Monday, March 19, 2007


Consider these words to be merely reflections, not a firmly planted and defended position on my part:

What artists, poets, and musicians can do for us who seek to know God more closely, is bring us into a perspective that we do not get from theology and scholarship. The artist, many times, is bringing us to an angle at which God's transcendence is...not known or understood, but perhaps whispered of. Theology points us to revelation, and the proper way to interpret and apply revelation. Art, for art's origins are mystical, shows us some fraction of the unrevealed, tempering theology by keeping its proclamations and proofs squarely rooted in the context of something bigger than what is knowable.

God Transcendent refuses to be contained or defined. Righteousness, or God-ness, all escape the grasp of the mind. "I Am what I Am" may be the closest we come to bringing it to our experience. God Transcendent will not be told what to do, how to behave, or what true righteousness is. He will show mercy where and when he will show mercy. He will not vote for our candidates, fuel our revolutions, write manifestos for our movements, pass our legislation, or sign our money. He will not be told who He is. Revelation, a descriptor of the vast ocean of God beside the drop of the human soul, is given to disarm the pretensions we have toward owning God.

What does it mean for the artist to be free indeed in her work? Can we put parameters on the content of a piece to insure our lives are not being secretly invaded by sin when we observe, or take part in a piece of music or art? The question is a recurring theme in the New Testament, though more broadly applied to the general practices of everyday life. What can I do?

I might critique art. I might critique a criticism of art. I could have a strongheaded opinion about an artist. I could find one composer to be aesthetically catatonic, or positively vibrant. I could take the inclusive, "there's no such thing as bad art" perspective, or I could say "good art is indicated by the technical mastery of the artist." Or anything in between these two statements. Whatever I'm saying about art, or God in art, or God in culture, I have to be able to admit that all our creations and icons come from somewhere, faithfully representing an inner reality. Whether it's the unpretentious simplicity of a 3-year-old, the peacefulness of a wizened saint, or the dark raving of a haunted personality on the edge of madness. All of these and more represent something common to humanity- they are where we are.

The question, then, do we judge(in the heaviest sense of that word) art by measuring it against some subjective code of righteousness(for there is no other kind, unless you are God), or do we allow the artist's work to reveal whatever it will reveal, committing to God in stark honesty whatever invisible structure is undeniably present and gave it birth?


Leopold said...


Unbelievably lovely. "I am he that is called I am." The early Modern Painters touched on something similar. Among them, Ad Reinhardt, a friend of Thomas Merton's in their youth, who played in a jazz band with him... along with Kandinsky, Hans Hoffman, and eventually Jackson Pollock. Hoffman, who was sort of their spokesperson in many ways, talked about 'the Real,' which in essence was the beingness of everything, and the eminence of what is right in front of you. Hence, their paintings have absolutely no subject matter. Merely depicting what is to them was too roundabout. So they made paintings that represented nothing, but were only meant to be seen as what they were: colored goo on a piece of canvas. Hoffman said his goal was, " eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."

That might sound silly but to them it was a deeply spiritual practice. It was not only presenting truthfully what Is, it was the appreciation of what Is on a whole new level. Which is damned hard to describe here. But I think it might do to say that there is nothing more beautiful, more perfect or transcendent than everything you see, right in front of you. Which led Reinhardt to say "Only a bad artist thinks he has a good idea. A good artist does not need anything."

What you wrote totally reminded me of them. They're sort of my heroes in many ways. Keep up the great thoughts. You're in excellent company.


flyawaynet said...

OK, it was your last two paragraphs where everything clicked in place in my mind and I got exactly what you were saying. As a musician, I know that at times, my music takes on a rough and dark tone as I play emotions rather than music. So I get what you're saying mainly because I've been able to experience it.
Even so, thinking about your post I immediately felt a tug that there should be a qualifier of some sort. I just wasn't sure what it should be until now.

There is often beauty in the unrestrained art, but growth and skill come from restraint.
Hope that makes sense. :)

Nate said...

Tim: your comments jive, man. Seriously though, Merton is one of the writers that has been dominating my thinking lately. I had no idea he was in a jazz band with Kandinsky and Pollock though. He has revolutionized my image of "sanctity" as he calls it, that is, what it means to be holy. You get the feeling from his work that there was absolutely nothing pretentious in his manner. That holiness simply looks like "realness." Translated to the creative field, this has vast implications for the function of art.

And flyawaynet: I agree that there is great value in restraint, and in demanding certain criteria from your work. For both the unrestrained and the restrained, a work may be a signpost pointing in the direction which your soul is taking you(I hope that doesn't sound too cliche).

Leopold said...


Sorry, I worded that a little strangely, it was only Ad Reinhardt who was in a band with Thomas Merton. Merton played some pretty smokin' drums, I hear. I love his writing as well. I remember reading The New Seeds of contemplation and getting so excited and wanting to talk to people about it, and not really being able to explain it, and drawing blank stares or sort of uncomfortable responses from people. I love him. Actually, I only remember a really positive response from a somewhat Hari Krishna friend of mine. I read some to her and she got totally excitedly happy. About restraint, I don't know if this is really the same kind of restraint we're talking about, but I think that a lot of spirituality deals with the idea of not doing wrong things, and hence since we can assume that people want to do wrong things a lot, it often deals with placing restraints on things. So in modern times it tends to come off as (and somewhat rightly) repressive of personal freedoms. But one of my favorite Merton quotes goes something like, "True freedom is when you are free not to lie, free not to steal, and free not to kill." I don't know if that has any bearing or not...


Nate said...

Yes, it has bearing-- I think restraint is often misconstrued as being repressive when actually it can distill your expression to be a truer representation of yourself. An improvising musician, for example, is capable of playing much more than he actually does in a simple passage, but restrains himself because the context doesn't call for his 'all.' The highest freedom is when, as Merton suggests, your selfhood gives exactly what is needed, when it is needed. You are completely free when you don't need the consolation of reward or pleasure or security, but you simply are who you are.

Consequently, before that point of maturity, someone who is simply being "who they are" is going to miss the mark slightly. Our freedom, however, lies in knowing that God accepts us as mark-missers, as "too unrestrained," "too restrained," or too whatever. Our selfhood does not perfectly manifest God's freedom. Yet our true self is free because of the new name God has given us, and the true freedom that Merton speaks of comes by believing that, though we do not see it.

I often want to ask my somewhat 'libertine' friends "How do you know you're free? What if you're in chains, and the repressed person is free? What if your perspective is just a self-righteous delusion?" I never word it so bluntly, but you get the point.

Leopold said...

Wow! That's such a good way of putting that. I was thinking recently about why Peter Pan has no shadow, and why he would want one. A shadow is sort of like being grounded. In a way. So maybe even though he's so free, free as a bird, it's almost like we need that weight in order to really feel it. Like if we're not deeply connected to anything, what is that 'freedom' worth? Not to dis Peter Pan, I think he's great.