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Anglicans Online last updated 15 September 2019
for Anglicans Online
by The Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
[Also appears as “Grace, Necessity and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist” at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/sermons_speeches/]
With all he has to do in this time of crisis in the Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams can still write books. And not just compilations of things from his files, like Anglican Identities (a fine book nonetheless). For the 2005 Clark Lectures at Cambridge, he created what has been published in book form as Grace and Necessity, a fitting addition tohis other brilliant cultural studies. Only this is a study in æsthetics, that ancient philosophical study of Beauty, and a daring one at that.
For the Archbishop of Canterbury attempts to revive interest in Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), a French theologian and sometime professor at Princeton generally snubbed today by most theologians and philosophers, other than certain Roman Catholic Thomists and thinkers interested in political philosophy of democracy. Moreover, His Grace focuses on a rather neglected aspect of Maritain’s thought, namely, his interest in art. Then he analyzes the impact of this æsthetic on two artists who specifically claimed that influence. Finally he draws some theological conclusions. This review shall attempt to explicate the thread of the argument, and then make some critical observations.
(For this reviewer, reading this book has a very personal dimension. As a student in musical composition as well as philosophy many years ago, I was very taken with precisely the same passages in Maritain upon which the Archbishop builds his case. So much so that I must credit these ideas as a partial influence which led me to a living faith in Christ and indeed, my current job.)
To place Archbishop Williams’ book in a wider context, we must go back to Plato, who in The Republic X challenged others to refute his contention (in the mouth of Socrates) that in the ideal State, poets should be banned. His pupil Aristotle replied in the Poetics. While he defended poetry and drama, his dialectic on mimesis with his teacher has formed ever since the core of discussions of the meaning of art itself: what makes art beautiful or not, and is the power of art to be celebrated or to be feared?
To put it in an ecclesiastical context, one only need remember the regular controversies over art in the Church. There are the recurring iconoclasms in East and West; there are perennial controversies over music in the liturgy, and arguments about the Church’s role in the arts and artists’ roles in the Church. One need merely stroll into the nearest ‘Christian bookstore’ at the mall to be confronted with art (novels, poetry, music, as well as visual art) which claims to be ‘Christian,’ and yet is painfully, stultifyingly mediocre.
Maritain argues from his creative re-formulation of Thomas Aquinas’ views that the best artist does nothing more than create works with skillful application of the craft and techniques proper to that particular art. Artists are not necessarily tormented geniuses splattering their psychic pain onto canvas or in poems or stone. Nor are they reproducing eternal Forms in myriad artistic ways. Having debunked the Romantic and classical views of art, Maritain does not fall into some modern nihilistic view of art, however. In making art, he contends, something more comes into focus than what the artist puts into the work. “Things are not only what they are,” Williams quotes Maritain, “they give more than they have.” The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so to speak. The artist working with her material (stone, words, gouache, etc.) creates not only according to the particular techniques the material invites, but also follows the particular direction the material itself seems to dictate.
Rowan Williams the celebrated poet is of course drawn to Maritain’s discussion of poetry. The poet’s self comes into play, attuned to what Maritain calls the “music” of words—a term which does not refer to the sounds themselves. (One wonders whether he came up with this concept from Plato, who has Socrates in The Republic VII refer to the ‘rhythm and harmony’ underlying words.) For the Archbishop, “It is the level of awareness at which metaphor is inescapable, the level at which my sense of an object and its intrinsic life are indistinguishable.” (p. 28)
The artist therefore is engaged in an intelligent making of a poem or other art form, seeking not Beauty nor to lay bare the underlying relations in the material nor any other program other than to make the material yield up, via the canons of artistic creation, its patterns discerned within the artist’s self. While propaganda or pornography or even philosophical ideas can be expressed artistically, these never yield art per se. And the artist seeking to make these is failing to be an artist, and the product, however artful, cannot be beautiful.
For beauty, and Maritain means the transcendental value of Beauty that goes with Truth and Good, is something not just in the eye of the beholder. It appears to the observer as a kind of attractive radiance or pleasing splendor inherent in the particular artifact. While, e.g., Picasso’s Guernica is not necessarily “pleasing” in the usual sense, it addresses the beholder’s intelligence as something created intelligently and endued with a perduring quality to arrest the eye. It invites contemplation.
