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FORM AND SPIRITUALITY
THE ROLE OF ART IN THE INNER LIFE

JOHN W. DIXON, JR.

Prelude

For I through the law, died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.

-Paul, the Apostle, in his letter to the Galations 2:19-20

Few verses of Scripture have been more popular than these as the occasion for Christian devotion. Few verses so precisely sum up the essentials of the Christian life. Yet few are so difficult to account for rationally. Christians undoubtedly feel the depth and weight of the assertion Paul is making but few, if any, can explain it intelligibly.

This is not surprising. Our metaphysics, our anthropology, our psychology have not provided us with the tools for explanation, so it can remain only in the realm of pious devotion, intuitive meditation. It can only be understood sentimentally; Christ lives in me as a "spirit." I am what I was, only now a spirit lives in me.

It is impossible to know what Paul "really" meant by his statement. We can only try to find the manner of formulation that makes it possible in our own language.

The problem is dualism. Too often we think of ourselves as two things: body and soul, body and mind, body and spirit, always body and -. The body is matter, the rest is spirit or spiritual. The body is good, bad or indifferent but always other. We must escape from or transcend the body. We do so by the intelligent will, by reason and belief instructing the governing will to control the acts of the body to the chosen end. Since this is neither notably successful nor satisfying, the alternative is to retreat into the world of the spirit understood as detached contemplation, the forming of an inner life that is not of this world but somehow purer and finer. Spirituality, then, is the forming of that inner life, a life that is not of this world.

But what is the spirit? What is spirituality? What is it to be human? What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman? What do we mean by a "person"? These are questions we cannot escape if we are to talk seriously of the role of art in the spiritual life.

Meditations

My grandparents' backyard had a high brick wall separating it from the street. It was topped by glazed, curved, terra cotta tile. Ornamental indentations enabled small boys to climb to the top. The wall was higher on either side of the gate, higher still immediately above the gate. I learned to climb the wall while I was still too small to get up on the higher part. Then there was the time when I stood against the end of the higher wall, afraid to make the jump upward. Later I got to the middle height but I lacked the courage to go to the highest point. Crossing the highest point required turning around while sitting nine feet above the ground. The only way back from the far side was to go over the highest part, again turning around.

The screen at the back door banged with a distinctive sound when someone went through in a hurry, which was usually the case.


"Courage" is an abstract word. It is a "spiritual" word. Such courage as I have cannot be separated from the slick graininess of the terra cotta tile under my sweating palms, and the sound of the screen door.

Houses in Spain are roofed with glazed terra cotta tile.

* * * * *

We came to Delphi from the south, across the Gulf of Corinth, late in the afternoon. Dark storm clouds covered the sky, obscuring the ruins of the temples on the flank of the dark mass of Parnassus. To the west a break in the clouds permitted the rays of the setting sun to fall on the distant hills. The grandeur of the earth met the grandeur of the sun and the sky. The temples focused the greatness of the site to a single point. Delphi was sacred both to Apollo and Dionysius; the terrible beauty of the gods emerges from the place. Fascinated, I was nonetheless relieved to escape, else I might have turned pagan on the spot.

* * * * *

In Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," Leonora, harried beyond endurance by the cruelties and stupidities of the world, seeks refuge at a monastery. Outside, before ringing the bell, she sings the aria, "Madre, pietosa virgine." The words are the common coin of Marian devotion. The words are translated into music. The music combines the rich sensuality, longing and fertile, of the soprano voice, the agonizing loss, the death of the father, the loss of the lover, the tormented, vengeful fury of the brother, the desperate longing for God the Mother to transmute pain into peace. In the music, the anguished brokenness is made whole, complete, entire, the terrible suffering is gathered up and transformed into a soaring glory.

