The Art of Losing One's Way
Earlier this year I happened to be in the city of Barcelona and spent a day visiting some of its historic sights. When she found out I was a minister, a woman sitting next to me en route to Spain recommended that I visit Temple Sagrada Familia, a gargantuan eighteenth-century cathedral. The architect at whose feet the acclaim is laid for this structure was the renowned Antoni Gaudi.
Those of you who have seen it know whereof I speak. To those of you who have not seen it, it is very difficult to describe. As originally built, the interior was over three hundred feet in length. There are twelve bell towers, averaging three hundred feet in height, and six domes, the highest of them eventually culminated in a 550 foot cross. As for the massive facades, the artwork gets so cluttered and detailed that it is impossible to study it without a book and even a magnifying glass. One stands rather dumbfounded by the sheer imposition upon the eye in the midst of such garish grandeur. If size is beauty, everything in the vicinity of it is ugly. If architecture is supreme, everything around it pales. If the test behind it were biblical, the amalgam of the sacred and the profane is dreadful. If beauty were the question, there would be extremes of praise or denunciation. That is what stirred my mind into wondering what it is about art that makes it so potent, yet so difficult for us to agree upon.
It was Dostoyevsky who, with the insight of a genius and an eye for the future, talked of the enormous power of art. He recognized the breadth from which art draws and the depth to which it penetrates. From the intellectual power of literary works and the creative powers of the visual, the arts have fulfilled his prediction, for he once said that first art would imitate life, then life will imitate art, and then finally, life will draw the very reason for its existence from the arts. Of all that animates the twentieth century in its last breathings, it is the breath of art that permeates the air and that, in its most popular form, is disorienting. There is a sadness to it all because art, I believe, is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. The psalms of David, the proverbs of Solomon, the stories that are woven through Scripture, the hymns that have enriched the church and the colors that surround our existence all speak of a God who revels in beauty. But if we pause long enough we may also see His tremendous caution in reminding us to differentiate between ends and means. He warned us not to make a graven image because the object soon replaces the subject and the means can easily become the ends.
Recently, while at a museum of sacred relics in the Middle-East I saw among several objects behind glass some marked thus: “Strands from the beard of Mohammed,” “Mohammed’s sword,” and “Dust from the grave where Mohammed was buried.” To that belief system these relics obtain a venerated existence. It is this very propensity of humankind that has taken its toll on Christendom. For this reason God became Moses’ undertaker so that his grave would not become an altar. (After all, he met God “face to face” and saw the handwriting of God.) We have no sling of David, no gifts of the Magi, no sandals or garment of Christ. Can you imagine what we would have done with objects of such meaning?
Art has such a similar capacity to be worshiped. In the latest issue of People Magazine, the lead article was on the “50 most beautiful people in the world.” When you started counting, 46 of them came from show-business. They are the icons of our time because they stand behind a lens that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. It does not matter if their private lives are in complete disarray. Like Greek gods of old they attain the public image of perfectly shaped bodies while within they connive and scheme, begetting offspring that war for their supremacy.
The more I have pondered on art the more I have reflections rather than answers. Here are some of them.
Art is a creative gift and cuts a wide swathe, from the page to the song sheet to the canvas. But artists do share one thing in common—they have typical and sensitive temperaments. They love to critique and be satirical, but despise being criticized and caricatured. In seeking funding for their works, they decry any outside measurement, yet constantly attack by a measure of their own. God Himself is the arch Creator. Yet, more than anything else, the Creator reminds us that He is holy.
Must we not then ask ourselves how that holiness is manifested in the beautiful? It is done in the first two acts of human creation. The first is life itself, and the second is sexuality. It is not accidental then, that in secular expressions of contemporary art, particularly in the movies, violence and sensuality abound. The very things the Creator deemed sacred, we desacralize. In losing His vision, we have lost ourselves.
Violence on the screen of the most horrid kind is shown to young imaginations. Power becomes associated with weapons and explosions. Now, guns are in the hands of children and children are killing children. What is imitating what, in this instance? In reality, we have ruptured homes, ruptured lives and ruptured identities and we wonder why our children are breaking up our hopes and dreams as well. Has reality provided the story or has the story, glamorized on the screen, given birth to our society?
