Biblical Aesthetics

The following is a little essay I’m developing on Biblical aesthetics. Happy for thoughts on it, or on the subject matter more generally. Is there an aesthetic theory buried in scripture? Is there a religious role for art?..

Of Icons and Idols

1 - Some Biblical Insight

Art is the result of creation. Both God and humankind can create, or make works of art. In the relationship between God and humankind we see the ideal relationship between the artist and the art. Exemplary art images its creator. The artist is meant to be revealed through the art. The most exemplary art of all then is that which reveals God. That this is possible for humankind to achieve in its artwork is what I want to show and describe. Any art that does not achieve this, though it may be art, is not exemplary art. It is not what art should be in its fully developed state.

2 - Exemplary Art and the Problem of Disinterest

You could call me an empiricist: to philosophically approach art we must do so by experiencing it, and most preferably by experiencing exemplary instances of it, not just for the universal recognition of such pieces as art, but since it is through exemplary works of art that we are best able to ascertain art’s essential nature.

Exemplary art is art at its best, so what better place to study art than in its presence?

But what is an example of exemplary art? What makes art exemplary? In choosing the examples do I not predetermine the outcome of my study? The examples that I choose will prove their exemplariness through the way that they deal with the problem of all art, namely the eventual disinterestedness of its subjects (and creators). Disinterest could come at any time in our experience of art, and it marks, in a way, a failure of the art. Exemplary art protects itself against disinterest.

3 - Our Experience of Art

In the process of experiencing any work of art the first thing that we do is contemplate. We need to encounter and take in the art whether it is exemplary or not (in fact, it is too soon to tell at this point in our experience if the art is exemplary; the art may immediately take hold of us, but this is not sufficient for exemplariness).

As we contemplate the artwork we immerse ourselves in it, or we allow the art to take hold of us, receiving aesthetic satisfaction in the process. In this act of contemplation (or better yet: captivation) cognizing also begins, subconscious at first but with the possibility of eventual cognizance, a moment of clarity that brings with it perhaps even greater aesthetic satisfaction than our captivation did. In the clarity of cognizance there is interpretation and attendant presentation in thought of the meaning or role of the art, no longer subconscious but fully formed in the mind of the subject, and this aesthetic experience is very satisfying.

But this point in our experience of art is a crossroads, for once the art has been thought about, unless contemplation is continued and there are subsequent moments of cognizance and deeper interpretations the aesthetic satisfaction will begin to wane, and we will lose interest in the art. As Wolterstorff says, we will become jaded, no longer interested in the piece (or in our thoughts on it).

4 - Art Defying Experience

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is an example of exemplary art, not just for its universal recognition as art, nor for the amount of satisfaction that we derive from contemplating it, nor for the role that it plays in the Sistine Chapel (whether in Renaissance days or today), nor for the statement that it makes about its subject matter (which is profound), but for all of these reasons and more.
While Michelangelo’s Last Judgement delivers exceptionally on all of the expectations we have when experiencing art, what makes it truly exemplary is that it also defies our expectations, by disabling our disinterest (at least for a while). Where the normal result of an encounter with art is loss of interest, exemplary art has a superabundance of the essential aesthetic power of drawing in subjects, of hooking them, which makes exemplary art a potentially dangerous idol but also a possible link to God, an icon in God’s likeness.

This latter possibility is the ambition of all art, but few pieces of art fulfill this potential. Nevertheless, there are certain things that we can say about art that does, for with all respect to Wolterstorff we have instances of it.

5 - Depth and Intrigue

Exemplary art first of all defies this process that ends in our disinterest by pulling us into ever deeper levels of understanding. It structurally prevents a plateau of thought by hooking us with its subtleties, such as, for example, a strange look from a previously unnoticed figure in the crowd, or a passage in Scripture that just stands out, inspiring further contemplation not only of it, but of the text that it attends (if I do not understand why a man runs away naked from Jesus’ arrest for example, do I really understand what is happening with Jesus in John’s Gospel as a work of art?..).

Exemplary art provides both the capacity to support deep levels of thought and the intrigue to keep our interest, bringing aesthetic satisfaction to profounder levels until either the capacity of the artwork has been reached or we have given up on the piece. The books of the Bible are exemplars of exemplary works of art for the depth and intrigue that they provide, which is unparalleled, or is paralleled only by other texts which, in their artistry, have rightfully taken their place as religious icons.