It is all done with the physical elements of music, tone, texture , tempo and interval, which is rhythm, a scaled order of relations. It happens because a number of people worked hard at rehearsals, accompanied by a weariness of the flesh, disagreement, impatience, clashes of temper. It comes to me by virtue of (and it is a virtue) a series of electronic devices and a plastic disk. A Shure phono cartridge, retail price $34.95, is, therefore a sacramental, transmitting the grace of God.

And there are still critics who say Verdi was not a religious man: he didn't like going to church.

* * * * *

All people, or nearly all, spend years of their lives struggling with the irrepresible urges of their genitals.

For a number of centuries in many regions of the earth, people set up great pillars of stone, sometimes alone, sometimes in great avenues. Earth mystics claim to feel in these stones the vibrating energy of the earth into which the stones have been inserted. Some interpreters speculate that these stones were "phallic symbols." But the people who set them up never heard of a "symbol" and wouldn't know what the word meant. What good would a "phallic symbol" be to them? They didn't have Freudian minds. Rather the fruitfulness of the body is transmuted into the fruitfulness of the earth. What had been an aimless rutting, an emptying of the glands, was given meaning by being placed within a larger order. Without words, it was now possible to think about the meaning of the body; as the stone is to the earth so the phallus is to the body. This was one stage in the making of the human.

After a while they stopped setting up the stones. The isolated stone pillar had become the column of the temple, the pillar of the church. The columns surrounded the naos, the dark room in the temple that, like the cave from which it descended, was the womb of the earth. In the church, the column and the space are combined.

There is no history of the column as a way of thinking about the energies of the body transformed into meaning.

* * * * *

What is the meaning of the phrase "the inner life"? Where is "inner"?

The inside of the human body, the locus of its inner life, is a collection of red or brown or gray objects, bloody and slimy. The eye is a collection of tissues and fluids related by a long white cord to a mass of grayish white material. These undeniable facts are not likely to alter the ways of lovers, who will continue to gaze into each other's eyes with a full sense that they are thereby seeing "into" each other, taking part in each other's privacy.

Inescapably we have a consciousness of an "I" inside our body and not to be identified with it. We had better be very, very careful about identifying what consciousness is.

* * * * *

Under controlled experiments, when the body is deprived as nearly as possible of all sensory stimulation, the subject begins to hallucinate and the muscular and nervous organization goes out of control. The experiments can be continued only for a short time. The conscious body can survive only in communication with its environment.

The yogi can suspend the normal operations of his body for long periods of time. The price he pays is the suspension of consciousness. Is this a good thing to do?

There is no asceticism so strict as to extract a person from the profound and intimate involvement with the natural working of the flesh and its involvement with the shape and workings of the earth.

* * * * *

It is a common occurrence that the body, under pressure of the fear of death and enduring great pain, will void its bladder and intestines.

The cross of the Crucifixion was not the shining jewel of ecclesiastical ornament or the delicate ornament hanging between the breasts of young girls. It was coarse wood, stained with dust and bloody sweat. It may have been coated with the body's other wastes.

In an article for a theological journal, I once undertook a description of such a cross. Although I am not fond of the word's incessant use by the unimaginative young, I used for "body wastes" the only term adequate for the vulgar and physical reality of the occasion. As I knew he would, the scandalized editor refused to print the word.

Why was he so scandalized? We know that Jesus ate and drank. What do Christians suppose he did with the wastes of the food and drink? What is there in our relation to our own flesh that makes the Christian imagination recoil from such images?

Why did early church fathers think "born between faeces and urine" described the true horror of creation?

* * * * *

The painted animals in the prehistoric caves were placed on the walls in the position that suited the artist, which might or might not correspond to the normal directions determined by the coordinates of gravity. With the invention of the Egyptian pyramid, the symbolic primacy of the vertical was established: all representation was related to the horizonal ground line and arranged according to the direction determined by gravity. Gods were in the sky. The social order was hierarchically arranged from top to bottom.

In the late nineteenth century this spatial ordering began to dissolve. The distinction between inside and outside became blurred, the relation between up and down became complicated, forms within paintings were ordered according to the internal requirements of the painting, not according to the hierarchical grid imposed from without.

