An Incarnational Theology of Aesthetics

Racehorses and Rattlesnakes

Any good musical performance can make us listen more intently. When Placido Domingo sings—or Bob Dylan—the mind stops wasting time. We listen. Something about what they do concentrates awareness. This is a difficult state to attain in the multitasking environment in which we daily grind out our lives. Domingo and Dylan are almost always interesting. Domingo’s voice is a racehorse, and Dylan’s is a mule, but both carry us to places we might never visit except on their backs. A racehorse is thrilling on the track; a mule is perhaps the only way if we’re descending a trail from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river in the abyss. Both the exhilaration of musical virtuosity and plodding exploration of rattlesnake-infested canyons have their place in art. The world’s body is an instrument of the sublime as well as a treacherous viper.

I’ve stolen a metaphor from John Crowe Ransom, who, in his critical masterpiece entitled The World’s Body, explained some of the techniques used in poetry to prod sensory indolence toward spiritual alertness. Ransom, to my recollection, tried to explain how philosophers and literary critics are different from artists, though he understood that some artists are also critics and was himself a poet as well as a teacher. In terms of this metaphor, art is embodiment. It tends to focus the mind on the particular and unique in human experience rather than abstraction of principles used to control things as in science or business. If there is meaning in a poem, it can never be adequately paraphrased in philosophical terminology.

T. S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest poet and critic of the twentieth century, had a more abstract expression for the imagery of a poem; he described art as an objective correlative, an objective correlative that corresponds to and evokes an emotional state. This is a remarkable expression coming from one of the most intellectual of English poets. If the meaning of a poem cannot be paraphrased, should we expect to find in philosophy, or theology, aesthetic principles that adequately describe what art in its various mediums communicates or some ideal toward which it aspires? Plato and Aristotle had much say about art based on the formal order they understood to be irreducible and more real than the existing world. In their terms, art, in the purest sense, is about beauty or the beautiful soul. For Aristotle, there is a correspondence between the universal and the concrete. If we begin with an examination of works that elicit something that seems describable in no other way than as art, abstract beauty isn’t the primary ingredient in art; too much art is repellent. Genet and others have argued that concentration on the vilest things will lead us to the same place as contemplation of virtue.

In order to get beyond art that I have experienced as only mediocre, it may be interesting to start with art that devours itself. I’ve written enough about my antipathy for rock music that I don’t have to restate reasons for thinking it is dangerous beyond the progressive deafness it inflicts on many of its practitioners and devotees. But, sometimes art can mean precisely the opposite of what its creators intend. The shock troupes of popular culture sometimes make us aware of virtue by its absence. The shock troupes of serious culture effect a similar privation in their exceedingly more pretentious barrage of disjointed painful illusions. Roger Kimball has aptly titled his book on the excrescences of modern and post-modern art, Experiments against Reality. All the sensory and intellectual machinery of this contrived chaos is marshaled against integration in the mind and spirit. Music in this anti-tradition is cacophonous and bizarre, organized arbitrarily on the premise that none of the principles of western standard practice are normative simply because they have been discovered through innumerable stages of development, or that they work. Ugliness, when taken seriously in the manner of this art, devours the nihilism of its nonsensical ideology, because music so repellent exposes a new criterion. At some point it becomes impossible to imagine anything more ludicrous. To parody Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God: art so puerile that nothing more ridiculous can be imagined establishes the existence of a standard of absurdity.

But let us leave serious contemporary art and get back to art with some semblance of meaning, say Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger. At full tilt they at least seem to be having a good time. Judging by the millions of recordings sold, those by Elvis for half a century, a lot of people seem to be having a good time along with them. That’s indisputably not the case with most of the operas written during the later part of the twentieth century. The standard interpretation of the rock phenomenon has itself become part of the cultural landscape. Rock music is, in this reading, throwing off the inhibitions of American Puritanism. It has thus liberated several generations from the Calvinistic self-abnegation of their predecessors. Recalling that Calvin banished all music but plainsong chant from his churches makes it hard to deny that the current theory on the rock music phenomenon explains some dysfunction in the Calvinistic doctrine of human artistry, and even so venerable a theologian as Dietrich Bonheoffer has only disparaging things to say about singers whose voices are audible above the congregation during hymn singing. Calvin may have been in reaction to what he perceived as indulgence in pagan sensuality in renaissance art to a degree that even harmony was a kind of sensualism.

