Art is obedient to the creative gratuity in the world


David Jones, “Crucifixion” (1922-23)

My recent travel gave me an opportunity to finish Rowan Williams’ work on theological aestheticsGrace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. The biggest take-away is that art happens because “things are not only what they are” and “give more than they have”to borrow Jacques Maritain’s language. Put differently, art happens because of creative gratuity (or generative excess) in the material world, which connects the artist with Being (read: God). Two examples will help. In George Herbert’s poem “Easter Wings,” the speaker says: “O let me rise / As larks, harmoniously.” Here, the larks are not only larks but emblems of resurrected living in Christ. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” the narrator says: “The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.” Here, the sun is not only a sun but an emblem of the Good Shepherd who sacrifices his life to save the recalcitrant sheep, which functions not only as a biblical allusion but also suggests an analogy of being because, as Jonathan Edwards observed, “the things of the world are ordered [and] designed to shadow forth spiritual things.” Of course, all this brings us towards “the frontiers of theology” (154). An artist’s “awareness of a depth in the observable world beyond what is at any moment observable is close to what seems to be meant by ‘the sacred.'” “The element of gratuitous energy in the world’s life,” Williams says, “corresponds to what we can call the sacred” (155).

Here are salient passages from the fourth lecture, “God and the Artist.”

Art has an ‘ontology’ implicit in it. It is not decorative or arbitrary but grounded in what we ought to call a kind of obedience. The artist struggles to let the logic of what is there display itself in the particular concrete matter being worked with (142).


You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose—finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capacity in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on. Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control, that brings with it its shadow and its margins, its absences and ellipses, a dimensional existence as we might call it. The degree to which art is ‘obedient’ – not dependent on an artist’s decisions or tastes—is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland (147). 


‘The sacred’ is commonly a category of our perception, almost an aesthetic category; it does not capture that sense of energy, action or initiative that arises around the questions we have just been considering. Balthasar speaks of how every finite phenomenon ‘reveals the non-necessity of creaturely existence and thus the Creator’s freedom‘ (Theologik I, p.106). Something in the world of phenomena exceeds what is ‘needed’; there is no final account of how things are that confines itself to function. One of the greatest misunderstandings of popular modernity is the notion that when we have, like good Darwinians, identified the function of various developments in various life-forms, we have thereby demonstrated their necessity; when the truth is that we have not begun to answer the question, ‘Why precisely this?’ or ‘Was this the only possible resolution to an evolutionary conundrum?’ The artist’s commitment to generative excess in the world stands as a challenge to a vulgarised Darwinism: this life could be otherwise; this life could mean more than its adaptation to these particular circumstances suggests. The world ‘makes itself other’, not simply by endless environmental adjustment but by provoking the exploration and ‘re-formation’ of which art is one cardinal element. But when we have said this, have we opened the door to that which is—to paraphrase a great Platonic phrase—’in excess of being’? (155-156).



Thus when God creates the world, God acts out of a full, not an inchoate, identity. And so, what theology might have to say to the artist is not exactly that human creativity imitates divine but almost the opposite of this—that divine creativity is not capable of imitation; it is uniquely itself, a creation from nothing that realises not an immanent potential in the maker but a pure desire for life and joy in what is freely made. But though divine creation cannot be imitated, what it does is to define the nature of a love that is involved in making. It is both the gift of self and the gift of self. It bestows life unreservedly on what is other, but the life it bestows is a real selfhood, a solid reality. It is not the exercise of an arbitrary will. God’s self-identity is timeless, so that there is no sense in which God becomes more fully God in creating; our self-identity is timebound, inextricably involved with a world of interlocking causes. The most profoundly free action human beings can take in relation to their identity is to elect to discover and mould what they are in the process of ‘remaking’ the world in a love that is both immeasurably different from God’s (because it is to do with the self’s self-definition in history and material relationship) and yet endowed with some share in it (because it is always approaching self-dispossession). In the words of a really remarkable new book on theology and aesthetics (The Beauty of the Infinite by David Hart, p.251), ‘Christian talk of an analogy between the being of creatures and the being of God is something like speaking of the irreducible difference between the being of a work of art and the creative being of the artist (which is not, surely, an arbitrary relationship, any more than it is “necessary”.’ The artist’s freedom is deeply connected to God’s; but connected as something no less deeply other to God, since it is the particular way in which finite freedom comes to perfection (164-65). 


Maritain himself asserts that a work is ‘Christian’ simply to the extent that ‘love is alive’ in it . . . . The artist, as we have been reminded many times, does not need to be a saint; the point is rather that without art we should not fully see what sanctity is about. A holiness, a fullness of virtue, that was seen simply as a static mirroring of God’s perfection would in fact not be real holiness; God’s life exercises its own perfection in the imagining of a world into life, so that the artist’s imagination fills out what must be the heart of holy life for human creatures. The artist imagines a world that is both new and secretly inscribed in all that is already seen (‘There is another world but it is the same as this one’, in Rilke’s famous phrase), and in so doing imagines himself, projects an identity that is fully in motion towards its completion. In this bestowing of life on self and world, the artist uncovers the generative love that is at the centre of holiness. There is no ‘godlikeness’ without such bestowal, such ‘imagining’ into life (166-167). 



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