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[1] Art as Arrogance and Necessity

by Philip Yancey

There is a burdensome accumulation of artistic creation.  I have that sense every time I enter a bookstore and scan through the dozens of new titles that have appeared in the previous week.  Of making many books there is no end.  As a person who makes a living at writing, I confess that regularly—every five minutes or so—I must battle artistic pride.  All art is an act of arrogance.  As I write this sentence, I have the chutzpah to believe it will be worth your time to read it.  I, a person you have probably never met, hereby demand your attention.  Listen to me, please, without the possibility of reciprocation.  Subject yourself to my words and thoughts.

Just as I begin to slip into my seat of authority and believe the jacket copy the publishers write about me, the Teacher brings me back to earth.  I am a drone, cranking out yet another book to bend the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney provides a striking observation about John 8, the only scene from the Gospels that shows Jesus in the act of writing.  Jesus left us relatively few words—a person could memorize them all—and he spoke with such economy and precision that each can be seen as a goad and a nail.  Only once, though, did Jesus write, as far as we know.  It came at the tense moment when Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery, demanding that Jesus pronounce the death penalty.  Jesus stooped and drew figures in the sand.

Here is Heaney’s interpretation of the scene: “The drawing of those characters [in the sand] is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it.  Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase.  It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place,’ it does not propose to be instrumental or effective.  Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.”

For both poetry and prose, there is a time to spur to action, and a time to instruct with wisdom, and also a time merely to fill spaces of attention.

Jesus, who had participated in the design of 20,000 abstract designs on butterflies and half a million species of beetles, left no lasting works of art for us to admire from his sojourn on earth.  He chose as his medium not plates of gold or rolls of papyrus, which could be preserved by the church and revered as icons, but rather a palette of Palestinian sand.  The next rainstorm that came along obliterated every trace of Jesus’ only written words.

Jesus had come primarily to change lives, to write his words on the hearts of his followers.  Following in those footsteps, the apostle Paul would later say to the Corinthians, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.”  Both Jesus and Paul knew that only one thing will survive into eternity from this planet: the souls of individual human beings.  We deceive ourselves with delusory talk about the “permanence of art”: of the seven wonders of the ancient world, six did not survive into the Middle Ages.

Czech novelist Milan Kundera says that he always objected to the cliche, “A life is like a work of art,” because art is precisely unlike life, imposing an order that life does not have.  He made an exception, however, with dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech   Republic.  Havel’s life, said Kundera, was ordered and structured, just like art.  Actually, Kundera’s comment about Havel should be true of every Christian.

As I sit at home and grapple with adjectives and adverbs, my wife works as a chaplain on the night shift at a hospice.  Tonight she will probably see someone die.  She will break the news to the family, listen to their grief, offer words of comfort.  She will touch their souls.  Humbly, ashamedly, I confess that before such acts my own profession shrinks into insignificance.  I am, as Seamus Heaney noted, scribbling in the sand—filling spaces, marking time.

Art nourishes the soul in wonderful ways, and may be an essential part of our humanity, and yet it represents one offering among many, perhaps higher forms of service.  In modern society, we elevate art because we have dethroned so much else.

In a moment of despair, one of the last century’s finest poets wrote this glum assessment of his craft: “Political social history would be no different if Dante, Michelangelo, Byron had never lived.  Nothing I wrote against Hitler prevented one Jew from being killed.  In the end, art is small beer.”  Auden exaggerates, I think, yet I accept his corrective to the usual arrogance of art.  There is a time for goading and more; there is also a time to recognize that artists are scribbling in the sand, filling the interstices of life, knowing that their creation will be stepped on, and washed away by raindrops.

Still I am convinced that we need art now more than ever the kind of art that humbly fills spaces in our lives.  Movies and television and video games are currently fashioning images far worse and more horrifying than the world we live in.  Compared to any other time in history, we moderns scream and shout at each other.  Listen to the music on any Top 40 station.  Visit a museum of contemporary art.  The world today contains no subtlety, no silence, no spaces.

One year when he lived in Bolivia, the priest Henri Nouwen saw the movie Stuntman just before Advent.  It overwhelmed him.  “The movie was so filled with images of greed and lust, manipulation and exploitation, fearful and painful sensations, that it filled all the empty spaces that could have been blessed by the spirit of Advent,” he said.  (If Nouwen reacted this way to  Stuntman, I certainly hope he never encountered Pulp Fiction!)

For those of us who labor in the arts and who believe in transcendence, here is a place to start.  Some are called to be prophetic goads, and some giants may hammer in firmly embedded nails.  But the rest of us can aspire, with no tinge of shame, to scribbling in the sand.  Spaces need filling.

The father of cellist Yo-Yo Ma spent World War II in Paris, where he lived alone in a garret throughout the German occupation.  In order to restore sanity to his world, he would memorize violin pieces by Bach during the day and at night, during blackout, he played them alone in the dark.  The sounds made by the reverberating strings held out the promise of order and hope and beauty.  Later his son, Yo-Yo, took up the father’s advice to play a Bach suite from memory every night before going to bed.  Yo-Yo Ma says, “This isn’t practicing, it’s contemplating.  You’re alone with your soul.”

I know of a woman whose neighbor learned he was going blind.  As his sight began to fail, the man booked a plane to Amsterdam and spent a week in the Van Gogh museum.  He wanted these images to soak into his brain as his last visual memories on earth.

I will never forget one encounter with art’s wondrous power.  I was visiting Rome, and I wanted to fill each day with the treasures offered by the churches and museums of that great city.  The first day I arose well before dawn and took a bus to the TiberRiver, just outside Vatican City.  I stood on the bridge colonnaded with Bernini’s angels, and watched the sun rise, glinting orange off the still surface of the water.  Slowly, quietly, I walked the few blocks to St. Peter’s.  I strolled its vast spaces long before most tourists arrived, at a time so silent that each of my steps echoed off its graceful walls.  Except for a few faithful nuns kneeling in prayer, I was alone.

After a while I climbed stairs to the roof, where I could examine the statues and look out over the plaza.  I saw a long line snaking outside in the plaza and, assuming them to be tourists, I congratulated myself on having beat the madding crowd.  They were not tourists, however, rather a choir of 200 strong bused in from Germany.  As they filed in, I went back inside and stood on the balcony of the dome designed by Michelangelo.  Beneath me, the choir formed a large circle under the dome and began to sing a capella.

Some of the words were in Latin, some in German, it did not matter.  Inside that magnificent sheltering dome with its perfect acoustics, I was virtually suspended in their music.  I had the feeling that if I lifted my arms, the medium itself would support me.

Michelangelo, arguably the greatest artist who has ever lived, later confessed that his work had crowded out his own faith.  But Michelangelo and others like him have through their labors—sometimes as goads, sometimes as nails, sometimes as scribblers in the sand—helped turn us from the worlds’ frivolities and given us time for such reflection.  For this one moment inside St. Peter’s I had inhabited a glorious space not on earth, a moment of time not in time.  Art had done its work.

Philip Yancey is perhaps the most renown of contemporary Christian writers.  This is adapted from his article, “The Writer as Artist,” published on his website.  We thank him for allowing us to publish this work.


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