Hence we come to that which fascinates Williams: that art shows us that “things give more than they have.” In other words, there is something numinous (my word) about genuine art. And this quite apart from the religious character of the artist. One can think of Carlos Gesualdo (1563-1613), whose madrigals and motets have influenced musicians well into the twentieth century, but who was an inveterate philander who murdered his first wife. But for artists who are deeply Christian, Maritain’s ideas can be profoundly liberating, either from the fear of theological censure or from the disapproval of secular art circles in which Christianity is in ill repute.
The Archbishop turns to two people who explicitly claimed Maritain’s influence as Catholic Christians and yet were superb artists as well: David Jones and Flannery O’Conner. While this reviewer is not very familiar with Jones, the chapter on him certainly whets the appetite to get to know him more deeply. Williams’ descriptions of Jones’ painting and poetry are incisive gems of criticism. But it is the author of the essay ‘Art and Sacrament’ that he has in mind as he analyzes this or that work: an artist who also ventures to do theology.
Flannery O’Connor’s novels are certainly great art, but they are also bracing reading, deeply ironic tales of grace appearing in the lives of some of the most grace-less characters ever imagined. Williams deftly sums up not only several of her stories but also how O’Connor is faithful to her own æsthetic, as she herself spelled it out, including her criticism of Maritain as too ‘soft.’ The Archbishop brings out in his analysis a theme dear to himself, that of the ‘unseen and unsuspected solidarities’ among us whose revelation in particular situations is a moment of grace. O’Connor, he shows, excelled in crafting stories that reveal these deep connections that being God’s creatures forges among us all, believers and unbelievers and people indifferent to God.
The final chapters, entitled ‘God and the artist,’ discuss how the practices of art and its appreciation inform the theological concept of the generativity of God. “Bad art,” the Archbishop writes, “is art that does not invite us to question our perceptions or emotions, that imposes an intrusive artistic presence, that obscures both the original occasion of encounter, the original object in the world, and its own concrete life (by drawing attention to its message or willed meaning).” The artist “doing his job” requires “a dual act of respect or reverence towards the world that is first seen and heard and towards the object,” an act that is “a serious and costly dispossession of the artist in the work.” (p. 150f) This is in other words an act of love. He uses Goya’s depictions of the cruelty of Napoleon’s war on Spain as such an act, despite the horrific subject matter, pointing out Goya’s lack of “corrupting involvement” in it. Williams offers an interesting definition of pornography: a work depicting cruelty or sexual violence that bears evidence of the artist’s own emotional satisfaction in the subject matter.
This leads us back to the leitmotif of Maritain’s “more than they have.” Williams identifies this as a pointer toward the sacred, or more explicitly, God. In particular, he enlists his æsthetic as an ally for the theologian’s task of interpreting the world. God’s love is radically “self-dispossessing.” The doctrine of the Trinity enunciates this through the generation by the Father of the “eternal other,” the Word, and of the “bearer of the divine life,” the Spirit. God is true to the divine nature (“God is love…” I John 4:8), and so is Trinity, One Being in Three Relations, utterly One and yet Other as well. As God is Trinity freely as eternal act of love, so God creates the world as “other,” grounded in the divine wisdom, loved by God for its possibilities, but also gratuitously, by grace alone, supremely in the radical self-dispossession of the Incarnation.
The human artist, in creating out of love, never exhausts either herself or the world’s possibilities. Something new comes forth, both in the artwork and in the artist. God of course has nothing to uncover and Godself is perfectly transparent to itself (Wisdom 7:23). But this is not the case for us humans. The artist does not need to be a saint himself, but without his art we cannot discern what sanctity is, the relation of human making and God’s call that we love.
And then the Archbishop closes the circle by returning to the notion of Beauty: “… beauty sought for in itself will always elude—or else it will seduce the artist into one or another sort of falsity. Given integrity of vision and purpose, consonance of component parts, and ‘splendour,’ beauty is what occurs . . . [the art] is beautiful when it is released from the artist.” (p. 168f) So Christian theology offers the artist not only a very broad raison d’être, well beyond the confines of the Church or even faith itself, but also a moral standard integral to the production of the best art.
