We have received an email asking our advice. The sender has given us permission to discuss his email here on the blog. Here is the email, slightly edited both to protect the identity of the sender and to correct a few typos:
Greetings in Christ,
My name is John and I am a baptized Orthodox Christian. I am an artist living in New York City, yet I feel everything I paint is worthless and vain.
Painting gives me no peace, only fills me with doubt and frustration. However, I feel like if I stopped painting, it would be because I am giving up, especially since I have a talent for painting. Some have asked if I would consider iconography, but that's not why I paint and I would only move to it because painting out of creativity was too hard and so I went to the path of duplicating icons in the tradition of the church. I paint because I want to be able to create imagery that bridges the gap between the Orthodox faith and the secular world. Not so much to convert people, but to transfer the impression of the Orthodox heart in a way a non-Orthodox may apprehend via a painting.
I have prayed about this, but only go in circles. I would appreciate greatly if you could share some thoughts on art and sin and perhaps why I make no progress with my work.
We are honoured to have received this email. Someone values our opinion. However, we are not sure we know anything about the topic and we are certainly not aware of any patristic writings on the production of art (apart from St Basil the Great’s endorsement of the study of pagan letters without the Christian taking seriously the pagan elements in them; and St John of Damascus’ defence of icons). So our readers, including John, should take whatever we say here as Orthodox Monk’s personal opinion. If any reader thinks that what we are saying is wrong then they should simply discard it.
There are a number of dimensions. Let us go through these dimensions. However, because we have not studied this particular issue in depth and systematically, we are to a large extent reduced to putting down random thoughts. It would be a long-term endeavour to write a systematic essay on John’s topic.
First of all, we would take it as a given that the artist expresses his interior state in his art. One of the main works that an artist has in life is therefore not only to learn his métier but to cultivate his interior life. Let us look at some artists, in various media, to see how this works.
Picasso was an artistic genius. Just as some people are tone-deaf and others have perfect pitch, Picasso was richly endowed with artistic genius. We once saw the bull’s head that he made out of a bicycle seat and handlebars. It was astonishing in the perfection of its execution. Here is a photo of that bull's head.
It is clear from Picasso’s early work that he was completely competent in draughtsmanship: it wasn’t that he painted abstractly because he didn’t know how to paint in a classical representational fashion.
We would also take it as a given that Picasso’s artistic evolution, seen from the point of view of his personal interior life, was a matter of developing an artistic language for the expression of his interior artistic vision. Picasso’s success in developing this artistic language is evident in his famous dove, where with a very few lines he conveys the ‘essence of doveness’.
We would also take it as a given that Picasso’s very late work in the Antibes is derivative and boring. He was past his artistic prime.
In his personal life, however, Picasso was anything but a devout Orthodox. We don’t go to Picasso to find the luminous humanism of Rembrandt.
We once saw a Rembrandt exhibition in the flesh and were somewhat disappointed: our own spiritual evolution seems to have taken us beyond that particular humanism. Here it must be understood that even though Rembrandt is a great artist, he stands in a particular historical, sociological and religious situation—as do we all, in whatever medium we work. Rembrandt had a very deep vision of man, as can be seen especially from his own self-portraits, but it is not clear that an Orthodox would remain with Rembrandt as he cultivated his own spiritual garden. The Orthodox comes out of a completely different historical, sociological and religious situation than Rembrandt. That is to say that we might not want to hang a Rembrandt in our cell although we might profoundly respect the man and his work.
It should also be understood that Orthodoxy does not have as strong a cultural tradition as the West of the artist as the independent creator. For example there is really no tradition of novel writing in Byzantium; the main form of letters was rhetoric. The rise in the West of the independent artistic creator culminating in the Romantic shaman-artist is a matter of the historical evolution of the West from the Roman Catholic Scholastic Middle Ages through the Renaissance through the Reformation to the dissolution we see today.
Kurosawa was an artist in film. He had a humanist vision which as far as we know was not Christian. At the end, he seems to have approached Buddhism. Yet his films are worth watching for their humanist vision.
In terms of technique Tolstoy was a greater artist than Dostoevsky but Dostoevsky was the deeper man.
To become a great artist, you must first become a person. You must dig into the garden of your soul and plant human compassion.
Shakespeare was an unparalleled artist of the word but there is no sense of the divine in King Lear. The universe of King Lear is a universe without God.
So at this level we would suggest that John cultivate a serious spiritual life as a member of his Orthodox jurisdiction. This would include regular confession and communion, the other mysteries (sacraments) of the Church, regular attendance at Church, the leading of a devout Orthodox life. We would also recommend that John take up the Jesus Prayer. Under the guidance of a competent Elder this will have the effect of stabilizing John’s soul. In the long term John will become a person who has an interior state the artistic expression of which will interest the onlooker.
The next point to realize is that John is entering into a profession which has a historical dimension. We are sure that John has studied the history of art so as to know much about the historical evolution of his métier. This historical dimension is problematical. For whatever historical and sociological reasons, in the 20th Century, the visual arts entered an epoch of dissolution. We need not rehearse here the various schools of the 20th Century. We would here, however, like to discuss certain aspects of patristic Greek ontology (philosophy).