* * * * *

Definitions

The definitions will have to be peremptory and assertive, not argued. else there will be no room to talk about art.

Aesthetics

It is hard for authors to know what editors mean by their words. "Aesthetic experience" could mean a great many things. Aesthetics is now the philosophical discipline that deals with beauty, including the philosophy of art. But art only sometimes deals with beauty, and it is not required of it that it be beautiful (unless we use the excellent definition of Harold Osborne, "Beauty is the proper excellence of a work of art"). Since the words "beauty" and "art" are both abstractions, generalizations detached from any specific reference, they do not provide the evidence necessary for the philosophy which, therefore, must be built up deductively. As a philosophic discipline, aesthetics has not been of much help to artists, art historians or critics.

In its origins, however, the word functions somewhat differently. Aesthetics is "the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception," a definition which the OED deflatingly marks "obs." But it comes closer to being useful and the etymology of "aesthetic" comes closer yet: "of or pertaining to things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to things thinkable or immaterial)" (Greek words omitted).

Thus I shall take "the aesthetic experience" to refer to our experience of the world of our senses in its concreteness and particularity. But this should not require us to give up its association with art, so long as art can be kept free from any association with "aestheticism" and aesthetes.

Definitions of art are legion and as unconvincing as they are multiple. Yet the minimum descriptive definition may be more faithful to the real nature of art than more elaborate ones, for art is inescapably the organization of the sensuous particulars of a physical material. Since the act of organization or forming can by definition be considered purposeful, the definition can be put succinctly: art is the forming of physical material to a human purpose. The inclusiveness of the definition is intended; it involves no distinction between "art" and "craft" nor does it specify any lofty intellectual or "spiritual" purpose. The essentials of the definition are that there be a physical material, that it be formed, and that it have some intelligible human purpose.

Spiritual

The dictionary is not much help; the OED has ten columns and twenty- four entries with many subheadings. "Spiritual" is a word that is all things to all men. I must make my own decision.

The problem turns on the unity or the duality of the image of man which determines the definition. If we are divided into matter-the body and spirit, the spirit is an impalpable, immaterial something which we can only believe exists without being able to find it or define it. If, on the other hand, we are a unity, we have the problem of accounting for a great many things without reducing them to physiology. We undoubtedly feel a great many things about ourselves and our experiences that cannot easily be reduced to acts of our nervous systems.

It is time to be peremptory. Spirit is that which distinguishes us as humans from those creatures that are not human. But this is only the framework of a definition, without content. What are those things that characterize us alone? It is not easy to distinguish us from the animals because we are, in fact, animals and most of what we are we share with the animals. Yet clearly our life is something other than the life of animals. What is the difference?

The quality of human memory. Not memory as such which animals have but reflective memory; we have a known past. Hope, for we have a future. The capacity to despair when hope is denied and the future thwarted. Purpose, the ability to join the past and the future into intentional action. Meaning, for purpose and intention do not exist for their own sake but to some chosen end.

But these are generalizations, abstractions without content. They do not get us much beyond the word spirit itself. They suggest some-only some-of the kinds of things we think we mean when we use the word spirit; but they set up a dangerous temptation: we are powerfully inclined to make such abstractions into things, to set them apart as purposes. We can then think of forming the spirit as a disciplining of the antic and uncontrolled responses of our organism to the proper harmonies of the spirit. But discipline is an act of the will; to define the spirit in such terms is to make, not the spirit as a whole but the will into the definition of the human. The primacy of will has gotten us, individually and collectively, into a good deal of trouble.

What, then, can we fall back on? All the things I alluded to as characteristic of the spirit have the character of a bringing together. Animals can live only in the present. Humans can bring the past and the future into the present, joining what has gone or what is yet to come with what is now. Reflection is the joining of one thing with another for a variety of purposes. What, then, is it we use to bring things together?

