Wednesday, 3 September 2008

God and the artist - Part 1

New College (which established CASE) has an annual public lecture series each year which I convene. The Lectures are in their 22nd year and are on each evening (2-5 September 2008). Their purpose is to bring together the college residents, University, Church and wider community to discuss significant issues of common concern. This year the theme is God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective and our lecture is Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Last night 200 people gathered at the University of New South Wales (where New College and CASE live) to engage in the first lecture. The title was ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’: divine copyright and the dangers of ‘strong imagination’.

This post is my summary of what Professor had to say. While I have tried to faithfully report the summary of the lecture, and present his views (not necessarily mine), and I have used many direct quotes, any inaccuracies are my responsibility not those of Professor Hart.

Starting at the beginning

Professor Hart commenced the lecture series with the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. He reminded us that the Hebrew word translated “created” is “bara’ has an aura of holiness to it, being set aside exclusively for his divine use; “there is and can be no corresponding human analogy to this divine action, because it has to do with God’s unique relationship to the world as the one who, by virtue of his sovereign Lordship, brings a world forth into existence where previously there was not only nothing but no potential for anything.” While there are other words used in the Bible that describe man’s activity of doing and making, none should be confused with God’s creation as encapsulated in the Hebrew word “bara”.

But he suggested that there is a changeability of language that has led to a loss of appreciation of God’s place as creator as against mankind’s creativity. Hart suggested that words are “sticky” and “have the habit of picking up words and associations” – words are used and used again until the initial core connotation is lost.

Hart pointed out that the careless use of the word “creativity” – creative play, creative problem solving, creative accounting etc – is a long way from Genesis and “its sublime vision of ultimate origination”. Interestingly, he made the point that such complaints come primarily from artists, not worried about God’s dignity being lost, but their’s and that of their work. The canons of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are no longer theological but aesthetic.

He argued that to some extent the use of the word “created” was meant to imply that the artist had created “new worlds of meanings to be set alongside those of God”. However, while we can make sense of this even within a Christian framework it lends itself “to other impulses”.

What Hart sets out to do in these lectures is to examine the place of artistic creation. A theology of human artistry – an account “that takes seriously Christian Scripture and Creeds”. Can we hold together talk of human creativity and “God’s unique identity as the originator and gracious giver of being and life to the world”? This he suggests is not a question of if but of how? We need he suggested to disentangle from one another both ‘modalities of creativity’ both of which are to do with God’s relationship to the world, but only one of which incorporates human agency.

Cosmos and cosmetics

Citing Abrams (1954), in the monograph “The mirror and the lamp”, he argued that the most primitive and enduring aesthetic was that of “holding a mirror to the world”, art imitating life, an aesthetic consistent with Plato’s somewhat negative view of art and Aristotle’s more positive view. He used Leonardo da Vinci as an example, who almost 2 millennia later, expressed the view (and demonstrated it) that art should not try to improve on the things of nature. Art in effect was seen as allowing due emphasis to be given to the world God has given us to inhabit. But even in this earliest view of the place of art there was a distortion of the notion of the mirror as artists sought to paint out (so to speak) the “warts, the blemishes and the bulges”. The artist was not just seeking to render a true likeness, but was seeking to add beauty to what they see (e.g. Michelangelo and Rembrandt). Artists were seeking to catch “the best of the thing”. This view reflected the belief that in a sense the artist’s soul was seen as having access to Nature’s blueprint in the mind of God, and their role was to add some cosmetic enhancement, adding value to what they found in nature.

These ideas he suggested were reborn in the Renaissance offering an exalted place to human artistry. By the Renaissance “the artist sits in judgement rather than as a skilled apprentice in the workshop of a divine master”. The desire was not for what God has purposed “but something that improves upon and competes with it.”

Breach of Copyright

In citing Abrams again, Hart suggested that there was then a shift from mimetic notions of art to one that assumed that the illumination of the human mind was essential to the process of “murky reality”. Art was then seen not as a mirror reflecting the light but of shining a lamp on what was observed to illuminate it further. The artist moved from a view of a world naturally rich in beauty and goodness to a world needing to be enriched “by the projections of the human imagination”. This Hart suggested was the source of Kant’s claim that we can only ever experience phenomena as they appear to us rather than as they appear to other creatures or perhaps to God.

