Towards a Christian Aesthetic
23 min read
23 min read
I am to speak to you tonight about the Arts in this country — their roots in Christianity, their present condition, and the means by which (if we find that they are not flourishing as they should) their mutilated limbs and withering branches may be restored by re-grafting into the main trunk of Christian tradition.
This task is of quite peculiar difficulty, and I may not be able to carry it out in exactly the terms which have been proposed to me. And that for a rather strange reason. In such things as politics, finance, sociology and so on, there really is a philosophy and a Christian tradition; we do know more or less what the Church has said and thought about them, how they are related to Christian dogma, and what they are supposed to do in a Christian country.
But oddly enough, we have no Christian aesthetic — no Christian philosophy of the Arts. The Church as a body has never made up her mind about the Arts, and it is hardly too much to say that she has never tried. She has, of course, from time to time puritanically denounced the Arts as irreligious and mischievous, or tried to exploit the Arts as a means to the teaching of religion and morals — but I shall hope to show you that both these attitudes are false and degrading, and are founded upon a completely mistaken idea of what Art is supposed to be and do. And there have, of course, been plenty of writers on aesthetics who happened to be Christians, but they have seldom made any consistent attempt to relate their aesthetic to the central Christian dogmas. Indeed, so far as European aesthetic is concerned, one feels that it would probably have developed along precisely the same lines had there never been an Incarnation to reveal the nature of God — that is to say, the nature of all truth. But that is fantastic. If we commit ourselves to saying that the Christian revelation discovers to us the nature of all truth, then it must discover to us the nature of the truth about Art among other things. It is absurd to go placidly along explaining Art in terms of a pagan aesthetic, and taking no notice whatever of the complete revolution of our ideas about the nature of things that occurred, or should have occurred, after the first Pentecost. I will go so far as to maintain that the extraordinary confusion of our minds about the nature and function of Art is principally due to the fact that for nearly 2,000 years we have been trying to reconcile a pagan, or at any rate a Unitarian, aesthetic with a Christian — that is, a Trinitarian and Incarnational — theology. Even that makes us out too intelligent. We have not tried to reconcile them. We have merely allowed them to exist side by side in our minds; and where the conflict between them became too noisy to be overlooked, we have tried to silence the clamour by main force, either by brutally subjugating Art to religion, or by shutting them up in separate prison cells and forbidding them to hold any communication with one another.
Now, before we go any further, I want to make it quite clear that what I am talking about now is aesthetic (the philosophy of Art) and not about Art itself as practised by the artists. The great artists carry on with their work on the lines God has laid down for them, quite unaffected by the aesthetic worked out for them by philosophers. Sometimes, of course, artists themselves dabble in aesthetic, and what they have to say is very interesting, but often very misleading. If they really are great and true artists, they make their poem (or whatever it is) first, and then set about reconciling it with the fashionable aesthetic of their time; they do not produce their work to conform to their notions of aesthetic — or, if they do, they are so much the less artists, and the work suffers. Secondly, what artists chatter about to the world and to each other is not as a rule their art but the technique of their art. They will tell you, as critics, how it is they produce certain effects (the poet will talk about assonance, alliteration and metre; the painter about perspective, balance and how he mixes his colours, etc.) — and from that we may get the misleading impression that the technique is the art, or that the aim of art is to produce some sort of “effect. ’ But this is not so. We cannot go for a march unless we have learnt, through long practice, how to control the muscles of our legs; but it is not true to say that the muscular control is the march. And while it is a fact that certain tricks produce “effects” — like Tennyson’s use of vowels and consonants to produce the effect of a sleepy murmuring in “The moan of doves in immemorial elms,” or of metallic clashing in “The bare black cliff clanged round him” — it is not true that the poem is merely a set of physical, or even of emotional effects. What a work of art really is and does we shall come to later. For the moment I only want to stress the difference between aesthetic and art, and to make it clear that a great artist will produce great art, even though the aesthetic of his time may be hopelessly inadequate to explain it.
