Truth in Art Vol. 1 (Autumn) 2017

Paradox, Revelation, and Surprise

There is something very unusual about the icon and its theology. Icons have recently grown in popularity, which is inevitable, given that even human thought is essentially iconic. One is reminded of Patriarch Nicephoros (8th century), who believed that “not only Christ, but the whole universe disappears if neither circumscribability nor image exist.”[1] When the Gospel began to spread among the ancient Greeks, it reversed its world view by answering their philosophical questions and offering the iconic ontology. One can argues persuasively that every aspect of existence is iconic and that the paradox of the Incarnation was addressed and resolved only in visual-iconic terms. Humans are created in the image of God, but He also presents himself as truth in an iconic way (“conformed to the likeness of his Son”, Rom. 8:29). Why? Because human freedom refuses to see God or the cosmos as representing an objective something, and wants to see them as a dynamic how, as a mode of free revelation.

Einstein allegedly said: “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world”[2]. Indeed, had the physical universe must have necessarily existed as it is or whether it could have been created in another way? Today almost all scientists believe that the universe could indeed have been otherwise and no logical reason exists why it has to be as it is. It seems that God creates not simply as a scientist but as an artist[3], which opens up a variety of symbolisms for the creation. The Scripture speaks of God’s artistry at work: creation has all the characteristics of art, mostly because of the elements of freedom, relation, and indeterminacy. In fact, modern approach with regard to sciences has lead to a “scientific ecology” that bypasses the rock of scientific materialism and the whirlpool of theological spiritualism. For this debate, a recent book of Nobelist Eric R. Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Culture,[4] is very instructive with the basic thesis that these two realms are not inseparably divided.

An artistic view negates the coincidence of the concept with the object of perception. By the same token, from the very beginning, an ecclesial (eschatological) view of truth revealed the experience of personal presence, in which the world is something we experience and not something we think about. Stefan Zweig in his The Secret of Artistic Creation explains the conception of a work of art as “an inner process, a divine phenomenon, a mystery. The only thing we can do is to reconstruct this act once it has taken place and even then it is possible to do so only to a certain extent.”[5] Here Zweig’s credo hints at the image of the Genesis, where the miracle of a creatio ex nihilo is narrated. Only occasionally are human beings able to share in this miracle, and that is in art. Zweig situates the Genesis and the origin of a creation among the acts he considers as miracles and goes on to talk about an incomprehensible and irrational miracle, because the artists create entities that defy change. “If you put your very existence into it, your sensitivity and humanity, it makes for a sound distinctly yours,” says Steve López, in the The Soloist.[6] But, most of the times, art contradicts the mind and we cannot determine whether it reflects the truth or not.

Is this true?

Philosophically, truth has traditionally been identified with “factual reality” (adaequatio rei et intellectus): What I say—or see—is true because it corresponds with the reality. But reality is subject to change, corruption; it perishes. Imagine somebody telling you that “you are dying now;” you would say “that’s nonsense!” But, when an artist depicts you in a state of dying, he undoubtedly expresses an existential truth. Even in Plato, truth is not in reality but in the ideal world. Obviously, the definition of art depends on what you suppose your existence is like, or what yours, beholder’, eyes expect to see. In idealistic art, such as that of the Renaissance, the idea of physical beauty in nature is ideal. And yet, nature is corruptible and transient and circumscribed by death. Such art revels in change, corruption, and that nothing remains the same over time.

Now, how can one determine whether one work of art is true and another is not? How can we judge the truth of the icons? Is there a means to overcome the didactic, decorative, religious, and emotional function of art and reach the revelatory, apocalyptic truth which surprises us by its struggle to express the principle (logos) and the mode (tropos) of the things?

In contrast with natural art which idealizes the natural world and, therefore, is bounded by time, the icon is the truth presented in a way that is not controlled by our senses or our mind; you cannot conceive it. We can apply this to almost the whole of art except when it comes from an asphyxiatingly subjective unconscious (to be clear, faulty construction of reality is not a criterion for aesthetic evaluation.) Genuine art conveys the truth that is not passed through the mind, but rather provokes a readiness to be face-to-face with your existence. It is an “openness to another form which is different from me, offering itself to me as a gift.” (Maximos Constas) This implies that on this matter, we do not have a philosophical but an experiential answer, which is how can we judge between false and true philosophical statements: the reality of Christ brings something ultimate that cannot be judged since the relation constitutes it.

We judge the truth in art (for instance in portraiture) by asking the question “is this true”? But usually we employ the naturalistic approach. For example, if you have the photograph of Christ and an icon-painting of Christ, which one is more truthful? If you have a naturalistic approach, you would certainly say “photograph”. But, if you believe that “non-naturalistic art is more true,” then you point to the unconventional and apocalyptic truth (cf. the sixth-century icon of the Sinai Christ with polarized facial expressions). Therefore, there is truth in art that is not simply corresponding with the mind or reality. A definition of truth must point to “relationality” or referentiality of common ground of existence that we share (truth in existential terms).

[1] μᾶλλον δὲ ουδὲ Χριστός, ἀλλὰ τὸ πᾶν οἴχεται, εἰ μὴ περιγράφοιτο καὶ εἰκονίζοιτο, Antirrhetics, I, 244D, PG 100, 244D.

[2] Cf. Fitness of the Cosmos for Life: Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning, Eds. John D. Barrow, Simon Conway Morris et al., (Cambridge University Press 2008), p. 97.

[3] Cf. W. Kandinsky: “Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create that new world called the work. Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos—by means of catastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophony of the various instruments that symphony we call the music of the spheres. The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world” (Wassily Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, Boston, USA: Da Capo 1994, p. 373).

[4] See Eric R. Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[5] See The Secret of Artistic Creation [in Greek: Τὸ μυστήριο τῆς καλλιτεχνικῆς δημιουργίας], Athens 2002.

[6] A 2009 British-American drama film directed by Joe Wright, starring Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers and Robert Downey, Jr. as Steve López.

Bp. Maxim (Vasiljevic)

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