Talk given by Dolores Flessner, August 27, 2016, at the Trinity House Cafe in Leesburg, VA
In my years working in art, I have observed some interesting parallels between the artistic enterprise and my spiritual journey as a Christian. I’d like to share some of these observations with you in the hope that it will both give you insights into the creative process as well as confirm the essential role of contemplation in the journey of every Christian. First, let me share some background that I hope will show you how I developed these convictions.
I was blessed to have a classical foundation in art, both in my family and academically. For those of you who are aware of how the philosophy underlying modern art has impacted art in modern times, you will understand that a classical formation in art has been rather hard to come by in the past 50 years or so. My father, who studied and later taught art in the days before modern art really took hold, passed on to us the classical idea that you must truly know your subject in order to convey it well in its essential truths. As I was fascinated with drawing horses, he urged me to study them carefully, preferably from life, and to make many sketches of them. He emphasized that artistic progress came from learning “how to see.” He critiqued my work and helped me along these lines, showing me examples of how great art of the past reflected this discipline. Later, when I studied art at the American University, a school which he had recommended as he knew the chairman and his philosophy, these same principles were emphasized yet again. Drawing from life was the foundation of the art program at that time. I had several drawing classes that focused on quick, gestural studies as well as detailed, highly finished work. We were shown many examples from masterpieces of the past. Their compositions and structure where analyzed so that we might gain insights into their beauty and order.
I realized later how valuable the instruction I received at home and school was; I had the basic tools, knowledge, and principles I needed to continue developing my artistic abilities. I also realized later how unusual this was, as so many of the artist peers I encountered later complained of a lack of such formation. Many had had the misfortune to attend colleges or art schools that had rejected the classical approach and embraced modern art. Little drawing and painting instruction was given, nor was there frequent reference to the old masters. They were not taught to strive to “see” but rather to simply “express themselves.” They were counseled that originality was the goal, and if that meant being shocking, all the better. I met several former students of these programs who had left them in despair. They had wanted to achieve beauty in their work, but were instead led to express nihilism and often ugliness. I began to wonder about the foundational principles that underlay these radically different philosophies of art. In the end, I came to the conclusion that modern art philosophy was rooted in the same errors of relativism that led to many of the disorders of the modern era. The parallel with art was a denial that there was such a thing as beauty; beauty was completely subjective, “in the eye of the beholder”, just as relativism asserted that there is no such thing as truth. Once I understood this error, I saw how it naturally followed that art instruction would lose its way. The artistic pursuit would become completely narcissistic and inward turning, instead of outward. Without the reference to the beauty of creation and the beauty achieved by great artists, art instruction and creation would suffer. And so it has. There have been many accounts of the advancement of the shocking, ugly, absurd and offensive in the worst excesses of modern art.
I have nevertheless seen interesting evidence that this philosophy has not been completely triumphant and is indeed being gradually rejected. There has been a noted resurgence in the production of representational art in recent years, as well as growth of private classical art programs and ateliers in the US. Many younger artists seem to have realized that something is amiss and have sought art instruction outside of established colleges and universities. Beautiful art is being created again. I recall also the observation of an art expert and a regular docent at the National Gallery of Art, who told me that the vast majority of patrons flock to see their classical collection, showing little interest in the modern art section. There has also been a tremendous growth in “plein air” art, where like the Impressionists, artists spend time outdoors directly drawing and painting from nature. The appeal of beauty is perennial.
So that brings me back to contemplation and art. I came to realize that the fruitful classical artistic approach of “learning to see” directly parallels the spiritual effort towards contemplation that the saints have always embraced and insisted upon. Cultivating awe and humility in regarding the works of God is essential to both spiritual growth and artistic growth. The additional regard for the work of artistic masters parallels regard for spiritual master, the saints. In both cases, humility is the key. As one great thinker said, “we stand tall because we stand on the shoulders of giants.”
I have indeed noticed in my artistic endeavors that I must spend significant time pursuing inspiration, which is in effect a form of contemplation. When I spend too much time just trying to “create” without contemplating my subject or the great works of others, the well invariably runs dry. And I have found that prayer and spiritual growth are rooted in first contemplating the works of God, the gospel, and the lives of the saints.
So I hope we will live to see a continuing restoration of artistic beauty in our time. Quoting Saint John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, “The world needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.” For this to happen, I am convinced that the classical artistic approach needs to be fully restored. I’d like to leave you with another quote that resonated with me when I first read it; unfortunately I can no longer recall its author: “All true art is essentially praise.”