The ambition of all art is to become religious. It is to image God, the creator of all. Look at Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: it centers upon Christ and its intrigues swirl around him. Look at the book of Job: it is God that Job comes to see in the end (and that we are supposed to see in the end), by seeing God in himself, because he is in the likeness of God, like all art is meant to be.
As it should be with exemplary art (at least for awhile) I do not pretend to understand the Bible, but this is because it has disabled my disinterest and given rise to what is so far an endless shifting of deepening interpretation through subtle clues and images. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement offers us something similar. But as both Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and the book of Job show, depth and intrigue is not enough for the art to be truly exemplary.

6 - The Normalization of Interpretation

Exemplary art challenges our interpretations not just by shocking us with its vast depths or by presenting us with something strange, a fine detail that grabs our attention, but rather it subtly guides us through its depths toward a meaningful end. It is not just depth and intrigue that are sufficient for exemplariness, as if art can lead us a long way in many disconnected directions and still deserve to be called exemplary. Rather exemplary art directs us as it draws us toward its meaningful end, so that no matter where we begin, and no matter how diverse our original interpretations, our deepening cognition is normalized by the art itself, and our interpretations should merge with patient contemplation (and genuine exemplariness). In exemplary art no element is superfluous. Every detail is accounted for by and guides us to the art’s meaningful end. Exemplary art is a model of inner coherence.

7 - Aesthetic Idolatry

At this point it is worth noting that while the depth and intrigue of exemplary art gives rise to diverse interpretations, this does not mire us in relativism. The normalizing effect of exemplary art means that art, if it is exemplary, has a meaningful end. To remain at a plateau of thought therefore means one of two things: either we have reached this meaningful end by searching out the art’s various intrigues and by plumbing its depths, so that the piece is incapable of sustaining further cognition, or else we have betrayed the work of art by reducing it to an interpretation that is incomplete or skewed, and in doing so have engaged in a sort of aesthetic idolatry, where the meaning we find in the art, but which is not the art’s meaning, becomes our interest, effectively replacing the art whether we realize it or not.

Should this happen three things are possible: either we will lose interest in our idolatrous meaning (and in the art, whose meaning we believe it to be) or else we will re-engage the art and come to a deeper understanding of it, perhaps reaching its meaningful end, or else our idolatrous meaning will take a religious hold of us, so that our aesthetic idolatry becomes, perhaps, the more dangerous religious sort.

But whether we reach an idolatrous meaning of the art or its meaningful end, either way the risk of disinterest increases and the question is raised of a next step that art can take to avoid this eventuality and so prove its exemplariness. As already intimated, the next step that art must take is religious.

8 - Religion at the Meaningful End of Art

If we have reached the meaningful end of the art, or what we perceive to be the art’s meaning, there is the question of its religious value. Exemplary art defies disinterestedness, so if art is to continue to do this once its intrigues have been followed through to their proper depths then the meaning that we arrive at must take a religious hold of us. The art and our interpretation of it (which are the same when the art’s meaningful end has been reached) must become our faith, so that we are bound together through a religious link that sustains our interest even after having thought the art through. If the art fails to take a religious hold of us then either its message was not right or we were not right for it, and either way there is disinterest. If the art (or our idolatrous meaning) does become our faith then there is, as mentioned, the more dangerous possibility of our engaging in religious idolatry.

But whether or not this happens, art must attain to the status of religion if it is to be an exemplar of exemplary art. The art must take religious hold of us if it is to continue to defy disinterest after its depths have been searched.

9 - The Modern Accumulation of Art

While some might explain the burgeoning collection of art in modern Western culture in terms of the contemplative need for fresh material, it could also be understood as the search for a piece of art that can satisfy the conditions of exemplariness, and that is capable of either sustaining endless contemplation through its intrigues or of taking a religious hold of us once we reach the art’s meaningful end. The Western ransacking of other cultures and emphasis on artistic proliferation could be a sign of our culture’s desire for religion, for a piece of art with the aesthetic power of scripture, for example, that can fill the void left in our hearts by the rise of secularism and the disgrace of faith.

(An interesting phenomenon is the shift from cultural works of art like the Bible to individual works of art like Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. I wonder if there is a link between Western culture’s appetite for art and this trend. If the proliferation and ransacking of art by Western culture is a sign of its subconscious yearning for a piece of art with the power of religion, like scripture, then would it not be more likely to find such a piece at the end of a long tradition, a cultural work of art like Homer or the Bible? While I am certain that individual work is also capable of succeeding in this endeavor, if art was reinstated as a more cultural enterprise I believe that Western culture would start to benefit from quality over quantity, and it would be more satisfied with the art that it has.)