The symbol. Not those signs which are customarily called symbols but the true symbols that by their nature participate in the thing symbolized and thus enable us to bring together the separateness of experience.

To understand the spirit we must first give up the dualistic view of ourselves in the world. We are not willful intelligences inhabiting a body set over against the world, perceiving it, thinking about it, acting on it. We are inseparably involved in it. Biology and physics have irrevocably changed our view of what we are. Things, and matter itself, are no longer thinkable additively, a collection of separations. Rather all matter is itself a vibrating web of interacting particles and the rhythmic vibration of matter is the quality of existence. Our flesh is an inseparable part of this vast, interacting web of life.

Perception is not understandable as the intentional act of a separate organism receiving bits of information that are then processed into wholes. Perception is a total act of the whole organism, interacting with its environment. Perception itself is symbolic; we do not perceive in units which we put together into objects. We do not perceive vibrations in the air which we translate into the sound of a carpenter hammering. We hear a carpenter hammering. We smell the bacon frying as well as feel the cold hardness of the bathroom floor on our feet. Nor do we perceive wholes inertly and then respond to them. Rather the response, the feeling, the expression is an inseparable part of the perception. The smell of the coffee, the feel of the bathroom floor cannot be detached from the events of the night before, the happy or fearful expectations of the day, the whole sense of the home and the family and the goodness and the difficulties of them.

It is not enough to see perception as whole and active; it must be seen as intentional as well. Who got up in the cold and put on the coffee and the bacon? With what feeling? With what sense of purpose? Of fittingness? Of justice? Life is lived within the concreteness of experience in the context of relation and purpose. Thus life, reality itself, is primarily relational. The means for the relations, the whole intricate, complex, interacting system of relations, are the symbolic structures that emerge from human creativity. We make our lives, we even make our world in the process of living in it.

Most of these symbolic forms, acts, structures are worked out in the needs of the practical and are inherited as though built into the order of things. Some, however, seek meaning beyond the immediate, seek for the decisive relations at the heart of things, look for the ultimate purpose. This is art at its highest range and its final purpose.

This, then, is the spirit of man, those relations which set us apart as distinctively human. The spirit is not only inward; it is the total structure and the process of our interaction with our world, the tone, pace, rhythm, purpose of our relations with the whole. But equally the spirit is inward, those structured rhythms within ourselves that make us parts of our world.

The Shapes of the Spirit

Thus the spirit is not simply the actuality of relations, which all things and all creatures have. It is the actuality of relations informed by, in-formed by, human purpose, the direction, process and shape determined by that purpose. To live according to the flesh is to live solely in the impulse and the gratification of the flesh as all organisms do. To live according to the spirit is not to deny or evade the flesh but to live according to the impulses of the flesh tamed to the achievement of the human. The human is not the denial of the animal or the organic or the thingness of life on this earth, but the modulation of organic existence toward a fulfillment beyond itself.

This is definitional. But the human is not an identifiable thing; human purpose is not universally understood and accepted. There is not one thing only that is human, but the striving for purpose has led to many images.

Our perception is so shaped that we hear, see, smell, respond in terms of a total interaction and interchange with our environment. This is universal; it is particular only as the shapes and energies of the environment are particular. I am what I am in part because of the shapes of the land, the energies of the climate that surrounded me during the shaping of my perception, but that is deeply marked by all the experiences I have had since.

It is hard to know the effects of the land and the climate, of the forms of social order, the instruments of the economic order, on the shaping of meaning and purpose. What we do know is that meaning and purpose are generated within shapes and rhythms and directions.

There are temples in India excavated, carved, into the rock of a hill; to enter them is to enter the earth, apart from the light, the dark womb of the earth. Sounds within them-a chant, a drum beat-echo from wall to wall in such a way as to lose all texture, all particular character and become disembodied sound, resounding from the whole temple. The effect is to empty the self of its selfness, to dissolve the sense of the "I" into the oneness of the sound and the space.