For the origins of European aesthetic we shall, of course, turn to Greece; and we are at once brought up against the two famous chapters in which Plato discusses the Arts, and decides that certain kinds of Art, and in particular certain kinds of poetry, ought to be banished from the perfect State. Not all poetry — people often talk as though Plato had said this, but he did not: certain kinds he wished to keep, and this makes his attitude all the more puzzling, because, though he tells us quite clearly why he disapproves of the rejected kinds, he never explains what it is that makes the other kinds valuable. He never gets down to considering, constructively, what true Art is or what it does. He only tells us about what are (in his opinion) the bad results of certain kinds of Art — nor does he ever tackle the question whether the bad moral results of which he complains may not be due to a falseness in the Art, i.e. to the work’s being pseudo-Art or inartistic Art. He seems to say that certain forms of Art are inherently evil in themselves. His whole handling of the thing seems to us very strange, confused and contradictory; yet his aesthetic has dominated all our critical thinking for many centuries, and has influenced, in particular, the attitude of the Church more than the Church perhaps knows. So it is necessary that we should look at Plato’s argument. Many of his conclusions are true — though often, I think, he reaches them from the wrong premisses. Some of them are, I think, demonstrably false. But especially, his whole grasp of the subject is inadequate. That is not Plato’s fault. He was one of the greatest thinkers of all time, but he was a pagan; and I am becoming convinced that no pagan philosopher could produce an adequate aesthetic, simply for lack of a right theology. In this respect, the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist.
What does Plato say?
He begins by talking about stories and myths, and after dismissing as beneath consideration the stories and poems which are obviously badly written, he goes on to reject those which are untrue, or which attribute evil and disgusting behaviour to the gods, or which tend to inculcate bad and vulgar passions or anti-social behaviour in the audience. After this (which sounds very much like what moralists and clergymen Eire always saying nowadays) he leaves the subject-matter and goes on to certain forms of poetry and art — those forms which involve mimesis — the mimetic arts. Now mimesis can be translated ‘‘imitation,” or “representation”; and we can at once see that certain forms of Art are more mimetic than others: drama, painting and sculpture are, on the whole, mimetic — some natural object or action is represented or imitated (though we may find exceptions in modernist and surrealist paintings which seem to represent nothing in Heaven or earth). Music, on the other hand, is not mimetic — nothing is imitated from the natural world (unless we count certain effects like the noise of drums in a martial piece, or trills and arpeggios representing the song of birds or the falling of water, down to the squeaks, brayings, twitterings and whistlings of cinema organs). In the Third Book of the Republic Plato says he will allow the mimetic arts, provided that the imitation or representation is of something morally edifying, that sets a good example; but he would banish altogether the representation of unworthy objects, such as national heroes wallowing about in floods of tears, and people getting drunk, or using foul language. He thinks this kind of thing bad for the actors and also for the audience. Nor (which seems odd to us) are actors to imitate anything vulgar or base, such as artisans plying their trades, galley slaves or bosons; nor must there be any trivial nonsense about stage effects and farmyard imitations. Nothing is to be acted or shown except what is worthy to be imitated, the noble actions of wise men — a gallery of good examples.
We may feel that Plato’s theatre would be rather on the austere side. But in the Tenth Book he hardens his heart still further. He decides to banish all mimetic art — all representation of every kind; and that for two reasons.
The first reason is that imitation is a kind of cheat. An artist who knows nothing about carpentering may yet paint a carpenter so that, if the picture is set up at a distance, children and stupid people may be deceived into thinking that it really is a carpenter. Moreover, in any case, the realities of things exist only in Heaven in an ideal and archetypal form; the visible world is only a pale reflection or bad imitation of the heavenly realities; and the work of art is only a cheating imitation of the visible world: therefore representational art is merely an imitation of an imitation — a deceptive trick which tickles and entertains while turning men’s minds away from the contemplation of the eternal realities.