Grace and Necessity is not easy reading, but it is a very valuable contribution to the task of enunciating an æsthetic grounded in Christian theology, a project which began with the creation of those classic works of art, the Gospels. It has proceeded fitfully since. Rowan Williams’ achievement is to advance in compact form an argument that began with Plato and continues into our day. Furthermore, deeply aware as he is of contemporary critical agnosticism (if not to say nihilism) concerning the production and enjoyment of art, he is deftly and succinctly able to put squarely back on the table Maritain’s contribution, and with it, demonstrate the perduring relevance of an entire Christian tradition of critical theory.
The problem with it is perhaps, its brevity, quite understandable when one considers the weighty responsibilities of the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, one remains hungry for more. The piercing gaze of Rowan Williams upon poems and novels and paintings, and his accounts of that gaze, are fascinating in their own right. And the epistemological aspects of his æsthetic cry out for more development.
But it is only upon poems and novels and paintings that this book touches. This is also a criticism that applies to Jacques Maritain’s writings as well. He is always ready to talk about the ‘musical’ nature of art, except musical composition itself. (Dance and theatre also get short shrift.) This narrow focus—and the consequent blanket generalizations about all art—is a significant weakness, both in Maritain’s thought and Williams’ re-formulation of it. It is however a lacuna that goes back to the Greeks themselves, with their distinction between mima (the imitative arts like music) and mimesis (the more representational forms like poetry and the visual arts).
But few are the æsthetic philosophers in any tradition who have developed a satisfactory account of musical composition, one which might inform an active composer today. Williams refers obliquely to a key theme of the school of thought he defends—and which exercised Aquinas and Maritain quite a bit—the distinction between art and prudence introduced first by Aristotle in the sixth book of the Nichomachean Ethics. Both are exercises of intelligence, but one is about making and the other about doing. Prudence requires the type of intelligence ordinarily referred to as ‘common sense,’ that accumulation of unsystematized learnings about how to live which develops into an informed intuition. Art requires another learned intuition, which Williams, developing Maritain’s notion of ‘music,’ defines as recognizing the unsuspected solidarities and relations deep within the artistic material and the artist’s self.
This rests on a recognition of the relations among the artist, the material, and the appreciator of the finished work. But it does not clearly lay out what those relations are, and their interconnections. Williams admits that this is where Maritain is confusing. An æsthetic that included musical composition in its analysis would have to come to terms with an arresting fact about composers. Unlike painters, sculptors, writers and poets, madness immediately ends the composer’s ability to write music. The case of Scriabin is a good example. But it holds true across the board.
This review is not the place for a full discussion of this point. Suffice it to say that in the act of composing, there is not only the technique of composition, and the material which seems to dictate this path and not that one. There is not only the exploration deep within the self to bring forth the art, but also the intermediate step of organizing the music for the performer. For the composer writes not only for the listener, the first of whom is the composer, but also and crucially for the musician who will play the piece. (The same must be said of the playwright, who also requires enough objectivity to be able to write for actors.) So music of any sufficiently advanced complexity also requires that peculiar intelligence which is the ability to discern and map for others the possible inner relations within the musical materials as they unfold in the act of performance. If one holds to the analogy of artistic creation with divine creation, this point could have, it seems to me, something to add about both the mind of the artist and the divine wisdom.
Finally, Williams does not address the subject of sacred art, art created for the Church. The fear of censure—or its reality—weighs far too heavily on it. Those alien presences that on Williams’ analysis mar a work of art include the censor. But in creating art for the Church there are many other alien presences, of which a full analysis would be helpful. For if Williams’ æsthetic stands for anything, it is surely the freedom of the artist. In light of his ideas, perhaps a study of, say, Marc Chagall’s stained glass for Christian churches could be instructive.
These criticisms do not however obviate the importance of Grace and Necessity, not only for theology but also for æsthetic theory. Rowan Williams has stuck a sharp needle into the balloon of contemporary theories which emphasize that the only intelligible thing about a work of art, of any kind, is the individual’s experience of it. For believers and unbelievers alike, this is very precious indeed. One can only hope that its insights will be popularized.
I am also grateful for his revival of a thinker who influenced a young aspiring composer long ago to consider again Christ. And now, as a bishop who is expected by vow and tradition to be learned, that is to say, to be the eternal student, one can only be thankful that at the head of the Anglican Communion is a learned bishop who despite huge obstacles nevertheless leads by example. And what an example it is.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.