The Parthenon in Athens stands on a hill, lifted up into the light of the sun, high above the surrounding earth. The temple was the home of Athena, not the worshippers. The worshippers came in solemn processional, bearing offerings, moving and standing under the sun, in the light of day. The building offers no welcome invitation; it stands in the harmonious dignity of exact proportion. The worshippers are confirmed in their own humanness and, if they respond in their spirits, recreated in the image of the majestic dignity of the building.

A Byzantine church receives the worshipper into the cool darkness of its interior. Mosaics on the wall obliterate the massiveness, the heaviness of the masonry; all is surface. The stories teach, the ornament enhances the story. The gold background is emptiness and infinity. The narratives are directed upward. At the bottom there are the stories of the events on this earth; above, there is the sacred history, above that the central figures of the faith, still higher the Cristos Pantokrator, Christ the lord of creation. Form and narrative are one.

These are samples; such accounts can be made and at length for every important building. In part these buildings proceed from the particularities of the land and the forms of perception shaped by the land. Greece is a stony, sun-drenched land with clear hills under an open sky. India is a harsh land of violent extremes, cold and hot, fecund and sterile, empty and luxuriant. Greeks and Indians see the world differently. Out of those perceptions they generate different images of desire and of purpose, of the gods and the human, and from those images emerge the shapes of the imagination which are engendered and thought out in the stone of the temple. The buildings are not ornaments to ideas. They are the fundamental idea. They are themselves acts of thought.

Ajanta, the Parthenon, Hosios Lukas, are aspects of the spirit. It is true but misleading to call them acts of the spirit, achievements of the spirit, creations of the spirit. They are the spirit of those who made them. There is no other place for those moments of the spirit to be.

To experience the buildings properly is to participate in the spirit of those who made them. This is an act of respect but also an act of love.

Art and Spirituality

Art is not the only mode of the spirit, but it is central and it may be primary. It is art that initially shapes the modes of our perception and thereby shapes the imagination. Argument, doctrine, belief, then follow in the shapes and rhythms that are determined by art. There are other modes of the spirit, although they themselves are shaped by the arts. What preposition determines our relation to nature, a relation which is a prime mode of the spirit? For the Indian it is "within," as we are absorbed into the oneness of things. For the Greek it is "outside" or "other than" for the spirit of man is not the spirit of nature. For modem technological man it is "above" as he subdues it to his use. Prepositions are spatial metaphors; space is a category of art (and of physics). It is, ultimately, impossible to say how far the spatial images of order represent formless movements of the spirit that are then given body and form in the work of art and how far the work of art shapes the spatial image and the human spirit that lives within that image; presumably it is a dialectical process, each engendering the other.

Spatial images are not merely images of order, which is structure and stasis. They are also the locus and the shaping of relation which is process and interchange. Again the one shapes the other. Relations are enacted within the possibilities of the forms. Relation is the primary mode of the spirit.

The art work is a definition of that relation. I have spoken of Greek architecture. Greek sculpture and such painting as survives for us is absolutely centered on the human body, which is organically coherent, self-sufficient and self- contained. Since the figures are almost invariably (until a later period) noble or graceful or beautiful, the image is the embodiment of an ideal that is held before the observer. Medieval art knows nothing about the organic structure of the body, but it knows a great deal about the surface and achieves a sense of the individual that is quite absent from the Greek treatment of the person. These individuals, however, are granted no sense of a distinctive personality and all their actions are shaped to the lines of the architecture; they exist as parts of the church.

In the fourteenth-century in Italy there began a development too complex to be put into such a formula. All that can now be said is that the figures within a work take on, variously, both personality and individuality but for several centuries they are parts of an interacting whole which, again variously, involves the spectator in an intimate and complex interaction. By the nineteenth-century, the whole complex of relations, of individuality to personality, of figure to the surface and the depth of the painting, of forms to each other, of the work to the spectator, of space and time, had become a problem of the highest magnitude. Art for nearly two hundred years has been a setting out and an exploration of that problem.

