Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder: on artistic affection

“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints perhaps the most poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his reflection. This tale displays that to love in vain is to love too little: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, mankind must be reminded of the dangers of preferring images to realities and of settling for earthbound affections rather than allowing these to point heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. The philosopher concludes by introducing a tool (Diotima’s Ladder) for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the woman who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, affections ought to strive from what is beautiful yet earthly to, rung-by-rung, the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is not lessened by their existence, but rather manifest through their various incarnations.

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers progress up Diotima’s ladder to eventually love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. (After all, harmony is an essential element of beauty.) Next comes the love of knowledge, demonstrating the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty becomes a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. The problem, though, is that humanity tends to love too lowly; lovers become fixated on the glimpses of beauty found in lesser things when they ought to use these to turn towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon, willfully forgetting that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. More likely, though, men become acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, with eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In On Loving God, St. Bernard of Clairvaux embarks on a similar attempt to reorder love. Much like Plato, he defines virtuous love as that which moves toward the highest, most enduring object. Rather than focusing on the love of the Beautiful alone, however, Bernard is concerned with redeeming lesser loves such as self-love by drawing them into proper relationship with God-love. 

His “ladder” is as follows: 

  1. Love of Self, for Self’s Sake
    The beginning of love in mankind is in the love of self; this is not necessarily immoral, for it can—according to Bernard—be the first step toward loving God. However, it may also be the final step for those who look no further.
  2. Love of God for His Benefits
    Here, man begins to love God, but only for the love God has demonstrated to him through His providence. Again, the soul may stagnate here, content with conditional affection.
  3. Love of God for God’s Sake
    Now, the Christian has experienced the sweetness of loving God for His own sake. There is a transcendent intimacy between lover and Beloved which is not reliant on benefits beyond simply loving and being loved. 
  4. Love of Self for God’s Sake
    This level is not reached on earth, for it is the redemption and perfection of self-love. In this, the self is in unity with God and is free to love itself in and through God’s love. This is the fullness of liberty in love. 

Again like Plato, Bernard begins with more material affections and uses them to draw lovers toward unity with divine love. In this, his theology is inseparable from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is the reconciliation of body and soul in the fullness of love. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from the same disordered affection that Ovid depicts and that both Plato and Bernard seek to remedy. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Through time, he falls in love with his skill and material subjects and out of love with the Light that first enchanted him: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and walk his way down. Many fall in love with beauty, but then devolve to love the images rather than the inspiration, losing sight of what they were recreating in the first place and loving light with only a utilitarian affection. In the same way, it is easy for artists, philosophers—even theologians—to cease loving God Himself and to settle instead for talking of Him, loving the study rather than the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others or, to paraphrase Lewis, to “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and to enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, with great ability comes great responsibility and, in a fallen world, great potential for failure. 

Artists are perceptive and often one or more of their senses are uniquely attuned to the medium of their art. A painter’s conception of color and a musician’s awareness of pitch enable them to capture beauty and share it with others. Likewise, a writer may explain ideas in innovative ways so that readers understand what was previously inaccessible. These artists are placed, by the virtue of their abilities, in a position to leap the lower rungs and work from the top of Diotima’s ladder. (Though, like the rest of the world, they likely begin at the base of Bernard’s steps toward loving God.)

However, there is a danger with being perched so high from the start; artists almost inevitably, like the painter in The Great Divorce, topple from the highest loves to the lowest. It is the same way with a bookworm who begins by loving stories, then loves books for the stories, but eventually becomes a hoarder who would rather buy books than read them. Those who love highly have the farthest to fall, which becomes tragic upon the realization that these talented few were equipped to draw others up the ladder while they themselves are sliding down. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. Only a few verses earlier, he describes how he “taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care,” proving that not only did he write a book, he did so to share “words of truth” using “words of delight.” The composition of Ecclesiastes was an academic and aesthetic matter. What he warns against in the conclusion, then, is not the making of books, but the making of them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, it is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation, for this becomes similar to the lowest rung on Bernard’s ladder: loving oneself for oneself’s sake. It is all too easy for the artist and philosopher to fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering, to sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self only. 

The painter’s ghost is concerned with his reputation as garnered by his art’s reception. When speaking with the redeemed spirit, he only wants to know whether there are any famous men in heaven. To his dismay, he receives a very Ecclesiastical answer: fame was vanity compared to being perfectly known and loved in heaven. In descending Diotima’s ladder from loving the Beautiful to his own little beauties, the artist also fails to realize that if he truly loved himself, he would see that, as Bernard explains, perfect self-love is found in unity with God-love.

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why it is that we started creating in the first place: because we glimpsed something enduring and otherly that we wished to capture, communicate, and, eventually, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

The essence of incarnation is manifestation and mediation; Christ as the Word of God incarnate displayed divine glory and proved Himself preeminent by being the mediation of man and Deity (Colossians 1:18). If this is so and art is also an act of incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen only because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must seek to pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer in communion with the Source of all beauty. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint.” Do not let your love of beauty and creativity stay earthbound; love here and love well, but look ever upward. Let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect rather than the Beautiful itself. Nor let us be like Echo, futilely following a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. Then, we might truly love and be loved, basking forever in the Light we once only glimpsed.

Preeminent Performance

In my “Redeeming Culture through Music” class, we were asked the following question:

“Which is most important in music: the composer, the performer, or the listener?”

The class more or less unanimously expressed that the three persons are equally important. After all, if there is no composer, there is nothing to perform and if there is nobody to perform, why bother to compose? Furthermore, without either of these, there is no reason or even opportunity to listen. In fact, these three roles are so remarkably interrelated that it is difficult to define or even discuss one apart from the other two and often an individual musician may (and should) practice more than one of these roles.

