No Time Like Now; on Truth and Art - Steve Scott
No Time Like Now, on Truth and Art
by Steve Scott
You must change your life
We’ll take the trail marked on your Father’s map
Sixpence None the Richer
I returned recently from an arts conference in the People’s Republic of China, with many of the questions the students asked still ringing in my ears. We had sat together in the lecture hall, looking at the slides of Gaylen Stewarts’ paintings, and talking about the gallery installation they were part of. The questions ranged from issues having to do with modern art to concerns with our fragile natural environment. All these concerns with culture and nature, for me, link in some way to our root questions and concerns with the idea of Truth.
Accordingly I want to talk about truth in art making and art observing in a number of different ways. The following remarks break into three broad sections. Section One deals with my responses to other people’s art. Section Two briefly explores some of the history and philosophy behind some trends in modern art, and also talks about interpretation as a central key to understanding our place in the modern world. The final section tries to take the suggestions of the first two and weave them together in a description of a) my response to more art and b) my own creative process from seedling idea through to performance. If you can read these remarks as a kind of collage of reminiscences, experiences, concerns and questions, then you’ll not only experience something of my working method, but you’ll also get a glimpse of some of the truth I am trying to describe.
Just after I became a Christian in 1967 a friend took me into London to see a film called The Gospel According to Matthew. I knew very little about the director, Pierre Pasolini, or his other films. I knew even less about Italian cinema, Neo Realist or otherwise. The film, shot in black and white, had an almost rough documentary feel to it. There were shining angels and miracles to be sure, but also you could almost feel the parched soil and taste the dusty air. The skin stretched across the peasants’ faces looked parched, and weather beaten too, almost like maps to a place that few of us rarely, if ever, visit. The exception would be the almost childlike Virgin Mary. It was nothing like any greeting card or even high art painting I had ever seen. And the music! Folk music, country blues mixed in with classical, the combination as rough-edged and rich on the ear as the images on the eye. The film, as I remember it, offered a multidimensional marriage of form, content, material, medium, and message in which the realities and limitations of the chosen media were somehow harnessed and harmonized with the underlying truth of the story.
When I came to the USA for the first time in the mid 70s, I spent a few days in New York soaking up as much of the richness and vibrancy as I could. This involved not only hanging out in Greenwich Village, but also the Museum of Modern Art. It was here that I saw the fabled Guernica by Picasso. In order to view this famous painting—with its distorted forms and muted colors—I had to make my way through an entire room of preparatory sketches by the artist. I could see how the painter tried variations on theme and form and painstakingly hammered out the logic of the composition. One might say that some exposure to Picasso’s experimentation, plus a passing acquaintance with the genesis of this (commissioned) composition played a role in my overall response to the finished painting.
But there is more to it than that, isn’t there?How can we best describe or analyze what happens when we experience art? And how does this experience—however we define it—link back to truth? Aesthetic theorist Arnold Berleant talks about an aesthetic field (Berleant 1970, 1991). Berleant adopts the field metaphor to locate and articulate the components that go into making up the experience of art. Berleant’s model is one in which object, viewer, viewing environment, and historical background all weave together to create a single experience. The aesthetic experience (or what we designate as such in our culture) occurs in the overlap of those four categorical fields. The Polish psychological theorist Czikszentmihalyi, most known for his work describing the phenomena of ‘Flow,’ writes of ‘the Art of Seeing’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 1990), and maps some of the historical and educational factors that play into the process of our reception of art. Rather than demystifying the art experience, the authors are trying to help us grasp the different dimensions of our aesthetic field. They proceed to suggest ways in which museums can best curate and display art in a way sensitive to the many dimensions of how we see. In the light of these writers’ insights into the aesthetic field and the many dimensioned viewing experience we can understand that art is more than simply the object in front of us. It is also more than just a subjective experience.
Back to our concerns: How are we supposed to build a bridge between Art and Truth in today’s world? Does truth reside in the object, the individual experience, or the artist’s intention? Or somewhere else entirely? Surely not the object. Everything from the invention of photography to the unfolding of the world wide web has contributed to the ongoing erosion of the cult status of the art object. It was Walter Benjamin who theorized about how the technological developments in image reproduction and duplication would strip the unique art object of its power and aura. For Benjamin and the theorists who followed him, the power base shifted from the aura around the object (and the guardians who controlled access to the object) to the technology of reproduction (and therefore whoever controlled reproduction and distribution) or more succinctly from ritual to politics.
