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Reflections on Theological Aesthetics: Overlooked Perspective on Artistic Creativity or Passé Thinking

by Andrew Swensen

If you ask someone “Why do we make art?” you likely hear a series of answers that divide into what I call the internal and the external functions of art.

Wassily Kandinsky, Compostition VII

Wassily Kandinsky, Compostition VII

The internal functions include that which relates to the creative act and the motivations of the artist. “Personal expression” is likely the most frequent answer that I hear, and historians of aesthetics categorize a large portion of thought on art as “expressive theories.” The focus is on the germination and expression of an idea into aesthetic form. Similar answers are those that relate to the mental processes of imagination and the will for creativity. A more clinically psychological explanation for making art might say that we imagine and create for reasons similar to why we play and why we dream: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind simply cannot do otherwise.

The answers that I categorize as external functions begin with the second most frequent answer that I hear: “communication.” While communication begins with an internal process, the aesthetic lens is really on an external and observable phenomenon: something passing from one person to another in a way that non-artistic speech, sound, writing or gesture cannot. Next on the external side is the matter of mimesis, the idea that art imitates something. In this case, the artist sees something in the world, passes the impression through an artistic perception, and issues an artwork back into the world. Finally, we have the social and cultural functions of art. Much art represents cultural ritual and cultural heritage. Other art is intended to comment on society. Prevalent in our day, socio-political art shows us the artist as social provocateur and commentator, perhaps even moral compass. In this area we arrive at didactic art, satire, and fable – art intended to teach social conduct or reveal how society ought to be but currently is not. Incidentally, before anyone dismisses didactic art as a bad thing, be assured that it is not. To Kill a Mockingbird is unabashedly didactic and is also a great film and a great novel.

Of course none of these answers is wrong. One can find plenty of artworks that exemplify each of them, and most works reflect a dynamic interplay of several of them. What I find interesting is the consistent absence of one answer when I ask this question, an answer that likely would have been the first answer for centuries of documented human history.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

For a variety of reasons, we have steered away from considering a connection between art and the area of religion, theology, spirituality and metaphysics. These areas have inspired a range of enjoyable courses that I have taught – courses with titles like “Heaven, Hell and the Space In Between,” “Beauty and the Mystical Quest for God,” and “Night, Death and the Devil.” I suppose that I gravitate to art that has some gravitas. Yes, I like all of those contemplations that wrestle with intimations of immortality (thank you, Wordsworth), that plumb the mind that can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven (thank you, Milton), or that look for heaven in a grain of sand (thank you, Blake). However, now we seem to find ourselves in a world where the devil has played his greatest trick, convincing the world that he doesn’t exist (thank you, Baudelaire).

Though originally from Baudelaire’s “The Generous Gambler,” the line about “the greatest trick the devil ever played” is more familiar now from its appearance in Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, a case study on aesthetic reception in a world largely absent of theological aesthetics. To someone familiar with representations of the devil in art, the great mystery of Kayser Soze is easy to unpack because Singer leaves clues at every turn. Yet few people figure out the film’s secret before the ending. The film offers insight on our aesthetic reception, for Singer can pull off the great trick on our culture specifically because he knows how little expectation we have for devils or gods in our art. Yes, his great trick is predicated on our artistic secularism. However, what has been interesting in my experience is this: If I first give students a semiotic lesson on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and a dose of narrative theory concerning the Devil as master storyteller (a little Faust, with a sprinkling of Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, and Vladimir Nabokov), then they are on to the film’s secret within 30 minutes.

Some may applaud the progressive diminution of the metaphysical and the theological in our aesthetics. Religion has surely been abused for centuries in order to manipulate populations, and many now are happy to see it pass from general culture. As for theologically motivated art, both the non-religious and the religious seem to segregate it into its own category. You have “music” and “sacred music.” This is fine, but my aesthetic question is this: Do we have a sub-genre category for “expressive music” and “mimetic music”? The same goes for categories like “Hindu painting,” “Islamic decorative arts,” or “Christian rock” — and sure enough, Wikipaintings separates “religious painting” as a genre. The very existence of these terms reflect that theological aesthetics is no longer a living option, and instead religion provides a cultural category for an art. Such things can be useful nomenclature separating sacred and secular art, because religion is cultural in a way that mimesis and expression are not. Yet the interesting thing is that aesthetics essentially bypasses the theological option and treats religion as a cultural context only. Very few seriously talk about the spiritual as the origin or function of art.

Consider also this curious phenomenon: if theologically anchored art makes the jump out of the religious “genre,” general aesthetic reception largely regards religiousness as a footnote to an art that has entered the mainstream. So it is with the music of U2. People talk about all of the aspects of this music in aesthetic categories listed above (e.g. expressive, socio-political, etc.). Yet you would be hard pressed to find a more religious art than the collected work of U2. You might even need to go back to Thomas Tallis to find a musical repertoire that is more consistently theological in motivation, but the critics at Rolling Stone are still not likely to discuss the music through the lens of theological aesthetics.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son

The absence of theological aesthetics has been fascinating to me because it completely changes our reception of figures who have identified theological ideas as primary drivers behind artistic creativity – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats to name a few from history, and Bono from contemporary culture. Another example, Wassily Kandinsky, argues that the best painting is spiritual, and consequently for him, theological aesthetics is the primary driver of all aesthetic judgment. Contemporary discourse by contrast characterizes any theological underpinnings to art as ultimately psychological or sociological – as if Dostoevsky believed in redemption and wrote novels about it because he had a psychological need to do so and was culturally conditioned to do so, but not because there is any potential reality to the metaphysics of it. Theological aesthetics argues the reverse, namely that psychology and sociology, the internal and the external, ultimately flow from a metaphysical essence.

The truth is that one can no more prove the absence of the metaphysical any more than one can prove its presence. Yet our aesthetics largely presumes the former perspective. Perhaps we do not want to turn discussion of art into a debate on religion — and surely this is not the point — but we seem to come up short when we want to make an aesthetic judgment based on the metaphysical depth of a work. So we miss the profundity of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, for example, which is his most theological work and his most thorough aesthetic statement, and we miss the spiritual of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, one of the landmarks in the birth of abstract visual art. In the process, we miss an opportunity.


Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“The Secret Muse: Intuition and the Sacred Process of Creativity” by Kim Chestney

“On Politics and Art” by Andrew Swensen

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