At this point some of you will begin to fidget and say, ‘‘Hi! Stop! Surely there is a difference between mimicry intended to deceive and representation. I admit that there are such things as tin biscuit boxes got up to look like the works of Charles Dickens, which may deceive the unwary, and that very simple-minded people in theatres have been known to hiss the villain or leap on the stage to rescue the heroine — but as a rule we know perfectly well that the imitation is only imitation, and not meant to take anyone in. And surely there’s a difference between farmyard imitations and John Gielgud playing Hamlet. And besides — even if you get an exact representation of something — say a documentary film about a war, or an exact verbal reproduction of a scene at the Old Bailey — that’s not the same thing as Coriolanm or the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice i the work of art has something different, something more — poetry or a sort of a something …” and here you will begin to wave your hands about vaguely.
You are, of course, perfectly right. But let us for the moment just make a note of how Plato’s conception of Art is influenced by his theology — the visible world imitating, copying, reflecting a world of eternal changeless forms already existent elsewhere; and the artist, conceived of as a sort of craftsman or artisan engaged in copying or imitating something which exists already in the visible world.
Now let us take his second reason for banishing all representational art. He says that even where the action represented is in itself good and noble, the effect on the audience is bad, because it leads them to dissipate the emotions and energies that ought to be used for tackling the problems of life. The feelings of courage, resolution, pity, indignation and so on are worked up in the spectators by the mimic passions on the stage (or in pictures or music) and then frittered away in a debauch of emotion over these unreal shadows, leaving the mind empty and slack, with no appetite except for fresh sensations of an equally artificial sort.
Now, that is a real indictment against a particular kind of art, which we ought to take seriously. In the jargon of modern psychology, Plato is saying that art of this kind leads to phantasy and daydreaming. Aristotle, coming about fifty years after Plato, defended this kind of art: he said that undesirable passions, such as pity and terror were in this way sublimated — you worked them off in the theatre, where they could do no harm. If, he means, you feel an inner urge to murder your wife, you go and see Othello or read a good, gory thriller, and satisfy your blood-lust that way; and if we had the last part of his Poetics which dealt with comedy, we should probably find it suggested, in the same way, that an excess of sexual emotion can be worked off by going to a good, dirty farce or vulgar music-hall, and blowing the whole thing away in a loud, bawdy laugh.
Now, people still argue as to whether Plato or Aristotle was right about this. But there are one or two things I want you to notice. The first is that what Plato is really concerned to banish from his perfect state is the kind of art which aims at mere entertainment — the art that dissipates energy instead of directing it into some useful channel. And though Aristotle defends ‘‘art for entertainment,” it is still the same kind of art he is thinking about.
The second thing is that both Plato and Aristotle — but especially Plato — are concerned with the moral effect of art. Plato would allow representational art so long as he thought that it had the effect of canalising the energies and directing them to virtuous action — he only banishes it, on further consideration, because he has come to the conclusion that no representational art of any kind — not even the loftiest tragedy — is successful in bracing the moral constitution. He does not tell us very clearly what poetry he will keep, or why, except that it is to be of what we should call a lyrical kind, and, presumably, bracing and tonic in sentiment, and directly inculcating the love of the good, the beautiful and the true.
Thirdly: Plato lived at the beginning, and Aristotle in the middle of the era which saw the collapse and corruption of the great Greek civilisation. Plato sees the rot setting in, and cries out like a prophet to his people to repent while there is yet time. He sees that the theatre audience is in fact looking to the theatre for nothing but amusement and entertainment, that their energies are, in fact, frittering themselves away in spurious emotion — sob-stuff and sensation, and senseless laughter, phantasy and day-dreaming, and admiration for the merely smart and slick and clever and amusing. And there is an ominous likeness between his age and ours. We too have audiences and critics and newspapers assessing every play and book and novel in terms of its ‘’entertainment value,” and a whole generation of young men and women who dream over novels and wallow in day-dreaming at the cinema, and who seemed to be in a fair way of doping themselves into complete irresponsibility over the conduct of life until war came, as it did to Greece, to jerk them back to reality, Greek civilisation was destroyed; ours is not yet destroyed. But it may be well to remember Plato’s warning: “If you receive the pleasure-seasoned Muse, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law and agreed principles.’’
