The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
A CURRENT PICTURE of the postmodern artist might show her standing in a grocery-store aisle stocked with artistic works and styles from all ages, the implication being that she is about to make some choices from the shelves, to select her own historical and aesthetic reference points. These will be stylistic icons, like products with familiar branding—names that will signify engagement with the ambience and aesthetic, if not the content, of particular historical moments.
First she must choose what she wants, and later decide how to configure her selections into an artistic work. These choices constitute her freedom. She is not bound to any historical period or aesthetic, but rises above time and place and decides for herself, on a provisional basis, the ethos of her artistic adventure. It is somewhat ironic that brandishing freedom from historical necessity also marks this picture as belonging to this particular time—this present.
Even as this picture celebrates her freedom of choice, another picture might show the same artist standing in chains. Here she has no real freedom to choose anything but simply accepts what the shelves have to offer as a self-defining limitation. The contents of the store constitute the limits of her imagination. She is powerless to act outside the inventory on the shelves, a mere consumer of given styles or languages that have shaped her identity. She has no real agency or freedom. Her likely actions are either to find a way to announce her lack of freedom, or to celebrate the absurdity of the situation, reveling in whatever forms of pleasure she can induce through artistic media. In either case a kind of cynicism dominates, whether despairing or euphoric.
Both of these pictures, one of an ecstatic freedom of choice, the other of an artist bound by mind-numbing options, base the question of freedom on a definition in which choice is the essential indicator. In one, there is the sense of the excitement of endless choices, in the other, the very nature of these choices becomes oppressive.
But is it possible that artistic freedom amounts to something other than the ability and power to choose one’s artistic direction? Is it possible that artistic freedom may amount to something less than that?
Definitions of freedom emphasize independence, lack of coercion, lack of restriction, self-reliance, and the ability to choose. But these are conditions that we only ever experience by degree. We are never wholly independent, and we never exist apart from factors that limit our actions in some ways. Were someone living and operating in the totally independent fashion suggested by such definitions of freedom, we might not recognize her as a person. A life lived without obligation or responsibility hardly seems a human one—or at best seems psycho- or sociopathic. We understand personhood itself in terms of the limits and contingencies of personal being. Freedom, by definition, thus misses the mark. Whatever real freedom is, it may be less than our definitions suggest.
Perhaps less, in this instance, is also more. Freedom is a metaphor. We know it analogically. We do not know freedom as an isolated objective or exactly circumscribed phenomenon. We only know it through and in relation to other things. Ironically, freedom is contingent. The idea of complete independence or freedom from all restrictions—that is, unlimited freedom of choice—makes sense only in a fantasy world.
Artistic freedom so conceived or so promoted produces a sense of detachment in works of art that lose traction and agency in the real world. The freedom of the artist, if insisted upon indefinitely, may result in an art that is tritely correct, but essentially oblivious to the ebb and flow of earthly life. The important point here is the potential danger in a concept of artistic freedom that robs the work of any real consequence in the present.
So how can artistic freedom retain consequence? We must begin to understand that freedom is found within, rather than without. Freedom is a matter of engagement rather than escape. Oddly, we experience freedom in submission rather than in withdrawal.
I do not in any way mean to reduce freedom to a platitude. I do not mean to suggest that freedom is a state of mind. Freedom as a state of mind, the mind’s escape to Shangri-La while the body remains chained to drudgery, is exactly the opposite of what I am proposing. No, freedom is freedom within the limitations that confront us. Therefore freedom is worked out differently by each one of us as we face the precise limits and circumstances of our individual lives. For some of us, acts of freedom are truly heroic. For others, they are more routinely accomplished.
If freedom is something that we apprehend metaphorically rather than by definition, it means that we are ever probing to fully grasp its tenor. We are searching for it in every conceivable direction. We yearn for it. Saint Paul sensed that the whole creation is yearning for its liberation, its freedom signaled by the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of resurrection within all his followers. This freedom is no escape, but rather a reinvestment in a world undergoing transformation. As Bonhoeffer says in Letters and Papers from Prison, “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined….”
