Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Aslan and Burke: Not Good, but Safe

Currently I am in the middle of a series on the . Last week I wrote an article on , and I am going to continue that discussion here by showing how the Sublime operates in the movie and the book. In particular, I will show how Burke’s concept of the Sublime as infinite, terrible, and uncertain applies to ’s creation of Aslan, but not the movie’s adaptation.

No book or novel has ever been made into a movie, except perhaps a very short book. It is simply impossible to take every element of a written story and transform it into another art form while keeping the original meaning in its entirety. I mean its absolute entirety. But that does not mean that books should never be adapted into movies, it just means that the director must make certain decisions in order to capture the essence of a story while shortening it into a movie. That is the difference between an adaptation and making a book into a film. When I see an adaptation, I do not expect it to be identical to the book, but I do expect a good director to retain the themes and power of the original source. It is my contention that Adamson failed to adapt The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I will be looking specifically at three ways in which Aslan was portrayed differently from the book: his status as teacher, his relation to the “Emperor,” and his Sublime attributes.

One of the elements of Lewis’s book that does not make it into the movie is the role Aslan plays as a teacher. I am thinking of two scenes in particular, but there are doubtlessly others. In these scenes from the book, Aslan commands one of the children to do something. In the movie, these commands are left out and the children simply know to do what is right. The first of these scenes is when Aslan pulls Peter aside to talk to him and Susan blows her horn calling for help. In Adamson’s version, Peter knows that it is Susan and he runs to save her. In the book, Aslan tells Peter, “It is your sister’s horn.” This might seem like a minor detail, but if one considers the complexity of Lewis’s allegory then it is important. Although Peter is going to be High King of , he still needs instruction from Aslan. Peter does not have some innate knowledge of what he should do: this is a world where man is fallen in his mind as well as his soul and body. Adamson removes this and in doing so, suggests that Aslan is not needed in order for Peter to act correctly in this world. The conversation that Peter and Aslan are having before Peter runs off is on the “Deep Magic,” (which I will discuss later) and it appears that Aslan is teaching Peter. But this teaching is what Schaeffer would call “upper-storey,” it is irrational, otherworldly, and does not really affect this world. In other words, Adamson allows that God can teach us about spiritual things, but earthly things are the responsibility of man.

The next scene is after the battle with the witch, near the end of the book. Aslan and Peter’s forces have triumphed, but Edmund is dying. When Aslan and the other children reach Edmund, Aslan reminds Lucy of her cordial which has the power to heal all wounds; Lucy does not remember on her own. And after Lucy heals Edmund, Aslan commands her to help others. This is how this scene takes place in the book:

“There are other people wounded,” Said Aslan while she was still looking eagerly into Edmund’s pale face and wondering if the cordial would have any result.
“Yes, I know,” said Lucy crossly. “Wait a minute.”
“Daughter of Eve,” said Aslan in a grave voice, “others are also at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?”
“I’m sorry, Aslan,” said Lucy.

This exchange is quite different in the movie. There, Lucy realizes herself that she can save Edmund, and then she quickly runs around healing others without any word from Aslan. Adamson presents us with a God that has nothing to offer humanity on this earth: no words of wisdom, no commands, no rebuke, no instruction, nothing. He is a silent God. In this world man does not need God in order to do what is right, for each person knows instinctively what to do. This is no minor difference. Lewis gives us a world where people are genuinely fallen and need God’s instruction, His Word, and His guidance; this is a Biblical world. This is . Adamson’s adaptation is not.

The second area where Adamson fails to adapt Aslan properly is in the portrayal of the Deep Magic. In the book, the Witch comes to Aslan’s camp and presents her case for Edmund belonging to her on the grounds of the Deep Magic. Susan is shocked because of this magic Edmund must be given to the Witch, so she whispers to Aslan:

“Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”

“Work against the Emperor’s magic?” said Aslan turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

Here Lewis shows that Aslan cannot go against the magic. But notice how carefully he constructs this. Lewis does not say that Aslan is subject to or beneath the power of the Deep Magic, but rather he cannot work against the Emperor’s magic. There is a great difference. In this allegory Aslan, like Christ, could not simply free Edmund from the penalty of his sin; the penalty of sin is death. To go against this would be to deny justice and therefore His very character; and God cannot be not God. This is the Deep Magic, which was established by God but also by Christ in the profoundly complex Trinity. Had Lewis said, as we hear in the movie, that Aslan was subject to the Deep Magic just like everyone else, he would he in effect say that Christ was not God; He was forced to obey a law over Him. Thus Aslan, instead of being obedient to the Emperor and his own character, is merely another being under the power of some mystical law.

