THE BLOG
06/01/2010 11:05 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Art and the Meaning of Creation

Every so often, I'm invited to join up with a very likely, art-friendly crew to take part in one of the annual workshops sponsored in Santa Fe by Image journal and its sponsoring agency, The Center for Religious Humanism. Some years ago, for one of those sessions, Greg Wolfe and his staff chose Love and Affliction as their theme.

Those attending were by that curious combination led to observe a subtlety or two: that love is often manifested in our paying attention, giving care, and that--in the case of art-making--this attention is often performed by our taking pains to give uncommon care to the stuff of creation--the clay, the pigment, the wood, the stone, whatever.

Any well-made thing--whether held in the hand or viewed from afar--stands in stark contrast to all that is shoddy around us--a manifestly disastrous economic system (for instance), or criminal corporate strategies, or cynical erosions of our political and legal institutions, or partisan spin dished out as news, or--just so you don't think I'm simply pointing fingers here--the chagrin of our own faltering, sputtering lives, dissipated in self-defeating habits and distractions.

In the midst of this roiling confusion, good art does become something of a consolation. And very good art is potentially something more--bearing what might turn out to be corrective, remedial agency.

Such art surely serves as a consolation for those who make it, especially for those exceptional folk who struggle to make it well. Laboring over the wheel, the canvas, the written page, or the musical score can bring to the laborer a powerfully consoling sense of purpose. It can quiet the legion distractions of the mind, and renew one's love for matter itself.

The literary critic and philosopher George Steiner indicates a sense of why this is so: "Any coherent understanding," he writes, "of what language is and how language performs ... any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meanings and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence."

He goes further: "I will put forward the argument that the experience of aesthetic meaning in particular, that of literature, of the arts, of musical forms, infers the necessary possibility of this "real presence. [This] ... is, very precisely, that which the poem, the painting, the musical composition are at liberty to explore and enact. ... [T]he wager on the meaning of meaning ... is a wager on transcendence."

Speaking for myself, I'm no great fan of "transcendence," per se, mostly because it often attests to a species of spiritual fervor that discounts the material world and its bouquets of lovely stuff. The specifically Christian undertaking, duly appreciated, is decidedly not one of transcending. On the contrary, it obtains the re-inspiriting of the body and all its lowly matter. The God, one supposes, didn't "become flesh" in order to extricate our human persons from our bodies, but to infuse (maybe to re-infuse) our mere animality with life-bearing spirit.

In any case and fortunately, this glib dismissal of the body is not what Mr. Steiner is identifying above; instead, he is observing that our significance--our insistence on signifying--has to with our implicit assumption of "the Real," the "What Is" that lies beyond our ken. My own preference is to consider the Real as abiding both beyond us and, by the God's kindly incarnation, increasingly within us.

Elsewhere, Mr. Steiner puts the matter even more explicitly: "a Pascalian wager on the transcendent is the essential foundation for the understanding of language, for the ascription of meaning to meaning. This wager, moreover, implicitly or explicitly characterizes major art and literature from Homer and Aeschylus almost to the present; it alone allows us to 'make sense' of music." For Steiner, then, the act of making art, of writing literature, and of composing music demonstrates an implicit expectation of a reality that abides beyond and within what is apparent, a reality that provides the necessary context for any significance, any subsequent meaning-making.

For the artist of any art, then, it is not surprising that her labors can provide a deeply satisfying consolation, giving witness to her own subconscious hope, her own implicit--avowed or disavowed--faith.

Beyond this local benefit to the artist himself, good art also can offer consolation to all of those who have labored to receive it well. The quiet calm that accompanies our hours in the museum, the gallery, the studio, the concert hall--where we "'make sense'" of music"--is, at the very least, consoling.

A well-made-thing-well-received quietly suggests that all things we undertake to accomplish be undertaken with care; in this way, the well-made-thing bears an undeniable power to affect us and to enhance our expectations; it nudges us to raise the bar.

To the extent that the well-made-thing provokes a responsive, corrective, self-examination, it works to educe from us an ongoing, active and answering creation--an answer that performs our longing for wholeness and reconciliation. One might say that, in attending to such art and in answering it with substantive response, we make our hope matter.

More generally, to the extent that this practice teaches us simply to honor care taken, it also teaches us to be a good deal less content with the shabby, the hasty, the thoughtless, the narrow and the glib.

Our learning to honor the serious labor that goes into a well-made artifact might--if we make the expansive connection--teaches us to honor the serious labor involved in shaping a well-made life. We might even be tempted to get busy shaping one. In the case of suffering, we may not choose our afflictions, but we do choose what to make of them.

In an earlier post, I offered "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden for its insights. The poem's ambivalences and edgy ironies provide a clue to the dark heart of our trouble--namely, what keeps us separate, severed and self-absorbed is an habitual disinclination to take seriously the suffering of others.

In Auden's words, the failures and travails of others do not often strike us as "important failures." Like his poem's busy plowman, the dog absorbed by doggy life, the executioner's itchy horse, like the pretty ship with somewhere else to go, we too seldom attend to--too seldom partake in--the failing and the suffering of our various members, and we therefore fail to realize the fullness, the reality, the appalling mystery of life as One Body.

Simply put, I am now supposing that until we come to recognize everyone's failure as a personal failure, we are unlikely ever to succeed as we must.