This sharpness of definition is not resolved around the outlines of choice. Rather, choice is dissolved as each of us faces Jesus’s prayer on Gethsemane, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” Artistic freedom becomes the freedom to respond to the specific confines and inferences of our lives, to work out the integrity of our individual situations. For some, those confines are so oppressive that our boldest act is almost mute. For others, freedom may be taken for granted and thus its expression lost. Others, mindful of the opportunity to act freely, find a way to express it.
But in the end, freedom is not typically the subject that artists are trying to express. Artists are not trying to proclaim freedom. Those who do end up creating a kind of propaganda. They become embroiled in the pitfalls of illustrating an abstraction.
Artists who care about freedom are concerned not with an expression of their own freedom, but with the freedom of the thing they are creating. In Raids on the Unspeakable, Thomas Merton puts it this way:
True artistic freedom can never be a matter of sheer willfulness or arbitrary posturing. It is the outcome of authentic possibilities, understood and accepted in their own terms, not the refusal of the concrete in favor of the purely “interior.” In the last analysis, the only valid witness to the artist’s creative freedom is his work itself. The artist builds his own freedom and forms his own artistic conscience by the work of his hands. Only when the work is finished can he tell whether or not it was done “freely.”
How then can an artistic work be a “witness to the artist’s creative freedom”? There is a sense in which every good metaphor performs an act of liberation. To say this is to sound dangerously academic or bookish. At worst, it suggests a kind of flippancy, exchanging the risky path of liberation for a well-turned phrase. That is not at all what I intend. Instead I’d like to consider this from the standpoint of a life-or-death situation.
In the Old Testament book of Numbers is a story in which God punishes the people of Israel by sending venomous snakes among them. The snakes kill many people. As an antidote, God commands Moses to make a bronze snake and to raise it on a pole. When the Israelites who had been bitten looked at the bronze snake they were healed, and lived.
The bronze snake is a metaphor. The metaphorical snake takes on the form of a poisonous snake, but it does something different. In fact it does the opposite of a real snake; it heals rather than poisons. It is life-giving rather than death-dealing. This is the path of a good metaphor. Metaphors take form, or corruptible embodiment, in order to liberate from that body something that transcends it, something that rises.
In subjugation to the body there is a kind of relinquishment of freedom, an ill-fitted binding that is not literally coincident. There is a real sense in which the components of a metaphor are sometimes even at odds with one another. Yet it is through this ill-fitted coincidence that we discover an aspect of truth that had been hidden from us. We seem to be set free. Out of death comes life. Out of bondage comes freedom.
For the Israelites, certainly, there was no choice. Only one metaphor could satisfy their predicament. The bronze serpent was born out of their own experience. As Merton would say, it was “the outcome of authentic possibilities.” It was an inevitable consequence. Their salvation, their freedom, was nicely if not sternly fitted to them.
The experience of the Israelites suggests that there is a sense in which we create the fit and substance of our own freedom. It is the interaction of our habits of being with the governing conditions of life that becomes the crucible out of which freedom may be born. Artistic freedom is the freedom to bring artistic insight and craft to the shape of this crucible. Perhaps this is the cross that Jesus charged his followers to take up daily. We must face that crucible even as the Israelites faced the snake on a pole. As Jesus faced the cross, so must we.
Merton says of humility what I think is also true of real freedom, “It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not.” Nor is freedom found in a host of choices, personalities, artistic styles, past epochs, or fantasies that are not borne out by one’s own predicament. Artistic freedom, like freedom itself, is found as we acknowledge the boundaries and contents of our own lives and wrestle them into the kingdom of heaven. Traditionally this is called “conversion,” the most creative and freeing of all life experiences. It is a freedom found not in endless choices but in the inevitable consequences of our lives.
Joel Sheesley is a painter and a professor of art at Wheaton College. His current work explores a synthesis of culture and nature in landscape.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.