10 - Of Icons and Idols

Truly exemplary art, or a work that really hits the mark when it comes to art, must take a religious hold of us once we reach its meaningful end so that in this way it continues to keep us interested and defy the problem that all art has when it enters into experience. But art that attains to religious power is not necessarily exemplary, for there is also art that proves its religious worth, or that once taken as religious sustains its religious power by demonstrating its effectiveness in life. Once in the position of faith, art is not thereby immune to disinterestedness, for if it fails to prove itself in life (assuming we live the faith correctly) then it is inevitable that we will give up on it, and become disinterested.

Only art whose meaning we search out and take as religious and that warrants its religious status through the results of its being put into action in life is truly exemplary, or is an icon. Such works of art have the capacity to—and should—perpetually keep our interest and permanently defy disinterestedness. But even with such exemplary art the problem of religious idolatry remains, a possibility that not even an icon can sidestep.

11 - Aesthetic Mysticism?

This brings us to the question of whether my position amounts to an aesthetic mysticism. I would say that it does not, at least, in its negative sense, is taking the work of art as God instead of as the likeness of God, which is what the art ideally is. Exemplary art does not direct us to just any meaningful end, but to God, who goes beyond any meaning (or reality) that the art could provide. Exemplary art reveals God but it does not replace God, and so my view is not aesthetic mysticism even as it involves the worshipping of art.

Even if the meaningful end of the art is God and the art is exemplary to the point of being iconic because its message is proven by life itself there nevertheless remains the danger of religious idolatry. Such art, perhaps because it reveals God, runs the risk of taking the place of God just as in aesthetic idolatry our incomplete or skewed meaning of the art takes the place of the art. While exemplary art reveals God it does not replace God, no matter how divine its meaning may be. To subsume God into any art is to reduce God to something that while true of God, does not, and could not, exhaust God, or take the place of God. Even an icon like the Bible can become an idol. This is what happens in aesthetic mysticism in its negative sense. In its positive sense the work of art reveals God, and as such is deserving of worship.

12 - The Artist

I would like to end by making some remarks about the artist. So far my discussion has focused on the disinterest of the subject, and how exemplary art defies this, but the problem of disinterest extends to the artist as well, whose interest in the art must be retained if the art is to fulfill its iconic potential and reveal God.

In this regard, the artist goes through a similar process as the subject, but instead of receiving a meaning with religious potential they express their own religious commitment whether they are aware of it or not, and like the subject they too work out the religious commitment as they work through the art. Just as we follow the subtleties of the art to its meaningful end so the artist encounters these intrigues in the creation of the art, so that the finishing touches that the artist applies brings the art’s meaningful end into focus not only for the art’s subjects but also for the artist.

The artist too is ultimately trying to work out their faith, and to come to God through their work, which is perhaps the reason why no exemplary artist is ever truly satisfied with their work.

Some of the greatest art produced in our world has arisen from crypto-biblical Neoplatonism. There is something in the human that loves a glorious, nonexistent ur-source that inspires art, that we like to think of as actual history, the same as we think of the bible.

Wow, good read! Long time ago I got immersed in a post like this.
I just would bring up one issue, - does art not rather describe man, than God? In my opinion this is what is sublime, what counts for our transcendent experience when we are moved by art, - as a being knowing itself, seeing itself understood, translated to itself.

There is a way that art can metaphorize or symbolize the divine through the imaging of humans.

Thanks Jakob, and Jonquil.

Yes! But maybe we need to understand it as doing both: humankind is created in the image of God, so in its fulfillment humankind should be in the likeness of God. That’s precisely what I want to say art’s meaningful end is: the revelation of God and/or humankind as it was meant to be: Godlike.

It’s tricky. That’s why I like the two examples of art that I used: Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and the book of Job. The Last Judgement centers around Christ, the God-man, and at the end of the book of Job, Job comes to see God, but what Job really comes to see is himself. In seeing himself Job sees God.

Anyways, the point is that I fully agree with you, but it’s all God in the end!

Exactly. Guess I didn’t need to say the above!

This is a nice definition of God. You’ve shown where his existence can be proven - in art, and in that which art enables. If philosophy wants to integrate religion here’s the starting point.

God can be made physical, on Earth, beyond the domains of minerals, plants and animals - man has yet to perfect himself. Art is his way, and in art humanity must live if it is to live in peace.