The last argument I will make concerning the adaptation of Aslan is that he ceases to be Sublime in the movie. And with this loss of the Sublime, Aslan is further lowered to the status of hero. When I speak of the Sublime, I am primarily referring to ’s definition in his essay “On the Sublime and Beautiful:”

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (35).

This idea is very applicable to Lewis’s book considering the concept of Aslan being good but not safe (which is changed to good but not tame in the movie). Concerning the comprehension of God, Burke says that, “we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before Him.” (58). The very idea of God is terribly (in a literal way) Sublime, and Lewis understands this. Aslan, in the book, is feared by all. This also fits in with Burke’s concept of God and the Sublime: “The notion of some great power must be always precedent to our dread of it” (59). For Aslan to be truly powerful, and truly allegorically representative of Christ, he must evoke a sense of dread in the other characters and the reader. Both the “good” characters and the bad are afraid of Aslan. Even in the first description of Aslan we can see the Sublime:

“The Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then the found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly” (123).

This is a powerful passage, and its power comes through the description that defies physical rendering. In our imagination, we can create Aslan as Lewis presents him here, with all that terror and majesty. This image transcends the rational and the material, and affects us on a much deeper level. It evokes in us the infinite, the unattainable, and the ethereal. Here is the God we find in Old Testament (who is the same today as He was yesterday), who is a consuming fire and is also love. While we struggle to understand how Aslan could be both good and terrible, we are reminded of the character of God in a way that transcends theology and logic. It strikes us Sublimely. If, however, we were to attempt to render this image in a painting or a significant drawing or in a movie, we would find that this power is gone. The individual pieces of Lewis’s description cannot be reasonably formed into a physical rendering because they are not reasonable in an earthly sense. This is in part due to the great uncertainty of Aslan’s true appearance. We are told of the affect of the lion’s appearance upon the children and the Beavers, but not what he looks like. In reality, we are only told that he has eyes, and a golden mane! Let me allow Burke to make this clearer:

“Painting…can only affect simply by the images it presents; and even in painting, a judicious obscurity in some things contribute to the effect of the picture; because the images in painting are exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature, dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions, than those have which are more clear and determined.” (53).

In other words, whenever we try to make a physical representation of something, we must always appeal a great deal to nature, but this will always fall short compared to rendering something in language. In language, as in the description of Aslan, images can be created through ambiguity and uncertainty in such a way as to evoke an even more powerful ideal. Thus, we do not merely see a lion, we see an infinitely powerful, loving, terrible, lion. How could this ever be physically rendered? According to Burke, any attempt and rendering such things results in disaster:

“[Poetry’s] apparitions, its chimeras, its harpies, its allegorical figures, are grand and affecting; and though Virgil’s Fame and Homer’s Discord are obscure, they are magnificent figures. These figures in painting would be clear enough, but I fear they might become ridiculous” (54).

Aslan, in Adamson’s film, is ridiculous. He is beautiful, but not terrible, and not infinite. The problem with paintings and other visual arts is that you are always confronted with the finite. No matter how obscure of a painting you make, it will always have a definite ending even if that is only the frame. In language, an image can thrive forever. This is incredibly important. When Lewis attempted to create a character who stood allegorically for Christ, (not descended as a man Christ either) he did so in a way that allowed our imaginations to be affected by a Sublime image and evoke in us the infinite. But as soon as that lion is made into a picture, particularly in a film, we see that it is only a lion. Only an oversized cat. There is a finiteness to his roar, to his beauty, to his voice, to his size, to his terribleness, and to his goodness. He is no longer a god, he is now securely a mortal. This is the great problem with rendering a character that represents God in a film.