Calvin’s rationalism blows like a desiccating wind through Christendom, but he wasn’t wrong about everything. The separation of powers in American government can be seen as Puritan realism about human depravity. Freedom in the United States is partly a function of institutionalized doctrines that block predictable abuses of power. It’s also debatable whether the productivity of the American economy has been the result of freedom or a work ethic involving self-denial and anxiety about election that creates capital reserves. The generations of relatively free, wealthy Americans who have finally realized that Calvin’s ideas are incomplete in certain applications, are about to find out whether freedom or self-restraint count for more in economic terms. In certain applications, say the Salem witch trials, Calvinism may be as irrational as a rock concert, but, by a pendulum theory of art, we can imagine Calvin liberating Geneva from the idolatries of Michelangelo. Thankfully, the Catholic Church hasn’t seen fit to demolish, or otherwise dispose of, the treasures of the Vatican Palace. But, then again, the phrase “treasures of the Vatican Palace” does raise an incongruous clang in a sanctuary dedicated to Jesus as we find him in the Gospels.

To those with some education in the arts, it seems evident that Calvin and the iconoclasts went overboard while they were trying to stabilize the boat. The promoters staging multimedia productions in church would no doubt concur. That he may have missed the boat entirely, long before it ever got into dangerous water, does not change the fact that there is some dangerous art out there. Drugs and even rape are more common at and around rock concerts than is generally acknowledged. The facts tend to be submerged in the oceans of money flowing through city arenas where these circuses are mounted. Still, dangerous and intolerable may not always be the same thing when it comes to artistic freedom. Artistic freedom, of course, is not the question when government funding at art galleries sustains “works of art” like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. But we’re trying to work with the idea that scandalous art is not inadmissible in a discussion of theology of aesthetics.

God created a world with hazardous places and creatures. We’ve already compared Bob Dylan’s singing to an excursion through the Grand Canyon on a mule. Only a hundred years ago the Hopi Indians in that locale were increasing the numinous excitement of their festivals by dancing with rattlesnakes in their mouths. Precisely where along the spine of a rattlesnake does one bite, without being bitten, in order to constrain a rattlesnake so that one can dance without having the excitement dampened suddenly by the impact of a head and fangs that will induce a sudden swelling about the neck? This question, though certainly germane, is apparently not the first question that anthropologists try to answer. The Hopi make beautiful pottery. The Audubon Society has noted that some factions ritualistically kill eagles. Now, under instruction in the current church-growth literature, mission engagement with the Hopi puts evangelists in something of a predicament. Will inscription of the four spiritual laws on pottery urns be sufficient acculturation in order to communicate in the cultural idioms of the Hopi? Or are we going to have to import snake handlers from Tennessee?

The disputed passage from the Gospel of Mark aside, Hopi dancers and Christian snake-handlers seem to hold, excuse the expression, similar, if elusive, versions of Durkheim’s idea of numinous art. Britny Spears is known to have exploited this notion, having once danced naked, or nearly so, on national television while fondling a large, presumably non-venomous, snake. God created great whales, walruses, and small, but poisonous, rattlesnakes. He must think they are marvelous, for their own sake, or is it that the human race deserves to have them crawling around in the garden during dry years in sagebrush country? It is perhaps insensitive to propose that he created them in retribution for the art, which he knew through his divine foreknowledge, those created in his image would invent during the twentieth century.