And there is something else in Plato that seems to strike a familiar note. We seem to know the voice that urges artists to produce works of art “with a high moral tone” — propaganda works, directed to improving young people’s minds and rousing them to a sense of their duties, “doing them good,” in fact. And at the same time, we find — among artists and critics alike — a tendency to repudiate representational art, in favour of something more austere, primitive and symbolic, as though the trouble lay there.
It is as though, in the decline of Greece, and in what is known as the “Decline of the West,” both Plato and we agreed in finding something wrong with the arts — a kind of mutual infection, by which the slick, sentimental, hedonistic art corrupts its audience, and the pleasure-loving, emotional audience in turn corrupts the arts by demanding of them nothing but entertainment value. And the same sort of remedy is proposed in both cases — first, to get rid of “representationalism” — which, it is hoped, will take away the pleasure and entertainment and so cure the audience’s itch for amusement; secondly, to concentrate on works which provide a direct stimulus to right thinking and right action.
What we have really got here is a sort of division of art into two kinds: EntertainmenUAri which dissipates the energies of the audience and pours them down the drain; and another kind of art which canalises energy into a sort of mill-stream to turn the wheel of action — and this we may perhaps call Spell-binding Art But do these two functions comprise the whole of Art? Or are they Art at all? Are they perhaps only accidental effects of Art, or false Art — something masquerading under the name of Art — or menial tasks to which we enslave Art? Is the real nature and end of Art something quite different from either? Is the real trouble something wrong with our aesthetic, so that we do not know what we ought to look for in Art, or how to recognise it when we see it, or how to distinguish the real thing from the spurious imitation?
Suppose we turn from Plato to the actual poets he was writing about — to Aeschylus, for instance, the great writer of tragedies.
Drama, certainly, is a representational art, and therefore, according to Plato, pleasure-art, entertainment-art, emotional and relaxing art, sensational art. Let us read the Agamemnon, Certainly it is the representation by actors of something — and of something pretty sensational: the murder of a husband by an adulterous wife. But it is scarcely sensational entertainment in the sense that a thriller novel on the same subject is sensational entertainment. A daydreaming, pleasure-loving audience would hardly call it entertainment at all. It is certainly not relaxing. And I doubt whether it either dissipates our passions in Plato’s sense or sublimates them in Aristotle’s sense, any more than it canalises them for any particular action, though it may trouble and stir us and plunge us into the mystery of things. We might extract some moral lessons from it; but if we ask ourselves whether the poet wrote that play in order to improve our minds, something inside us will, I think, say “No.” Aeschylus was trying to tell us something, but nothing quite so simple as that. He is saying something — something important — something enormous — And here we shall be suddenly struck with the inadequacy of the strictures against “representational art.” “This,” we shall say, “is not the copy or imitation of something bigger and more real than itself. It is bigger and more real than the real-life action that it represents. That a false wife should murder a husband — that might be a paragraph in the News of the World or a thriller to read in the train — but when it is shown us like this, by a great poet, it is as though we went behind the triviality of the actual event to the cosmic significance behind it. And, what is more, this is not a representation of the actual event at all — if a B.B.C. reporter had been present at the murder with a television set and microphone, what we heard and saw would have been nothing like this. This play is not anything that ever happened in this world — it is something happening in the mind of Aeschylus, and it had never happened before.”
Now here, I believe, we are getting to something — something that Plato’s heathen philosophy was not adequate to explain, but which we can begin to explain by the light of Christian theology. Very likely the heathen poet could not have explained it either — if he had made the attempt, he too would have been entangled in the terms of his philosophy. But we are concerned, not with what he might have said, but with what he did. Being a true poet, he was true in his work — that is, his art was that point of truth in him which was true to the eternal truth, and only to be interpreted in terms of eternal truth.
