Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Meaningfulness of Art: A Spiritual Act in Itself

“I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it - to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him."
~ C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter IV

The temptation to worship an effigy is what every observer of art must undergo, that is, if all exemplars of art truly are nothing more than lesser objects that resemble greater objects. However, one need not yield to the idolatrous ploy set up by Wormwood or Screwtape. On a hedonistic note (though rather crude), in the case of art that represents the divine, at least the idolator is worshiping something that resembles God or a heavenly object, rather than something that is diametrically contrary to either of those.

But a step back needs to be taken in order to tackle some preliminary questions. Is art anything substantial in itself or does it necessarily operate as a representation of something beyond the sum of its components? Is art anything more than a channel in which meanings (greater things) are transferred through? The answer to these questions, if one strays not from the following thought pattern, is "yes," art is substantial in itself and is more than a channel in which meanings are transferred through.

What needs to first be addressed in elaborating on this thought pattern is this question: what is meant when discussing "art in itself?" I would say that art in itself, without exception, is the creation process that gravitates toward a certain point. That said it is possible for said certain point to be art in itself, although there are exclusions, namely art that is used to signify something of greater meaning. It seems simplistic to infer that art is nothing more than an archetype. In basic mathematical equations, the different numbers used mean something in themselves, wholly apart from what they bring into being when they operate together. With respect to the equation 3 + 4 = 7, surely one would not insinuate that the 3 or the 4 were meaningless apart from them being used to create 7. They are capable of standing alone and having their own meanings. And so it is with art, that is, it is substantial in itself.

There is something ineffably wondrous, it seems intuitively, about the very nature of orchestration, whether that be of music, photography, writing, drawing, sculpting, and so forth. As humans, we have somehow been imbued with the ability to create, a word so pointless that the only elaboration worthwhile is that of self reflection. The ability to create is creative and creative is not so obvious a figure as to what it contains because that goes against the very nature of the word. This is a subjective reason, perhaps so subjective to the point of not being a reason at all, as to why art is substantial.

On a (somewhat) more logical note, what is substantial about art, or the creation process that gravitates toward a certain point? I would say that it is substantial because 1) it exercises the ability of perceiving a goal and brings to fruition tactics that may be used to obtain the goal and 2) it is necessarily meaningful because it involves building - not building, in isolation, is meaningless.

I think that the first point is quite clear but that the second requires an explanation. why is building meaningful? Building is meaningful because it is a substantial act of occupying oneself with a process of forming something - and this is wholly apart from the product it brings into being. Even if the artist fails to finish the project they are building, it is still worth something. Let's say a builder did not manage to finish constructing a house. If spectators were to pass by, they could rightly say "that is an unfinished house." The whole product is not there, and yet, it is still a house - it means something. Even if the artist finds the product, whether complete or incomplete, worthy of being scrapped, there has to be something of substance in order for something to be scrapped.

And why is not building, in isolation, meaningless? For something to have meaning it has to be substantial. To not build is to be inactive - to not form anything of substance. What meaning could possibly be attached to something void other than that it is void? Try to imagine yourself in a place of true isolation and you find that you actually cannot. The human world is brimming with meaning, whether good or bad, and one cannot imagine that true isolation, the place void of meaning, because the world in which we find ourselves is full of meaning. As a matter of fact, the whole thought experiment is self-contradictory because the scenario involves you, a rational building, something that has self-evident meaning.

Art is meaningful in itself, in addition to the importance it can serve as being a lesser pointing to a greater, but it is really a spiritual act in itself. This is so because the ultimate spiritual being, God, who was the first to engage in art, has granted humans with this motion. God was able to create out of nothingness, something quite beyond human effort. Indeed, this is paradoxical when taking into account the previously mentioned concept of meaning being so utterly distant from the void, that is, to human understanding. But God was able to dip his hand into the empty and not only find something there, but by means of his own agency, created and found what he saw as good.


  1. I like your thoughts here.

    You might like Kemper Crabb, since he blogs about similar topics.

    He had a column in HM Magazine in the 90s about Christianity and art (it was called "The Task of the Christian Artist" or something along those lines). I always enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks for reading. And thank you for mentioning those resources - they sound very interesting, and I'll be checking out Crabb's blog.