A work of art can lift us to a level above and beyond ourselves.
Dorothy sayers said the church has never really made up its mind about the arts. Views range all the way from puritanical denouncement to exploitation. Presently we seem to be in a position where some arts are condemned while others are enthusiastically exploited. The criterion for such categorization seems to be whether a particular art form is seen as “usable” for specific tasks within the church, such as preaching, teaching, or evangelism—or even, perhaps, whether it provides wholesome, family entertainment.
Most lovers of art will agree with Miss Sayers when she dismisses such attitudes as “false and degrading.” I stand firmly on the side of those who say art has its own value and does not need to be “justified” by whether or not it can be used by the church. In fact, I also believe that art and propaganda rarely mix: art was not created to be a teaching tool—nor is it most effective when it is used in any of its forms merely to accompany Sunday sermons,
I do believe, however, that left to itself, art can be used by the Holy Spirit in his task of calling God’s people to himself.
In a recent national survey it was found that Americans are becoming increasingly narcissistic, hedonistic, and several other “istics” that indicate we are living in a society that is, for the most part, sick. In what may be a cynical reaction to the “greening” of our culture in the late sixties—or perhaps the failure of that “greening”—we seem increasingly to be interested in boats, planes, racquets, and Sunday afternoon football. In another word: “things.” But in our day there seems to be little else to work for, and so we work for weekends. And “things.”
I think it is entirely possible and even quite likely that this preoccupation with things, with pleasures, and the temporary, is the main hindrance in our culture to personal and meaningful contact with God. F. David Martin said as much in his book, Art and the Religious Experience: The Language of the Sacred (Bucknell, 1972). He called it the “ontical treadmill” and considered it a major barrier between contemporary man and God. Martin goes on to say there are two kinds of experiences that force us off this ontical treadmill where we perceive only things as real, to a position where we may more easily contact God or be contacted by him. He believes these experiences are either crisis times or aesthetic events. These two may not be the only categories of experience that have such an effect, but the point is that these two kinds of experiences do have the power to impel us to God, and that power is useful, if not necessary, in the Holy Spirit’s work today.
It is relatively easy, of course, to understand how crisis experiences can force us off this treadmill. Anyone who has lost a loved one through sudden, tragic death, or who has lost a job, or suffered through financial disaster, can relate to the significance of the questioning process that seems to accompany such experiences. Questions of identity, of mortality and, above all, of purpose and meaning, invariably surface at such a time. Evangelists and preachers respond to these times in people’s lives almost instinctively. Communication theorists tell us that at such times the central perception structures are in such a state of flux that it is relatively easy for them to be reordered in such a way as to account for a radical change in perspective. In other words, there’s good scientific reason for a person to be converted at this point.
Although no one would say there was anything of “saving grace” about the events that led to such a conversion—for those events usually are excruciatingly painful—we do hear it said often that “God obviously had a purpose in it.” And, of course, those who say that are right. We can therefore understand how crisis experiences can force us to stop thinking about our weekends and our motorhomes and our pensions and our taxes and about many other things.
But what about the aesthetic experience? Can it really have a similar effect?
A work of art results from the artist working out his personal and usually passionate vision in a structured form. Most artists, when asked what their works “mean,” will declare: “If I could have said it any other way, why would I have gone to all the bother of writing a play” (or composing music, or painting a picture, or writing a poem)? The result is a message that is at the same time both personal and universal, with content or meaning that could be communicated in no other way.
Since a serious and significant work of art is usually the result of an earnest and often spiritual questioning process on the part of the artist, the work itself may involve insights and meanings that themselves are related to the question of ultimate meaning in the universe.
The effect of a work of art on its audience, according to poet W.H. Auden, is disenchantment. He says that art is not primarily “a means by which the artist communicates or arouses feelings in others, but a mirror in which they may be conscious of what their own feelings really are.… By significant details it shows that our present state is neither as virtuous nor as secure as we thought.” The term disenchantment is thus appropriate if we consider that modern man indeed may be “enchanted” by a reality that consists primarily of things. Christians ought to denounce the scientistic credo that proclaims nothing of value or relevance exists outside the world of matter.
My experience of standing on a ridge in the Cascade mountains is closely related to the experience of viewing a professional production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Both lift me to a position far above where I normally dwell to a place where the air is clearer and the light is brighter, and I am able to see more clearly what is true and what is false. In that “rarefied” atmosphere, even eyes long misted over have a chance to see and encounter not only truth, but the Author of all truth.
It is thus that a work of art produces an effect not unlike that of a crisis experience. By sharing the vision of the artist—even if it is only a glimpse—we can recognize that what we think are neat patterns of understanding do not fit, and that there is more to reality than meets the eye, and that, ultimately, life itself is mystery. When we are in that condition we are in the state of flux that is like the one experienced by the person going through one of life’s crises.
Can art save souls? Not at all. Art has no more saving power than the death of a loved one, or a divorce, or the onset of a terminal disease. But by the intensity of its vision or beauty it can shock us into a new realization of our true position in the overall scheme of things. At the very least, it can force us to stop and ponder the question, even if for only a passing moment.
Author Chad Walsh perhaps puts it best: “I do not quite see how the aesthetic experience as such produces the radical reorientation that we call justification—but I do see how it prepares the way in some cases, by liberating the imagination from the flat common sense, and by making a person open to new experiences and a transformed sensibility.”
Gerald Baron is instructor of drama and coordinator of performing groups at Seattle Pacific University. Washington.
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