Objects, art objects, are important, to be sure. The evident power of Picasso’s Guernica is unavoidable. But surely there is more to the truth of art than the object and its aura.For example, I wasn’t watching the only print of Pasolini’s film. It still spoke to me as an individual.It still spoke truth.And the truth it spoke was linked to another kind of power than that of the governing interests behind the reproduction and distribution of images.
Some would suggest, given the recognition of different overlapping factors that help us define the shifting boundaries of an aesthetic field, that it is not so much the object that has a singular aura, as the experience. We know that many elements play into how we experience what we experience. I have suggested, with our complex theories of the aesthetic field and the art of seeing in hand, that it is possible to talk and think about art and truth in ways that are not entirely dependent upon privileged objects. Nor do I believe that we have to link the artwork to some mystical realm or conversely reduce its truth quotient to technologically driven power plays. However, I believe that it is possible to link this experience to some sort of conviction about the nature of truth in the mind and the hands of the art maker and the faithful expectation of the public. If the critics are right, however, and the factors involved in appreciation are locally, historically and culturally relative, what happens to our understanding of any truth that art may intend or convey? Is what is true for you, true for me also? These questions have deep and somewhat tangled roots, as the variety of learned treatises on modernism, modernity and postmodernity are only too eager to point out.
Ship of Fools?
At this point we have to push off into some deep waters. Please bear with me. In our cultural history some thinkers, responding to the subjectivist and skeptical intellectual trends of their day, proposed an almost transcendental realm of artistic experience, in which the value of the aesthetic experience was pure, self-sustaining and not reducible to any explanation that might claim to reveal its underlying social or moral agendas and interests. At first this realm was argued for by Idealists who wished to talk about the Beautiful and the Sublime as universal categories of human experience. Such categories had to be protected against the skepticism and the overbearing rationalism of the day. This same category, according to one thinker, was refined and reinterpreted by succeeding philosophical and social schools of thought, until it became the potentially subversive aesthetic dimension—a refuge from the world of alienated consumption, commodities and kitsch (Bernstein 1987). These ideas, in all stages of their development, conceivably, touched on elements of truth that we need to consider in relation to the arts. They all made vital contributions to what is called Modernism in the arts. Modernism in the arts can be looked at as a combination of several strands, both conservative and avant-garde, that argued (variously) for the purity of the art object, the sanctity and prophetic dimension of the artistic vocation, the authenticity of raw artistic expression, and the ongoing questioning and challenging of previously established cultural categories in the name of new art or even anti-art.
This Modernism drew upon artistic theory and cultural practice to wage war upon the linear-minded and technologically driven modernity (Calinescu 1987). Modernity, as understood by these cultural theorists, was dominating, alienating, dehumanizing and soul-deadening. It linked technology with rationalism, expansion and consumption, and in doing so crushed human and culturally diverse resources in the wake of progress. For the modernist artist, it was a conflict that was almost a Holy War. However, it was not really a fair fight. According to some art itself, as a self-conscious, self-defining activity, was the ungrateful offspring of the era of modernity. Art came into its own as a specialized discipline, seeking progress and refinement in the parental shadows of technology and science, and looking inwards for its ‘true self,’ in the shadow of the philosophical developments of the era. (I am paint on a surface, therefore I am.)
So Modernist Art, somewhat of a stepchild of modernity, was seriously compromised as it went to war with that very same modernity. This, plus other critical observations led some theorists to insist that the fight was lost by Cultural Modernism almost before it began. I have mentioned Walter Benjamin’s prophetic insights into how the technologies of reproduction and distribution influence the artist and the art-making process. Art critic and theorist Suzi Gablik asks, ‘Has Modernism failed?’ (Gablik 1985) and suggests that cultural Modernism was in fact neutralized and (re)absorbed by this modernity. She goes on, in company with other postmodern theorists, to dissect many of the social and historical dimensions of the emphasis on art for its own sake, laying bare both the exclusionary and prejudicial roots of such an idea, while at the same time pointing out the ineffectiveness of such an idea to challenge and change the market-driven gallery system and institutional world of art. In essence the era and aura of modernity gave birth to the possibility of the idea of Art, and the latter day, more market-driven aspects of modernity simply defanged, neutralized and absorbed Modernism back into the system it was complaining about without so much as a whimper, much less a kick and a scream.
