Saturday, June 20, 2009

Some Thoughts on Art and Existence

The trouble with existence is that it’s too much. The soul wishes that God had given us, shall we say, a less detailed world—a world of less overgrowth. For example, when my mind really gets going, when I really start thinking, it works like history. The more it goes, the more detail there is, and the less any sense can be seen in it. Detail begets detail, which obscures and chokes out the shape we seek, as honeysuckle increases and tangles while the shed wallows and goes under the burgeoning mass. The same happens when I write, as even now. Word begets word; sentence begets sentence. Writing becomes a vain attempt to catch up with and bring to a satisfactory completion the verbal profligacy. Writing sometimes seems like an arithmetic model attempting to solve an exponential process. It isn’t even so much that word begets word. It’s more like word begets twins, or quadruplets, or worse. Even now I can’t stop, satisfactorily. Oh, I can stop, and I will. But I can’t stop by having brought it to a satisfactory completion. That’s the real trouble with it. I utterly long to pursue words, sentences, existence; I long to pursue until all comes to perfect completion under one grand shape, and nothing is left to pursue. Yet I can’t do it. The more I pursue, the more I get lost; it’s all too much. I wallow and go under. There are always more words.

Here is where art comes in, though it’s a toss up whether art is more than a gloriously brave and orderly retreat against the overwhelming. As Frost said in the character of Job, “The artist in me cries out for design.” And elsewhere he wrote,

"The present

Is too much for the senses,

Too crowding, too confusing—

Too present to imagine."

As an example, the art of telling history is knowing what to include and what to leave out. Indeed, the art of every explanation is knowing when to stop.

Compare an example in another vein.

I saw a lovely ink drawing of a tree at the Sarah Scaife gallery of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. I thought to myself, “It’s quite lovely and poignant, but it’s so ordinary a subject—a sketch of a tree. Why draw it? Why look at it?” And then it occurred to me. The drawing stops the tree in a very particular way; it stops the tree, and now gives it to us to examine. And here we have a tree, which in a forest or a meadow or a yard is far too much for us to take in. If we see a tree in any of those places, we see, as it were, but a glimpse of the tree, the barest fraction of what it was and is now and shall become. So when we see it we want to hold it still so we can get a good look at it and see it all. But the tree is in a jetstream of time; it never holds still long enough to satisfy our looking. And we have not the power to hold it still. Except in art. The drawing holds the tree still, and while I know in my mind that I’m still not going to satisfy my looking, I somehow feel that at least I’ve got a chance to look enough to see it all, or even to see all of a fraction. I feel I’ve got the time to look satisfactorily, or I would if I also could hold still. The soul sometimes longs for an Artist to hold it still.

Art then works to redeem the trouble with existence. Art takes life (actually, the barest fraction thereof), holds it still, and gives it to us to examine. Art takes all this unmanageable begetting and puts a kind of stop to it so we can try to make some sense of it. Or we could say that Art takes hold of this profusive begetting and tries to direct it to a satisfactory completion. The trouble with existence is that it’s too much: art perfects by reducing to essence. Then things have a chance at making sense. Art is a gardener. It clips the honeysuckle where necessary; the shed emerges, to be seen again.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Some Thoughts on Beauty, Meaning, Value

The idea and the reality of beauty involve meaning. Beauty gives meaning. It infuses things in specific and existence in general with meaning. The meaning it engenders and infuses is not so much rational meaning, as existential meaning. Beauty participates in and even, in a sense, answers the very reason for being. When we perceive beauty, we understand, whether intuitively or consciously, that we are made for beauty. We are made for a world with beauty. The experience of true beauty in the world as we know it may perhaps be infrequent or even rare. Yet it is for such that we are made. It is for such that we live.

That beauty gives meaning to existence in general and to things in specific leads to another aspect of beauty. Namely, beauty gives value to life and to specific things in life, with value being the worthiness we recognize in something. Value is indeed the close correlate or derivative of meaning. That is, when we apprehend that life or things have meaning, the realization leads us to the implicit or explicit valuation of those things and even of existence itself. We value things that have meaning, and to the extent we see life in general as having meaning, we value life in general.

Hence, beauty, inasmuch as it infuses things with meaning, suffuses things and existence with value. We value beautiful things and beautiful aspects of existence. We find them worthy. We find them worthwhile. Because we value beautiful things, we want to apprehend them, make them, conserve them, foster them, enhance them, and praise them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 10:1-18

Paul’s personal witness led to the first followers of Jesus in Corinth, a city in southern Greece. After some time there, Paul left to witness to Jesus elsewhere. But the church in Corinth developed problems. In thought, spirit, and behavior, some were grievously deviating from the teaching of Jesus. Paul responded by writing to the Corinthians, including this letter around 55 A.D.

Paul’s basic point threading through the passage is captured by a contrast early in it. This sets up the rest of his remarks. Paul refers to “some people [in Corinth] who think we live by the standards of this world.” In contrast, Paul writes, “…though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” Thus he draws a sharp distinction between the standards of the world, or human standards, and the standards of the kingdom of God. Paul applies the distinction to how he and the Corinthians should conduct themselves in these problems. Yet he does so because the distinction is fundamental to life for followers of Jesus. We – followers of Jesus – are not to live by worldly standards. Even while our lives are embedded in a particular human society, we are to live by kingdom standards.

With this contrast, Paul characterizes how followers of Jesus are to live. All ideas, attitudes, and behaviors are to be made captive or obedient to Jesus. They are to be shaped by the life and teaching of Jesus, not the spirit and teaching of the world, of human society. When problems arise, we are to resist and overcome wrong ideas, attitudes, and behaviors by kingdom means, by prayer, exhortation, and discipline exercised in love – not by worldly means, not by arrogance, contempt, or hate exercised in anger and violence.

In all we think, feel, and do, with respect to self and others, we are to measure ourselves by Jesus, not by any other measure, whether from our self, our little group, or our society. In the end, we are to live in such a way that Jesus commends us, because his standards, his measure and approval, are infinitely superior to any other standards.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Summer —And twilight rolls in, deep and slow.
Vines swell as on a sea, fences sink beneath waves,
and honeysuckle, spawning schools of white petals,
sends pools of fragrance on gulf currents.

Summer—Then go forth! Launch upon the green tide,
lose your self amidst the extravagant spawning,
breathe deep of sweet spray that breaks, swirls behind
(as you drive) in green and white foam...