But Adamson could have done certain things to retain some of Aslan’s majesty, terror, goodness, and therefore his infiniteness. If Aslan’s terror had been emphasized, it would have affected the audience Sublimely. We would have been confronted with a character that defied our understanding, being good and terrible, and would have thus suggested a great otherworldliness. Adamson, however, chose to remove all aspects of Aslan’s terror, giving us a character that is good but not tame, rather than . Here is the difference: there are many animals that are not tame, but are very safe. Tame connotes control, not necessarily safety: not all tame animals are safe. But if an animal is not safe, then there is a definite danger. This difference can be seen throughout Adamson’s version of the story. Aslan is no longer a god that strikes fear in the hearts of the children and the other “good” characters, only the “evil” people fear him. Allegorically, this means that those who are followers of Christ have nothing to fear from God at all; there is no need to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul said in Philippians. Only the evil people, those who are clearly evil, should fear God.

To conclude, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a great work of art, as Lewis wrote it; however, the film version denatures Aslan, making him nothing more than a hero and give us a poor work of nonchristian art. Aslan has nothing to say to people in regard to commands, instruction, or advice for this world. He is under the rule of a law, just as humans are. And he is a finite, ridiculous, safe (but not “tame”), hero who only judges those with clearly evil hearts. The great depth of Lewis’s work, which resides mostly in his use of the Sublime, is striped from this film, leaving us with a nice adventure story and a character that sacrifices himself for a friend. But it is not good Christian Art.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Why Bother? The Value of Art and Aesthetics for the Christian

I have spent the last eight months writing on various issues in the arts all centered on a Christian response to these issues. The reason that I am writing all this is because I know the arts to be an important aspect of Christian life and I feel that many in the Church have fallen asleep in regard to this. There are many reasons why Christians have failed to fulfill their role has creators in the image of God, but I believe one of them has to do with the idea that art is simply not a valuable use of our time. What I have been proposing over the last year requires Christians to take an active role in art, either in producing and/or appreciating. In both cases it will require more time than the brethren has been devoting. For those who produce, they must rethink what it means to make art for God and where their own aesthetic comes from. For those who appreciate art, they must learn what good redeemed art looks/sounds/feels like and seek out Christian artists who are making that art. But if the days are evil, our time here is short, and many have yet to hear or understand God’s free gift of salvation, how can I ask believers to spend time study or making art?

Over the next few weeks I will be presenting a series of articles arguing why it is important for Christians to take an active role in the arts. I will be doing this series concurrently with the one I have already started on the Sublime. These arguments will not all be my own, instead I will be quoting from Francis Schaeffer, Calvin G. Seerveld, and Hans R. Rookmaaker. My hope, and prayer, is that my writing this many brethren who have viewed art as either entertainment or as a waste of time will become aware of the enormity of the arts and their incredible value for the Christian. I understand that many who will read this will probably be artists themselves, but I am more concerned about those who do not create art themselves.

Art as Communication

Francis Schaeffer, in his short book Escape from Reason, gives an analogy to demonstrate the importance of understanding culture:

"If a man goes overseas for any length of time we would expect him to learn the language of the country to which he is going. More than this is needed, however, if he is really to communicate with the people among whom he is living. He must learn another language—that of the thought-forms of the people to whom he speaks. Only so will he have real communication with them and to them. So it is with the Christian church. Its responsibility is not only to hold to the basic, scriptural principles of the Christian faith, but to communicate these unchanging truths ‘into’ the generation in which it is living."

