The Artist’s Role

As I was working on my reading for my history seminar on the music of East-Central Europe in the 20th century, I came across the following quote in the context of the influence of Eastern Orthodox spirituality on Arvo Pärt:

It is not enough for art simply to register the horror or re-enact the details of our fall.  In our aesthetic imagination we have become like wounded beings crawling among the remains of our broken civilization–which Ezra Pound early in the [20th] century described as ‘botched’–clutching perhaps a single token of beauty, a line or two of poetry, a Bach prelude, a white canvas, which must now symbolize everything…

Like an ancient monastic order, we carry within us the seeds of renewal–the grain of hope–which we plant again and again after each fresh disaster, digging ever deeper into the past to re-establish only what is essential, that which alone can endure across time.  In such times (and therefore at all times) the role of the artist is the preservation of spiritual values, a role which demands exploration and sacrifice, quite as much as conservation. ~ Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, OUP: 1997

In the context of the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries and the sometimes debilitating individualism of ‘post-modern’ culture, such a statement seems to reflect both the potentially dangerous preoccupations of contemporary art and music as well as the potentially healing power of hope if it were expressed among the ruins of our fallen state.   Perhaps Begbie’s and Seerveld’s call to incorporate redemption into artistic expression might be a more explicitly Christian call of this sort to spiritual responsibility in the arts.  In any case, these ideas are worth pondering, and to that end, any comments are welcome.

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To begin with a quote…

I’m grateful that Bach’s Christianity was realized in both his conscious and subconscious mind.  But being a practising Christian is not part of the job description, and sometimes God chooses most peculiar people to be vessels of genius.  My mother used to sigh because her beloved Wagner was such a nasty man.  And I was horrified to have some students tell me that a lot of people actively dislike Robert Frost.  How does one separate the art from the artist?

I don’t think one does, and this poses a problem.  How do we reconcile atheism, drunkenness, sexual immorality, with strong, beautiful poetry, angelic music, transfigured painting?  We human beings don’t, and that’s all there is to it.  Dostoeyvsky’s magnificent theology is not always compatible with his agonized life.  Mozart wrote one of his merriest and most joyful pieces while he was frantic over his dying mother.  Mendelssohn, who helped give Bach to the world, was a Jew.

It’s all more than I can cope with–or, rather, it’s more than my conscious mind can cope with.  Jung says that we are far more than the part of ourselves we can know about, and that one of the most crippling errors of twentieth-century culture has been our tendency to limit ourselves to our intellect… The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and the intuition, we are told; and the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and the intellect.  And we’re afraid of that left, intuitive side…

From that misunderstood left comes prayer and poetry and song, and these have a healing power we are losing touch with in this technocratic age…

Maybe the job of the artist is to see through all of this strangeness to what really is, and that takes a lot of courage, and a strong faith in the validity of the artistic vision even if there is not a conscious faith in God…

‘Our identity is hidden, even from ourselves…. the doctrine that we are made after the image of God proclaims that the human being is fundamentally a mystery, a free spirit.  The creative artist is one who carries within him the wound of transcendence.  He is the sign that human beings are more than they are.’

~ from Walking on Water, by Madeleine L’Engle (125-128) (internal quote from Journey into Christ, by Alan Jones)