There is yet quite a lot to be said about racehorses, but we can carefully lay aside the rattlesnakes, only noting that they are too beautiful, in a formal sense, to be the work of a blind watchmaker. God must be the artist who creates them, if only to prove the threatening hiss and buzz of his music is more exhilarating than the operas of Phillip Glass. A rattlesnake, even unperturbed on a rock, is more artful than the work called Satyagraha, a travesty by Glass on Gandhi. The only interesting parts of this music are stolen from an organ concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. The irony of Satyagraha is that the title translates as an insistence on truth that arms the votary with matchless power. God armed the rattlesnake with more truth and power than any number of contemporary composers.

If poetry is, as Ransom teaches, the world’s body, what are we to call art that embodies nobility, love, and treachery, in drama using the language of the greatest literary works in the Western canon set to music by composers skilled in a tradition that is the culmination of a thousand years of liturgical and theatrical practice and performed by singers whose voices have the stamina to soar for hours over a large orchestra? Throw in the occasional ballet, and you have the beginning of a description of opera. Olympic athletes train for, maybe, ten or fifteen years to reach the peak of their careers. Opera singers commonly sing for thirty or forty years, continually refining their technique in an art that is in many ways as strenuous as sport. Opera engages the senses and the spirit on so many dimensions that even those schooled in its conventions cannot simultaneously absorb all the impacts.

Enjoying opera takes preparation for most people. The language is exalted and often foreign in the locale of the performance. The metaphysical presuppositions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are uncongenial for audiences who don’t understand them and a constant challenge to the dispositions of the directors now staging historic operas who do understand and often try to undermine them. Yet beyond the pendulum theory of art, where the errors of metaphysics and ontology in the reasoning of earlier thinkers are corrected by new art, the standard repertoire of operatic masterpieces maintains an organic repository of magnificence. A positive theology of aesthetics can be delineated by following any of the contrapuntal voices in the operatic tradition.

Maybe we now agree that exhilaration and exploration are both part of the artistic experience. Like simpler art forms, opera illuminates being in vivid definition. Often enough, all the climbers in this expedition are able to ascend into the atmosphere of the sublime. The highest peaks then cut a jagged horizon out of the sky. Dealing with something that can be compared to a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas, or launching the space shuttle, reduces the imagery of the racehorse to mere exercise. The equivalent of both the climbing expedition and engineering science, the physical skill and technical mastery, are necessary to stage an opera. Composers, conductors, singers, orchestra players, designers, directors, and spear carriers all must do their work within a living organic tradition, or fight against it.

Experiential appreciation of being is inescapable in opera. Love it or hate it, when the fat lady sings, you feel it. Sometimes the masterpiece being sung is beautiful beyond description in any another way, and the sublime emerges. This is artistry on the highest plain. In other terminology, the resonances in the human spirit along so many dimensions can be called revelation, or an incarnation, or the word made flesh. This description, of course, grievously offends the sensibilities of post-modern literary theorists. Fortunately for them, many attempts are made to fabricate art on this level. When art is contrived to create the illusion of truth, there is harmony along some dimensions of our humanity and in some of the fibers in the fabric of the medium. If art of this kind convinces some people, for a while, that it is a metaphor of reality, or is at least persuasive, but it eventually does not ring true, the work that at first seemed a genuine work of art is revealed to be the contemptible artifice we call propaganda, or in its milder forms, mere rhetoric.

Genuine art is so illuminating, or arresting, or exultant, or graceful, or lovely, or compelling, or inspiring, and its nobility resonates simultaneously along so many dimensions, that it makes us fully alive to our own existence. Sometimes just being is enough, but in full awareness of our own existence, we can sometimes utter the two words anathema to existentialists. God exists. Art in this sense is Incarnational. A deeper appreciation of being alive, whether through artistic or natural beauty, makes us more aware that it is a miracle that we are here. The miracle asks for an explanation, and the explanation that comes to mind for many people, indoctrinated or not, is God. When the revelation provided by the Incarnation of Christ and the testimony of the church and scriptures are accessible, God consciousness is distinct and rationally articulate.

  1. #1 by claire on May 16, 2011 - 2:18 AM

    alive. this word and your writing has made the world outside my window look very different this morning.

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