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J. Jacob Tawney It is rationality that separates man from the rest of the material universe. While rationality can be analyzed using a variety of presentations, one of the more interesting is the ability to formulate and communicate complex thoughts, i.e., language. (Other presentations of rationality might include the forming truth-judgements or acting with deliberation.) In using the term language, we do not intend to restrict ourselves merely to the spoken or written word. The formulation and communication of complex thoughts is the purpose not only of intelligible speech but also of the artistic process. Both speech and art attempt to communicate the truths of the cosmos, and both are authentic insofar as (1) they truly present what it is they set out to present, and (2) the object of presentation is true in itself. The goal of this paper is to present a phenomenology of rational speech based on the thought of Robert Sokolowski and to extend his ideas to the artistic process. In his text Christian Faith and Human Understanding, Sokolowski discusses in depth the process of rational speech. “Our articulation of speech is on two levels. First, each word is internally made up of phonemes or parts of sound; each word is made up of vowels and consonants. Second, each statement is made up of lexicon and grammar, of content and syntax” (Sokolowksi, 168). Speech is the building up of complex sequences of sounds. Basic sounds are used to form words, words are used to name things and actions, and words are put together into other sequences (sentences or thoughts) that are used to connect one thing to another in a myriad of ways. There are, however, limitations to these constructions. Words cannot be put into random sequences and be expected to form a coherent thought. The manner in which words and phrases are pieced together, both through concatenation and through embedding, is the work of syntax. We might say that syntax takes the raw material of words and gives them a proper form. In this way, we can apply the classical categories of matter and form to the words and syntax of a sentence or thought. “The most conspicuous feature of our verbal articulation is the way in which phrases are embedded into one another. This is the work of syntax; it makes it possible for us to segment our speech ... into parts that are not just concatenated sequentially one after the other, but are stacked within one another .... Speeches of unlimited complexity become possible. It is this embedding ... that differentiates human speech from animal cries and sounds” (Sokolowski, 169). However, prior to the logic of syntax (the reasonable manner in which words and phrases are used to build up a complex of thoughts), we ﬁnd the logic of sounds (the manner in which the phonemes are used to build up an intelligible word). Much like syntax governed an otherwise random sequence of words, there must be a logic that governs the otherwise random utterances that would cease to be words. That is, within
the formation of the words themselves, there must be a matter/form relationship analogous to the word/syntax relationship. “Syntax has to be related to the phonemic structure within each word, and it is speciﬁcally the consonants that function on this level in a manner analogous to syntax. Consonants are like the syntax within words. Consonants clip and trim the words we speak.... Consonants order the more elementary vowel sounds, the wails and howls and whimpers and glee that do not need to be taught to us. Vowels alone would be an unlettered human voice; it is the consonants that make the voice rational” (Sokolowski, 169). In this way, the vowels in the words are analogous to the category of matter, and the consonants give form to the vowels. In a grace-perfects-nature manner, the consonants, far from destroying the sounds of the vowels, instead perfect them by giving them form. As syntax gives rationality to words, so too consonants provide rationality for the more primal vowel sounds. Sokolowski says it this way: “the consonantal shaping of sound occurs in the context and under the teleology of syntactic patterning” (170, emphasis mine). The vowel dimensions of words are associated with the emotive aspect of the human person, while the consonants are associated with rationality. “Vowels are especially involved with feeling, with our biological and sensory appreciation of what is going on and what is happening to us.... [C]onsonants introduce rigor and determination of reason” (Sokolowski, 170). Laughter itself, a sign of human rationality, exhibits this pattern of vowel sounds demarcated by consonants. A pure long vowel sound is “more like a wail” or other unintelligent animal sound; in contrast, laughter is a series of short bursts of vowels separated by a consonant: “Ha, ha, ha” (Sokolowski, 170). Sokolowski has already used the word “teleology.” Understanding this classical term