I receive numerous telephone calls from the parents of teenagers who have been seduced by the erotica on the internet. It is sickening to think of what perverts are doing to a whole generation of young people in making them sex-mad and in provoking them to lose the particular in favor of the general. Individual worth has been sold out at the altar of sensation. Gratification for gratification’s sake is the consummate pursuit. Womanhood is being abused in its worst form here, yet few women’s groups cry out. To take away the wonder of sex as an expression of an exclusive love and replace it with an end in which beauty and form become the titillation for the moment has terrifying ramifications. It is not then a person we value as much as it is a feeling we chase.
This loss of the individual’s worth at the hands of the user has rebounded in what may have become the deadliest of all losses as it has carried role-playing from the screen we watch onto the screen on which we perform. In its capacity to bring lives together the internet has created havoc in its “virtual world.” People are able to build a self by cycling through many selves.
Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen, relates case study after case study where the individual has lost self-understanding. She tells of an interior designer who admitted, when she was about to have a face-to face meeting with a man with whom she had shared “virtual intimacy” in chat sessions, that she was terrified before the meeting. Terrified because she was not even sure if her electronic lover was actually a man or a woman pretending to be a man. She was fearful that neither of them would turn out to be close enough to their very desirable cyberselves.
We have now all become artists of sorts, creating our own worlds. The exaltation of an artificial self by the masses is because of a confused vision of one’s own self. Life on the screen has multiplied personalities while losing personhood. And with the loss of the person has come the loss of a way to measure the creative act. I reject the notion that art has no absolutes. Ironically, Plato used music as the starting point for his logic. He reminded his listeners that each musical note has an exactness to it. You cannot have your F sharp and I have my F sharp. Further, the goal is not discord but harmony.
A careful study of cultural music shows how one’s worldview infuses one’s music. To the Indian, the chant and repetition and the resonance are an effort to strike the chord of cyclical and ultimate reality. That is why they give a mantra that repeats its way into the One. The music borrows from the philosophy. The worldview of rock music which is so evident is best described by those who were once in its grasp and for whom the music was nothing more than a reflection of their lifestyles and their definition of life’s purpose. Good or bad is not the point. The point is that it is tied into a worldview. Worldviews lean on definition, and definition is one’s grasp of reality.
What is more, when you talk to anyone who understands these musicians well, something louder than the music emerges. They are empty, vanquished people. There is a hollowness to their lives and even to their looks. Once they had dreams and visions of grandeur; now they live bored and empty existences where their profession attracts the “worshipper” while the object of worship knows the nothingness of it all. They are as lost as one can be. So to say that music or beauty has no absolutes is a dangerous half-truth. Wherever we may differ, we know it is a means and not an end, and postmodern culture has blended the two.
MAGNIFYING THE MEANS
When the person and the creative act are lost, the very means loses its role. The artist cannot lose sight of the instrumentality of the individual who must point beyond himself or herself to the greatest artist of all. James Stewart, the famed Scottish preacher, referred to one whose problem was that he was “fatally fluent.” Malcolm Muggeridge once bemoaned his own tendency as a peddler in words to abuse that ability to advantage.
If a preacher has no right to allow his gift to stand supreme over his subject, which is God Himself, then an artist has no right to insinuate a vision of reality that profanes the character of God. I am not only referring to the overtly sacrilegious expressions that we have read of in congressional discussions and in the debate over the National Endowment for the Arts. I am going beyond that to the day to day visions that come into our lives, to products that focus on the sensuous, programs that cannot bring laughter without being vulgar, story lines that offer crudity as humor and erotic scenes deemed necessary to entertain.
I recently experienced a very real perversion of this sort on a flight from Zurich to Atlanta. One of the offerings was an Indian movie and so for old time’s sake I sat back to enjoy it. There were English subtitles to the entire movie, although the sound itself was in Hindi, and on numerous occasions I noticed that the translation introduced profanity where none existed in the original. The words that were being used to interpret were deliberately crude when the original had no such intent. In short, the translators wanted to make it what it was not, so as to satisfy the bent to crudity and vulgarity in the viewer.
What does this say of us? Does it not tell us that our entertainment industry and the arts in many forms have lost their way as a means? The artist cannot only be a creator, but is also an interpreter, and where there is a script, interpretation has a limit. God has given us a script for life and within that script He has told us what it is that builds and what destroys. To glorify the destructive and mock the constructive takes the script away and rewrites reality. The laughter that follows, then, is a laughter that lives on an illusion.
