Why art? Countless millions cry out for food to relieve their hunger. Many are caught up in wars, praying for some semblance of peace. There are diseases to cure. Environmental disasters to prevent. International institutions to build. Why, indeed, art?
From the very beginnings of human history—times of far greater hunger, violence, and injustice—men and women made drawings, formed figures, and decorated everyday life. We were not created, it seems, for mere survival. We do not simply want life; we want life adorned, life bathed in beauty. To neglect the aesthetic dimension of our humanity—even for the sake of noble endeavors to improve the lot of others and to advance the causes of justice—diminishes us.
Our desire for beauty has many dimensions. Art is, for example, a craft, a training of the eye and hand. But at a deeper level, art plays an important role in culture because it is a habit of hesitation. Art grows out of the disposition to stop and allow oneself to be arrested by what is real, not with an eye toward manipulating the world, not even toward good ends, but in submission and service to reality.
In the Christian tradition, this habit or disposition of attention goes by the name of contemplation. Aristotle associated this habit with leisure, which he thought was the culmination or pinnacle of human endeavor and the basis of a fully developed, humane society. With the notion of leisure he did not mean “downtime,” but instead the capacity to set aside the affairs of the moment in order to give uninterrupted (and unscheduled) attention to higher things. Worship, for example, or philosophical discussion, or aesthetic reflection.
We need encouragement to enter into moments of leisure and art helps us slip into this sense of wonder. If we would tarry for a moment, the lilies afloat in a shimmering pond invite contemplation, but we pass them without a backward glance. They were, however, enough to occupy Monet for nearly three decades of his life.
Both Monet, in applying oils to his canvas, and the viewer, looking at the beauty produced by his brushstrokes, invent a world. His can be found in the painting itself. The viewer’s emerges in his mind in response to what he sees. Both of these inventions, so different from the world itself, are (or at least can be) saturated with reality. It’s an odd experience. Moments of fancy and invention draw the solidity of what is real into our imagination and us into the real. And it is precisely this that sheds light, I think, on the intrinsic importance of art.
We live our lives forward, always leaping through the present, leaving behind the recent past and entering into the future. In a fundamental sense, therefore, we are stretching away from what is real—the solidity of experiences we’ve had (and are having)—toward what we can only imagine. And in this stretching we sense the danger of the future: that our hopes and dreams, our plans and projects for the future, will be unrealistic and unattainable. We also feel a backward-looking threat: that as our past experiences recede they will lose their reality and our lives will come unraveled.
This danger and threat are not only personal. Modern man often feels uprooted from the past, which rapid social change often makes seem remote and unreal. So we search for something that promises a new future, a way of living we can inhabit permanently and with confidence. Cast out of the past, we want to be at home in the future, and therefore we are tempted by collective utopian dreams that have brutalized reality in order to achieve unrealistic goals: eliminating private property, achieving ethnic purity, ensuring absolute equality.
Art can train our imaginations to be more retentive and receptive to reality, and respectful of it as well. Imagination, properly developed, stretches our sense of the real—or more accurately it allows the depth and breadth of what is real to stretch us. The effect is a more capacious, more absorptive sense of life, one capable of renewing the solidity of our memories of the past and giving reality to our dreams for the future.
In the modern era, technology, economic dynamism, and social change tend to drain reality from life. We need not simply to look again, but to look more closely and with far greater focus. In its many different forms, modern art has largely been a series of experiments in intensified seeing: pure color, pure form, pure perspective pushed to extremes.
By my reading, these modern experiments in art have involved mostly pulling apart the threads of perception rather than putting them back together again. Abstraction, for example, isolates form and color. Cubism and other techniques rearrange the planes of three dimensional reality, changing our experiences of perspective. And perhaps that’s to be expected, even desired. In our era, advertisers conjure many finished images, so we come to suspect that a straightforward presentation of reality risks being folded back into the endless aesthetic games that try to manipulate our imaginations so that we will buy or vote or think a certain way.
There are of course many artistic tricksters who play games with our aesthetic expectations. Yet, at its best, modern art rightly resists the impulse to recompose our visual experience into reliable forms. The complicated and often contradictory contemporary forms of our visual experience needs to be taken apart so that we can engage at least one dimension, trusting in its reality.
We live in an age of cultural disintegration, or at least weakening, and to a great extent the tendency of modern art toward pulling visual experiences apart reflects this truth. As a result, we face the temptation to move too quickly toward restoration, prematurely reintegrating, rushing to give beauty its shapely fullness as an expression of what is true and good. The danger here is that our synthesis will fall in line with prevailing ideologies. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of didactic (and self-congratulating) contemporary art that does exactly that. Or the temptation can be more mundane (and more common): We return to the air-brushed visual comforts of familiar commercial images.
A Christian, however, is equipped to live in our present age of fragmentation, even deconstruction, and do so with an Easter confidence. The death of the Son of God on the Cross shatters the world, pulling it apart at its very foundations. Yet, in the New Testament “the world” is not the same as reality. On the contrary, in the biblical account, “the world” refers to the shape that the power of sin and death gives to our experience. Thus, faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ does not carry us away from reality, but instead reweaves the fabric of experience according to his eternal truth, which has been present from the beginning.
We need art. It trains our imaginations to linger, to hesitate, to receive the textures and colors and shapes of the world. We need this training in receptivity so that we can see and participate in Christ more fully. For if our imaginations are saturated with reality, then with the eyes of faith we are better able to see him in all things.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.