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Reflections on L’Engle’s Aesthetics

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Written by Basil on 09/15/2007 8:42 PM. Filed under:


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In the wake of Madeleine L’Engle’s recent passing, I went to Barnes and Noble last night and picked up Walking on Water: Reflections on faith and art. I love it, of course: Who could not love a book by one of the best Christian writers of the last century on faith and art? However, there is one paragraph that truly irritates. In a chapter entitled, “Icons of the True,” she puts in the following paeon to a relativism vis á vis art:

What is a true icon of God to one person may be blasphemy to another. And it is not possible for us flawed human beings to make absolute, zealous judgments as to what is and what is not religious art. I know what is religious art for me. You know what is religious art for you. And they are not necessarily the same. Not everyone feels pulled up to heavenly heights in listening to the pellucid, mathematically precise structure of a Bach fugue. The smarmy picture of Jesus which I find nauseating may be for someone else, a true icon.

I do not relate. Perhaps my understanding of truth is antiquated and naïve in this post-Wittgenstein world, but I still believe it means “corresponds (in some sense of ‘corresponds’) to a reality that exists external to me.” A true icon is one that bears a resemblance to its subject. I do not mean by this a mean verisimilitude. Rather, something about the work must somehow reveal something true. And while the revelation comes from our participation in the work as viewers, readers, or listeners, it does not follow that Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, or any of his devotional imagery, is perhaps true for some. To say so is a pusillanimous evasion of the possibility that beauty may have an antonym (to use an expensive word that L’Engle uses twice in the first two chapters).

Naturally, when she quotes Bishop Kallistos (Ware), I am considerably warmer. His grace writes in the journal Sobornost:

an abstract composition by Kandinsky or Van Gogh’s landscape of the cornfield with birds… is a real instance of divine transfiguration, in which we see matter rendered spiritual and entering into the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” This remains true, even when the artist does not personally believe in God. Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is “something divine” about his work. We may rest confident that at the last judgment the angels will produce his works of art as testimony on his behalf.

(If that quote is reproduced in one of the many collections of his essays — The Inner Kingdom, perhaps — I would be grateful if someone would point out where I might read it in its total context.)

She closes the second chapter with this line, which I love: “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest meanings of the Incarnation.”

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9 Responses to “Reflections on L’Engle’s Aesthetics”

  1. Theodora Says:

    Been thinking about this for some days since you posted. I lean more toward L’Engle’s view. If there is Truth, then it is there. And who am I to tell you that something that speaks to you is not an avenue to the Truth? We are, after all, limited beings.

    I find it *difficult* to understand why that soppy head of Christ is so popular, but that is my own snobbishness talking, not any kind of understanding of absoluteness. There are some icons that I’ve seen where Jesus has a look on his face like someone just handed him a bundle of dirty socks. Why are those “true” and Sallman’s Head is not?

  2. Basil Says:

    L’Engle, coming from a Western orientation, uses icon in a fuzzier sense than an Orthodox Christian would, probably.

    I have thought a lot about what makes art beautiful or not, so I am happy to engage in dialogue with you about this subject. However, please do not be offended if I am rather set in my ways.

    Sallman was painting for money, period. The painting was made for a printing company, which grossed quite a lot of money from its sale (as you can see from the site linked above). I am not concerned with the need to reap a livelihood from one’s art. Most paintings are sometimes quite expensive, because the artist (and often his family, whether blood or monastic) must eat. Rather, the criterion for his work was popular opinion. The paintings were designed to be desired by as many people as possible, so that they would make as much money as possible. In this, Sallman was ultimately successful as a capitalist and a panderer but not as an artist. And it is this quality that you despise, which is not necessarily a result of snobbery.

    Rembrandt and Rouault painted in this genre (“Head of Christ”) with a great deal of honesty, which is why they are in Gardner‘s and Sallman is not. Although it is hard (in our culture) not to like Rembrandt, Rouault is often difficult to understand, and people allow this difficulty to skew their taste. Regardless, whether we like a painting is irrelevant to the question of whether or not it reveals what is real and true.

    Now, to your question of Byzantine icons that look like Christ swallowed a fly. You will remember, of course, that images in this tradition are not art, in the sense that the iconographer’s creativity is a backstage player, pulling wires and shifting sets. The play, as it were, has already been written by centuries of paint, canon, and popular devotion. This is because, as we affirm in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, “Icons are in paint what the Gospel is in words.” This is a radical view, from Western standards. The icon reveals, but here the viewer must learn how to be fluent in the iconographic language to receive the full content of the revelation.

  3. Theodora Says:

    I’m certainly not going to argue with you about beauty in art!

