In the early centuries after Christ, myriad heresies peeled free of the doctrinal core, curling attractively, then blanching and withering.
They were like eddies swirling off a current, spiraling prettily and then dissipating. Or like whorls of smoke from a pipe.
Such things were attractive precisely in their divergence from the core. They were Life and energy made momentarily simple, elegant, intelligible, exactly because they were reductive. And of course, because they were reductive, they were short-lived. Their potential was quickly exhausted and their beauty faded.
Such is the story of the triumph of orthodoxy: the rich core held strong, while its departures wilted.
And this is also the story of human knowledge in general. First, we peer at wholeness. Second, we strive to crystallize it in symbols (words, images, signs). Yet precisely in that beautiful crystallization, we reduce, and so we later sour on what we have made, disgusted by its limitations. Thus third, and inevitably, we destroy to make again. All crystallized knowledge is in some sense heresy (at least, if taken as complete) because it reduces in order to grasp. The arch heresy, therefore, might be atheistic materialism, which denies everything not susceptible to reduction the right to exist.
Yet despite the lessons of history, we always love what is reductive. It accommodates our intellects. It flatters us. In its easy intelligibility, it seems made for us. How grotesque, by comparison, are those paradoxes that refuse easy formulation. They make us feel vaguely irritated, even disgusted. They have no easy simplicity, no sleek elegance, no glamorous flash.
It took centuries to formulate the Trinity because the truth was too rich to compass with human symbols. And even then, many would not accept it and still cannot. Their refusal is at least partially aesthetic. Paradox is not pleasing. It does not flatter us or seem made for us at all.
Now what does this have to do with the thing we call “art”?
All human visual culture is a metaphor for this journey toward knowledge. The image maker – the maker of beauties and appearances – lurches toward the Truth and peels something off, prettily, to show us. Yet in this very act of selection and crystallization she must reduce what she has found. In the realms we call “design,” and more archaically, “ornament,” these reductions take on humble form (often the swirl itself, like eddies and smoke), and do not pretend to profundity. They highlight their lack through endless repetition: stripes, patterns, chevrons, tiles.1
But in the realm of what we call “fine art,” something more is expected. Art attempts something more perilous and heroic, and must therefore show its effort and its battle wounds. In other words, it must try to point beyond the crystallizations that make up its body toward a larger truth that stretches and pains. It must signal “more than” – something more than its self and beyond its powers.
Practically speaking, in fact, art’s determination to signal “more than” – to be self-aware about its own reductiveness and proclaim its own lack – is maybe the one, sure visual stamp of “artness,” as such, across all genres and forms. It is what we mean by “originality.” It shows a fresh attention to, and a humility before, the over-full Origin from which it came.
What are some ways art signals “more than”? Most classically, it does this by cherishing rules and then exploding them. This is what Picasso, that scamp, was famous for. And such irreverence can be pursued in a number of ways, some simpler than others. For example, one might darken what was formerly light (see: Caravaggio),2 or make obscure what was sharp (see: Rembrandt).3 Or one might multiply what was single (see: the cathedral builders, with their compound piers and spires),4 or fragment what was whole (see: Picasso again, in his Cubist phase).5 And God forbid that any of these violations be negations for the sake of negation (that’s what we call “shock art,” which is juvenile). No, to be true art, the negation – the rule-busting – must also be a return to the Origin, a reorientation toward the Whole.
For witness to truth is, after all, an orientation more than a crystallization into symbols. That’s why Jesus says the good angels “always see the face of my Father in heaven.”6 Such angels are oriented properly, and perpetually, toward the inexpressible Whole, simultaneously witnessing (seeing) and witnessing (giving testimony). Their job is not so much to convey messages as to orient us properly, as well.
In one of my classes this quarter, my students and I examined different ways to practice an aesthetic of “more than” – of rule-breaking for the sake of re-orienting – which is really a kind of anti-aesthetic, in that it trades the pleasing for the true. We considered the harsh portraits of Lucien Freud, with their burbling flesh and pores.7 We considered the grotesque elegance of Kara Walker’s silhouettes.8 We considered the giant spiders of Louise Bourgeois, hovering and brooding in menace and protectiveness.9 And we considered Trenton Doyle Hancock’s mournful, meditative, vegetative piles.10
Meanwhile Jesus, the God who became flesh, is the one crystallization in the history of the world that has also achieved fullness. And He did this through a grand Reorientation, one that broke many rules while bearing elegant, virtuosic witness to Truth. It is impossible to imagine His simultaneous concreteness and fullness, now, but we can glimpse it in the mystery of his Resurrection body – a body that was by turns unrecognizable and undeniable, that bore open wounds while in perfect health, that was firm to the touch and yet able to pass through walls.
Thus Jesus, alone, is always more than, never less. He is the embodiment toward which all art points, in unwitting mania to emulate Him. He alone is never negation, but rather a goad from narrow to wide. He alone is never reduction, but rather a prod from dark cave to open meadow filled with life. His yoke is easy because it is this, so simply: a gossamer line of right-orientation, such as the good angels in heaven enjoy. And so his “light burden” is actually a gift to make us blush and tremble: nothing less than the Face of the Father, the glorious All There Is.
- Matthew 18:10