Sunday, April 27, 2008

God as Super-Art-Object

"Religion may still be an answer to guilt and fear, may be expected to save us from technology; the hope of the salvation of the individual and the redemption of all fallen things remains in many forms. Belief in a personal God seemed a prime guarantee of general morality. The charm, attraction, and in many ways deep effectiveness, of faith in a personal God must constantly strike the critical or envious outsider. It is just this practical and consoling God whom the bolder demythologising theologians want us to take leave of. In doing so they may well point to the Second Commandment. 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.' (Exodus 20.4.) This indeed sounds like a veto not only upon idolatrous symbolic visual art, but upon any art and even upon the development of a pictorial theology. The spirit of the Commandment has been observed by Judaism and Islam; but not by Christianity, where all the talents of art, not least those of the painters, have been dedicated to presenting God as a kind of super-art-object. The work of art unifies our sensibility. Its authoritative unity and thereness guarantees and stabilises our existence, while removing our petty egoistic anxiety. ... God combines the characteristics of a work of art and of a philosophical idea with those of an ideal spectator. We see in God in a magnified form the analogy between work of art and person; and Christ as God provides both personality and story. ...

"Our illusions about art and morals are in some ways similar. Do we expect too much from art? ... The material of art is contingent limited historically stained stuff. Nevertheless art is a great source of revelation. ... It is difficult for any artist not to falsify, the discipline of art must include the persistent recognition and rejection of easy natural falsification: the temptation to the ego is enormous since it really does seem here to dispose of the godlike powers it secretly dreams of. Truth is always a proper touchstone in art, and a training in art is a training in how to use the touchstone. This is perhaps the most difficult thing of all, requiring that courage which the good artist must possess. Artists indicate or invent, in the invention of their work, their own relevant tests of truth. A study of good literature, or of any good art, enlarges and refines our understanding of truth, our methods of verification. Truth is not a simple or easy concept. Critical terminology imputes falsehood to an artist by using terms such as fantastic, sentimental, self-indulgent, banal, grotesque, tendentious, unclarified, wilfully obscure and so on. The positive aspect of the avoidance of these faults is a kind of transcendence: the ability to see other non-self things clearly and to criticise and celebrate them freely and justly. ...

"Art is artificial, it is indirect communication which delights in its own artifice. The work of art is, to use W. H. Auden's words (he is speaking of a poem), 'a contraption'. But it is, as he goes on to say, 'a contraption with a guy inside it'. The art object is a kind of illusion, a false unity, the product of a mortal man who cannot entirely dominate his subject matter and remove or transform contingent rubble and unclarified personal emotions and attitudes. ... Art expands our present consciousness and teaches us to live inside it. We seek in art of all kinds for the comforting sense of a unified self, with organised emotions and fearless world-dominating intelligence, a complete experience in a limited whole. Yet good art mirrors not only the (illusory) unity of the self but its real disunity. ... Good art accepts and celebrates and meditates upon the defeat of the discursive intellect by the world. Bad art misrepresents the world so as to pretend there is no defeat."

--Iris Murdoch, Metephysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

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