Monday, April 01, 2013

truth, art, ugliness, cosmos and chaos

I'm currently reading 'Walking on Water' by Madeleine L'Engle and I took exception to a beautifully rendered and attractive idea that she expresses early in her book. Perhaps the rest of the book will explore the nuances and paradoxes a little more, but the proposal she makes at the outset, I think, needs discussion.

... all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art (by which I mean all true art...) is cosmos in chaos. There's some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the reproduction of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian. 

But is she right? We agree and disagree. There was a tendency in Christian art theory of the 20th century to set up a dualism between chaos/ugliness and truth/Christian/beauty. A key mover in this was H.R. Rookmaaker. The title of his famous work sort of sums it up: "Modern Art and the Death of a Culture". Historically speaking, it's a reactionary movement (as many cultural, philosophical and artistic movements are). Faced with an influx of modern art which dealt with the unsettling, the confrontational, the unattractive and the chaotic, Christian thinkers responded with an art theory that set truth and beauty in opposition to the nihilistic tendencies of 20th century culture.

And as a believer, you know my heart responds to that idea. The Christian faith is about bringing light to darkness, truth to lies, beauty to ugliness, life to death, existence to non-existence, meaning to meaninglessness. And as an 'artist', my heart responds to the idea of making cosmos out of chaos - and I think, mainly speaking, my artistic intentions are along those lines.

But art should tell all three sides of the story.

I'll state my thesis: chaos and ugliness are not the opposite of truth. Therefore an art which describes chaos and ugliness is not inherently untruthful and not inherently anti-Christian. And it is certainly not inherently 'non-art'.

If one were to describe the world around us - or the world inside us - as it currently stands - one would need to make reference to chaos and ugliness. All this is subjective, of course, but an honest look at things will reveal that the universe (and our experience of the universe) is a dark, cold place (both literally and metaphorically). Nihilism is understandable. Chaos is a fitting representation of an aspect of our existence. Sometimes ugliness is the best way to describe a situation. So chaos and ugliness are true.

I'm not sure which artists L'Engle had in mind when she attempted to argue for the existence of a non-art, but let's say Jackson Pollock, for example, is not inherently untrue and not inherently anti-Christian just because he utilises and represents chaos. A picture in a World Press Photo exhibition of a corpse with its face missing is not untrue and not inherently anti-Christian just because it's ugly. Like it or not, there is an accuracy here about the way the world is and about our experience of the world.

The most common and widely engaged artform in our society is music, so let's look there for a moment. One of the finest and most accurate representations of the 21st century western human condition is the creative output of Radiohead (and the work of Thom Yorke in general). I've read books and essays written by Christians that attempt to imbue this music with Christian 'truthiness' - almost as if they are trying to impose redemption on it to make it true and admissible. There's no need. It is what it is. A fine and accurate portrayal. The music of Burial is another body of work that I think falls in that category. There is dissonance, things set off kilter, static. This stuff is true.

So that's, I think, where the notion of the dualism between chaos/ugliness and truth/Christian/beauty in the realm of art falls down.

All that being said, back to my statement of earlier: art should tell all three sides of the story. Let's look at them. And, as we're used to dualisms - at least we used to be - back in the 20th century - let's begin with the obvious two...

- The universe is a dark, cold place. If we are to accurately describe the world, as I've argued above, we're going to need to describe it as dark and cold. And there are artists who do this with astonishing and unsettling accuracy. So much so that I often choose not to look. It's true.

- The world is sunshine and flowers. Narnia is set to rights. The sun glitters off a placid ocean as you and your loved one sprint across a wide-open field. You cry with love and joy the first time you see your newborn child. Is it true? Some strands of art and human expression would seem to say not. But I'm here to tell you it is. It's true.

If both these aspects of the universe are true, then there will be somewhere where they come into contact... the third side of the story.

- The reality of human existence. Allow me to mention Radiohead and Burial again in an attempt to describe what I mean... amongst the darkness, distraction, paranoia and unbalance, strains of melody and snippets of beauty float to the surface and dissipate. The third side of the story is that the universe and the world is a dark, sunshine, cold, floral place, and we encounter ugliness and chaos here, and snatch hold of beauty and security there.

Personally I find this middle space the most interesting one - it's where tension and paradox is found.

To be true, art should tell all three sides of the story. Given the vast areas that each side of the story represents, I think it is unreasonable to expect any one artist to accurately explore and represent all three sides. But art, as a whole, can. Art can, and should, explore chaos. Art can, and should, explore cosmos. And art can, and should, explore the space where the two collide.