Not a Pretty Picture?
As well as the myriad secondary truths that might arise incidentally from all these excursions, there is also in my opinion one observable truth available to us. From ancient idealist philosopher to contemporary postmodern skeptic, the unquestioned true response to our problematic world has been to seek transcendental escape,either in the realm of eternal forms or the ether of deconstructive theory. However, whether we are pre-modern, modern or postmodern, we are bound to this world by (among other things) language, history and culture. The very means by which we identify our distinction from the world and the very means by which we articulate our desire to escape. This means that in even thinking and talkingabout truth we have to continually deal with the issues of culture, language, and our interpretation of these things. And this is one of the benefits of postmodern skepticism. We recognize that we are somewhere in the picture, and we are bound up in how we know what we know. We have replaced the modernist arrogance of analysis with its detached god-like observer and neutral tools of investigation, with the humbler stance of interpretation. We are somewhere in the picture, and how we get our information has some influence on what information we get.
A term for interpretation that is used in a wide variety of disciplines is hermeneutics. We are most familiar with the term as it relates to biblical studies, but the term is a central one in a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from cultural anthropology to Renaissance art history. For thinkers in a wide variety of disciplines, truth is completely bound up with hermeneutic practice, which in turn is grounded in history and context, both of the interpreted work and also the cultural background of the interpreter. Truth occurs, according to some, in the overlap of these horizons.
Many might ask again if there is any possible hope of bridging the gap between this seemingly relativistic, context-bound understanding of truth and the absolute truths of the Christian faith. Some of us might hope that at this point a seasoned Christian apologist would skewer the vulnerabilities and the self-contradictions of the postmodern position. Surely here a Christian artist could offer something substantial as an alternative to the fashionable ephemeralities of the contemporary art scene.
William Dyrness in an article in Radix magazine entitled ‘What Good is Truth? Postmodern apologetics in a World Community,’ acknowledges the prevailing atmosphere of suspicion about all authoritative claims to truth and suggests that the time has come for a shift in evangelistic strategy away from an apologetic base grounded in propositions (about truth) and more towards an appeal to character—namely the fidelity and truthfulness of God, and the consistency and faithfulness of the community called by his name. Dyrness is not capitulating to a pragmatic/functionalist ‘whatever-works-for-you’ model of the truth. He merely suggests that the postmodern climate might be more receptive to ideas about truth grounded in character and observable practice. If it is true that the Church exists for mission as fire exists for burning, as one recent missions theorist put it, then we might want to consider what Dyrness is suggesting about truth, character, and our mission field. After all, when you think about it, the Gospel of John says more or less the same thing.
The primary experience of hermeneutics for many of us is in reading and thinking about biblical texts and stories. If we go about it responsibly, we try to keep two things in mind. On one hand we will do our best to be sensitized to the nuances of language, context, structure, and genre in the text in front of us. On the other we will be drawn to and involved with the character revealed by the text. The truth will emerge from an overlap of these horizons: our humility in front of the text and our acquaintance with the Character behind it.
When we study the text we try to approach interpretation in an affirmative way and use our reading and analytic skills to clarify and restore to full view what the author intended to say. We revise and deepen our ideas about truth in the light of what we learn about the character of Jesus. We also employ a critical attitude, not so much to deconstruct the text, as some might in the shadow of some prevailing literary or political theory, but to critically evaluate the other ideas about truth that the author of the text brings into contrast with the truthfulness of Jesus. As we learn to critically read our way into and through the Gospel material, we discover a world in which different ideas about truth prevail. And hopefully this new world of truth affects what we do in our art as we engage the everyday real world.