    I am interested in the problem of popularity, though. If Sallman’s Head of Christ was that popular, then clearly it touched a chord in the hearts of the people who bought it. It would be nice to think that they were then led to seek better representations. Probably they didn’t, of course, but the strength of the piece was its accessibility in the cultural milieu for which it was created. Kind of like country music — terrible, but sometimes touches the heart at least for a moment. Why is this despicable? Or untrue.

    About the icons…if sour-faced icons are in paint what the Gospel is in words, that goes a long way to explain…a lot.

  4. Basil Says:

    Well, you know that not all Eastern icons are sour faced (although most, if not all, have a character which one might call “sober”).

    Understand that the popularity of a work does not disqualify it as true or beautiful or good. Some artists that are recognized as great have been very popular (Rembrandt, Raphael, and Renoir come to mind).

    However, pandering by the artist has a tainting effect. The fawning Christ in Sallman’s images fails to accurately portray the object (Christ) to the viewer, because the work bears no resemblance to the uncreated Word of God. Neither “Head” nor Sallman’s other work capture the character of a man who cast out merchants from the temple and subsequently accepted whipping and torture and death without a sound. That people have often connected with a reality outside of themselves as a result of these and similarly false images is a testimony to the grace of God, not to the honesty of Sallman or the truth, beauty or goodness of the works in themselves. (If you look at other works by Sallman, such as “Christ in the Garden,” “Head” is really his best work. Others descend in quality from there. Most of them use “Head” as a selling point, in that Christ always looks exactly like this portrait.)

    Why is this painting (and other works based on it) so popular? I’m not sure. Perhaps because it has become familiar through proliferation and has, as such, gained a kind of iconic status within the culture. I know I never gave it a second thought until I began studying art in college.

    What I really reject in attempts to relativize beauty (or truth or goodness) is the idea that anything can be beautiful (or good or true) depending on your perspective. Who am I to say propaganda of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party is bad? For that matter, who am I to say that their actions toward the Jews were evil?

    Well, the answer has to be, “Because I am becoming a whole and integrated human being who recognizes these things for what they are. Their actions were evil. Their propaganda was untrue and ugly, because it represented a diseased worldview.” We cannot be shy about such an attitude.

  5. Vara Says:

    I disagree most respectfuly with Theodora. If “beauty subsists in the eye of the beholder”, then we should abandon Orthodoxy and become Evangelicals.

    God is Good. Good is Beautiful, therefore, Evil is Banal. This Beauty is not a subjective and relative point, it is an objective and fixed reality. Conversely, Banality has an actual existence, it is not a figment of our imaginations.

    If we take “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder” to its (ill)logical conclusion, one has to state that Arius, Nestorios, and Euthyches were not heretics, they simply propounded propositions distasteful to the bishops of the councils. This, of course, is absurd, and no one believes it.

    Beauty is the reflection of Truth, wheras Banality is the image of Evil, which is a terrifying emptiness and vacuousness. Sallman is an accurate depiction of the emptiness lying at the heart of Evangelicalism. Vasnetsov and Nesterov (to take only two instances, there are many others) exemplify the fruitful fecundity of Orthodoxy. If one has seen Vasnetsov’s “Yedinirodny Syne i Slove Bozhii” or Nesterov’s “The Soul of the Russian People” one realises that one is in the presence of CREATVITY. Sallman is nothing but pandering and kitsch; he is not in the same class at all. Sallman does not even measure up to Nesterov’s portrait of Ilyin or Repin’s famous depiction of the Zaporozhe Cossacks. In short, the divine spark of inspiration is missing, and its absence is palpable.

    This leads to a frightening conclusion. America is said to be a religious and faithful country. It is not, most emphatically not! Eangelicalism and Anglicanism, to take two streams, are simply empty packages without any content whatever (the “men with empty chests” of Lewis), and Pentecostalism is nothing but spiritual debauchery and a Dionysian orgy without the fun.

    The popularity of “art” such as Sallman’s proves this thesis abundantly. Deacon Andrei Kuraev put it another way. “Orthodoxy is fine music made in the conservatoire. Protestantism is music made in the honytonk bars. Anyone familiar with the former shall never be fooled by the latter”. Yes, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s “The Passion According to St Matthew” is objectively superior to any of the “Christian music” produced today in America. A serious and sober painting by Dmitri Petrov, “The Prayer of an Expectant Mother” (2005) is not only technically more refined than any of the so-called “Christian art” abroad at present, it has a heart-stopping minimalism and focus that draws one in. (The painting portrays a pregnant mother with a young child praying in a darkened and empty church with candles before the iconostas. That is ALL. That is ENOUGH.)