is essential for completing our investigation on the formation of language. Teleology is the study of the telos of a being, or a beingʼs ﬁnal cause. In other words, the telos is the end or perfection towards which it strives. The “teleology” of which Sokolowski speaks is twofold. First, vowel sounds are perfected by the form provided by the consonants; by means of the form bestowed on them, they are made into what they are intended to be: intelligible words. In this way, the vowels ﬁnd their ﬁnal cause as rational words through the form given to them by the consonants. In a similar manner, the words themselves are given a rational form through means of syntax, and thus the words themselves ﬁnd their ﬁnal cause in an intelligible thought. Another way of saying this is that vowels as vowels have a potentiality (for becoming a word) that is actuated by the consonants, and words have a potentiality (for becoming a thought) that is actuated by syntax. (As a matter/form relationship, this is to say that the form actuates the matter.) However, our discussion would not be complete should we fail to mention the ﬁnal cause, or telos, of rational sentences themselves. We quote Sokolowski: “We have spent some time looking at the intricacies of speech on the phonemic and the sentential levels, and we have emphasized the active, formal role of consonants and syntax. None of these structures, however, neither the word nor the sentence, are ends in themselves. All of them are achieved in the context and under the teleology of
manifesting the way things are. All of them are achieved in the service of truth, the disclosure of things through human judgements and inferences. Phonemic and grammatical structures, with their parts and wholes, are accomplished under the downward pressure of the disclosure and communication of truth” (170). The purpose of words is to accurately describe the universe, or in phenomenological language, to accurately “disclose truth.” We use this observation about the telos of sounds, words, and sentences to transition into the ﬁeld of artistic methods. After all, the purpose of art is the same as the purpose of language, to present reality in the splendor of truth: veritatis splendor. To be sure, the mediums are the different, but the purpose is the same. The art form closest to language is that of singing. The marriage between text and tone allows the song to disclose truth not only as rationality, but as rationality imbued with emotion. (Again we see here the grace-perfects-nature relationship. Emotion and rationality, properly disclosed, are not placed in opposition, but the rationality, or form, perfects the emotion.) The greater presence of emotion in singing than is mere speech is evidenced by long sustained vowels. “The emotive dimension of vowels is especially afﬁliated with singing and with music generally, but human singing requires also the clipping and cutting of consonants if it is to become a thoughtful melody, if it is to become a song that exhibits intelligence” (Sokolowski, 170). The form of presentation we would like to focus on, however, is the visual arts. There is an obvious analogy between the vowel/consonant relationship and the use of color and lines in a painting. “In painting, the role of vowels is played by colors and the role of consonants is played by lines. Colors are the more elemental component and lines the more rational.... Furthermore, something like grammatical syntax occurs in the spatial placements of objects and areas within the painting: things are embedded within other things.... They are like subordinate clauses in the overall statement of the painting or perhaps like steps in an argument. In paintings, however, the embedded parts and wholes are spatial and simultaneous, not temporal and sequential as in speech, and yet the articulation in the painting is also geared toward the truth of a disclosure” (Sokolowski, 171). The challenge of the artist lies precisely in the simultaneity of the medium. David Clayton, in his piece Make the Form Conform (written for the New Liturgical Movement) says something similar: “The artist who paints (or sculpts) is forced to create a snapshot, frozen in time. Nevertheless he must somehow reveal the spiritual through the material. To this end, the good Christian artist will introduce controlled deviations from a strict photographic representation. This partial abstraction when done well reveals more, not less, of the reality of what is portrayed.” In other words, because the painting does not have the luxury of disclosing an object throughout time, the artist must depart from a mere photographic representation, which would at best present a temporal cross section of the object, in order to disclose the object precisely as a temporal object. For this, a certain amount of abstraction is necessary. Phenomenologically speaking, the painting must point beyond itself to the reality it is attempting to disclose to the viewer.
