Flannery on Art

peacockFlannery, again. On art:

St. Thomas called art “reason in making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.

I wonder what Flannery means by “reason” when she says that “reason has lost ground among us.” She must mean more than narrow rationalism or intellectualism, which seem to be gaining rather than losing. I suspect she means something along the lines of the (metaphysical) glue that holds all that exists in its divinely ordained order: reason, in that understanding, is the Word and Wisdom of God which makes cosmos (rather than chaos). That has certainly lost ground. We live in chaos.

By this definition, it makes sense that the artist’s reason can discover “an answering reason in everything he sees.” That makes sense because the classic catholic vision is that everything coheres in God. A deep likeness makes all things kin, despite appearances.

Finding in things “the spirit which makes it itself” comes at a cost. The cost is self-emptying– what Flannery is alluding to when she mentions the artist’s  “single-minded respect for the truth.”  That single-mindedness of the artist is the turning away from ego-satisfaction, and the turning toward contemplation: away from self-absorption, toward absorption in the sensible world.  Or, as Flannery says in another place, there’s nothing not worthy of the writer’s stare.








Religion in the Balance has been in winter hibernation while Ribeye Films has been hard at work on our film “Atwood.” Apparently I can’t sustain both at the same time.

At 800-and-something pages, George Eliot’s Middlemarch has required an investment of time– usually late at night– as well. I always wondered what the fuss was about this novel. Now I know. Frank Kermode calls it a “masterpiece,” and he’s right. Eliot is as penetrating into the complex motivations of human beings, as any writer I know. She masterfully creates a world in which her characters are forced into crises; these crises, in turn, refine and wisen, deepen, and sometimes defeat her protagonists and foils. It’s real life refined to its essence: in other words, it’s art.

Here’s one of many passages I marked for its insight into human psychology. It’s about the way we are susceptible to flattering self-deception when it comes to religious belief. Bulstrode is the character she’s describing:

“There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. [Emphasis added] If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.”

via BBC – History – George Eliot.

The Eyes of Life


This Rembrandt self-portrait is the masterpiece of all his self-portraits. Past mid-life, he could see the heartache and the mystery of life, and, with a lifetime of accumulated skill at his command, could render that heartache and mystery in a face– his own face– on canvas.

The equivalent in literature is Shakespeare’s Tempest: whole in its vision of both human nobility and human depravity; skilled in its artistic execution; wise in its hard-earned compassion for suffering; and enduring in its ability to move the human heart to a higher level. We don’t measure works like this self-portrait, or Shakespeare’s Tempest— they measure us.

I am drawn to the darkness in Rembrandt’s paintings. The shadows remind us of the vast darkness that surrounds our own little light of consciousness– the richness of our dream life; the creative power of our imaginative life; the destructive power of our all-too-threatening and therefore largely denied impulse to violence; and the terror of nothingness and our inevitable death.

Nothing lasts– not a religion nor a philosophy; not a government nor a civilization; not a society nor a culture– that doesn’t make a home for the shadow and the dark.


I am reminded of Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite: nature framed and re-presented so as to point beyond itself to the eternal Beauty that lies behind all change and decay. Good art lifts us out of ourselves, and puts us in touch with what is true.

This picture is worth a minute or two, just to admire… and wonder.

[click on the link below for more on this recent image]

via ‘Blue Marble 2012’: NASA’s ‘Most Amazing’ High Def Image Of Earth So Far : The Two-Way : NPR.

Art and Religion, Part Two

Iris Murdoch

If you don’t know Iris Murdoch’s work, you’re in for a treat. I recently quoted a passage from her novel The Bell, in which main character Dora visits the National Gallery. Here I quote from one of her philosophical works, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists:

“Good art, thought of as symbolic force rather than statement, provides a stirring image of a pure transcendent value, a steady visible enduring higher good, and perhaps provides for many people, in an unreligious age without prayer or sacraments, their clearest experience of something grasped as separate and precious and beneficial and held quietly and unpossessively in the attention. Good art which we love can seem holy and attending to it can be like praying… Good art… provides work for the spirit.”

Art and Religion

Thomas Gainsborough-- a painting of his two daughters

The late, great Iris Murdoch, in her novel The Bell, narrates main character Dora’s visit to the National Gallery in London. Her experience of the art– and in particular, this painting– breaks through like a revelation:

“Dora had been in the National Gallery a thousand times and the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face. Passing between them now, as through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending on her…. She could look, as one can at last when one knows a great thing very well, confronting it with a dignity which it has itself conferred…. Dora stopped at last in front of Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters. These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike.

“Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvelous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect…. Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it a part of her fantasy make it worthless…. She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knee before it, embracing it, shedding tears.”

Great art cannot be commodified, reduced, and consumed. We do not take its measure; rather, it measures us.

via Thomas Gainsborough.

Christ Carrying the Cross: Behold the Beautiful

Christ Carrying the Cross by Giovanni Bellini-- 16th-century Italian

This oil on wood painting by a follower of Bellini was one of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorites; you can see it today at the Gardner Museum in Boston. It’s an apt image to start Holy Week. I thank my wife Eleanor for bringing it to my attention.

For some who hold onto Christ primarily to confirm their already-held beliefs about the world– I wish that Jesus would be more of a stumbling block to them; more of a goad to examine their unexamined assumptions about life; more disturbing of their already-held beliefs. For others who reject Christ because, well, who has time for fairy tales?– I wish that Jesus would be less of a stumbling block to them. I wish that he would simply come and make himself known, through the strange heart-warmth, and the peace beyond words, that mark his presence.

I’ve been down both roads, and will be down both roads again, sometime or another. Faith is not a steady-state system. The authentic journey has many seasons, each with its gifts and dangers.

Our culture would do well to turn for a moment from its fevered ways to gaze on Christ– not because he is a pattern of virtue that we ought to assimilate (which makes Jesus just another commodity in the marketplace), but because he is beautiful.

Grace is in the direction of beauty. The proper response to beauty is to behold, rather than to grasp or to own. We would be a healthier culture, in all ways, if we increased our capacity to behold– rather than devour– what is beautiful.