Hart suggested that we can see how easy it is to move from the position to “half create” the world to a position of seeing the world us unacceptable and in need of offering an alternative view of Nature. A position that George Steiner suggested reached its height in Modernism where the artist sought to call into being objects and creations as totally unlike nature as possible, “begetting their own creations”. Here the artist is offering a challenge to the givenness of God’s creation and his prerogatives as Creator. It is this Hart suggests that “lies behind an ancient Hebraic nervousness about the imagination”. “Creative imagination, then, paradoxically lies at the core of all that is worst and all that is best in our humanity”.

But modernism is not where we are in 2008. Postmodern aesthetics have been the dominant influence. Hart cites Richard Kearney who observes that artistic imagination is less like a mirror than a labyrinth of mirrors each in turn reflected in “seemingly endless refractive play of light and none standing apart as the apparent source of it all”. Art scavenges its materials from “the sites of prior acts of imaginative construction, pre-owned and part-used serviceable, and fraught with the semantic instability of the merely human.” “If Modernism threatened to supplant the source of aesthetic meaning by usurping the throne of the cosmos, post-modernity does so just as effectively by refusing to bend the knee to any authority whatever, be it human or divine.”

But Hart suggested that any “self-deluded attempts to supplant that Word by instigating new moments of origination cannot succeed”. Such attempts he suggested lead to despairing shadow chasing; a version of the cosmos as “turbulent chaos”. Both Modernism and Postmodernism deny transcendence. He cited George Steiner to point to the folly of such efforts, “art is and must properly be a dialogue with a meaningful presence which does not depend on us for its being”. Steiner goes further to suggest that where God’s presence is no longer tenable and where his absence is no longer a felt and overwhelming weight “that certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable.”

Pathologies of the poetic eye

Hart then took the audience back to the 16th century to the work of Shakespeare, and specifically “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Cervantes great novel “Don Quixote”. Both he suggested raise serious questions about the place of the imaginative in human life. Shakespeare in this work both directly (through the plot) and indirectly through its use of comedy and irony, looks at the chaos that is created when the boundaries between reality and artifice are blurred deliberately or accidentally. The play poses the question, are we as humans in danger of confusing the real and the imaginary. Similarly, Hart suggested that Cervantes in the imaginative premises of the novel there is a critical take on the possibility of over-indulgence in the imaginary. Quixote loses his grip on the distinction between reality fiction as he tries to reconfigure his life according to the books that he loves; he transforms the everyday to a knightly quest. The comedy comes from the collision between Quixote’s illusory and real worlds.

Hart suggested that both these works caution against the “vices and devices of the imagination”. Both do this by driving a wedge of irony between imagination and reason, with each leaving us with a sense that the final verdict on imagination is complex. Both texts Hart suggests remind us that the status of reality itself is the subject of dispute and negotiation, and that “every attempt to make sense of the world is finally poetic, a making as well as a finding of sense in the world.”

Hart concluded the lecture by drawing on the work of Sir Phillip Sidney’s “Apologie for Poetrie”. Sidney argued for the development of poetry in which he saw that with the “divine breath of God” the poet could bring forth new things through the work far beyond their capabilities. The artist, far from challenging God can be God’s instrument and faithful servant. Sidney’s understanding of the need to keep man in his rightful place is seen in his unwillingness to use the term ‘creator’ of the human artist at all. The artist is seen as gaining access to the essential character of things, “that which we are capable of coming and should become, the potentiality built into them by God”. Hart paraphrased Sidney to argue that in a sense what the artist sees and represents in his/her work is “not the way the world is now, but the world bathed in the light of eschatological perspective, as, in God’s purposes and the grace of God’s new creation, it can be and finally may be. And the ‘final end’ according to Sidney of such vision is not titillation, nor an Oedipal bid to ‘un-Nature nature’, but to lead and draw us to so high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.”

The lecture generated some good questions and some equally good answers: “Could not modernity also seek to celebrate God?” “What of music, do his ideas extend to music?” etc

Professor Trevor Hart will return to the eschatological theme in lecture three on Thursday, but tomorrow night (3rd September) he will look at the work of Sayers and Tolkien and the light their work shines on the place of the human artist in a theological perspective.

Please note that the full text of the lectures plus MP3 files will be posted by the end of next week.

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