This is the focus of practically all of Schaeffer’s work: to teach the brethren to communicate to a fallen world. It’s a nice thing to say that all we must do is study the Word and wait for the Holy Spirit to give us the words to say. But in studying the Word we will come across Christ’s law which calls us to love our neighbor. This does not mean that we merely love them abstractly, we must love them as humans. This requires that we know them, their needs, their fears, their concerns, their stumbling blocks, and their desires. Essentially, we must know their worldview. While we never see Christ studying different cultures and worldviews in the Gospels, we do have evidence that He did just that. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, He knows her needs which were specific to her particular cultural and personal situation. The same can be said for Paul, who wrote to the churches concerning their individual needs that were often unique to their culture: some struggled with sexual immorality, others with idolatry, others with love. The apostle also instructed the churches to act in ways that were specific to each culture. Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols in certain places around certain people. This requires a deep knowledge of the belief systems of those around us. It is a historical fact that art is the best, or at least one of the best, ways to know the worldviews of a culture. Those who are in-tune with what a culture’s art is saying, what it is truly saying, will know what that culture believes and therefore how to best speak to them as people. But this is not easy. One cannot simply listen to a Metallica song and decide that all of American culture is really angry. You must learn to discover what a work of art is saying with its form and its themes, and you know whom it is speaking to. This means time and effort. But we have a great motivation for this, for when we genuinely seek to understand the art of the culture around us then we are seriously seeking to know the people around us. This is love. Biblically we know that the world and the people who live in it are fallen and without hope except for Christ, so when we respect and appreciate their art, then we are acknowledging their suffering and their sorrow. And this is important. We must never belittle the evil in this world. I am not suggesting that all good Christians will appreciate good worldly art and agree with all the themes and messages, but no matter had hard the world tries to flee from the Truth, even they cannot find a way of escaping it completely. It is our job to know what they believe that is not Truth, and what they believe that is Truth. No work of art was ever 100% a lie. What the worldly artist (and their fans) gets correct, we need to discuss with them and expound upon. And what they mistake as true, we must inquire about and encourage them to explore.

Art is a type of communication that privileges the critical things in life, the “upper storey” issues as Schaeffer would say. In our current culture, upper storey issues like faith, religion, Truth, absolutes, meaning, value, and universals are all seen as relative beliefs that have no real baring in the real world. Holding a particular faith or philosophy is like cheering for a baseball team: you can wear the shirts and watch the games, but in the end it’s only a sport. This philosophy has led to the death of dialogue throughout our culture. To speak about upper storey issues is to offend someone; therefore beliefs can only be spoken of as relative and personal. But in the arts, these issues are still commonplace since it is the nature of art to speak to the deepest fears, desires, and beliefs of man. The world is speaking, painting, writing, singing, and acting out their great questions and problems, the very problems that Christ died to rectify. In almost every other arena of this life, people have ceased to speak to each other on the important issues, which has left many Christians with little opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission. But in the arts the dialogue is still vibrant. For Christians to retreat from the arts is for them to retreat from the place where they can hear the world crying for answers the clearest. And whenever we fail to support Christian artists who are striving for God’s glory, whenever we fail to be knowledgeable and appreciative of the world’s great artists, then we have retreated.

I will continue to explore various reasons why Christians must take an active role in the arts through the next few weeks, so I encourage those who might feel that the above argument is insufficient to suspend their judgment until I have finished. For now, I would only ask that you consider and pray over these ideas and your response to them.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Andrew Adamson and Makoto Fujimura: Discerning Christian Art

Last night my wife and I went and saw Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of ‘s epic fantasy, “.” The colors were beautiful, the landscape awe inspiring, the music was ethereal, the evil was apparent yet not obscene, and the good was pure and redeemed. As a child I, like many others I know, read the novels countless times, so I was looking forward to seeing the fantasy displayed on the big screen. The build up to this movie has been quite significant as it is essentially the first movie to appeal to the “” audience that was revealed through “The Passion.” As with Gibson’s film, Wardrobe was marketed specifically to churches and the Christian demographic. Lewis’s tale, however, will have a much wider appeal since so many nonbelievers have read the books as kids. The release of this movie is an important event in : a book from perhaps the greatest apologist of the last century, filled with allegory, symbolism, meaning, and Biblical truth is remade for a whole new generation to experience in a new way.