This holds for art in general, but all the more so in sacred art. Because the subject matter is the divine, the artist has the responsibility of leading the viewer through the painting to the reality of divinity. We would expect then a greater amount of abstraction and symbolism in a piece of sacred art than in secular art. In a very real way, this is the process of “meeting people where they are at” (here on earth), and advancing them to the heights of heaven. The sacred icon typiﬁes this process. In invites the viewer to plumb the mysteries of the divine. The icon of Christ below captures the viewer and takes them into the mystery of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The production of an icon is in harmony with the Incarnation. Because Christ was true man, earthly matter, it is possible to present a physical depiction of him; however, because he is true God, the painting must point beyond the physical and attempt as best it can to disclose his divinity along with his humanity. In contrast, an attempt at a mere portrait of Christ does not disclose divinity. In the well known painting of the “Smiling Jesus,” we do not feel compelled to go beyond the picture itself:
The problem with this painting is that is ignores one half of the hypostatic union. At best it discloses only the human side of Christ yet nothing of his divinity. We are tempted to refer to this as an “exaggerated realism,” but the problem with it is precisely that it is lacking reality. It is the opposite of David Claytonʼs observation about art done well.
The partial abstraction in the icon “reveals more, not less, of the reality of what is portrayed.” In contrast to this, the “Smiling Jesus” reveals far to little of Christ. This is not to say that all forms of sacred art need be in the iconographic tradition. There is certainly room for paintings that are more naturalistic in form. However, even forms more naturalistic than the icon must contain a certain level of abstraction that allows the viewer to enter into the reality of the subject of the painting rather than the painting itself. Depending on what aspects of humanity the artist is trying to disclose, this abstraction can take on different methodologies. The baroque pieces of the seventeenth century provide an appropriate contrast to the iconographic tradition.
While the painting of Christ down from the cross and the icon of Christ focus on different aspects of the Pascal Mystery, both pieces disclose the truth of the Christ event. Both point beyond the painting itself to the mystery of salvation. The above painting does indeed disclose the divinity of Christ, but discloses it in its near-defeat by evilʼs darkest moment. David Clayton does a marvelous job of describing what various artistic traditions disclose of the human person and correlating those art forms with the three stages of human history outlined by Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body: Original Man, Historical Man, and Eschatological Man. “The iconographic tradition reveals Eschatological Man.... [The style often] eliminates the illusion of space to show that the heavenly dimension is outside of time and space. The baroque reveals Historical Man. In contrast with the iconographic style, the baroque sets out to create an illusion of space using device such as perspective, and shows deep cast shadow from external light sources. Shadow represents presence of evil and suffering, which is contrasted with brightly lit areas representing the Light that overcomes the darkness.” The “Smiling Jesus” portrait differs signiﬁcantly from both the iconographic and the baroque traditions in that it contains no abstraction whatsoever. On the other hand, if the portrait of Christ lacks an abstraction necessary to disclose the divine, much of the art of modernity that is purely abstract in its nature has no ground in which the disclosure is rooted. Returning to a few observations of Sokolowski, if it is the lines that give colors their form, then it is the lines the bestow on the colors their rationality. Abstract art is art without form and thus without rationality. Lacking proper form also prevents the art from attaining its purpose: an accurate disclosure of truth. When
Sokolowski said that it is “embedding [i.e., syntax] that differentiates human speech from animal cries and sounds” (169), we can extend this to art by saying that it is the lines and the logic of the embedded objects involved in authentic art that differentiates human art from that which can be produced by an animal. The epitome of this formlessness appears in precisely those “artworks” in which an animal itself was the “artist,” for instance in “earthworm paintings” in which earthworms are dipped into paint and allowed to crawl around on a canvas. Such a view of the artistic process is the ﬂip side of the coin that produced the “Smiling Jesus” painting. The philosophy that produces a formless abstraction revolves around the idea that truth (in this case divine truth) could never properly be portrayed by anything concrete. This is to deny the Incarnation. Because God became man the physical world can now be a window to the divine. Such a view is also a ﬂawed sense of what abstraction is in its essence. David Clayton writes, “To abstract means literally to draw out and so in this context the artist is drawing out the truth. It is this process of partial abstraction that gives an artist or artist’s work its