Notions about art are diverse, strongly held and contradicting. Facing such conflict, many hoist a flag of surrender and say that art is just a matter of personal taste. Some even fly that flag triumphantly. They heatedly argue that art is not a thing worth arguing; they insist that nothing about art is objectively true except its lack of objective truthfulness. Art cannot easily be quantified or ranked; therefore, they say, everything said about it is mere opinion.
This way of thinking is not entirely new; de gustibus non est disputandum has been uttered for centuries, although I suspect that it has only recently been understood in an absolute sense. I see an error at the start of this way of thinking: the assumption that in order for a thing to be real, not just a product of the imagination, it must be calculable. This is the perhaps the most common error in the modern mind. At the end of this way of thinking is a colorless, mechanical view of reality. The philosopher and mathematician Wolfgang Smith described it well:
We are told that [the universe] consists of space, time and matter, or of space-time and energy, or perhaps of something else still more abstruse and even less imaginable; but in any case we are told in unequivocal terms what it excludes: as all of us have learned, the physical universe is said to exclude just about everything which from the ordinary human point of view makes up the world.... What is being bifurcated or cut asunder are the so-called primary and secondary qualities: the things that can be described in mathematical terms, and those that cannot.New technology impresses this way of thinking even more deeply. Computers have it built into their every function, for they actually cannot heed anything unless it is reduced to a number. And technology imparts its bias to its users. To a man with a hammer, the adage goes, everything looks like a nail; to a man with a computer, everything looks like a datum.
Logically speaking, the bifurcation postulate is tantamount to the identification of the so-called physical universe (the world as conceived by the physicist) with the real world per se, through the device of relegating all else (all that does not fit this conception) to an ontological limbo, situated outside the world of objectively existent things.... Let it be said at once that this reduction of the world to the categories of physics is not a scientific discovery (as many believe), but a metaphysical assumption that has been built into the theory from the outset.
The modern mind has acquired the habit of attempting to quantify and rank things that are not inherently numerical: beauty, intelligence, personality, friendship - as though primary reality exists within some Cartesian grid upon which the things we see and hear and feel must be plotted! This is, to the modern mind, the only way to make them real. That art is recalcitrant to numerical description merely proves that it does not satisfy the modern notion of reality. But reality is older that the modern notion; so is art. Neither depends on it.
My first advice to anybody who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is never to treat art like data. Do not rate works of art with stars; do not sort them into top-ten lists. You will appreciate them better just by looking at them for a very long time. It is in the looking that communication through art happens.
Truth and Goodness, those things that sacred art is meant to impart, are transcendental; they are names of God. According to Dionysius, the author of The Divine Names, Beauty is another:
The superessential Beautiful is called Beauty, on account of the beauty communicated from Itself to all beautiful things, in a manner appropriate to each, and as Cause of the good harmony and brightness of all things, which flashes like light to all the beautifying distributions of its frontal ray.... From this Beautiful comes being to all existing things, that each is beautiful in its own proper order.This doctrine implies that even the coarse material world, the lowest level of the universal hierarchy, partakes in the divine essence; Him whom Dionysius calls the superessential Light and the invisible Sun shines even there. Thus the bodily senses may be used unashamedly, for they are the means by which we perceive the visible beauty that is an image of the invisible beauty - so wrote Hugh of St. Victor, one of the great intellectuals of the twelfth century and a faithful interpreter of this theology.
His contemporary, Suger of St. Denis, gave the same ideas artistic expression. In rebuilding and furnishing his abbey church, in decorating it with a symbolic program of stained glass, monumental sculpture and goldsmithery, Suger attended the birth of Gothic art. He wrote:
When - out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God - the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the Earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.Gothic art is the basis of my own art. I do not think of Gothic art as a mere historic style belonging to a certain time and place; that would make it a very boring thing. Rather, I think of it as the best example of art made according to true Christian principles. These are not merely useful for creating religious art as it was in twelfth-century France, or in medieval Europe in general; rather, they are useful for creating religious art in any era, including our own.
Works quoted or referenced:
Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief, (San Raphael CA: Sophia Perennis, 2008).
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (New York: Vantage Books, 1992).
The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, translated by John Parker, (London: James Parker, 1897).
Hugh of St. Victor, In Hierarchiam Cœlestem, quoted by Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin, (Yale University Press, 1986).
Suger of St. Denis, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures, translated by Erwin Panofsky, (Princeton University Press, 1979).