Art & Document (formerly the journal of the Center for Documentary Arts) is a project at the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice. Created by Timothy Cahill, Art & Document presents artists, writers, and thinkers whose work promotes the common good, bears witness to suffering, and manifests qualities of beauty, compassion, dignity, justice, and mercy.

19 July 2012

That imaginative sympathy

In the wake of a post about Alain de Botton's mediations on the humanitarian lessons of Christian art, I came on Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, his long letter from Reading gaol, written in 1897 while imprisoned for public indecency. The full letter is a remarkable document, extravagant and deeply stirring in that inimitable manner of the Victorians. It is impossible to speak of Christianity without immediately rousing powerful emotions, for and against, few of which I share. My engagement is more or less the same as German philosopher Karl Jaspers', who placed "Jesus the man"  besides Plato, Buddha, and Confucius as the four great minds to have most influenced modern thought. I was led to Jesus' teaching through the sermons of Martin Luther King, who expands on Dostoevsky's concept of "love in action" in his book Strength to Love. De Botton's claim that "images are important partly because they generate compassion,"  is here expressed by Wilde with force and eloquence.

"I see a far more intimate and immediate connexion between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflexion that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song. I remember once saying to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while metaphysics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and find its complete fulfillment.

"Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination. He realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation. He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich."

—Oscar Wilde
De Profundis

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Healing of the Blind Man of Jerico, 1659, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York, 1916 ©Estate of Paul Strand

09 July 2012

Versions of ourselves

Christian art understands that images are important partly because they generate compassion, the fragile quality which enables the boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experiences of strangers, and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own.

Art has a role to play in this manoeuvre of the mind upon which, not coincidentally, civilization itself is founded, because the unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister that our habit of looking at them in the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, which blind us to the fact that they are really, despite a thousand differences, just altered versions of ourselves: fellow fragile, uncertain, flawed beings likewise craving love and in urgent need of forgiveness. 

from Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton

So conditioned are we by the principles of modernism that many reading this epigraph, whether artists themselves or educated sophisticates, will find something vaguely sinister in its claims. That art should exist for itself alone—indeed, that existing for its own sake is the noblest calling of art—is one of our age's unshakable beliefs. That we should praise a day when an artist's calling was to service, be it to Church or State, Man or God, feels dangerously regressive. But the purpose of Alain de Botton's recent book is not to advocate a return to an age of Christian art, or any regimen that seeks to prescribe how artists work or think. Rather, the author of Religion for Atheists makes a strong case that art once served a cause beyond its own aggrandizement and profit, and that it still does for those who access it in a setting and mindset conducive to the exchange. That this setting is so frequently not a gallery, an art fair, or a contemporary museum—places where, a la Willie Sutton, the art is—is one of de Botton's laments.  In his book, he outlines a compelling program by which museums may serve the psycho-spiritual needs of their patrons with interpretations that take the imagination well beyond the standard proffering of art historical dates and contextualizations.

The unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art. We depend on artists to orchestrate moments of compassion to excite our sympathies on a regular basis; to create artificial conditions under which we can experience, in relation to the figures we see in art, some of what we might one day feel towards flesh-and-blood people in our own lives.”  

What moved me by this book was the challenge de Botton places before artists and curators, the creators and interpreters of this potent force called art. While much of contemporary art ironically or pointedly aims critical commentary at the status quo, pathos, compassion, tenderness, or grief are not emotions so-called "serious artists" engage with all that often. De Botton makes an appeal for contemporary culture to go beyond commentary, to address and even seek to comfort human alienation, vulnerability, confusion, despair, and traverse the immense realms of the heart. He encourages us, as artists, to take on this task boldly, to commit to production that engages the deepest elements of human crisis and aspiration.

By its very nature, life inflicts on us universal pains based on timeless psychological and social realities; we all wrestle with the dilemmas of childhood, education, family, work, love, ageing and death. . . . New secular [works] of representative sorrows could anchor the true nature of their camoflaged dimensions. They could teach us lessons about the real course of life in the safety and quiet of a gallery, before events themselves found a way of doing the same with their characteristic violence and surprise.”  

While I am not at all sure that art teaches the same lessons that hard experience does, I fully believe it can prepare us to meet upheaval or suffering with greater perspective, courage, grace, and resilience. Furthermore, after a bout of life's "characteristic violence and surprise," art assists us in comprehending what we have endured, and allows us to absorb and transform it into strength, growth, even wisdom. And art teaches us that we are all in this life together, gossamer strands of the same web.

Art has a unique ability to make us more receptive to the condition of our fellow humans and all living things. The ethos of art pour l'art has yielded no end of remarkable objects, but the potential of the creative act, via narrative, metaphor, pathos, and love, is so much larger than the making of marks. It is an act of communion (of connection, rapport) that elevates the humanity of all who partake.

The range of possible perspectives in any scene—and the range, therefore, of responses available to the viewer—reveals the responsibilities which fall to the makers of images: to direct us to those who deserve but often do not win our sympathy, to stand as witnesses to all that it would be easier for us to turn away from. The gravity of the task explains the privileged place accorded in the Christian tradition to St. Luke, the patron saint of artists, who, legend tells us, was the first to depict the Crucifixion, who is frequently represented in Christian art with brushes and paints in hand, taking in what the Roman soldiers pretended not to see.” 

Giotto, Lamentation, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
W. Eugene Smith, Tokomo Eumura in Her Bath, Minamata, 1972 (© heirs of W. Eugene Smith)
Norman Rockwell, Saying Grace, 1951, private collection
Francisco Goya, "Nor This," from Disasters of War, 1810-20


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