The true work of art, then, is something new — it is not primarily the copy or representation of anything. It may involve representation, but that is not what makes it a work of art. It is not manufactured to specification, as an engineer works to a plan — though it may involve compliance with the accepted rules for dramatic presentation, and may also contain verbal “effects*’ which can be mechanically accounted for. We know very well, when we compare it with so-called works of art which are “turned out to pattern” that in this connection neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. Something has been created.
This word — this idea of Art as creation is, I believe, the one important contribution that Christianity has made to aesthetics. Unfortunately, we are apt to use the words “creation” and “creativeness” very vaguely and loosely, because we do not relate them properly to our theology. But it is significant that the Greeks had not this word in their aesthetic at all. They looked on a work of art as a kind of techni, a manufacture. Neither, for that matter, was the word in their theology — they did not look on history as the continual act of God fulfilling itself in creation.
How do we say that God creates, and how does this compare with the act of creation by an artist? To begin with, of course, we say that God created the universe “out of nothing” — He was bound by no conditions of any kind. Here there can be no comparison: the human artist is in the universe and bound by its conditions. He can create only within that framework and out of that material which the universe supplies, Admitting that, let us ask in what way God creates. Christian theology replies that God, who is a Trinity, creates by, or through, His second Person, His Word or Son, who is continually begotten from the First Person, the Father, in an eternal creative activity. And certain theologians have added this very significant comment: the Father, they say, is only known to Himself by beholding His image in His Son.
Does that sound very mysterious? We will come back to the human artist, and see what it means in terms of his activity. But first, let us take note of a new word that has crept into the argument by way of Christian theology — the word Image, Suppose, having rejected the words “copy,” “imitation” and “representation” as inadequate, we substitute the word “image” and say that what the artist is doing is to image forth something or the other, and connect that with St. Paul’s phrase: “God . . . hath spoken to us by His Son, the brightness of this glory and express image of His person.” —Something which, by being an image, expresses that which it images. Is that getting us a little nearer to something? There is something which is, in the deepest sense of the words, unimaginable known to Itself (and still more, to us) only by the image in which it expresses Itself through creation; and, says Christian theology very emphatically, the Son, w’ ho is the express image, is not the copy, or imitation, or representation of the Father, nor yet inferior or subsequent to the Father in any way — in the last resort, in the depths of their mysterious being, the Unimaginable and the Image are one and the same.
Now for our poet. We said, when we were talking of the Agamemnon that this work of art seemed to be “something happening in the mind of Aeschylus.” We may now say, perhaps, more precisely, that the play is the expression of this interior happening. But what, exactly, was happening?
There is a school of criticism that is always trying to explain, or explain away, a man’s works of art by trying to dig out the events of his life and his emotions outside the works themselves, and saying “these are the real Aeschylus, the real Shakespeare, of which the poems are only faint imitations.” But any poet will tell you that this is the wrong way to go to work. It is the old, pagan aesthetic which explains nothing — or which explains all sorts of things about the work except what makes it a work of art. The poet will say: “My poem is the expression of my experience.” But if you then say, “What experience?” he will say, “I can’t tell you anything about it, except what I have said in the poem — the poem is the experience.” The Son and the Father are one: the poet himself did not know what his experience was until he created the poem which revealed his own experience to himself.
To save confusion, let us distinguish between an event and an experience. An event is something that happens to one — but one does not necessarily experience it. To take an extreme instance: suppose you are hit on the head and get concussion and, as often happens, when you come to, you cannot remember the blow. The blow on the head certainly happened to you, but you did not experience it — all you experience is the after-effects. You only experience a thing when you can express it — however haltingly — to your own mind. You may remember the young man in TS Eliot’s play, The Family Reunion, who says to his relations;
You are all people
To whom nothing has happened, at most a continual impact
Of external events . . .
He means that they have got through life without ever really experiencing anything, because they have never tried to express to themselves the real nature of what has happened to them.
A poet is a man who not only suffers ‘’the impact of external events/’ but experiences them. He puts the experience into words in his own mind, and in so doing recognises the experience for what it is. To the extent that we can do that, we are all poets. A “poet” so-called is simply a man like ourselves with an exceptional power of revealing his experience by expressing it, so that not only he, but we ourselves, recognise that experience as our own.
