lautrec, Rouault, and Kokoschka? We must try, with all that is in us, to affirm our conviction that form, and not havoc, lies at the bottom of things—and shall we leave this quest to Mondrian, Giacometti, and Larry Rivers?
Of the utilitarian test, I can only say that evangelism is one thing, art another. It is unfair to apply the canons of either to the other. We must have an end of pitting them against each other. They are no more at odds than apples and wool are.
It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that we can begin a concerted effort to produce “evangelical art.” Committees, movements, retreats, and courses have never, in the history of the world, produced art. It can come from one source alone: the soul of the artist. Here is the other side of the question, the personal and non-philosophical side, the side that is not subject to our views pro or con. What of the appearance in our midst of an artist? None of us can make himself an artist. But, anguish of anguish, if one of us, or one of our sons, discovers that he has been assaulted by strange inclinations, and that he must create or die, what shall our religion say to this?
I believe that we can call a loud bravo. I believe this because I believe in three great doctrines: the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection—three acts whereby God attests to the profound legitimacy of the human, the flesh (I do not use “the flesh,” as St. Paul uses it frequently, to mean a spirit that is anti-God). I do not see it to be our calling to cancel the earthly in the name of the eternal. This is not what the Church has understood its task to be. The Athanasian Creed speaks of the Incarnation as “not [the] conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but [the] taking of the Manhood into God.” It seems to me that there must be a seizing of human experience, with all of its beauty, ambiguity, and tragedy, and a transfiguration of it into forms that speak of the eternal.
And, given that elusive thing called genius, an artist is someone who has been assaulted by these three things: beauty, ambiguity, and tragedy. He cannot fend off this assault any more than he can slough off his own being. And so he is forced to come to terms with it by creation. Michelangelo, Mozart, Tiziano, Gide—what do they all have in common? I believe it is the attempt to exorcise the daemons of human experience; to shape into form the chaos of beauty, ambiguity, and tragedy that they sense. It might have been possible with all of them to have brought about quiescence in purely religious terms, but who will insist that the whole lifelong agony of creation was not God’s way of bringing them to himself?
Beauty, then. What, exactly, is a human being to do when his awareness of beauty becomes unmanageable? We applaud the results when we have the perspective of a few hundred years and can see the sublimity of Michelangelo’s creations. But was the course he took one that would have suited us at the time? How would we have dealt with his intoxication with the nude male form? Would we have tried to huddle him into safer, more obviously utilitarian pursuits? Would we have encouraged his frenzied dedication to his art—this art that has given us the David, an image of a sublimity and perfection and power and sensuousness that can only wrench from us tears of awe and joy. Who has ever said more eloquently than this statue does, “What a piece of work is a man”? And how is it possible, in a dissertation on the glory of the Creator, to say one-half of what this thing says? Then one goes from the Accademia, where the David stands, to the Sagrestia Nuova di San Loranzo, where there are nine marble figures by Michelangelo. Who can gainsay the serenity, the overpowering beauty, of these things? Shall we whittle down a man’s struggle with beauty in the name of religion?
For it is just that: a struggle. Alas for the man for whom the vision of beauty, in whatever form it approaches him (for Michelangelo it was the human body; for Wordsworth it was the Lake District; for Mozart it was music), becomes, no longer a reverie to be indulged at will in sybaritic melancholy, but a searing agony that ravages him daily, hourly, in images too sweet to bear. How shall our religion speak to this sort of thing?
Perhaps here is one difference between the artist and the rest of us. The artist is above all vulnerable. He finds himself wounded with stabbing visions of some aching and elusive joy, some burning fever of desire; and he knows that in order to be true to his own being, he must invite the shafts and ask where in God’s name they come from, while the rest of us must offset and quell these lance-like imaginings with practical considerations in order to make our way in the world and keep our sanity. It would, of course, be havoc if we were all artists; but let us be sure that we have not excluded them from our world.
Secondly, the artist is assaulted with the consciousness of ambiguity. One does not have to look far to find it. What shall we say, for instance, of the dreadful breakdown between aspiration and fulfillment that every human being experiences? or again, of radical limitation imposed on half the human race—blindness, insanity, poverty, injustice, paralysis? or of the awful hiatus between appearance and what we suspect to be reality? or of the jostling coexistence in human life of overpowering sexual desire and moral stricture? All of these things are answerable by theology; but when we have answered them they still make us cry out in anguish, and it is with this anguish that the artist wrestles. He must begin by being haunted, perplexed, astonished, and tormented by life. He must insist on asking the questions, loudly and shrilly, that plague all men, and that most of us try to meet by evasion, platitudes, and neuroses.
Thirdly, the artist senses the tragic nature of life. Shakespeare (in Hamlet), Pope (in the “Essay on Man”), and all artists have sensed the position of man, which is tragic: we are caught—strung—between the animal and the angelic, and we set one against the other to our destruction. Various forms of the hedonistic principle would have us assert the animal to the obliteration of the angelic, and various forms of religious asceticism would have us do the opposite. Both fail of God’s idea for man. We are not angels, but we have their consciousness of the divine and find, alas, our feet in the mud. Animals are free to be wholly animal without guilt; we sometimes want passionately to be wholly animal but are not free to be so. Sometimes (though not often) we want to be angelic, and find that we cannot if we will (cf. St. Paul).
The artist senses as ultimate the tragedy of decay. Fr. Hopkins, a Christian, said it as well as anyone:
… no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst,
winding sheets, tombs and worms and
tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair …
It bothered Keats too:
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs …
One contemplates the marbles of Michelangelo and realizes that here is the highest that we can achieve in immortalizing strength and youth and beauty. The stone is not subject to decay (relatively speaking). And so the stone David outlives the beautiful model, whoever he was; and the figures in the plastered frescoes outlive by centuries their flesh-and-blood originals. And yet, even here there is an ironic twist, for the mere flick of a vandal’s chisel would demolish instantly one of the most sublime things ever—the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
A great scholar and historian of the Reformation, J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, has this comment:
Protestantism has often been reproached as their [the arts’] enemy, and many Protestants willingly accept this reproach.… Let Roman Catholicism pride itself in being more favourable to the arts than Protestantism; be it so; paganism was still more favourable, and Protestantism places its glory elsewhere, There are some religions in which the esthetic tendencies of man hold a more important place than his moral nature. Christianity is distinct from these religions, inasmuch as the moral element is its essence. The Christian sentiment is manifested not by the productions of the fine arts, but by the works of a Christian life … so that if the papacy is above all an esthetical religion … Protestantism is above all a moral religion.… After a man has studied history or visited Italy, he expects nothing beneficial to humanity from this art [History of the Reformation, p. 376].
This is a view widely espoused. It is an unhappy one for an evangelical who finds in himself not only a great love for Florentine painting and sculpture but also a passionate conviction that there is something radically legitimate about the plastic immortalization of human beauty and the effort to shape visibly the chaotic phenomena of life; and who feels that there need be no tension between a vigorous evangelical orthodoxy and an assertion of the significance of the arts.
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