Is there an inner this-ness or inscape to a thing? When you, as a writer, observe an object and describe it, are you bringing an inner reality to light, or are you merely describing your own experience of that thing? Is the reality of it entirely mediated by your intellect and craftsmanship, or is it somehow already there waiting for you to discover it? I guess what I’m really asking is, when a writer describes an object, is he beholden to seek out the inner truth of the thing described?
All I can say from personal experience is this. I used to do quite a bit of painting. Whenever I would attempt to paint without reference to a physical object or gave no respect to the physical objects as I depicted them, my work was abominable. When I concentrated on, say, an apple and tried to paint it the best I possibly could, my work was tolerable. Anecdotal, I know. But there it is.
I’ve been thinking along these lines while working through a related set of questions (that, funny enough, began with an editorial board discussion here at Dappled Things about the nature of sacred art, and I haven’t even gotten to writing on that particular point yet, although I may have lost the plot. I know I had a plan at the beginning to get there but I’m like a cat chasing a string, here, and well, you can see how it would happen. After all, I just typed an 87 word digression all in parenthesis and have no plans to edit it.)
Here is what Romano Guardini has to say in Spirit of the Liturgy, “Beauty is the full, clear and inevitable expression of the inner truth in the external manifestation. “Pulchritudo est splendor veritatis”–“est species boni,” says ancient philosophy, “beauty is the splendid perfection which dwells in the revelation of essential truth and goodness.”
So, we know where he stands.
What Guardini is anxious to avoid is a beauty that relies purely on surface appearances. Although Beauty and Truth are not reducible to one another, as he makes clear, the two are still related. Any truly beautiful representation will bring forth the inner truth of the object.
Now consider an interesting implication of beauty having integrity all on its own. Beauty for beauty’s sake is a viable artistic outlook, and may in fact produce gorgeous art. Guardini argues that it is dangerous in the extreme, but nevertheless it is possible. It is this purely surface-level beauty that he warns against.
What we need here is a good look at some old-fashioned idolatry. It might seem a digression but I promise that it will come together in a bit.
Drawing on the Israelite monotheistic tradition, St. Paul seems to think of idolatry in two distinct ways.
The first is to recognize an object as a totem of a god or power to be worshiped so as to achieve some sort of control or response from that power: a good harvest, fertility, rain, and so on. For instance, Paul tells the Corinthians, “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.” To the Colossians, he expands this definition a bit, telling them, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” Idolatry, defined in this way, is clearly not limited to primitive pagans. Although we are skeptical of the way such idolatry is phrased, modern many still very much worships at the altar of power, health, and wealth.
The second way of understanding idolatry is more literal. An idol is a material object. The rejection of it dismisses idols as physical objects, mere wood and stone to be rejected. A man-made object is no god at all. This is the message that got Paul chased out of Asia by a riotous, bloodthirsty crowd. I’ve been thinking about this, and perhaps it’s shocking to consider, but this type of idolatry is also a continuing temptation for modern man. In fact, it’s related to this whole question of the relation of Truth to Beauty.
When it comes to materialism and our relationship to the physical world, in fact, we’re much more primitive than ancient peoples were. What I mean is that, an ancient person perhaps worshiped a statue but, because he had such a pantheistic experience of the world, would have understood the object itself as being somehow connected with a power. He wasn’t dense enough to think that the carved bull he made was going make it rain. He’d be annoyed if you stole it but only because it would mean he’d have to procure a new one, not because he thought you’d kidnapped an honest-to-goodness god. In other words, the two types of idol worship were connected, which is why St. Paul would sometimes resort to one method of dismissing them and sometimes another. They were, at the same time, both dumb objects and extremely dangerous totems that participated in demonic powers. Even more, those objects and powers were intimately connected with the subject a he interacted with them, thus their power and influence via quid pro quo arrangements.
Owen Barfield, the strangest Inkling of all, refers to the intimate connection of object and subject as “original participation.” In his book The Idolatry of Appearances, he proposes an interpretation of history that basically boils down to the slow loss of this participation over the centuries to the point that, in the modern mind, objects are seen as totally foreign to the subject. They are material objects only, and each thing is distinct from another. Every thing is Other.
So, modern man is not superstitious, but he is very, very idolatrous. We give our lives to acquiring material goods. We find meaning in them. We experience loss without them or depression at the inability to acquire them. We are jealous of those who have and contemptuous of those who have not. It’s a twisted form of beauty for beauty’s sake, the pursuit of an object merely for its surface-level qualities, devoid of any spiritual or moral meaning. Our idolatry is, if anything, more naive than that of ancient man. We simply adore the object itself and cannot conceive that it might be anything more. I almost wonder if a man from two-thousand years ago would laugh at us if he saw how strange we are.
To the Catholic imagination, this outlook is as dangerous as the older pagan forms of idolatry ever were. More to the point, it happens to be destructive of art, a pursuit that finds its very identity in the fact that, even while it is valuable in its own right as a beautifully crafted, physical object, it points to something more.
Guardini talks about how the focus on surface level beauty takes every object, neuters it of its true meaning, and then uses it as a pretext for expression. The artist is placed in the role of the arbiter of meaning and seeks freedom, in this manner, from the necessary value of the object. It’s a modern outlook of radical freedom. But of course, an idol ends up enslaving those who bargain with it. “People who think like this have lost the ability to grasp the profundity of a work of art,” writes Guardini.
I pause. And I wonder. On a scale of dandyism ranging from “Cotton Mather” to “Oscar Wilde”, I’m somewhere around “David Niven”. Beauty brought me into full communion with the Catholic Church and I’m a full blown aesthete with pretensions to decadence. I think that Guardini overstates his case, for instance take a look at the list of Catholic converts in England who emerged from the aesthetes, but I do think that his point of view has merit. For instance, that same aesthetic philosophy promoted artificiality and garishness in all things and man lost their moorings under its influence. Beauty for beauty’s sake can lead to truth…but it might not?
How is it we could be tempted into embracing the idolatry of surface appearances if it means that our art will lose its ability to overpower us? What’s the benefit? Of course, it might be the end of a game being played out involving radical autonomy, in which case the benefit is clear, but most of us probably aren’t that arrogant. For me, though, what’s the hesitation to encounter great art and consume some surface-level effort instead? It’s easier.
Great art that is both true and beautiful requires a great deal of sacrifice. The artist sacrifices, the one who encounters the art sacrifices, and even the object involved sacrifices, whether it be the subject of a poem or novel, a still-life, or a song.
Guardini explains, “The fulfillment of all inwardness,” of any object, “lies in the instant when it discloses itself in a form appropriate to its nature.” There is fulfillment but also a sense of loss in doing so, though, because it isn’t a simple pantheistic transfer of essence between interior and exterior. It’s the negotiation of universal with particular in a way that eventually finds expression through the skill of the artist. It is nostalgic and heart-breaking, but also a sacrifice that transforms an everyday object into a seed of the transcendental. In the hands of an artist, heaven is in an apple. Describe it and you’ve described the Garden of Eden. Art is a rehearsal of the Passion. It cannot remain on the surface, but must cut to bone and sinew. The object, the artist, and those who encounter it are deeply marked by the experience. Guardini writes, “this grappling with expression, triumphant expansion, and timid, dolorous contraction, together constitute the tenderest charm of beauty.” False gods promise easy answers, but true beauty is in the struggle.
Knowing this, how can we be content to remain at the surface level?