These are principal modes of art and spirituality. So is the shaping of time. Even so schematic an outline as this should not ignore the fact that there are a number of more immediate roles of art in the inner life. These can be explored historically in terms of what people have actually done with art.

Art, an image, can be the focus of the devotional life. To this end, it is not necessary that it be particularly "good" art; its function is to remind the worshipper of the object of his devotions.

Art has frequently served a high instructional purpose. This has been true in a great many religions. The question of quality presses itself more insistently here for the form is necessarily an interpretation of the subject. There is no way to tell the story "objectively"; it comes through the forms and is apprehended only in the form of those forms.

The art work-or forms-has often been an idol, which is to say that the sacred power, the divine is thought to be within the form. Worship is then offered to the image, which also can heal or perform other miracles. In our own culture this function is rare in the overt form of the idolic image but it is not at all uncommon in the form of certain sacred objects that are deemed to transmit divine power.

Art works can also be icons. An icon does not contain the sacred power but is a means of communication with the sacred. Obviously it is difficult to maintain the distinction and it is doubtful if every Eastern Orthodox peasant knows for sure what his icon is. But prayer is not to the icon but through it, by means of it.

There is no reason to think that communication by means of the icon is one way only, but the primary emphasis is on the normal direction of prayer, from the human to the divine. When the movement is the other direction it is a sacrament. The sacraments, the basic spiritual action of Christians, are the central act of the aesthetic in its etymological definition, for the sacraments and the incarnation define the relation to matter. Art works themselves can be among the sacramentals but that is not a decision human beings can make.

Then, too, the art work is the primary means for setting out the various modes of what is traditionally termed the inner life, the acts of the spirit in devotion. There is space here for only one illustration of what is a very complex subject.

One of the principal themes of the contemplative life is silence. Silence, as a modality of sound, is principally in the province of music. The corollary of silence in art and a necessary mode of its elucidation is emptiness. There are certain essays on emptiness that are of vital importance to the serious student of contemplation, and it is at this point that we see the use of the ecumenical; one of the great essays on silence and emptiness is Chinese landscape painting. In contrast, most western painting is full and busy but lest that seem to give aid and comfort to those who find a singular wisdom in the great works of the east, Cistercian architecture of the middle ages is a pure and serene statement of silence and emptiness. But even in painting it can be found, in Piero della Francesca, in Vermeer, and in several modem painters.

It is hard to stop with one example only. Still another example illustrates the use of art beyond the parochial. When the great pagan French painter Matisse wished to make a gift of gratitude to the nurse who brought him back to health, he designed a chapel for her convent. With exquisite tact, itself a profound movement of the spirit, he chose a theme which he could truly share with the nuns, and the Chapel of Vence is transfigured light in all the simplicity of its serene purity.

The question of "quality" is insistent. For the first two, the art work as focus of devotion and as idol, it is probably not important that there be any particular eloquence of form, since the object is purely an instrument. For all the others the form is decisive, for the reality to which the work is pointing is not to be grasped apart from the manner of its manifestation in the form. So the form functions in the acts of the devotional life while at the same time is giving form to the inner life and thereby shaping personality.

POSTLUDE

Within our symbolic language, Paul's statement now becomes more intelligible. We live in our world, we act towards others, not according to a reasoned and instructed will but according to those images of structure and relation that are parts of the responses built into our nervous systems. "To be crucified with Christ" is to break or transform the old images which are the structure of our world as it once was. The Christ who lives in me is the new structure and energy of the soul shaped to the image of Christ, governing both perception and action to the reality of the Christ.

The function of spirituality is not to nourish an emotional experience but to construct the soul in its wholeness.

Note: The argument on which this discussion is based, the construction of the soul, is presented at length in my book The Physiology of Faith (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978).


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