Creation, Reincarnation & Redemption: In the Arts?

September 01, 2009

Creation, Reincarnation & Redemption: In the Arts?

We might reasonably expect artistic imagination to be counted naturally among the greatest of God’s gifts to humankind. While the precise nature of art’s effect upon us remains a subject of complexity and dispute, we hardly need a degree in aesthetics to identify the effect when it happens, to realise its force and depth, and that it is something good for which we are mostly glad. The work of art is not the only thing to affect us in such ways (there are other, ‘natural’, sources of the effect), but art probably does it more consistently and well than most other things. We may not be able to define it, but most of us have some intuitive sense of the sort of response it is that melodies, paintings, poems, films, novels and other works of artistic imagination often grant or provoke in us. And, as I said, it is a response for which we are grateful when it occurs. On the whole, then, artistic creativity is a source of joy and leaves us with a sense of having tasted something good and worthwhile, even when we can’t say exactly why. The world would somehow be a less attractive place without it.

Art, truth and transgression

The artist has not, though, always been a figure whose contribution to human life has been valued, or towards whom any great appreciation has been shown. On the contrary, imagination in general and ‘creative’ or artistic imagination in particular has often been treated with great suspicion, not least in Christian circles. The products of human imagining have regularly been viewed as at best a frivolous distraction from serious engagement with things (whether that be scientific, economic, political, religious or some other form of engagement). At worst they have been thought of as a dangerous hindrance to such engagement, weaving a skein of falsehoods that distance us further from truth rather than facilitating any meaningful contact with it. The 18th century philosopher David Hume’s brutal description of poets (and by extension all artists aspiring to poesis of some sort) as ‘liars by profession’ encapsulates a judgement with a respectable pedigree within the western intellectual tradition stretching all the way back to Plato (c.427-347 BC).

The perception of artistic imagination as a participation in the creativity of God himself has similarly ancient roots. According to Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and thereby kindled a divine spark in humanity. The myth has been variously interpreted,1 but Plato’s reading of it in his Protagoras identifies the gift bestowed upon humankind with what we might call the capacity for culture (he calls it ‘skill in the arts’), the ability to take what is given in ‘nature’ and to do something creative with it which grants the world a distinctly human dimension.2 At the most basic level this includes the ability to fashion tools for the acquisition and cultivation of the resources for life itself – food, water, warmth, protection and so on. But it also includes the capacity for what philosopher Susanne Langer suggests may be the most distinctive and most basic of human activities in the world— the ‘symbolization’ or ‘symbolic transformation’ of our experience of the world.3 Language is the most common form of this symbolic exchange with reality, but it takes many other forms, including artistry.

Creative or artistic imagination in particular involves going beyond what is given, the voluntary generation of some symbolic supplement to or modification of the actual. The artist finds his raw materials lying at hand in words, patches of colour, pieces of wood and stone and in all manner of things. In his hands these material realities come to mean more than their mere physicality allows, being transformed into the symbols of a reality deeper and larger than that which first meets the eye. The artist, we might say, sees more than what is generally perceptible, and symbolises his vision so that others may share it. His art grants ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ to those whose seeing and hearing is otherwise less full, or differently focused and attuned. Such statements can be, have been and are understood in all manner of different ways by those who reflect deeply on such things, and there is certainly no consensus on how or in what precise sense art does any of this. Nonetheless, it may be relatively uncontentious to suggest that it does it; that art involves, in Arthur Danto’s phrase, a ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’4, a presentation of things which differs in some identifiable way from the presentation more widely available. If it did not do this we should arguably have little reason for differentiating it as a product of imagination at all, or identifying it as ‘art’, the product of a human act of poesis. It would simply be more of the same, another instalment in our day-to-day sensory engagement with the world.

It is precisely this ‘added-value’ dimension of artistic creativity, the fact that art characteristically renders back something more than is given to it in nature as raw material, which has sometimes attracted suspicion and disapprobation from those concerned, above all, for a sense of truth in our human dealings with the world. We recall that, according to Plato, human culture is contingent upon a primal act of cosmic burglary. Creativity of the sort to which the artist aspires is, he insists, the proper prerogative not of human beings but of the gods alone. In our enjoyment of art, therefore, we are technically receivers of stolen goods passed on to us by the various ‘fences’ who paint, write, compose, sculpt or whatever. Indeed, since only the gods can truly create at all, acts of human poesis result at best in a series of clever fakes or imitations of the genuine article. What such a judgment expresses is a deep sense of the given-ness of the structures of the world that God has made, a given-ness which, it seems, might somehow be devalued and knowledge of it put at risk if human beings seize responsibility for modifying, improving, adding to, or even deconstructing that order through their symbolic engagements with the world. Art, on such an accounting, is inherently transgressive of the limits which divine creation sets, and thereby constitutes an offence to the God whose creativity it emulates. God’s copyright on the cosmos has, as it were, been breached.