This Sad Music
Which brings us back to where I began with Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew. This film, advertised as ‘made by a Marxist for the pope’ seemed to grasp that there had to be a weave of medium, genre, method, message, context and character. This is fine, but by any stretch of the imagination Pasolini is to be considered an outsider. Why is it that an outsider can furnish us with a deeper understanding of what can only be described as the grit of the gospel than much Christian art is able to? I believe it was the Victorian art critic John Ruskin who lamented that Raphael’s pictorial treatment of Jesus’ restoration and commissioning of Peter (John 21) at once obscured the story and also misled as to its intent, all through the artist’s compositional subtleties and ethereal color schemes. In Raphael’s picture, rough fishermen took on the appearance and dress of serene philosophers. The disciples did not crowd around their beloved master, but tellingly deferred to a leading disciple, upon whom, some believed, Jesus had said he would build his church. Ruskin lamented that a day would come when the storyitselfwould seem as remote and as fabricated to the ordinary reader as this pictorial depiction. Ruskin’s fears have been somewhat realized. The ordinary reader has indeed drifted away from a biblical text that has been attacked, dismantled and deconstructed by wave after wave of expert opinion, but a good deal of what is marketed as Christian art offers an alternative unreality with more of nineteenth-century German painter Heinrich Hoffman’s sugar-coated pieties than Raphael’s technical mastery.
In order to suggest some possible ways of responding to this situation, let’s talk about a very different painting on a biblical theme and use it to gather together some of these threads. And by way of summary and conclusion I’ll set forth some of my own working ideas and methods. In the Russian museum in Saint Petersburg in 1992, I stood in front of Nikolai Ge’s painting of the Last Supper. Here was a canvas in which conventional pieties and philosophic subterfuge were all but banished by the dramatic way in which the artist had handled the range of darkness and light and the palpable thickness of the paint. The downcast Christ and the astonished disciples are thrown into high relief by the single lamp in the room. The Judas figure steps towards us, at once shrouded in absolute darkness. His advancing figure completely obscures the light source in the room, leaving us only with its radiant echoes across the simple furnishings and the upturned faces. The story remains familiar, however the dramatic moment is immeasurably deepened by the formal design and the tonal nuances employed by the painter. If I were to approach this painting as a ‘text’ to be discussed in our exploration of ‘truth’ in Christian art, I would not only take refuge in the depths of despair and confusion caught in the faces of the gathered disciples and their Master. I would also want to explore the way in which the central figure all but obscures the light source in the picture, while setting out to put in motion the ecclesiastical and political machinery that would seek to extinguish the True Light. I would also use this dutiful, expedient and pragmatic aspect of Judas in order to caution us all about the dangers of confusing portrayal and betrayal. Jesus’ words to Judas, ‘Whatsoever you do, do it quickly,’ were never intended as a general mandate for Christian artists and communicators. It seems almost a cliché to insist that for ‘Christian Artists’ (a forgivable use of the phrase in this context) the limitations, idiosyncrasies and even flaws in our chosen medium—be it words, clay, paint, canvas, film, or sound—become essential ingredients in our vocabulary of expressed truth. Our attempts to sidestep or ignore these limitations in our quest for higher truth often obscure the very light we are so confident we are shining before men. We again betray even as we portray. It was Ruskin who suggested that Raphael’s serene and somewhat muted depiction of a biblical story did a profound disservice to the story itself. Ruskin mused prophetically about the day when the text itself would seem as remote and as fictitious to the general reader as Raphael’s canvas did to Ruskin’s indignant eye. It was Pasolini who showed me that the limitations of the medium of black and white film and the contours and boundaries of a particular cinematic genre only served to enhance and make present the truth and the reality of the story he was trying to tell. Every generation has its artists and writers who discover these necessary truths in a fresh way. But they are nothing new. They have a long, and some might say, hallowed history.
