“Christian meditation on the act and the work of the artist can deepen, inform and instruct itself “

Culling books from your library is a valuable exercise for those of us who have been collecting books over many years. I confess it is something I need to consider doing, but from time to time I am the beneficiary of someone else’s downsizing. Not long ago I was given a few books on themes related to religion and art. Among them was a work titled “Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature”. This is a collection of essays published in 1952 from a symposium on the theme in the title. One essay I readily turned to was Religion and the Mission of the Artist by Denis De Rougemont.

In asking what the artist does , the author turns to “the exaggerated language which we have inherited from Romanticism…”. The artist creates, incarnates in work certain realities, and is inspired. He is quick to point out that these terms are easily used improperly and deserve more careful attention. There has been disagreement about whether it is correct to refer to what the artist does as “creation”. For many that is a term reserved for what God is able to do while mere mortals are gifted to “compose”, that is rearrange things given in a novel way.

De Rougemont observes that before Romanticism, we were content with to say that a musician or painted composed a work and the shift in wording coincides with the loss in the modern time of a belief in God. The emerging autonomous individual was honoured with capacities reserved in the past only for the divine. On the second idea that the artist incarnates reality De Rougemont is tentative. When the artist makes a work of art it is a matter of “signifying” what would not have been perceptible otherwise.

“Art is an exercise of the whole being of man”

Rather than saying the artist incarnates a reality – De Rougemont prefers the idea that the artist “renders a reality intelligible, legible, audible by physical means”. In saying this he wishes to keep the meaning and the form of the work intimately connected. Finally there is the matter of inspiration. It is hard to deny that art comes by way of inspiration but what is meant by inspiration and what source or nature inspiration has is a difficult question.

It is worth noting here that this is an issue not just for the artist but for the scientist, the craftsman as well. In part it is a question of whether the one inspired has generated the inspiration from within or received a call from without. On this matter I am inclined to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in some way – but just how or what way is still unresolved for me. De Rougemont is convinced “that Christian meditation on the act and the work of the artist can deepen, inform and instruct itself within the framework of a meditation on the … mystery of the Trinity”.

He concludes with these words: Art is an exercise of the whole being of man, not to compete with God, but to coincide better with the order of Creation, to love it better, and to re-establish ourselves in it. Thus art would appear to be like an invocation (more often than not unconscious) to the lost harmony, like a prayer (more often than not confused) , corresponding to the second petition of the Lord’s prayer – ‘Thy Kingdom come’. I find this line of thinking appealing. For some time now I have been drawn to the idea that art – of whatever sort or content – holds an eschatological thread. It expresses a longing for something more, a reaching – born of a mixture of knowledge and mystery.

It was a delight to stumble upon this essay penned some fifty years ago and have it open afresh themes and questions with which we still grapple.

– John Franklin