The ‘work’, the flesh and the spirit

A further source of suspicion has been the fact that art in all its manifestations directs us initially towards, and immerses us in one way or another and to some extent in, the world of the senses, the ‘flesh’. We can’t get away from this fact. Whatever else it may be, art is about colour, shape, sound, texture; the manipulation of wet clay, the smearing of oil paint on a canvas surface, pushing air from our lungs through lengths of metal tubing, and so on. Of course there is more to it than this, but this physicality is an essential part of art. In this sense art, no matter how sublime, roots us again and again in that fleshly reality which is an inescapable feature of human life in God’s world at its best and worst alike. But such corporality has often been held to be in tension with, if not detrimental to, the pursuit of the universal, the true and the abiding. And this judgement has led some to offer views of art which see its products precisely as imaginative tools facilitating our escape from the mere physicality of nature into some ‘higher’ non-material realm, rather than immersing us more fully into the physical space of the world round about us and all that it contains.

So, for example, R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) argues that the real ‘work’ of art exists first in the imagination of the artist, and then in the imaginations of those who appreciate his work.5 It never actually exists as such in the realm of physicality. The sounds (in the case of a melody performed) or patches of colour (in the case of a painting) or carefully constructed phrases (in the case of prose or poetry) are not the true ‘work’ of poesis at all, but merely the material medium through which the artist’s imaginative vision is channelled, grasped and reconstructed by his audience. The real aesthetic event occurs at a level that utterly transcends the mundane physicality of print and paint and stone and the vibration of stopped strings. If we mistake the latter as such for the poetic product, then we shall risk missing the genuine article. Art, as it were, does not exist, in the strict sense, anywhere. It takes up no space, except the metaphorical space to which our mind’s eye is directed. This is a view of artistic creativity which duly had considerable influence on Dorothy L. Sayers in her popular book The Mind of the Maker,6 something I shall explore further in one of my New College lectures in September.

But is this not ridiculous? Does Collingwood really mean to suggest that when we listen to a CD of Mozart’s Requiem, or watch a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, what we are hearing and seeing is not art, and that the real ‘art’ is located somewhere else than in the sound of the music, or the performance on the stage? Well, yes and no. The point he is making is one that deserves our consideration, even if he rather overstates it. We have already suggested that the artist sees more than is given in our ordinary experience of things, and renders the world back to us in some sense with added value. Insofar as we concede this, recognising that artistic imagination goes beyond the given rather than just replicating it, we must also concede that there is always more to a work of art than its physical manifestation in the world. Talk of ‘going beyond’ the given may sound rather abstract. But in more familiar terms we may refer to that space, for example, which calls for constant acts of interpretation of one sort or another on the part of those who view or participate in works of art. Artistic appreciation is not passive but active. We have a role to play in enjoying the arts, just as the artist has a role in furnishing works for our enjoyment. Clearly, then, the meaning or significance of art cannot be confined to the level of simple physical manifestation and perception. Art draws us deeper and further, takes us beyond the surface in some sense to see or experience something which otherwise remains hidden from us.

All this grants Collingwood’s point more force than its bald statement appears at first to deserve. Nonetheless, his particular way of stating the matter, driving, as it does, towards an effective divorce between the meaningfulness of art and its earthy, material situation in the world, remains problematic. To say that artistic meaning transcends the physical may mean at least two things. It may mean simply that there is more to art than may be identified at the level of the ‘flesh’, that the ‘eye of faith’ beholds more than is physically perceptible. Or it may mean, as Collingwood’s chosen phraseology suggests, that art belongs properly to another dimension altogether and is not to be identified at the level of the material artefact, even though it exists in conjunction with it. The difference between these two notions of artistic transcendence is significant.

God, given-ness and grace

My own approach to these matters is from within the concerns and insights of Christian theology. I want to reflect briefly, therefore, on how the claim that in Jesus God has ‘taken flesh’ and become a human being might inform and shape a Christian attempt to make sense of them.

Prometheus has sometimes been likened to Christ: a divine figure who seeks to liberate humans from their bondage in ignorance by bringing down to earth fire from the gods. Perhaps there are some interesting parallels, but there are certainly rather more significant differences. As the apostle Paul reminds us, the gospel has at its heart not a motif of theft, but one of gift (see, for example, Romans 5:15-21); not the story of an illicit black market in divine prerogatives recently fallen from the back of a lorry, but one of the free bestowal by God upon humans of an intimate sharing in his own life and activity, as ‘sons’ and ‘heirs’ who know him now as Abba. The God of Scripture grants us an inheritance in what is properly his alone, and ‘earths’ this by himself becoming a human Son, discovering what it means to share humanly in the life of God (as Jesus, the Son who knows and loves and corresponds to his Father in the activity and fellowship of the Holy Spirit) so that we might do so too.

