Saturday, March 30, 2013

St. Edith Stein on Art

It can be frustrating for practicing artists to read philosophies of art, for a reason not always obvious to non-artists. The problem is subtle: quite often philosophers get caught up discussing not art itself, but the effects of art upon the audience, or the place art holds in society. Thinking they are really talking about art, when in fact they are talking about the effects or surroundings of art, they lose the subject itself. So instead of reading about art, and what it might potentially mean from the inside of creative activity, we are stuck with yet another discussion of mere political or sociological philosophy.

Reading St. Edith Stein's commentary on St. John of the Cross, however, I was startled and deeply gratified to find a philosopher who, in a few paragraphs, illuminated the reality of art itself--not only what painters or poets do, but what creative musicians do as well--and what great responsibility such a creative gift brings when exercised.

Holy Saturday seems a particularly good time to quote from the Introduction to St. Edith Stein's The Science of the Cross:

In the confident strength of his impressionability the artist is akin to the child and the saint.


It is the characteristic of the artist to transform into image anything that causes an interior stirring and demands to be expressed exteriorly. Image here is not to be restricted to the visual arts; it must be understood to refer to any artistic expression, including the poetic and musical. It is simultaneously image in which something is presented and structure as something formed into a complete and all-encompassing little world of its own. Every genuine work of art is in addition a symbol whether or not this is its creator's intention, be he naturalist or symbolist.

It is a symbol: that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood in this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service. 

Despite this, it is clear that there is a danger in an artistic inclination and not only when the artist lacks an understanding of the sacredness of his task. The danger lies in the possibility that in constructing the image, the artist proceeds as though there were no further responsibility than producing it. What is meant here can be demonstrated most clearly by the example of the images of the cross. There will scarcely be a believing artist who has not felt compelled to portray Christ on the cross or carrying the cross.

But the Crucified One demands from the artist more than a mere portrayal of the image. He demands the artist, just as every other person, follow him: that he both make himself and allow himself to be made into an image of the one who carries the cross and is crucified. 

Expressing the image externally can be a hindrance to doing so internally, but by no means must this be so; actually, it can serve the process of interior transformation because only with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted. In this manner, when no obstacle is placed in its path, it becomes an interior representation that urges the artist to effectively reproduce it in action, that is, by way of imitation, externally. 

The implications of this passage are immense, yet for a publication focused on Jazz Clarinet, the passage has some immediate applications. Anyone who plays jazz clarinet, dedicating countless hours to the art can wonder what the ultimate value of the discipline might possibly be, especially when considering there are really no commercial rewards for most of us in the end.

But anyone who has truly played a blues, truly opened up and sung through the horn that magnificent combination of suffering, redemption, and supernatural joy, knows that the act of creating that art is also, somehow, potentially transformative--not only for an audience, but for ourselves. Personally, I would have to play the blues if no one was listening but God. I need to play the blues, for myself--because it is both who I am, and because it also continuously shapes my own soul properly. Many of my jazz musician friends have expressed similar things, as have many artists who are not even musicians, when discussing their art. Money and fame, as Artie Shaw so emphatically put it, have nothing to do with the real issue. 

Keep swinging, folks. And remember there is importance to what you do, unmeasurable by worldly standards.