Matthew himself may well have intentionally decanted the Gospel into a literary/biographical form amenable to the educated Roman reader. Nonetheless, what I did was try to respond to the truth I felt radiating from the painting by writing a poem based on my experience of it. The challenge was not only to honestly explore my feelings and responses, but also to probe the limitations and the boundaries of the language, both in terms of the sound and also the images the words conjured up. I filled page after page with notes just to get something approximate down so that I would have something to work with. The very process of journaling, of finding my way through emotions and language, is as much about the truth as the finished poem. I tried to match the language and the imagery of the poem to the palpable intensity I felt radiating from the painting. At the same time I tried to sketch one or two of the issues I felt the painting brought to the surface. I sifted through the word sounds and the imagery to find elements that carried the same dark tonal qualities of the painting and reflective of the inner darkness of the subject matter. I hope it becomes obvious that, for me, truth is very present in the act of responding and the act of composing, from the earliest drafts to the final poem. For me, I am learning about truth even as I am revising, editing, deleting, abandoning and restarting. For me it is part of the journey I have been called into by the ultimately Truthful One.
I then recorded a version of the poem for my spoken word album We Dreamed That We Were Strangers (Glow 1996). I further tried to enhance the poem by recording a musical background of repeating and colliding patterns of cellos and choirs. Again the sampled instruments and the slowly repeating musical phrases were used as part of my search for the truth of the painting’s inner radiance (or darkness) and also an attempt to anchor the underlying truth of the poem. And of course I believe there is truth in the process of searching for the right sound—even enhancing it with the right kind of echo! In each case I attempted to use the limitations and boundaries of the given medium be it language, metaphor, or recording studio technology, to somehow make present aspects of my encounter with this particular painting and the story the painting told. As we have been suggesting all along, from inspiration to construction to appreciation the aesthetic field is a location that occupies many dimensions. An idea invariably comes from several places at once, and of course it begins to mutate once you engage with the materials through which you wish to express.
All these factors bear upon the truth of the work. I began to think of this poem in terms of the other poems and their background music. I began to compose the album as a whole, in terms of track and overall title. For example, the poem in question was inspired by a painting in a museum in Russia, but the title was taken from a poem by Indian poet Tagore. The image on the album sleeve was lifted from a snapshot of some Sri Lankan refugee children taken some years before, and many of the pieces on the album did, in fact, concern children, childhood, and vulnerability. However, the title poem has little to say about overcoming cultural differences or teaching the whole world to sing. It uses a nineteenth-century Russian painting of the Last Supper as a springboard into a meditation on our potential complicity with Judas Iscariot.
As I suggest, many fragmentary references and ideas are collaged together behind the scenes of this particular piece of work. But there is more to consider. We Dreamed That We were Strangers was not merely written for the page or sounded out for the recording studio. It was also intended for performance in front of an audience. I’ve found that idiosyncrasies of live performance play into how certain aspects of the work are realized. It surely belabors the obvious point to say that paintings exist to be seen, and music to be heard—and while I would never insist that an audience virtually constructs a new work each time it responds to an existing one, I would want to allow that the context of reception be every bit as complex and multifaceted as the process of inspiration and the messy business of actual art-making. Does an audience in a smoke filled-bar in Amsterdam hear and experience something different than an audience in a large Californian church that has obligingly projected a slide of the Russian painting during my performance of the poem? And where does truth come into this? I believe that it is linked in some ways to the idea of faith.
I believe it takes faith to think twice about an idea or image or musical fragment or a memory and to believe that it has significance. I believe it takes faith to pick up a paintbrush, chisel, or to sit down at a piano or a computer keyboard and entrust this fragile fragment of inspiration to the process of necessarily messy translation. And it takes faith to exhibit, perform, and display. But what are we putting our faith in? Is it the purity of our inspiration, and/or the goodness of our intentions? Are we putting our faith in our technical skills and tricks of the trade? Or are we trusting that our audiences will get everything we intended to communicate? Or can we learn to trust a process in which different ideas, media, audiences, interpretations, and questions all open the way to a kind of truth that is at once resolutely objective, but also profoundly personal? This is the process that I am trying to learn to trust. When I sit down in front of a blank journal page or in a studio in front of a keyboard, I believe that there is something truthful in my initial explorations of words and sounds—even the ones that get erased or crossed out. For me, there is plenty of truth that comes through the dead ends and the false starts. Given all that I have said about how the limitations and the contours of a chosen medium are part and parcel of how that medium communicates, then you should know that I have plenty to unlearn in terms of quick fixes and easy answers. I believe that we are disciplined by our chosen medium, and if we believe that we are in some way called to do what we do—both in terms of artist’s craft and spiritual formation—we are disciplined, shaped and transformed by the Ultimately Truthful One.