On the cover of this week is , a New York painter and a Christian. WORLD has made Fujimura “Daniel of the Year,” an honor given to those who challenge the worldly culture around them. What is surprising about the painter is that he does not follow the realist aesthetic that is commonly held by Christians. Fujimura’s style is abstract and influenced by ancient Japanese techniques and literature. His recent series, “Water Flames” is a clear example of abstract art: the subject of each painting is flames, which are painted in brilliantly sharp colors. According to the artist, the horror of 9/11, Dante, T.S. Eliot, and Jeremiah all influenced his works through the theme of refining fires. I regret that I am not able to physically see Fujimura’s “Water and Flames” paintings myself as I am thousands of miles away from New York; however reading the WORLD article/interview on Fujimura was quite moving in itself. Fujimura speaks of making art that can “grieve with the world but also serve the world that needs love.” Before this article, I had only heard one person mention Fujimura, and that was in passing.

So which is the Christian artist? Adamson’s direction of Wardrobe clearly appeals to all the established Christian aesthetics: it does not offend, it is beautiful, it is skillfully made, it is realistic even in its fantasy, there is no ambiguity, and the message and themes are apparent to everyone. Fujimura meanwhile focuses upon the horrible power of fire, his paintings are beautiful but only within their awful truth, the subject is completely abstract (there is only symbol in the paintings), and while the painter explains the themes, their depths are hardly fathomable.

I am frightened for the future of Christian art. We sit at a fork between the complete commercialization of Christian art and a new awakening to redeeming art for God; between the Adamsons and the Fujimuras. For years Christians have struggled with commercial art, but mostly in music and paintings, and even those were primarily commodified by other Christians. With The Passion, secular “artists” were shown the profit to be made from Christians and they have no intention of allowing this demographic to slip-by. Many Christians have been rejoicing over this new attention from Hollywood, but this joy is not founded on godly discernment. Even though Lewis’s book was an example of good (not great, but good) Christian art, the movie adaptation is not. All of Lewis’s profound themes and images have been stripped down, leaving us with a sacrifice from a hero-like (but not God-like) lion, who does not evoke fear except in his enemies and does not teach anyone except the truly rebellious (Edmund). Where Lewis’s book is filled with a compelling and intricate representation of God and man’s relationship to Him, the movie is about doing the right thing and loving about others. A nonchristian can hardly make a work of Christian art that truthfully proclaims the profound love of God and our state in the world, even if he is given a godly source to work from. But we can only expect more attempts at appeasing Christians with faux art from Hollywood (and soon from commercial “art” makers as well). In these times, we must be discerning and understand that just because a character sacrifices himself for someone that doesn’t mean it is “Christian art.”

Instead of embracing the world’s attempt at commodifing the Gospel and supporting the ungodly aesthetic of hyper-realism, sinless beauty, inoffensive messages, and clearly articulated and finite themes, we as followers of Christ need to understand what it truly means to serve Christ through art and through the appreciation of art. While I am very concerned over the increased commercialization of Christian art, I am also hopeful that doors are being opened for artists like Fujimura to change minds and glorify God. There are many great Christian artists making . Unfortunately, it has been hard for believers to hear of these artists because of distance and rarity. The hope I have lies upon the ability of technology to bring Christian artist together, , and other believers about the importance of rejoicing over redeemed art. Fujimura takes risks, he works with themes that are both Christian and ambiguous, and forms that are abstract but not relative. The WORLD article points out that Fujimura has received criticism from both secular and Christian circles, from the former for being too religious and from the latter for being too abstract. Fujimura reply to this is a challenge to Christians to “be more discerning as we are called by the Apostle Paul to learn the signs of the times.” We have a choice to embrace the world’s perception of our beliefs through unredeemed aesthetics and dumbed-down themes all for the benefit of being recognized as a wealthy American culture; or to support risky, challenging, offensive (to the world and perhaps to our perception of “art”), allusive, complex, obscure art for the sake of glorifying God and edifying man through redeemed aesthetics, and perhaps even surrender our reign at the box office.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Counter Culture Lie: This is My Creation, This is My Art

The word “art” has lost almost all of its value in the English language. When I hear people using the word, I am confronted with a definition that has more to do with creativity and creation than any ideas of allusiveness, beauty, suggestiveness, power, evocation, sympathy, communication, or transcendence. It is not uncommon for pop stars to call themselves artists, or for to label their work as “art.” That is not to say that both the pop star and the graffiti writer cannot be , but simply that they rarely are. I picked these two particulars because in the vast majority of cases what they create is not art although it is quite commonly called as such. My aim is not prescriptivist; I have no desire to tell everyone what the correct definition of “art” is. However, I would like to approach the discussion of how this word is used pragmatically: what do we want to be “art” and why?

