I was an art major before I attended seminary at Perkins, where I had the great privilege to take Philosophy from Dr. Billy Abraham. Of course this privilege was extended to me because I failed my one and only philosophy class in undergraduate school. I had taken it pass fail, but hit a terrible depression after my art teacher died. I had no energy to even hand in a paper with my name on it, even though the professor offered this as an act of grace to pass me.
“I’ve not done the work, I’m in over my head, and I haven’t understood any of these concepts in this class,” I said. “I don’t deserve to pass.”
“It’s a pass fail class. It doesn’t count toward a grade average, but it can count against you. Just turn in the paper,” he pleaded.
It didn’t seem appropriate to me, or honorable to take this option, but that could have been my depression coloring my decision making process. Still, I wasn’t raised to take credit for haphazard efforts, and providence ensured my F didn’t count against me when I transferred to art school the next semester, so that F didn’t affect my ultimate grade average after all.
I speak about this because in seminary, Billy Abraham daily stretched the brains of every one of us first year students. First we heard one Greek philosopher say this was “true and real.” Then the philosopher who was his student came along and directly contradicted his old master, saying, “No, instead, something else is true and real.”
We all were in hair pulling mode, not to mention Dr. Abraham’s favorite description, “getting our underwear tied into knots.” I’ve always heard there’s a Rosetta Stone, which can unlock the meaning of an unknown language for those who have the eyes to see it. Perhaps only the creative ones, those who can see the patterns and the similarities, or what the mathematicians call the “sets” and the biologists call the “modules,” can suddenly see the key in plain sight.
I admit I too was floundering until I had the eye opening realization I already held the key in my hand. I’d met this same question before in my art studio and history classes: “What is beautiful and what is truly art?” This definition had changed over the centuries, so why should the ideas of what is “reality and truth” remain fixed? This is a great example of “transfer of learning,” a well known educational concept, which resulted in my “lightbulb moment.”
As I explained to a fellow student, “Think of these as distinct historical ideas, not as your individual truth. It’s like looking at a fashion show from the ancient times to the present: no one expects those clothes to look like what we wear today. Just memorize what each of these styles look like. You don’t have to wear a toga to know what these Greeks thought. We just have to know how these old ideas influence later trends of thought fashions.” This is teaching by analogy, which is familiar to Bible readers as “parables.”
Most people can get over that intellectual hump. Seminary is designed so persons who aren’t agile thinkers will reconsider their educational choices. Philosophy and theology will winnow those who need to be told what to think, rather that learning how to think and understand deeply. Biblical studies will sort out those who aren’t able to interact with more than one voice of biblical interpretation. Then the internships and clinical pastoral settings will further sort those who don’t play well in groups. Finally the supervisory process we all go through toward our ordination into one of the orders of the annual conference is a long period of discernment, for all concerned.
The good news we can all do ministry, for we’re ordained by our baptism into the priesthood of all believers, not only reflect the Christ who lives in us, but to be the Christ in service to our neighbors. As we read 1 Peter 2:9—
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
This is why it’s important we consider such concepts as truth, beauty, and the good. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates English for “beautiful.” Kalon has more of an ethical tone, but doesn’t mean the same thing as agathon or the “good, ” but rather is a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” or “admirable.”
What was true for Plato were the forms, and everything here on earth were mere reflections or imitations of these ultimate truths. The true beauty and the good existed beyond this world, but everything and everyone could aspire to that ideal. Plato thought art and poetry were the arenas of greatest beauty, as Simonides, the Greek poet, drew an explicit analogy: “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks.”
While some say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for Plato imitation is found in the appearance of things, rather than in reality (the forms, which exist in an ideal world elsewhere), so judged on its own terms, the product of imitation has an ignoble pedigree (Republic 603b). Therefore, the imitative arts direct a soul toward appearances and away from proper objects of inquiry, which are the forms. While a mirror reflection might prompt you to turn around and look at the thing being reflected, an imitation keeps your eyes on the copy alone. Imitation has a base cause and baser effects.