I want to stress the word recognise. A poet does not see something — say the full moon — and say: “This is a very beautiful sight — let me set about finding words for the appropriate expression of what people ought to feel about it.” That is what the literary artisan does, and it means nothing. What happens is that then, or at some time after, he finds himself saying words in his head and says to himself: “Yes — that is right. That is the experience the full moon was to me. I recognise it in expressing it, and now I know what it was.” And so, when it is a case of mental or spiritual experience — sin, grief, joy, sorrow, worship — the thing reveals itself to him in words, and so becomes fully experienced for the first time. By thus recognising it in its expression, he makes it his own — integrates it into himself. He no longer feels himself battered passively by the impact of external events — it is no longer something happening to him, but something happening in him, the reality of the event is communicated to him in activity and power. So that the act of the poet in creation is seen to be threefold — a trinity — experience, expression and recognition; the unknowable reality in the experience; the Image of that reality known in its expression; and power in the recognition; the whole making up the single and indivisible act of creative mind.
Now, what the poet does for himself, he can also do for us. When he has imaged forth his experience he can incarnate it, so to speak, in a material body — words, music, painting — the thing we know as a work of art. And since he is a man like the rest of us, we shall expect that our experience will have something in common with his. In the image of his experience, we can recognise the image of some experience of our own — something that had happened to us, but which we had never understood, never formulated or expressed to ourselves, and therefore never known as a real experience. When we read the poem, or see the play or picture or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: “Ah! I recognise that! That is something which I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t express it. But now that the artist has made its image — imaged it forth — for me, I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own, and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength.” This is the communication of the image in power by which the third person of the poet’s trinity brings us through the incarnate image into direct knowledge of the in itself unknowable and unimaginable reality. “No man cometh to the Father save by Me,” said the incarnate Image; and He added, “but the Spirit of Power will lead you into all truth.”
This recognition of the truth that we get in the artist’s work comes to us as a revelation of new truth. I want to be clear about that. I am not referring to the sort of patronising recognition we give to a writer by nodding our heads and observing: “Yes, yes, very good, very true — that’s just what I’m always saying.” I mean the recognition of a truth which tells us something about ourselves that we had not been “always saying” — something which puts a new knowledge of ourselves within our grasp. It is new, startling, and perhaps shattering — and yet it comes to us with a sense of familiarity. We did not know it before, but the moment the poet has shown it to us, we know that, somehow or other, we had always really known it.
Very well. But, frankly, is that the sort of thing the average British citizen gets, or expects to get, when he goes to the theatre or reads a book? No, it is not. In the majority of cases, it is not in the least what he expects, or what he wants. What he looks for is not this creative and Christian kind of Art at all. He does not expect or desire to be upset by sudden revelations about himself and the universe. Like the people of Plato’s decadent Athens, he has forgotten or repudiated the religious origins of all Art. He wants entertainment, or, if he is a little more serious-minded, he wants something with a moral, or to have some spell or incantation put on him to instigate him to virtuous action.
Now, entertainment and moral spell-binding have their uses, but they are not Art in the proper sense. They may be the incidental effects of good art; but they may also be the very aim and essence of false art. And if we continue to demand of the Arts only these two things, we shall starve and silence the true artist and encourage in his place the false artist, who may become a very sinister force indeed.
Let us take the amusement-art: what does that give us? Generally speaking, what we demand and get from it is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without having had the experience. It does not reveal us to ourselves: it merely projects on to a mental screen a picture of ourselves as we already fancy ourselves to be — only bigger and brighter. The manufacturer of this kind of entertainment is not by any means interpreting and revealing his own experience to himself and us — he is either indulging his own day-dreamSj or — still more falsely and venially — he is saying: “What is it the audience think they would like to have experienced? Let us show them that so that they can wallow in emotion by pretending to have experienced it.” This kind of pseudo-art is “wish-fulfilment” or “escape” literature in the worst sense — it is an escape, not from the “impact of external events” into the citadel of experienced reality, but an escape from reality and experience into a world of merely external events — the progressive externalisation of consciousness. For occasional relaxation this is all right; but it can be carried to the point where, not merely art, but the whole universe of phenomena becomes a screen on which we see the magnified projection of our unreal selves, as the object of equally unreal emotions. This brings about the complete corruption of the consciousness, which can no longer recognise reality in experience. When things come to this pass, we have a civilisation which “lives for amusement” — a civilisation without guts, without experience, and out of touch with reality.