The roots of the loose definition of “art” come from the ideal of the natural artist/genius. If you believe that artists are those who are born with the ability to create great art, then you do not need to hold to any strict conceptions of what art is. Art becomes completely intangible and divine. The opposite view (which oddly enough also influenced the loose definition of “art”) of this is that something is a work of art if it is skillfully crafted and/or requires an element of creativity in its creation. A combination between these two opposing ideals (a ?) has resulted in the present use of the word art to mean that indefinable work which is skillfully and creatively made. Since the artist is naturally gifted to make , whatever they make must be art. In this, skill and complexity always gets diminished in value under the weight of creativity and innate artistry. Thus, it is art because a person with divine (post-Romantics would replace “divine” with the essential human quality “to be artistic”) abilities creatively makes something that in some way communicates. I have heard this used to defend mainstream and its preoccupation with violence, partying, and substance abuse: they are artists because they skillfully and creatively crafted their lyrics. But under this definition few things are not art. A well-made table becomes a work of art. Interior design becomes an art form. Packaging for cereal becomes art. A plain bowl is art. Everything created by a human being becomes a work of art.

There is a great irony here. Many of the people who now claim the loose definition of “art” are those who aspire to the ideal. The thought that some rich, white, “scholar” would tell them that their music/painting/writing isn’t art is ridiculous to them. Down with the elitist upper class art and up with the people’s art. After all, what could their erudite art have to do with the struggles of the working class person?

When I was a kid, I had a vivid imagination, as did a couple of my neighborhood friends. One day a couple of my friends and I were playing in my front yard. We were imagining that we were fighting a vast army of robots (or aliens or communists…). My friend Jeremiah and I always managed to evade the enemy’s bullets and attacks, but the kid across the street who was playing with us kept saying that he had been hit. First he told us that his leg was blown off, then an arm, then the other leg, then a hand; but he kept fighting; the kid was invincible. He never did die, but he kept getting hit. This really bothered Jeremiah and me. Even if it was make believe, to just make up your own rules and flaunt them like he was doing made us sick. In many ways, the Counter Culture art movements do the same thing. Instead of taking them time to learn and understand what art means, they change the rules and proudly proclaim their ignorance to the world. Meanwhile, the “game” becomes less and less valuable to all involved.

The horribly sad irony here is that by loosening the definition of art, art becomes valueless. So that in the end, they are not making art that rejects the capitalistic ideas of the upper classes, they are merely making all art equally cheep.

The question becomes: is this what we want the definition of art to be? Is the word of any use to us with this definition? Essentially what we are left with is that art is that which is created by a person and is pleasing or beautiful. This definition would lead us to believe that Hanson, the Backstreet Boyz, and Brittany Spears are all “art.” Our intuitions should tell us otherwise.

For an example, I have chosen a favorite art form of mine, Hip-Hop. But this example could work equally as well in almost any other pop-art form. Hip-Hop is a genre that is full of tremendous artistic potential. Not only could someone use this genre to creatively and skillfully make music, there is also room for beauty, complexity, allusiveness, communication, empathy, and power. What we tend to find in this genre, however, is music that lacks any of these great qualities and relies heavily upon skill, creativity, and pleasure. The potential remains, but is untapped. On top of this, MC’s often claim to be “artists,” themselves. Which means that they are making either bad art, or commercial entertainment and bragging in their ignorance that it is indeed “art.” The sadness that I feel over this is because there is no reason for Hip-Hop, or Rock, or , or Cartoons, or Sitcoms, not to be art, but that requires discipline and action, not simply making trash and swearing that it is “art.”