It seems, however, that although there is an almost triune relationship between the composer, performer, and listener, it is worth realizing that the composer and listener are mediated by the performer and, indeed, the performer ideally acts as both composer and listener. In performing a piece, a musician is interpreting and expressing with a unique intention, thus co-composing while also being the mode by which the original composer is sharing his ideas with an audience. Without the performer, these “ideas” would be limited to the mind of the composer; after all, notation is not truly music any more than words are truly that which they describe. The composer relies upon the performer to breath life into the form of his work and, through the performer, the music is made.

The performer is also the most active listener. It is immediately clear when a performer is not listening to his music and it is rightly said that while a musician might hear the note as he plays, the true artist hears it before. To play well, to bring to life a work in collaboration with the composer, the performer must also be the greatest of listeners.

Communication too must be mentioned, for without the performing artist to produce the sounds imagined by the composer, listeners or audience members cannot experience and participate in the music. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in her beautiful devotional book, Walking on Water: 

“Art is communication, and if there is no communication it is as though the work had been stillborn.”

A piece of music might exist conceptually in the mind of the composer, but without the performer as its communicator, those who are mere listeners will not be able to hear, enjoy, and ponder it. The performer, then, is not only the embodiment of both composer and listener, but the mediator between the original composer and the awaiting listeners.

At this merely human level, it seems that of composer, performer, and listener, the performer (if we are forced to choose one) is the most vital, for he is both of the others, as well as a communicative mediator. It becomes apparent through scriptural synthesis that this answer is consistent theologically as well.

Here is where I must clarify: I do not mean to suggest that the relationship of composer, performer, and listener is a perfect parallel to the Trinity. (I have laughed at too many #AlsoNotLikeTheTrinity posts to risk it!) However, I will venture to suggest that music, like all arts, is incarnational, and that the composer, performer, and listener wonderfully image the intermediary work of Christ between God the Father and His creation, mankind.

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” – Madeleine L’Engle

First of all, what do I mean that “art is incarnational”? The production of art is to put ideas into a sensory, communicable form. Books are ideas set in words; painting or sculpture are visual and tangible expressions of the artist’s idea; music differs slightly in that a person, rather than a medium such as a book or canvas, is needed to produce the audible product. But even (and perhaps especially) in this case, the music is an idea made actual through the performance; music is an idea incarnate as organized sound.

Already, there is an echo of Christ in the word “incarnate,” and rightly so. The idea that music is brought fully into being by the mind of the composer and through the performer as co-composer is reminiscent of John 1:1-3:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (ESV)

God (the Father) creates as a mind imagines, while the Son manifests as the Word communicates. Ideally, a composer would be also performer, thus imaging the perfect unity of the Trinity. Even with a separate composer and performer, though, the reflective relationship is present: the composer creates conceptually and, through the power of the performer, communicatively.

This brings us to the listeners. Controversial composer, Arnold Schoenberg, believed that:

“A real composer writes music for no other reason than that it pleases him. Those who compose because they want to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists.”

Theologically, based on the parallels I seek to draw, there is some truth here. God creates out of His overflowing delight and the Genesis narrative immediately reveals God’s pleasure as He deems each piece of creation “good.” However, this delight indicates that God formed all things also in order to share this wondrous joy. When God crowns His creation with His own image, mankind, He pronounces it finally, “very good.”

Here and throughout Scripture (consider the Psalms as one such vast example) it is apparent that God in His infinite goodness and love made all that there is for His own right pleasure, but also with the gracious desire to communicate Himself and His creativity with His image bearers: mankind, the listeners.

This brings us back to incarnation. Consider Colossians 1:15-17

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (ESV)

Christ, the Son of God who took on flesh, is fully divine and fully dust, fully God and fully man. By Christ all things were made and in him all things are held together; he was the means by which all is made and remade, but also is the true image of the God we cannot see. He is the Word that speaks of the Divine Mind, making manifest what is “too wonderful” for mankind (Psalm 139:6, ESV).

Christ is the mediator, the co-creator who yet condescended in mercy to listen and to teach. He is the Word, incarnation, and — in this instance — the truest of performers, for through Him we receive reconciliation and understanding, for though Christ walked in flesh among us, He is one with our Creator.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:18-20 (ESV)

Although composer, performer, and listener are each necessary and impossible to isolate from each other, we find that the performer is ideally both composer and listener, as well as the mediator between an unhearing audience and the seemingly-incomprehensible ideas of the composer. Within the context of Christianity, we find parallels that reveal the incarnational aspect of the performer’s work and resonate with the truth of Christ’s manifestation and mediation. Performers, then, in their practice, image the preeminence of Christ as they bring music to life.

 

 

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Flood of Thought

Every once in a while, I have what I like to think of as a flash flood of ideas. It seems that inspiration is everywhere and I can hardly jot down one idea before another demands my attention. It’s terrible and wonderful at the same time; I love to dream and brainstorm, but am frustrated when time constraints and real life prevent me from being able to execute all of my ideas. 

So, naturally, to cope with the storm of ideas, I wrote some poetry instead of working on them. 

A river builds within my mind

Against the dam, too-strict time.

The tide of thought, irresistible-

Drowns me in its ebb and flow,

For it ought to carve a canyon steep 

But life restrains this swirling deep,

So current’s force grows storm by storm

As raindrop muses demand form; 

They rise and swirl, must soon o’er take

The crumbling barriers we make.  

Oh! On the day they’ve held too long,

The gates shall give to waters strong,

And then shall finally freely pour

The ideas held in painful store;

The words will flow and music play,

All the deeper for their delay.