May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 16, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
Posted on December 16th, 2008
A few days ago Ben Meyers posted 10 Theological Theses On Art, which were then creatively responded to at This Blog, which posted 10 Alternative Theses on Art. I would like to respond to both, as I find it difficult to fully identify with each as theological realizations of either the artistic impulse or aesthetic experience. Neither are hardwired into Advent, neither deal specifically enough with this question at the level of the practitioner (the great lacuna in theological aesthetics), neither are flexible enough such that they are able to circumscribe what Vattimo refers to as the “oscillation” of contemporary art and its attendant critical languages:
“The ambiguity many contemporary theories take to be characteristic of aesthetic experience is not provisional: it is not a matter of mastering language in general more completely… On the contrary, art is constituted as much by the experience of ambiguity as it is by oscillation and disorientation. In the world of generalized communication, these are the ways art can (not still, but perhaps finally) take the form of creativity and freedom.” (The Transparent Society, 60)
With all that in mind:
Ten Alternating Theses on Art
1. Inherent to the incarnation and resurrection is a built-in aesthetic that becomes formally recognizable through its continual critique of Art as the production and arrangement of physical material. We need to be able to think of the incarnation and resurrection as art before we can adequately think of anything else as art. But we also need to be able to think of the incarnation and resurrection as a form of criticism before we can adequately critique anything else. Godard famously said: The best way to criticize a film is to make a film. Similarly, the creative trajectory that is thematically rooted in Genesis 1 and extends through the incarnation and resurrection is such a critical and creative event, a cosmic installation piece that by its mere existence critiques all other aesthetic occurrences. Art and criticism are engendered by the same aesthetic impulse.
2. God’s role in the resurrection is directly parallel to His role in the creation of the world, which tells us a lot about how we can think about art. It always refers theoretically to the Word becoming flesh, the production of thought and expression in materials, physical materials – that which we can hear, see with our eyes, behold, and touch with our hands. Art is the arrangement of materials in communicating ways; doodling in the dust, so to speak.
3. God initially describes himself as a creator of fallen creators. On this same narrative arc, the resurrection is the high-water mark of his inconceivable creative intelligence. It involves the restoration of humanity by an act that doesn’t just celebrate Christ’s accomplished work but the defeat of all that which robs the earth of its Artist’s signature. The resurrection is a material victory, fashioned out of the same substances that had fallen in the beginning. To bend Tarkovsky’s metaphor, it is God sculpting in time. If we were to link an Advent aesthetic with biblical theology, we could see Romans 8 describing all artistic activity within the context of the earth “groaning and laboring.” The artistic impulse, the desire to materially produce thoughts, patterns, and compositions, is both an echo of God’s creative activity and the response of His creation to its own fallenness. In this way, art is theodramatic recitation. It is liturgical.
4. The practice of art is a social process, a communicating process. God accommodates Himself to us in both creation and resurrection, and the practice of art understands this analogical process. There is an idea that through knowledge of a particular material (oil, metal, film, etc…) becomes communicable. A “good” work of art is one that by successful use of craft and material becomes articulate. I guess this is the aesthetic of “The Word became flesh”: Every work of art is subject to evaluation based on how it relates to the incarnation’s validation of creativity and human-ness.
5. I am always looking for the stories that fall apart and don’t connect, the films with ragged edges and black hole gaps, or paintings that conjoin contradictory terms. My experience of life isn’t always consistent in itself, and I want art that helps me to negotiate the possibility of living both thoughtfully and joyfully in the face of contradiction. Nothing is really going to add up until the eschaton. Until then, I will lean on Brakhage’s self-refuting flickers of paint, Richter’s constantly evolving media, Faulkner’s blank mutterings, Denis’ inconclusive proposals. Even Herzog’s farcical blithering. Such things leave space for hope. Art is aporetic, and incoherent.
6. Apocalypse ruptures self-narrations, societies, or states of affair that appear to be consistent and replaces them with narrative worlds that actually are. Art should be striving for a consistency that doesn’t actually exist in the world, unveiling its myths by opposing them with even more coherent possibilities. So I will also cling to the world-building of Wenders, Tarkovsky, and Malick. I will treasure Rilke and Bradbury. Art is coherent, apocalyptic.
7. Art is a reclamation of space; it envisions a return from exile. Art recycles all the rubble.
8. As there is no place or time the Advent is not addressing, interpreting, and engaging with newness, the notion of speechless art a theological impossibility. All art is pedagogy – it first instructs us in its own grammar, and then tells us things about time and space. It is only the politics of Advent that are able to distinguish between what is properly didactic and what is propaganda.
9. The end of art is justice. Adorno claimed that it would be “barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.” This would be true if Advent were not proleptic, if exile really was an absolute, and if art could not speak representationally beyond the confines of our historical memory. As art is the echo of Advent, it is the only way to speak un-barbarically after Auschwitz. Chagall is to be preferred to Adorno, whose marital images contain a truly dialectic historiography of trauma (as if he is saying: Life is hell, but my wife… she is so beautiful.”)
10. Any theological thesis on art is simply an addition to the tradition-history of the incarnation and resurrection as they embed themselves in culture. Our aesthetics must be flexible enough to dialogue with the incredible range of languages and dialects that comprise what we think of as Art. It is easy to develop a theological estimation of a particular form of artistic expression. It is a much more difficult task to develop a theological estimation of a variety of artistic expressions. Critical grammar and vocabulary slip and shift dramatically as they move across different media, often emerging from the form of the material they are addressing. Our theological “theses” on art must be able to engage with the locational and material spread of these language games with theodramatic integrity. Whether it be film, dance, architecture, graphic design, painting, etc…, the aesthetic of Advent is an ever-increasingly adaptable mode of critical response to what Vattimo refers to as the “oscillation” of contemporary art in all its forms. We don’t need 10 theological theses on art – we need 50 or 100 that attend our gallery-walking and film-going like a twitter feed.