Sunday, February 19, 2006

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 abstract 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 balance 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 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.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Beauty of the Infinite

"The infinite is beautiful because God is Trinity; and because all being belongs to God's infinity, a Christian ontology appears and properly belongs within a theological aesthetics."
--David Bentley Hart

Monday, February 13, 2006

Plato, Neoplatonism, Music, and the Incarnation

There are two interpretations of art in Plato:
1. Art is a copy of nature which is an imperfect copy of eternal form, ergo, art is dubious; it is likely to lead us away from the ideal. Art is, on this view, even more of an illusion than the existing world from which it is taken. The essential world is immaterial, but real. From this Platonic dichotomy comes the existentialists’ problem of existence versus essence.
2. Rather than being an imperfect copy of nature, which, by Plato’s definition, is inferior to the essential realm of pure form, art is said to be divinely inspired and thus a purer vision of reality than empirical knowledge.

Greek metaphysics was pervasive in the ancient near east. In the Bible there is evidence of conflict between Hellenic and Hebrew thought. Jesus often seems to be caught between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, who were the liberals and the conservatives of his time. The Sadducees were accommodating to cultural trends, which among the intelligentsia tended to be Hellenic. The Pharisees maintained resistance to Greek influence. But there was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. Philo’s works are an attempt at synthesis of Greek metaphysics and Hebrew thought.

By Augustine’s era, especially around Alexandria in Egypt, a philosophy called NeoPlationism was among the prevailing ideologies. The core of this philosophy is a repudiation of the material world. Two opposed corollaries were deduced from the NeoPlatonic idea that the material world is inferior to the spiritual realm:
1. Acetic renunciation of the world and the flesh.
2. Libertine indulgence of the flesh.

Plotinus, the most notable exponent of NeoPlatonism, and one of Augustine's teachers, was an acetic of the former type, unkempt and unwashed. There have been and are many Gnostic sects, and they tend to be NeoPlatonic. As opposed to moden agnostics who claim not to be able to know anything about God, the ancient gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge of the eternal transcendent reality. Some of them despised the world and the flesh. Others indulged in sexual libertinism in the belief that it didn’t matter if one abused the flesh, since it is only transitory.

All of this muddled conceptual theology was and is a challenge to a clear understanding of the Christian idea of the Incarnation of God in human flesh. The Gospels add to the dilemma when they quote Jesus in eschatological sayings about taking up the cross and following him even to the detriment of one’s safety and familial obligations. For example, he says, If any man would come after me, he must hate his mother and father and even his own life.

The Incarnation of God in human flesh resolves some problems associated with the Platonic and NeoPlatonic dualism between the existing world and an eternal transcendent realm. During the Christological controversies of the third and fourth centuries many attempts were made to conceptualize the Incarnation and the Trinity. After the passage of many centuries, Kierkegaard argued that it is impossible to conceive an eternal transcendent God becoming existential, material, and time bound. Existence preceeds essence for existing individuals, so we can only make a leap of faith. There is much more in Kierkegaard about the scandal of God as man that leads to offense or the liberation of faith.

How does this help us deal with the musical controversies in our churches?
1. It should elevate the value of art in worship. If God can be incarnate in human flesh, the sensory medium of art is not inferior to the rational exposition of doctrine.
2. It should negate the idea that it is irrelevant how we worship. In many respects, the medium of our worship is the message.
3. It should increase our regard for art that has proved its worth by enduring through many centuries. Culture is cumulative. Excellence is built on many stages of discovery and adaptation.
4. It should increase the value of emotion, because the abstract presentation of doctrine is not by virtue of its rational format superior to human experience.
5. It should encourage freedom and not rigid conformity to idealized form.
6. It should increase our regard for the human body and affirm beauty.
7. It should promote diversity of understanding of beauty without making all things relative to current fashion.
8. It should encourage love of life, the created world, and other people.
9. It should affirm our individual aspirations and uncontaminated desire.
10. It should make enlightened self expression acceptable to God. Self denial in this interpretation is denial of the destructive and sinful desires to which we are prone. Being all we can be is the best way to serve God and inspire others. See also:

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Latin Mass

"If our liturgical practice is anthropocentric and devoid of transcendent mystery, how will congregants at such a liturgy develop a faith that is Christocentric and alive to God’s mystery? If our liturgical vehicle is intrinsically subjective and particular, how can it present our common faith in a unified way in the midst of cultural diversity? If the Mass is local in dialect and communitarian in emphasis, how will it convey the shared transcendent faith of the universal Church? It is worth noting that one of the guiding purposes of the publication of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church was to present the fullness of the Faith in a common and unified way throughout the world. But our liturgical practice is, catechetically speaking, pulling us in a direction quite opposed to the Catechism’s aims and spirit."
--Jude A. Huntz in The New Oxford Review
The Liturgy as Catechism