    What does this mean for our mission here in America? It means that the people coming into our doors have no acquaintance with the actual living and pulsing Christianity of the last two millenia. They are worse off than unbelievers, for unbelievers know that they are empty. Not only must a new world be born in the souls of those coming into the Faith, they must raze the misleading structures of the false American religious sentiment regnant today. In short, it takes longer to bring people to an instinctual understanding of the Church and what it teaches.

    So, one sees that Beauty and Banality, and what their nature is, whether it is objective or subjective, is much deeper than mere preference or taste. This discussion can go on for ages, but this present one must end for now.

    Pray for this poor sinner.

    Vara

  6. Theodora Says:

    Uh — wow. I’ll, uh, be happy to let this one drop for now. Can’t help thinking of Ernest Rutherford, who said, “In science, there is physics — and there is stamp collecting.” He must have been pretty irritated to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

  7. Mary Says:

    I’ve read “Walking on Water” twice this past year– it’s a wonderful book! It also turns out to be a great favorite with one of the priests here at St. Anne, a priest who takes music and the arts very seriously.

    However, the very passage you cite on icons has nagged and irritated me, and when L’Engle, later in the book, gives her opinion on the eucharist (in her opinion,arguing over the eucharist is arguing over quibbles and unneccessarily causing discord among Christians) I had to wonder what her convictions ARE, exactly.
    I happened to be discussing L’Engle with a friend a week or two before L’Engle’s death, and she (the friend!) gave the opinion that L’Engle was essentially a Unitarian. That does make sense on one level: A couple of L’Engle’s books I have stopped reading because I sensed something was seriously wrong (her ideas on Old Testament figures–figures here meaning both characters and archetypes–reads more like psychobabbble than theology, for example), though I wouldn’t have called her opinions unitarianism per se.
    With the passages on the icons and the eucharist, though, I’m thinking my friend may have had a point.

  8. Basil Says:

    “Unitarian,” I think, is almost certainly incorrect on several levels, the most important being that it is a tradition of churches — no, really — of which L’Engle was not a member (she was an Anglican, as you probably know). Even if one is using “Unitarian,” incorrectly, as a broad term of denigration for liberal, unorthodox theologies, I still think it is not, probably, accurate for L’Engle — and not only because it is overly broad.

    I see too much orthodox Christian faith in L’Engle, for one thing. It is not obvious, and her art is certainly neither pedantic nor propagandistic. True, Proginoskes (in A Wind in the Door) does not fit my conception of a cherub, but L’Engle’s work in the Time Quintet is fantasy. I have difficulty believing that she believes that cherubim are, in reality, like Progo.

    I have more difficulty with the story in Many Waters, but that is because I consider the stories in early Genesis to be fairly mythological in character. She apparently does, too — a griffin and other mythological creatures play prominently in that story. So, Many Waters is an odd chimera for me. However, perhaps that is the point. I have not read An Acceptable Time yet. Perhaps some of my questions are resolved there. Or, perhaps, when I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which I have not read in over twenty years, I will understand more.

    I think, probably, the best description of some of her more eccentric beliefs was written by Terry Mattingly, an Orthodox journalist who writes a Howard-Scripps column on religion and helped found the blog Get Religion: “L’Engle was a very, very complex person and there are few thoughtful people, I imagine, who would agree with her on a variety of doctrinal issues.” I have seen her give eloquent voice to orthodox beliefs. I have seen unorthodox views, as well. Which is fairly typical of an Anglican, as you may know.

  9. ryanwesley Says:

    This discussion fascinates me. I’m an evangelical seriously considering conversion to Orthodoxy; I stumbled across this blog in my research, and I just happened to be reading Walking on Water right now as well.

    My thoughts:
    It seems to me that, as Basil pointed out, most of the discrepancies in opinion over L’Engle’s use of icons can probably be boiled down to differences in terminology. L’Engle, I think, uses “icon” for a work of art that draws one toward God or into worshipfulness, whereas, from what I can tell, Orthodox readers use “icon” much more specifically.

    What has really caught my attention, though, is Vara’s point of view. I’ve been exploring these ideas alot lately in my own readings. I guess my question would be (should Vara stop by again so long after the post) whether it is possible to portray something banal beautifully. Surely a depiction of evil or of pain could be done “truly;” that is, as an accurate reflection of reality?

    Finally, I’d like to add that as someone who has attended regular services of both Evangelical (growing up) and Anglican (more recently) congregations, I don’t understand your (Vara, again :) ) opinion of Evangelicals and Anglicans. It certainly doesn’t seem empty to me. As for orthodox art being technically more refined as well as more “inspired” than Western religious art, I think there are plenty of counter-examples throughout the history of western art, although I’ll grant that the state of art in Western Christianity at the moment is rather sorrowful.

    Sorry if I seem to come on too strongly; my desire to understand is genuine.
    -ryan