How does this fundamental difference of plot bear on our theme of artistic imagination? Well, in lots of ways; but let me point to just two.

Sharing and participation

First, the God made known in Jesus Christ, we must suppose, is not automatically threatened by human activity in the world, but desires our active participation in his purposes for a world which has not yet reached its final goal, which is, in some appropriate sense left ‘incomplete’.7 To this end he calls his creatures to an obedient, Spirit-filled free response and correspondence to his own activity within history. The creative authority of the Word who becomes flesh is thus of a sort which, while it certainly sets boundaries to the legitimate and possible expressions of human freedom, nonetheless creates space for, facilitates, and deliberately seeks the responsible exercise of such freedom in every sphere of human life. The ‘given-ness’ of God’s sovereign creative activity is, we might say, of a sort that opens up and encourages rather than closes down our creative human responses. Responsible creativity of an artistic sort (and other sorts) is thus not only warranted, but may be viewed as an unconditional obligation laid upon us and called forth by God’s gracious speaking to humankind in the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Indeed we might go further, and suggest that artistry is not only a proper response to, but also an active sharing in (albeit in a subordinate creaturely mode) God’s own creative activity within the cosmos, a participation in Christ’s own adding of value to our humanity in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Eyes to see and ears to hear

Second, the insistence that in Christ God is actually present in the sphere of nature and history as the subject of a human life lived under the Father and in the Spirit, is vitally important. For it involves the claim that God has, so to speak, stepped over the limits which ordinarily separate him from his creation and earthed his own distinctive way of being within the sphere of creaturely, and even fleshly, realities. And in doing so God has invited and drawn us, as creaturely beings, to share in this same matrix of divine meaningfulness without ceasing to be human. On this view, while proper distinctions may yet remain, there can be no wedge driven between the spheres of the ‘spirit’ and the ‘flesh’, or between the divine and the creaturely. It is difficult to maintain that material nature is lower than and cannot bear artistic meaning when here, through a re-creative adaptation and transfiguring, it becomes the site of God’s own habitation and action. Here the physical, temporal and spatial realities of our world become the place where God himself is unveiled for those given eyes to see and ears to hear.

Therefore, in the epiphanies that art grants us through its transfigurations of the commonplace, we know there is more than is presented to us at the level of the physical or historical alone. The eye of artistic imagination sees more than other eyes, and its ears hear more. Here Collingwood has his proper point to make and we must attend to it. If we do not see or hear or feel more than is ordinarily presented to us, then our artistic imagination is failing us, and we are missing out on poetic presence. But, vitally, these same eyes and ears do not see or hear less than what is presented physically, and what they see and hear is bound up inextricably with the ‘more’ that is there to be discerned. As in the incarnation, we cannot do away with the man Jesus if we want to know the eternal Son of the Father (for they are one and the same), so too in the work of art a ‘word’ has become or been made flesh for our sakes, and we must attend to the particular place of this poesis.

We cannot appreciate Mozart’s artistry unless the sound of his music remains our constant companion; we may appreciate more than the sounds themselves, but never less. There is something more than the ‘flesh’ to be considered, to be sure, but the two levels must be held together if the essential significance of each is not to slip from our grasp. In the arts, too, the truth may in some vital sense be heard, seen and touched.

Putting artistry in its place

Cast in these terms, Christ’s redemptive engagement with us as human creatures becomes the paradigm case of a wider creative and redemptive engagement with the ‘flesh and blood’ of the world God has made in which all of us are called to get involved, an involvement which is proper to our nature as God’s distinctly human creatures. This being so, it would be odd in the extreme, surely, for the Church, the body of Christ, filled by the Spirit, to continue to baulk at the presence of artists and artistry in its midst (as it often has) because artists are those in our human communities (and no less in the Church) who bear witness. They bear witness by what they do to the essentially creative nature of our dealings with the world God has given to us, and to the centrality of creativeness to the distinctive pattern of living as human creatures to which God has called us. In Christ, this distinctive pattern has not been left on the periphery or merely tolerated, but drawn into the very heart of the divine life itself. ©


1 See Donoghue, Denis (1973). Thieves of Fire. London: Faber & Faber.

2 See Plato, Protagoras and Meno (tr. Guthrie, W. K. C.) (1956). London: Penguin, pp52f.

3 Langer, Susanne K. (1948). Philosophy in a New Key. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, pp20f.

4 See Danto, Arthur (1981). The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. London: Harvard University Press.

5 See Collingwood, R. G. (1938). The Principles of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp139f.

6 Sayers, Dorothy L. (1941). The Mind of the Maker. London: Methuen.

7 For a development of this theme see Williams, Rowan (2005). Grace and Necessity: Reflections on

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