Gregory Wolfe, editor of the award-winning literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery, has a new blog that should be on the regular reading list of anyone interested in the intersection of the arts and religion. In his article In God’s Image: Do Good People Make Good Art?, published in the magazine In Character and linked from his website, Wolfe ponders whether creativity could be considered a Christian virtue, and how this understanding of the creative process differs from the Romantic cult of genius, in which the personality of the artist becomes conflated with the work itself.
As we all know, sublime art is often made by very flawed people, and vice versa. For some religious people, this would seem to undermine art’s claim to be a spiritually significant activity. Unless aesthetics are strictly subordinated to moral concerns, artistic creativity could be a gateway to idolatry, worshipping the powers of the self unconnected to God or community. Wolfe suggests a less egocentric model of creativity, where the artist puts the good of the work above herself and sacrifices her personal agenda (including her religious agenda) to the quest for truth.
So in what sense might we say that creativity is a virtue? Oscar Wilde, a creative individual if there ever was one, and an artist with his own share of problems, framed the question with his usual wit. “The fact of a man’s being a poisoner,” he once said, “is nothing against his prose.”
If Wilde strikes you as suspect in voicing this opinion, given his own notorious troubles, how about those two paragons of reason and rectitude – Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas? They provide a philosophical basis for Wilde’s position by distinguishing between two different types of human action: making and doing. Doing involves human choices, the way we exercise our free will. In the realm of doing – or Prudence, as it has been called – the goal is the perfection of the doer. In other words, in our behavior we are seeking to perfect ourselves as moral agents.
But in making – or Art, if you will – the end is not the good of the artist as a person but the good of the made thing. The moment that art is made subservient to some ethical or political purpose, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Art seems to require an inviolable freedom to seek the good of the artifact, without either overt or covert messages being forced into it. And history demonstrates that it is simply a statement of fact (to paraphrase Aquinas) that rectitude of the appetites is not a prerequisite for the ability to make beautiful objects….
So where does this leave us? If creativity seems unequally distributed, can bring about destruction, does not intrinsically aid in the moral perfection of the creative individual, and has been tainted by the Romantic cult of genius, it doesn’t seem to warrant consideration as a virtue.
And yet there is something in most of us that accords a high measure of dignity and worth to the creative impulse. Nearly all the world’s religions are grounded in creation stories that also ennoble human beings as agents who perpetuate the divine act of creation by their own actions. In turn, each human action partakes in some measure of the supernatural powers of the creator….
The Christian poet T.S. Eliot put it this way in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” And the paradox is that in that displacement of personality, the true self is free to make itself known. Eastern religious ideas about creativity may be said to correct a number of unhealthy tendencies in Western ideas. Too often, Western thinkers have seen creativity in terms of concepts like “productivity” or “originality,” veering dangerously close to a kind of hubris, arrogating to themselves the role of God, who is the only one who truly creates out of nothing. But in the East, creativity is intimately bound up with a struggle to discern inner truth and the growth of the self. The stress here is less on production and more on attunement and the connections we sense when we practice a contemplative openness before being.
Later in the essay, Wolfe discusses Dorothy Sayers’ aesthetic theories in her book The Mind of the Maker:
The artist makes things out of love, she says, but this does not imply some sort of jealous possession or domination over the work. Rather, the “artist never desires to subdue her work to herself but always to subdue herself to her work. The more genuinely creative she is, the more she will want her work to develop in accordance with its own nature, and to stand independent of herself.” For a writer this means giving the characters in the story free will, seeking their good rather than her own. It also means that as readers we can come to know, in some measure, the mind of the Maker.
The imagination works through empathy, which requires the artist to place herself in the experience of another – and thus lose herself. While the death of the self may appear to be a loss of control and individuality, the paradox of artistic creativity is that only through this openness to the good of the story and the characters who inhabit it can the maker discover meaning and order.
Read the whole essay here. Another good read from Wolfe’s website is his Religious Humanism: A Manifesto, originally published in Image #16 (Summer 1997). Here’s a man who understands why the Incarnation is so wonderful:
On the face of it, the term “religious humanism” seems to suggest a tension between two opposed terms—between heaven and earth. But it is a creative, rather than a deconstructive, tension. Perhaps the best analogy for understanding religious humanism comes from the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus was both human and divine. This paradoxical meeting of these two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.
When emphasis is placed on the divine at the expense of the human (the conservative fault), Jesus becomes an ethereal authority figure who is remote from earthly life and experience. When he is thought of as merely human (the liberal error), he becomes nothing more than a superior social worker or popular guru.
The religious humanist refuses to collapse paradox in on itself. This has an important implication for how he or she approaches the world of culture. Those who make a radical opposition between faith and the world hold such a negative view of human nature that the products of culture are seen as inevitably corrupt and worthless. On the other hand, those who are eager to accommodate themselves to the dominant trends of the time baptize nearly everything, even things that may not be compatible with the dictates of the faith. But the distinctive mark of religious humanism is its willingness to adapt and transform culture, following the dictum of an early Church Father, who said that “Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s.” Because religious humanists believe that whatever is good, true, and beautiful is part of God’s design, they have the confidence that their faith can assimilate the works of culture. Assimilation, rather than rejection or accommodation, constitutes the heart of the religious humanist’s vision….
With all these references to paradox and ambiguity the objection might be made that I am speaking in quintessentially liberal terms, refusing to state my allegiance to the particularities of the faith. In fact, the majority of religious humanists through the centuries have been deeply orthodox, though that does not mean they don’t struggle with doubt or possess highly skeptical minds. The orthodoxy of the great religious humanists is something that liberals tend to ignore or evade; it doesn’t tally with their notion that dogma are somehow lifeless and repressive. But dogma are nothing more—or less—than restatements of the mysteries of faith. Theological systems can become calcified and unreal—they can, in short, give rise to “dogmatism”—but dogma exist to protect and enshrine mystery….
So we arrive at yet another paradox: that the religious humanist combines an intense (if occasionally anguished) attachment to orthodoxy with a profound spirit of openness to the world. This helps to explain why so many of the towering figures of religious humanism—from Gregory of Nyssa, Maimonides, Dante and Erasmus to Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor—have been writers possessed of powerful imaginations. The intuitive powers of the imagination can leap beyond the sometimes leaden abstractions with which reason must work. Because the imagination is always searching to move from conflict to a higher synthesis, it is the natural ally of religious humanism, which struggles to assimilate the data of the world into a deeper vision of faith.