More about the viewer
edit to add, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” Oscar Wilde
In my previous post I quote C. S. Lewis “We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own.” Here is where I think a lot of Christians get tripped up. By laying aside all those things, they fear being negatively affected, even defiled, by art. I think this is a huge contributor to the marginalization of art in the Church. I heard one pastor justify this position with scripture saying a little leaven spreads through the whole batch of dough.
Whether that is an appropriate application of that passage I’ll leave for others who are better equipped for such discussions. I do think scripture also has things to say to put that passage into perspective. Jesus says it isn’t what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. Elsewhere, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.“ And then Paul, ”…everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.“
I’ve heard and said that art is a conversation, between the artist and the viewer or between the art and the viewer. This is deliberately true with much Modern art. This is why so many Modern artist are so reluctant to answer the question "What does that painting mean?”. To the Modern artist, the viewer is the one who completes the work. The viewer brings themselves to the work and decides for themselves what the work means for them. It is less an attempt to be a reflection of what is around us and more a reflection of what is in us. In that process the viewer is also ruled by “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”, the viewer receives or uses the art.
About art’s meaning Picasso once lamented:
Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only an insignificant part of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world though we can’t explain them; people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.
But risk nothing
Artists have often responded as Isadora Duncan once answered the question of what her dance meant, “If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” In a preference for certainty—where we should know beyond a shadow of a doubt—such a position is untenable and unthinkable, even deceptive. We want to believe there is too much at risk not to be certain and clear. I believe we risk more by being certain and clear. Where is there left to wonder if all the answers are certain and clear cut? Once defined, why should something mean anything else, anything more?
In a conversation with a lawyer friend we discussed why people want to know the rules, know what is right and what is wrong. My position was that we want to understand what we should and shouldn’t do. His position was far more illuminating and rang of a greater truth. People want to know the rules so they can justify why those rules don’t apply to them. I would add that it also allows them to then apply those rules to everyone else.
Risk it all!
But I think art can be something deeper than a conversation, it can also be a relationship. There is a flip side, a positive alternative to “using art”, even art that exists to be used. We are not passive participants when it comes to art. We are not at the mercy of any perceived threat from a work of art. We don’t have to fear art and culture. We can humbly engage art and culture. I am going to say it again until we get this, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.
It isn’t just the artist who can or should show compassion, it isn’t just the artist who should be responsible. The responsibility is also on the viewer to show compassion, to care. The viewer has as great, if not a greater, capacity to affect art and culture as the artist. If art is another expression of love, if love is the greatest art, and love is a relationship, then art is not solitary or one sided. All are responsible.
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