characteristic style. When that style reveals truth the product is a beautiful idealization. When it hides truth, as much modern art does, the result is an ugly distortion. The work of the Christian artist, in the context of figurative art, must always contain this balance of naturalism and idealization.” I would only alter one word of the above quote. Instead of balance, I would describe it is a synthesis. Naturalism and idealization need not be in competition; a piece of sacred art can adequately disclose both the ideal and the natural precisely because in the Incarnation grace perfects nature. It is not very often that the abstract method is applied to religious themes (a thought worth pondering in itself), but it is becoming slightly more common in abstract stained glass windows installed in modern Churches. The problem with such art pieces is that they are attempting to portray divinity (we hope) but ignore that divinity became human, once again splitting apart the hypostatic union. In actuality, it ignores more than just the Incarnation; it ignores the fact that the ﬁrst act of revelation was not a formless abstraction but the act of Creation itself. Thus created realities, not abstractions, are the windows through which we are to look to see God. In one Church in particular, the pastor who inherited such stained glass windows was tiresome of telling his inquisitive parishioners that he did not know the signiﬁcance of the abstract shapes in the glass, so he ﬁnally contacted the original artist. When he asked her to explain what the windows “meant,” he was met with the enigmatic, “Whatever you want them to mean.” This is the antithesis of the telos of art. Art is intended to do precisely what language is intended to do, disclose reality in the splendor of truth. These windows do not even intend to disclose reality. Their intention is to disclose subjective opinion. David Clayton, while he speaks of body and soul instead of matter and form, says something similar:
“Much abstract art produced since the turn of the 20th century is based upon a secular understanding of the human person that is in opposition to the Catholic teaching. So, for example, some abstract expressionists sought to portray human emotion without any reference to the body of the human person. This is, in effect, an abstraction that goes beyond the bounds of truth. It seeks to remove the soul from the body altogether reﬂecting the error of dualism. For the Christian, emotion, though an aspect of the soul is revealed through the body. So we cannot portray human emotion fully in art without the portrayal of a body.” The fundamental problem with art is when the artist fails to understand his vocation to disclose truth but instead sees his mission to create truth. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger outlines a theory of art that is grounded in Scripture, speciﬁcally in the book of Exodus in connection with the construction of the tabernacle. The ﬁrst observation is that the artists do not plan what is worthy of God, what is beautiful. “Humans are not capable of inventing this on their own. It is rather God himself who discloses to Moses the shape of the shrine, right down to the details. Artistic creation reproduces what God has shown as a model” (A New Song for the Lord, 129). The essence of the problem is that modernity sees itself as the creator of truth and beauty. “Today creativity is understood to be the making of something that no one has made or thought of before, the invention of something that is completely oneʼs own and completely new. In comparison with this, artistic creativeness in the book of Exodus is seeing together with God, participating in his creativity; it is exposing the beauty that is already waiting and concealed in creation” (Ratzinger, 129). These same ideas can be applied to sacred architecture. The architect that allows God to be the designer and seeks to disclose the truth of divinity through the building itself will inevitably construct a building that lifts the heart and mind to the things of heaven. The three photographs below beautifully illustrate the principles of Sacred Architecture. The ﬁrst is a photograph of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. The second is Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The last is the inside of St. Peterʼs Basilica in Rome.
" In contrast, the architect who seeks not a humble participation in the creativity of God, but instead “the making of something that no one has made or thought of before,” will construct a building that looks more like a space egg. For instance, the new Cathedral in Oakland, California:
Whether it be a composition of words, a painting, or an architectural masterpiece, the purpose is the same: to disclose the truth of the object. If the object is the divine, then it is all the more crucial that the speaker, the painter, or the architect understand the tried and tested methods for bringing transcendental Beauty to the medium proper to his technique. However, even before this necessary training in artistic tradition, the artist must adopt a posture of humility in the presence of truth.
David Claytonʼs article, Make the Form Conform, can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/19014416/David-Clayton-Make-the-Form-Conform or http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2009/08/david-clayton-make-form-conform.html
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