Orthodoxy was planted in classical Greece, which had a Platonic and Aristotelian view of the representative arts. It would be useful for John to look at some picture books on classical pre-Christian Greek art, to look at how people are portrayed. This includes classical statuary:
However, we are more interested here in painting and mosaic:
John should look at the evolution of Orthodox iconography from the artistic point of view. It is important to understand the historical evolution from classical pre-Christian representational art to Christian iconography as a matter of art history.
What we are getting at here is this notion. In classical Greek philosophy what existed had form; what did not have form did not exist. Having form was being existent. One can see this in classical Greek statuary.
The artist is trying to approach the ideal form. One can see it in the Parthenon. And so on.
Now in the scheme of things, when this ontology was Christianized, that which did not have form—that which was not subsistent (anhypostatos)—was taken to be demonic. This can be seen in the ascetical fathers of the Church, where one aspect of the demons is their shifting form: since the demons are divorced from the true reality which is God they are unable to maintain a fixed form. This is also the realm of dreams. Dreams are shifting always.
Now this seems to us to say something of concern to the artist. From this point of view modern art has essentially taken the road of the demonic. It has taken the road of that which is not truly existent.
Now we are not saying here that the only Christian art is representational—we hope we are not so narrow-minded. We are saying, however, that from a spiritual point of view, modern art is divorced from the real, which ultimately is God.
We would think that surrealism, for example, is the road of dissolution, the road of the insubsistent.
Here is another example of surrealism, quite pleasant:
There is a problem in modern culture here. Because of the loss of the spiritual in our culture, surrealism can present itself as a means to break through the bondage of everyday perception to either the numinous or the genuine. However, as we can see from the above, from the Orthodox point of view this is a mistaken road.
There is another dimension that arises from the 19th Century Romantic Movement: the artist as shaman. This is particularly true of the 60’s rock star:
but it is also true of all movements that attempt to annihilate everyday reality so as to break through to the unconscious. We do not think that it is accidental that just as with traditional shamanism often these attempts involve the use of drugs. But we can see that just as the shaman is using drugs to break through to the supernatural demonic world, the artist as shaman is trying to break through to what is essentially dreamlike: that which does not have participation in the ultimate reality which is God.
Here is an example of the exhaustion of modern sensibility:
What does Orthodoxy contrapose? The transcendent. The transfiguration of everyday life. Basically, rather than annihilate that which is seen in ordinary perception so as to break through to the unconscious, to the dream world, the Orthodox views his road as a transfiguration of the everyday world. Perhaps the most astonishing example of this is a religious rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Divine Liturgy. But there is also St Andrei Rublev's Trinity:
As we have pointed out, the road of the Jesus Prayer is essentially an interior journey through the realms of the demonic, through the realms of the unconscious, through the realms of the dream to a state of spiritual purity where the nous or spirit of man is transfigured by the grace of the Holy Spirit so as to be united to what is really real. An artist on this road would manifest his journey in his art, based on the principle enunciated above that the artist manifests his interior spiritual state in his work. One can see that St Andrei Rublev completed this road. But as we have also pointed out, the road of the Jesus Prayer is dangerous without a guide.
Let us return to the historical study of the evolution of iconography in the Orthodox Church. We think that John will be pleasantly surprised that there is much more to Orthodox iconography than the imitation of existing forms. Given the differences between the Macedonian School (14th Century) and the Cretan School (16th Century) in Orthodox iconography, how could it be merely a matter of the imitation of existing forms? We are not suggesting that John take up iconography—unless he wants to; that is his business—but we are suggesting that he make a study of it.
Here is an example of the Macedonian School, St Athanasios of Athos:
Here is an example of St Andrei Rublev's treatment of a saint, the Apostle Paul. This is a roughly contemporary work with Panselinos of the Macedonian School:
Here is an example of the Cretan School about 200 years later:
John might bear in mind in such a study of Orthodox iconography that the existent is that which has form. He might bear in mind that in icons of Christ the Ruler of All (Pantocrator), in the halo of Christ is the legend: ‘He who exists’.
In this regard, it is interesting to consider Japanese brush painting, where Zen spontaneity is married to calligraphic technique. In our view, however, there is here a great divergence here from the Christian Orthodox ideal of the real: the calligraphic brush painting of the meeting of two Zen masters is like a snapshot of the play of smoke rising from a fire in the wilderness: completely insubstantial. This is in accord with Zen Buddhist ontology but diverges radically from Christian ontology. We couldn't find the particular work we had in mind but here is a similar work:
Contrast the spiritual sensibility of the above with this Our Lady of Vladimir, a Byzantine icon probably of the Paleologan School (11th Century, Constantinople).
In the Byzantine tradition, arising from the Greek philosophical and artistic tradition, that which is 'really real' is that which has form. In the Zen tradition, 'All is void and Void is all'.
Rachmaninoff did secular compositions; he did two large choral compositions which were sacred in nature. Bach did secular work; he also did sacred choral work. The day might come when John will want to try his hand not only at secular work but also at sacred work. But that is a matter of his personal spiritual evolution.
John might wish to study the life of Photis Kontoglou, who in the early 20th Century reintroduced Byzantine iconography to the Orthodox Church. Kontoglou had studied in France and knew Western art; he did both secular and sacred art.
The reader might find this an odd post for Great Lent but we are simply responding to John's email.