June 11, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics, Part 1

I'm not sure what this post is about, or how to go about ordering my thoughts into something that looks more like a blogpost with something to say than a canoe ride in my stream of consciousness. Sometimes, though, it just helps to start writing. I'm taking a class right now in 20th Century British Poetry. I had never really heard of any of the poets before starting this class, but I've really enjoyed the readings. The professor has us focusing on works with heavy religious imagery, particularly works about faith and doubt.

We're on our third poet, Elizabeth Jennings (a Catholic), and today I'm thinking about the relationship between faith and art. In her poem "An Age of Doubt," Jennings describes her childhood faith, the loss of it she experienced as a young woman ("I suddenly felt unsure/Thought of the Holy Ghost as a huge bird/Which I knew did not exist."), and its eventual return: "So I began to feel a little, O such a little/But so authentic a power, it altered my poems/Whose rhythms sometimes moved to the tide of creation/And felt the touch of a God."

The idea that art has a powerful connection with faith reminded me of a great essay from the New Yorker that Wilson sent me some time ago (I posted on it here). In it, the author describes the experience of watching Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light in a church with another friend from college. The effect was a powerful one, but when the minister followed it up with a particular painting that the author found shallow and kitschy he lost that strong connection. His friend, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The author wonders:

would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.

And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot.

So, what is this power, exactly? Apparently art somehow opens us up to the possibility of faith, but perhaps its role is even more profound than that. Something about art cuts straight to the core of belief in a way that nothing else does. I'm not entirely sure what that something is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that great art communicates truth directly to parts of ourselves that we often don't think consciously about unless we're actually interacting with a work of art. If the work is at all successful, then we sense and appreciate the truth it reveals, even truth about faith.

As Jennings says in her poem "Works of Art:" "every fashioned object makes demands/Though we feel uncommitted at the start." Those two lines capture the way that great art draws you in, forcing some sort of dialogue. The poem is largely about the frustration of only being able to glimpse certain things through art, but Jennings concludes, "coolness is derived from all that heat,/And shadows draw attention to the sun." These tantalizing glimpses of truth are what drive us to continue producing art and entering into conversation with it.

Where this gets even more interesting (at least for me) is the subjectivity factor. As Wolff's Winter Light essay indicates, people respond as variously to art as they do to everything else. In fact, people will often respond differently to something at different times in their lives. Whatever the particular work may be, though, people respond powerfully to whatever manages to speak to them; so powerfully that comparing this response to a "religious experience" is almost a cliche.

Certainly, when I think about it, my own faith is as much aesthetic as it is anything else; probably even more. And yet it is a force that I am sure goes largely unrecognized among believers and nonbelievers alike. When people have a belief that is based in part on Reason, they tend to describe it as though it were only based on Reason (and, consequently, it becomes vulnerable if their reasons are unsound). On the other hand, if someone cannot find a way to rationally articulate their beliefs, they tend to fall back on nebulous claims about the "need for faith." This makes them feel very pious, and (unsurprisingly) is generally sneered at by the people who asked for a reasoned explanation.

What I am proposing is that there are all sorts of other elements in play that most people are not aware of, and wouldn't know how to articulate if they were. Lumping these things into a group and calling them "faith" is easy, but it is also deceptive. I suspect that this sort of "faith" may not always be a kind of blind trust but rather, say, a combination of things like imagination and aesthetic experience. These are things which most of us are not equipped to recognize consciously, and certainly not able to process in the form of a convincing argument. They are, of necessity, very personal.

One of the things that I have appreciated about Jennings' poetry is her ability to describe her own experience of art feeding faith in a way that illuminates my experience for me. This is, in fact, precisely the sort of feat of communication that artists can accomplish for our benefit. In any case, it's gotten me thinking about works that have elicited that kind of strong, quasi-religious experience from me, and I want to come up with a few examples from as many different art forms as possible.

However, perhaps I have a few readers that might be thinking of some experiences of their own, and it'll take me some time to gather a collection like that. Certainly it will provide enough fodder for a whole new post, and I'd like to hear some thoughts on this one before I get specific about my personal experiences. What do you think? Is there any validity to this line of thought, particularly with respect to what makes faith tick? If faith can somehow arise out of aesthetic experiences, does that make it irrational? Is that a negative thing?

Posted by Jared at June 11, 2009 01:53 PM | TrackBack