June 15, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics, Part 2

In casting my mind around for works of various art forms that have and do inspire and inform my own faith, it immediately occurred to me that I know some forms better than others. Narrative art forms have always had a certain power over me, and as a result I am less able to call, say, a transcendental painting or musical piece immediately to mind. There were also a few additional points that I thought I should raise.

First, while a lot of Christians may think of a favorite work of Christian fiction or a contemporary Christian song when I speak of linking "faith" and "aesthetic experiences," I'm basically talking about works that are valued by the secular world for reasons which have little to do with religion per se. For the most part, these will be works that you won't find in a Christian bookstore (or, at least, not exclusively there). Some of them are religious works created by religious people, but to me their power is that they continue to be appreciated by all sorts of people.

Second, I envision art which inspires a sort of faith as being of at least two kinds. There is art which is explicitly religious (that is, actually about faith in some way), and there is art which inspires a response through its beauty or emotion or profundity without any obvious religious connection. The works that I have chosen to describe below are primarily the former type simply because, even if they don't speak to you the way they speak to me (as some/most of them certainly will not), you will at least be able to see the connection.

I'll start with the Jennings poem (which I didn't include last time) that really inspired this whole line of thought to begin with:

"Act of Imagination" by Elizabeth Jennings

Surely an Act of the Imagination
Helps more than one of Faith
When a doubt brushes us. We need strong passion
To summon miracles. Life after death,

Bread turned into flesh and blood from wine,
I need to cast around
And find an image for the most divine
Concepts. My mind must move on holy ground,

And then the hardest creed - the rising from
Death when Christ indeed
Bled finally - ideas cannot come
As barren notions. Yes, I always need

Herbert's sonnet 'Prayer' say, or that great
Giotto painting for
My heart to leap to God. I want to meet
Him in my own poems, God as metaphor

And rising up. I watch a lucid sky
And see a silver cloud
And Christ's behind it; this is part of faith,
Hear the Great Hours sung and let faith be loud

With the best imagining we have.
This is how I approach
My God-made-Man. Thus I learn to love
And yes, like Thomas, know Christ through a touch.

I love the image of imagination as a virtue and as a faculty worth cultivating, and the way this poem expresses the joy of belief without being dismissive of the magnitude of obstacles to belief. There are all sorts of ways in which doubt can lead to a crisis or loss of faith, but surely one of the most tragic of these would be a simple failure of imagination. I had hoped to somehow avoid invoking the Inklings, but if we're talking about the power of imagination and its role in spiritual life, no group or movement has championed it as thoroughly or eloquently as they have.

Now, while I genuinely enjoy the experience of going to art museums and just standing in front of an original, full-sized painting or sculpture, it isn't something I've done as often as I'd like. The same could be said of my relatively limited knowledge of famous artists and their creations. As a result, not only is my experience very limited, but I must fall back on images that I have only experienced via copies, and often only on a computer screen.

One of the first such images that came to mind in the context of this project was William Blake's "The Ancient of Days." It is not a work which immediately stuns the viewer with its beauty or skill, the way a painting by, say, Caravaggio might, but there is something immediately striking about the way it captures the lovely scriptural metaphors of creation.

God is crouched within the circle of the sun, as though it were not a sphere, and his hair is blowing wildly to the side (by what? we wonder), lending a feeling of energy and activity which might otherwise be lacking. Notice how his attention is focused completely, and with such care and intensity, on the work of creation below. Notice the grace and precision with which he holds that magnificent compass. He seems to be projecting it outwards from his fingers as beams of light. Awesome. The picture makes the immense, unfathomable act of creation into an image we can grasp in the same way that scripture does: by depicting God as a master builder/craftsman/artisan.

When I was much younger, my favorite music was classical (as I had little exposure to any contemporary music that wasn't praise & worship), and my favorite composers were Tchaikovsky and Gershwin. When I reached my mid-teens or thereabouts, my appreciation of instrumental music led to an interest in movie soundtracks; and now, as a full-fledged movie fanatic, I am hard-pressed indeed to call to mind a suitable piece of music that is not from a feature film.

Lest you think I'm cheating, I should note that I own a lot of soundtracks, and the music I'm talking about is not necessarily associated with corresponding images from the film in question. I love it for itself. Before I share, though, I would like to throw in some images from a film: specifically, the scene from Amadeus where Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart's music.

I feel like I'm hearing that voice sometimes when I'm listening to music, and probably never so much as in this piece from Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission (mostly the first two and a half minutes or so). The film itself is wonderful, but this particular piece seems to have something of its own to say. I'm even less of a music critic than I am an art critic, but there is an extremely haunting beauty about the way that lone oboe carries its melody across the backdrop provided by the rest of the orchestra. It seems like the sort of thing Jennings might have been talking about when she writes (in "Eden"):

There are moments when we find we are
Back in Eden. Its authentic air
Carries the breeze and draws up every flower
Sunwards and shining. Trees surround us but
Always a special one is heavier
With fruit and promise too. No gates are shut

But all swing to our touch. We do not go
Directly to one tree but back in sun,
Sit down a moment, then walk to and fro
shaped of admiration, looking on,
Not picking anything [...]

By way of transition into more literary forms of art, I offer a song that many of you probably already know I particularly love: "Into the West" by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox (who sings it). The song, of course, plays over the end credits of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of Tolkien's Return of the King, and it is an incredibly fitting end on a number of levels. In writing the song, the lyricist has drawn a number of ideas and phrases from the book itself (always a good place to start), and there is a wistful, bittersweet quality to the music and performer's voice that heightens the effect considerably.

The song is ostensibly about the final departure of the story's heroes from Middle Earth to the lands across the sea, but of course it is really an extended metaphor for the loss and separation of death, tempered by a hope for an eventual joyous reunion on the other side. To me it is both a reminder that nothing is forever (neither life on earth, nor the separation from loved ones who have gone on before or remained behind) and a heartbreakingly lovely collection of celestial images. I have listened to this song countless times, and it never fails to move me in some way.

In this, it is not unlike another favorite poem of mine: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." This poem is much more about the author's feelings about his own death rather than death in general, and it is much more specific about what he hopes to find on the other side. The last two lines of this poem (or perhaps the last four) are among my favorite lines in literature.

Moving on to narrative, I offer the 7th chapter of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. It's a very fun book with memorable characters and an exciting story, but this chapter (which really has nothing to do with the main plot) is something quite special. In it, Mole and Rat decide to help out in the search for a missing otter pup, but end up finding a great deal more than they expected.

The events in this chapter represent for me the most intense and captivating description of an encounter with deity that I have ever read. It will take the most time to experience of anything that I've linked, but it's not an absurdly long read, so of course I recommend it. At the very least, though, scroll to just over halfway down the page and read the crucial scene. I won't promise that you won't regret it . . . but I never do.

Last but not least, here is my example from that synthesis of all art forms: film. Naturally I've had a number of profound experiences while watching movies, but this scene from American Beauty is a particularly good example because it is actually about the way that aesthetic experiences can surprise and transform anyone at any time, as long as they have been willing to keep their eyes open. Additionally, in the same way that we might not find much meaning in the experience that this character describes, so some viewers and critics found this scene hokey and pretentious, while others were moved by it and what it had to say. In this way it also illustrates yet again the subjectivity of the aesthetic experience.

These are just a few examples for the sake of the conversation which I hope others will contribute to. I'm interested in what sorts of works inspire you, in how you describe that experience, and in its effect on you and your feelings about faith. Talk to me.

Posted by Jared at June 15, 2009 02:21 AM | TrackBack