The Blasphemy of the Cliché


I am always indignant with poor artists when I see our Lord himself painted with an ugly form, and I am afraid that I may find myself in the same position if I dare to set out such a beautiful theme in rude and contemptible language.[1. St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo]

With these words St. Anselm prefaces his work Cur Deus HomoWhy God Became Man. In what follows he will attempt to expound the inexpressible, a seemingly hopeless task.

Yet what choice is there? The existential reality of having a mind begs for understanding, groans for insight into the deepest veins of knowledge, pines for just a glimpse of the glorious light of Beauty.

Words must be the sorry scraps that both give form to our thoughts and then fail to outreach them, a self-erected prison from which even an unencumbered rationality could not escape. What really is lies out there, somewhere, just waiting and beckoning to be grasped.

The problem of expression is a difficult one, but even more primary is the limit of reason itself. We are forever vacillating between the ground and the sky; our intellect desires to shake off the shackles but is weighted down by the images, the gravity of this-reality concepts which ground our ability to know but also declare unambiguously their limits.

Thus, for Anselm the fundamental understanding must be that God is absolute and perfect freedom, and in that freedom anything we can think about God must begin with the realization that it is not our seeking out, finding and understanding, but that God as the underlying ground of reality is waiting to be beheld.[2. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol II, p. 214] Actually, waiting is an inadequate expression, since God as the source of being and freedom is the cause of his being beheld.

We might make an (inadequate) analogy of the sun, which is not sought out and found, but is always-already there and is, in a sense, the condition of our being able to behold it.

It is therefore altogether unsurprising to find credo et intelligam (I believe that I may understand) as the crux of Anselm’s aesthetics. Indeed, the images and predicates that are applied to God, while having a sort of analogical force, fail to even begin to describe God:

It seems to follow, then, from the preceding considerations, that the Spirit which exists in so wonderfully singular and so singularly wonderful a way of its own is in some sort unique; while other beings which seem to be comparable with it are not so.[3. St. Anselm, Monologium, 28]

In essence, Anselm’s aesthetic theology staunchly asserts that any concept of God cannot be drawn from anything which is within our ability to conceptualize,[4. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol II, p. 231] for in such an act we would ipso facto undermine the divine freedom which is rooted in the absolute co-incidence of what-it-is-to-be of God and that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought. Anselm’s so-called ontological argument thus assumes that such a thing as a concept of God is gibberish, since any concept cannot attain God but is rather only attained because God is the pre-suppositional ground of any and all concepts.[5. ibid.]

Given the tacit assumption of the convertibility of transcendentals, Beauty as it is cannot be measured out or contained within its various expressions; we finally come back to Anselm’s opening caveat that poor artists and poor writers often do injustice to their subject- in this case, the Subject who is both the what-it-is-to-be-Beauty and the one whose rays allow us to be enraptured in its sublimity. (and know it!)

Proper form

Art in search of beauty is dependent on form, the reality that gives the shape and grounds the substance to any expression of art. While we are prone to judge the final product- the canvas in the gallery, the statue in the plaza, the pixels on the screen- we are often negligent in considering the forms from which they derive. Ultimately, the worthiness (or worthlessness) of the form makes itself evident in its resulting concrete reality.

Viewed from the other side, our art (in whatever medium that may be) usually has a lot to say about the forms we conceive and live by. We live mainly by forms and patterns; if the forms are bad, we live badly.[6. Wallace Stegner, When the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, p. 181] The concepts we have inform our practice, which in turn walks hand in hand with theory. While each in our world can never be reduced to the other, neither can theoria ever be without praktike. [7. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol II, p. 216]

For art with a specifically theological or religious intent, there is always an immanent danger of substituting a shoddy form for that of a nobler pedigree. Granted, given the foundationally aesthetic presupposition that God can never be attained nor contained within any concept, every attempt to portray the divine is a failed project from the beginning.

Here aesthetics reveals its underlying Trinitarian unity, since only in God could the ars divinia be realized- only in the communion of the unfathomable relationally of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit could Beauty-as-it-is be known and Beauty-as-it-is-expressed (essentially the same act) in all of its inexhaustible depths be.

With that ever before our minds, art is at best analogy, all strivings after beauty in truth the search for the least inadequate expressions. In the final analysis, art is not about capturing beauty, but about being captured by it.

Weighty Things

We come back to Anselm’s original self-caveat, which must be the artist’s modus operandi. To speak about God in any form is a solemn thing; we are always perched upon a precarious precipice, face to face with the sheer absoluteness and otherness of Being. It is a glorious and terrible vulnerability; such devastating and penetrating wonder should inspire us to the heights of our capacities; yet even then we might be best served with silence.

It is therefore a great tragedy and a galling travesty that so much of what characterizes art about God is so utterly banal, devoid of substance and lacking in anything that one could mistake for ardor. Too often the easy route is taken, brimming full with trite images and hollow symbols.

But what do these tell us about the forms? If our forms our bad, in what way will we live? Aesthetics, being grounded in the super-reality of Trinitarian communion, is not some addendum to a compendium of truth. Rather, it is among the threads of the very fabric of what it means to stand before the inexpressible awe of God in all his splendor and unknowability, the unapproachable light in which all other forms have their illumination.

If in this radiance we are content with clipart crosses and limp reproductions of our ephemeral cultural banality, what does that say about what we think about God? If our art slovenly constructs vapid absurdities out of the images that God has chosen to reveal himself within, have we not started down the road to idolatry, save for less luminous cows? If we reduce our sacred symbols to their utility, exhausting their meaning through misuse, have we not turned aesthetics upside down like our forbears in the garden, opting for an existence of weeds?

Slap a cross on it and call it good!

The cliché is therefore a blasphemy of sorts, a mode of sacrilege. Like the will that turns in towards itself rather than opening up to the broader expanse that lies before and underneath it, the cliché collapses inwards, lugubrious and indolent, a castaway in a endless wasteland. Rather than being open to the fundamental freedom of the God who is graciously openness itself to the world, (and thus the ground of meaning in all its depths) the cliché becomes frozen in time, a fossilized memory which can go no further and cannot reach back.

While no doubt hyperbole is lurking nearby, this is the stuff of emptiness, when an image becomes a ready-made substitute for genuine openness to relation and new infusions of meaning. Our symbols become stuffy and dull, old books collecting dust on a shelf, forgotten forever.

Already the case may seem too harsh, but too often these are the things we use to talk about God. If we believe that God is Beauty and Truth, then why do we engage that reality with such petty and lazy efforts? If our art reveals our forms, then sometimes God is a foul demon, but more often (and more regrettably) simply an insipid dullard.

Nothing save redundancy could convey the absurdity.

Being found

In the end, we can never express even the vaguest contours of the divine nature, nor capture the faintest sparkle of the unapproachable radiance. Our art will always only be in the chasing, never in the claiming. Beauty is not something we find, but something in which we are found. As Love is inexhaustible in its giving and beckons further in the more one receives, so the beautiful is always calling the artist to deeper waters.

We must be open to the God who is always-already open towards us. In that inestimable freedom we are encompassed, until all is only silence and light.




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