I sometimes feel like I am weighing words like stones in my hands, turning them over and over to see whether they will drag a poem down or make the lines sing. Or I am holding up a phrase like a piece of broken glass to see whether it clouds the sunlight or bends it in a new way. Similarly, I listen to the musical phrases I put behind some of the poems, or I look hard at the words scattered on the white expanse of the page. Is the white space electric? Does it swarm around the words and lift them up? Or does it support and bolster the lines that allows them to truly say what they have to say? Does the music cloud the voice or carry it? Should the musical phrase be quieter, wetter with echo and reverb? In what way can we enhance these elements so that they serve truth? There are some musical elements I have used that are so quiet that they are almost felt more than heard. And as I recall those poems and reread my remarks and observations in this essay (as rambling and collage-like as it is), the questions come back to me. Have I learned my own lessons? Have I been truthful even in the things I have written here?
I have tried to bear witness to my own responses to art in the context of a few things I have learned about art history and theory. I have tried to bear witness to aspects of my own working process, all the time seeking to anchor truth in both the learning process of finding out and also in the truthful character of the One who called me to find out in the first place. But of course, there is always so much more to learn.
Epilogue: The Sound of Waves
When I was in England in 1998 for the C. S. Lewis conference I had the opportunity to show slides and read poems from my mixed-media collaboration with artist Gaylen Stewart, called Crossing the Boundaries. This work explored (among other things) the nature and the process of artistic collaboration through a vocabulary of words, sounds and images drawn from the world of nature. I remember on one occasion showing some of the slides to a small group of artists and thinkers and trying to put into words the things I felt about the relationships between the natural systems that inspired us, our various methods of collaboration, and the very environmental feel of the resulting installation. I am not sure if my descriptions and my attempts to link them to the idea of the Trinity made as much sense as the performance of one of the poems in an old church building later that week. Here, because of the inadequate blackout, Gaylen’s slides lost their jewel-like luminosity and took on the appearance of faded tapestry. It was the stained glass windows and the elaborate church fittings that almost sang with the light. Gaylen’s images took on a new appearance and a new resonance in this context. The pre-recorded sound loops of birdsong and synthesizer acquired added depth and timbre in this hallowed space and I believe that the reading of ‘The Resurrection of the Body’ benefited also.
Now I cannot say that when I was out with my children making recordings of birdsong one chill November dawn that I ever envisaged hearing these recordings in such a setting. I had scarcely begun work on drawing together the seeds and fragmentary roots of the ideas that would go into the poems. When I first saw the show installed in a gallery in Ohio, I never imagined that I would see Gaylen’s images gain an aura of almost austere sanctity in a four-hundred-year-old church building. While I cannot objectively judge the performance of that day, I do believe that the interpenetration (without confusion) of all the elements—the seeds of inspiration, contours and limitations of the chosen media, the risks and rewards of collaboration, and the givens of that location and audience—all came together and made something quite specific. In the gallery installations the various relationships to natural systems were implicitly woven throughout all the art. But now in this environment, the work, for me at least, bore traces of what some of the Church fathers spoke of when they described the dynamic and mutually affirming relationships between the members of the Triune Godhead. At least this is what was true for me. I cannot speak for you.
This essay is published in It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, edited by Ned Bustard, published by Square Halo Books, Inc, 2000 (2006 second revised and expanded edition).
Steve Scott directs CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association.) CANA seeks to engage, connect and empower artists in different parts of the world by running international conferences (SE Asia/Eastern Europe) and maintaining online communication (see http://cana-arts.blogspot.com).
Steve's two books on art Crying for a Vision (1991, Stride UK, reprint 2005 alivingdog) and Like A House on Fire (1997, Cornerstone Press, reprint 2002 Wipf and Stock) are still available from Amazon. Read more about Steve’s records and books here: http://www.alivingdog.com/SteveScott.html