I am not going to (at least, not at this time) attempt to establish what the real definition of “art” is; however, I think we all agree that it should be something that goes beyond silverware and floor tiles, placemats and hairdos. Many beginning artists see themselves as part of a revolt against the established academic authority and their definition of art. But revolts can lead to apathy. The beginning artist must resist the temptation to claim that they are making “art” and simply begin practicing and improving. If it is not art, don’t just say it’s art because you made it; instead, make a conscious effort to improve your skills and understanding of art.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Sublime Part 1


For the last three or four months I have been intending on writing a series of articles on the Sublime, the Infinite, and a distinctly Christian aesthetic.  I have been prevented from beginning this series by school and a deep fear that I will not do this subject the justice it is due.  However, since I seem to be unable to devote the time that I deemed necessary to study the Sublime, I am simply going to explore the issue here and allow the articles (and the responses to them) to form a starting point for further studies.  I must begin this series by citing wonderful conversations with my best friend Stephen as a foundation for my thoughts.  

The Infinite as Ubiquitous and Fundamental

Ecclesiastes 3:11
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even the to end.”

1 Corinthians 4:1
“Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of God and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

In every person, there is a passionate, piercing, and haunting desire for the infinite.  The desire takes many forms but is evident in almost every endeavor of man.  For some, it is articulated through a longing, for others it is hollowness.  (This is Pascal’s “God shaped vacuum.”)  Whatever form, this desire for the infinite reflects an innate knowledge in all humans that the world is fallen and something is terrible amiss.  

An example from my friend will illustrate this point.  When someone drives by a dead dog on the side of the road, they are always affected.  Even the most callus person recognizes that this death is foreign to the world.  There are a few people would attempt to embrace death, violence, and decay, but their embrace is always so self-consciously uncommon that they only exemplify a knowledge in us that death is somehow unnatural.  If we truly were mere products of evolution, would we not all feel a union with death and its inevitability?  We all recognize that death is not the way it ought to be.  We all long for some world where death and suffering are as unnatural as them seem to be in our hearts.  

A young man never longs to have sexual intercourse with a girl; he always longs to make indescribable and eternal love to the most beautiful woman imaginable.  It is a desire forever stifled by reality and the muse of many addictions.  He craves Guenevere, Eve, Aphrodite, Venus, a model, Gatsby’s Daisy, what is unattainable: both foreign to the earth and common to the heart.  When he first sees a girl, he imagines a person with infinite wonder.  Her mystery is endless and enrapturing.  He sees in her a hint at infinity.

A child never desires to eat an ice cream cone; the taste that fills her imagination is always a sense that could never inhabit this earth.

A person never sees a beautiful sunset and believes that it will end and that it sets upon a broken and violent world.  

Someone will object to my romantic ideas saying that there are many people who believe life to be a miserable existence.  But I would suggest that even those whose intentions and thoughts seem to be focused upon the brutal, evil, and sad in life, do so with a passion that is equally infinite.  In my own life, whenever I have become horrible depressed, it always takes the form of some eternally alienated feeling.  I was never simply sad; my depression shook the very foundations of my world.  This innate desire to obtain the infinite does not only manifest itself in beautiful or pleasant ways; occasionally, this desire turns upon itself and becomes a thirst for the epically dark.  

Another person would argue that my examples only work in the cases of those people who posses a romantic sentiment.  But this is not so.  Even the most unromantic person longs for the infinite when he or she does the simplest things.  For instance, when someone watches a commercial for a product that appeals to them, they reject all sense of reality, and they desire for all the claims of that commercial to be true.  I am speaking of not only of the linguistically communicated claims, but more particularly the subtle, semiotic claims.  A laundry detergent commercial states that it will make your clothes cleaner, fresher, and colorful, but it is the image of a beautiful women in a sundress hanging out clothes on a powerfully sunny day that speaks to the eternal in the hearts of all people.  We see, at times, in these advertisements the manifestation of the ideal world that resides in our minds.  Thus, the person comes to envision the laundry detergent to be a hint at that eternal.  There are many other examples of the desire for the infinite within the unromantic person, but they all amount to the same principle: whenever we imagine or long for anything, it always touches in some manner upon an infinite ideal.  

The two verses that I began this article with point to our obligation to the “mysteries of God” and the “eternal” in the hearts of all men.  It is my conclusion that this desire for the eternal is a desire for heaven.  I will be elaborating considerably on both these verses and how this idea of the infinite applies to art in the next few posts.