Plato also believed poets created their works under irrational conditions, with inspiration arriving sometimes spontaneously, as if it were from the gods, a “divine madness,” as it were. Even today, people think creative types are more likely to be mentally ill, but science doesn’t bear out this romantic notion. Illness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity, even though many artists have suffering in their life histories.
Creativity of any kind—making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine—tends to make individuals more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those who score high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to those who engage less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases our immune system functioning, and the emerging field of post traumatic growth is evidence we can turn adversity into growth.
Realism was the primary purpose of painting until the 19th century, when the invention of photography took over this task. This freed painters to engage in the higher search for what is beautiful and what is true, rather than to limit a painting to reproducing a likenesses or the mere imitation of nature. Yet many people still judge a work of art by how close it resembles the natural world. Of course, we also say the say the same about the embalmer’s art as we view the deceased in the casket: “My, doesn’t so and so look natural! So lifelike, as if they were asleep.”
For our first lesson back in art class, we worked on seeing the familiar in a fresh way. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re so used to recognizing faces in the ordinary way, to see them in a different way is a struggle. Take the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s an icon or representative image of the renaissance portrait. No matter what an artist does to it, we still recognize it as the Mona Lisa. Our goal was to take a photo of of someone we know, and push the limits of the facial expression and shapes so it wasn’t like the image we worked from originally.
Mike copied the cover of the Bad Girls of The Bible, and made a good likeness. In between calls from work, he focused on replicating an image he could see. After several years of sincere efforts to paint what he sees, it’s hard to break this habit and paint something beyond his vision.
We’ll take a shot at this again. I a similar lesson early in the group’s existence and I remember it was distressing to them to draw without seeing. We were feeling the objects inside bags, and they didn’t like not looking. Bring out of control was disconcerting.
Gail took her grandchild’s photo and stretched it into another dimension by treating the image as if it were a Night of the Living Dead character or the Scream from the German artist Munch. She had the most success of any of us in terms of breaking the norms of “portrait.”
Sally, new to our group, began a lyrical study of a woman’s head. I confess I never saw the image from which she drew her inspiration. It’s her first try, and we’re glad she got paint on the canvas. We’ll keep working on it together. All art, as is life, a work in progress.
I worked from an icon of Jesus, which I knew would test me to break the form I saw before me. As it turned out, I too couldn’t break it on this first day. When the Platonic Ideal Form exerts its pull on the mind and hand, the artist keeps making the reflection of that form as a work, which exists as an imitation or a window into the true reality where the Holy is found.
After a long summer break with all the Covid isolation a person could stand, I quite forgot how much energy teachers expend in explaining new concepts and in the excitement of the first day back. I noticed about 11 am I was struggling for words and not making good choices with my brush, but I ignored it in the thrill of being back with people. After cleaning up, I always check my blood sugar before I drive home. It was 45. I’d never seen it that low, but I was paying attention to other people, not to my body. I ate the crackers I always carry for just such an emergency.
The Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) speaks about God’s Wisdom personified:
“For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”
In Hebrews (1:3), the writer describes The Christ:
“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This long discussion on Plato, the true forms elsewhere and the imitations and reflections here help us to realize how much debt Christian spiritually and art history have to Greek thought. Art isn’t just “I know what I like and that’s all that counts.” We can all experience making art and enjoy it on any level. Having the depth of understanding to see how art connects us across the human community will give us a greater appreciation for our common spirit.
I promise I’ll bring a healthy snack to eat during class next Friday! I’ve learned my lesson on this, if nothing else! We’ll work on faces for two more weeks, then we’ll take a short break and come back in October and decorate cookies one week for Day of the Dead and paint an autumn themed subject for the other week.
Joy and Peace,
Simonides on poetry and painting—Plutarch: The Glory of the Athenians 3.1, 346f-347a.
Plato’s Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Creativity and Rationality on JSTOR
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
Vol. 70, No. 3 (SUMMER 2012), pp. 259-270 (12 pages)
Mathematical Biology Modules Based on Modern Molecular Biology and Modern Discrete Mathematics
The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness – Scientific American Blog Network