At the risk of offending, let me convey one of the most incredible illustrations of how misinterpretation ultimately demeans and destroys the very notion of art. I draw from an article in The Daily Telegraph, in London, on February 26, 1998. A three million pound gift from the lottery helped reopen London’s famed art gallery, the Serpentine. The lead exhibit at the reopening was an arrangement of 32 cans of the excrement of one of the artists who described his intent as to exalt the body by this contribution. A glamorous throng, led by the Crown Prince of Greece and Yugoslavia, Lady Helen Taylor, Paloma Picasso, daughter of Pablo, and other leading politicians and artists came to pay homage to this centerpiece of the art exhibit. When confronted by the outrage of some visitors, the director of the museum gave such a bizarre justification for such ingenuity that it is not worth repeating.
OBSCURING THE ENDS
How terrible it is when the vision of the Creator is lost and a self-deifying visionary becomes the interpreter of beauty. The person, the interpretation and the very means of art then get translated into a way of life. Contrast this degenerative descent of art with the noble heights that it can reach. I think of the many great productions that have come in film and in song, productions that also engulfed the viewer, but with the view to making us better people. That may be the key. It is not so much that a quotient for beauty has been lost, but that the inner eye to discern truth and betterment has been lost.
The film Titanic may be the most defining work to date on how the arts have changed. Every previous production had left the viewer with the sadness of a terrible tragedy. The “unsinkable,” when it sank, reminded us of our pride and of our finitude. This, the latest, has left heroes and glamour in its wake so that the tragedy has been lost, and in the sinking of the ship the triumph of the plastic personalities has risen to the surface. Now a new version of the ship is to be built, dubbed the “ultimately unsinkable,” so that some will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to set sail on the same day exactly ninety years later and prove that man is, indeed, the great conqueror and creator.
REGAINING THE VISION
I go back across time to read the story of Handel, as he composed Messiah. From beginning to end it took him 24 days, during which time he never left his small London house. For nearly a week he left his food untouched. The servant kept muttering about how temperamental musicians could be. But then one day as he walked into the room uninvited to plead with Handel to stop and eat, he saw his master with tears running down his face and heard him saying, “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God Himself.” Handel had just finished writing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” And when the king rose to his feet at the London performance, Handel’s vision of God had accomplished the artist’s goal: to point each one of us to the great Artist Himself who helps us find our way amid the attractions and distractions that steal the glory of God and replace that vision with the sickness of our souls.
Eugene Peterson tells the story of the time he was an assistant pastor at a church in New York City. The caretaker was a man by the name of Willie Ossa, a very outspoken skeptic. But Ossa also happened to be an artist. He asked Peterson if he would sit as his subject for a portrait. Week after week they would set a time to proceed with the painting. Ossa told Peterson that he would not let him see it until he finished the work. But one day the artist’s wife came into the room and shrieked when she saw the painting, saying that it had no resemblance to the subject. Ossa was terribly upset with his wife for revealing that to Peterson. All along, the artist had purposefully drawn a hideous caricature of Peterson. His reason was to remind the young pastor that if the love of God ever left his life, this is what he would look like.
That is a grim reminder both to artists and their subjects. As I think back upon Temple Sagrada Familia, I remind myself that millions have never seen this work of Antoni Gaudi. But in speaking they use its homonym—a word that sounds similar to another—the English word “gaudy,” which means something showy, tasteless and tawdry, glitter without worth. The wrongly informed person has sometimes thought that this word had its root in the word “God,” as they are homonyms, too. A small difference maybe in sound, but a worldview of a difference in meaning. Ideas misconstrued do lose their significance. Art misconceived loses its way.
In that sense Dostoyevsky, too, has given us a fair warning. Art has lost its way because humanity has lost its way and each now imitates the other, drawing the reason for its existence from a lost vision for life and beauty. I pray that Christian musicians and artists will blaze the trail for recovering the true, the good and the beautiful. The good news is that some are doing just that. I have had the privilege of teaming up with them, and when they have finished their expressions of song they have left me moved beyond words to a deeper hunger for God. That is the unique gift an artist can give to humanity. May they point us all in that direction. The hymn writer was right, when He wrote:
Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O thou of God and man the Son, Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou my soul’s glory, joy and crown.
Fair are the meadows, Fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring, Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.
Fair is the sunshine, Fairer still the moonlight, And fair the twinkling starry host; Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer, Than all the angels heaven can boast.
All fairest beauty, Heavenly and earthly, Wondrously, Jesus is found in thee; None can be nearer, fairer or dearer, Than, Thou, my Savior, art to me.