Or take the spell-binding kind of art. This at first sight seems better because it spurs us to action; and it also has its uses. But it too is dangerous in excess, because once again it does not reveal reality in experience, but only projects a lying picture of the self. As the amusement-art seeks to produce the emotions without the experience, so this pseudo-art seeks to produce the behaviour without the experience. In the end it is directed to putting the behaviour of the audience beneath the will of the spell-binder, and its true name is not “art,” but “art-magic.” In its vuigarest form it becomes pure propaganda. It can (as we have reason to know) actually succeed in making its audience -into the thing It desires to have them — it can really in the end corrupt the consciousness and destroy experience until the inner selves of its victims are wholly externalised and made the puppets and instruments of their own spurious passions. This is why it is dangerous for anybody — even for the Church — to urge artists to produce words of art for the express purpose of “doing good to people.” Let her by all means encourage artists to express their own Christian experience and communicate it to others. That is the true artist saying: “Look! recognise your experience in my own.” But “edifying art” may only too often be the pseudo-artist corruptly saying: “This is what you are supposed to believe and feel and do — and I propose, to work you into a state of •mind in which you will believe and feel and do as you are told.” This pseudo-aft does not really communicate power to us; it merely exerts power over us.
What is it, then, that these two pseudo-arts — the entertaining and the spell-binding — have in common? And how are they related to true Art? What they have in common is the falsification of the consciousness; and they are to Art as the idol is to the Image. The Jews were forbidden to make any image for worship, because before the revelation of the threefold unity in which Image and Unimaginable are one, it was only too fatally easy to substitute the idol for the Image. The Christian revelation set free all the images, by showing that the true Image subsisted within the Godhead Itself — it was neither copy, nor imitation, nor representation, nor inferior, nor subsequent, but the brightness of the glory, and the express image of the Person — the very mirror in which reality knows itself and communicates itself in power.
But the danger still exists; and it always will recur whenever the Christian doctrine of the Image is forgotten. In our aesthetic, that doctrine has never been fully used or understood, and in consequence our whole attitude to the artistic expression of reality has become confused, idolatrous and pagan. We see the Arts degenerating into mere entertainment which corrupts and relaxes our civilisation, and we try in alarm to correct this by demanding a more moralising and bracing kind of Art. But this is only setting up one idol in place of the other. Or we see that Art is becoming idolatrous, and suppose that we can put matters right by getting rid of the representational element in it. But what is wrong is not the representation itself, but the fact that what we are looking at, and what we are looking /or, is not the Image but an idol. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
It has become a commonplace to say that the Arts are in a bad way. We are in fact largely given over to the entertainers and the spell-binders; and because we do not understand that these two functions do not represent the true nature of Art, the true artists are, as it were, excommunicate, and have no audience. But there is here not, I think, so much a relapse from a Christian aesthetic as a failure ever to find and examine a real Christian aesthetic, based on dogma and not on ethics. This may not be a bad thing. We have at least a new line of country to explore, that has not been trampled on and built over and fought over by countless generations of quarrelsome critics. What we have to start from is the Trinitarian doctrine of creative mind, and the light which that doctrine throws on the true nature of images.
The great thing, I am sure, is not to be nervous about God — not to try and shut out the Lord Immanuel from any sphere of truth. Art is not He — we must not substitute Art for God; yet this also is He, for it is one of His Images and therefore reveals His nature. Here we see in a mirror darkly — we behold only the images; elsewhere we shall see face to face, in the place where Image and Reality are one.